Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top Ten All Time Greatest Doo Wop Songs (at least based on how I’m feeling this week)

1. "The Great Pretender" by The Platters

2. "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler

3. "Under the Boardwalk" by The Drifters

4. "Blue Moon" by The Marcels

5. "In the Still of the Night" by The Five Satins

6. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

7. "The Book of Love" by The Monotones

8. "Come Go with Me" by The Del Vikings

9. "Runaround Sue" by Dion

10. "A Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Logic of Analogies

The hockey coach skates over to the bench, and tells his mites (6 and 7 year olds) that they are slapping the puck too much. He wants them to control it more. "The puck is a treasure," he tells them. It seems to me like the perfect way of being clear to this particular audience, but as soon as he skates away, one of his players says, "No, the goal is the treasure; the puck is the key."

I admit I may have been as proud of W. for making that comment as for scoring the first goal of the game.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Enough! Go Away!

It’s Friday afternoon, time to roll out a few pet peeves to brighten your weekend:

• People saying, “Have a good one!” This saying seemed to come out of nowhere when I was living in Colorado about a decade and half ago. I hated it then, and I hate it now. It’s so lazy and imprecise. If you’re going to wish others well, act like you care. Wish them a good day, a pleasant afternoon, a fun evening, a relaxing weekend, or whatever is appropriate. When you tell me to have a good one, I’m not convinced you know what time of day it is, and if I’ve been telling you anything about my plans, I don’t think you’ve been listening.

• Drivers not using their blinkers. It’s lazy, inconsiderate, and dangerous. Just use ‘em.

• The fact that you always hear annoying Dire Straits songs on the radio, like the unbearable “Money for Nothing” (hated it then, hate it now—from the stereotyping of the blue-collar narrator to Sting’s guest appearance) and “The Walk of Life,” but never the ones you want to hear, like “Sultans of Swing,” “Skateaway,” or “Romeo & Juliet.”

• The rampant use of the term “perfect storm.” Sebastian Junger wrote a fantastic book with that title about the deaths at sea of six commercial fisherman, and now any time multiple circumstances come together, it’s “a perfect storm.” If you even semi-regularly read newspapers and general interest magazines, or listen to public radio, you will find this phrase popping up all over the place. It’s become a common cliché in a very short time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Only in Minnesota

"23 degrees? That's not really warm, but it is pretty warm."
—W. (6 1/2 years old)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review Review

Without putting too melodramatic a point on it, the printed word is endangered. There have been conversations about the death of the novel, the end of the book, and the miniscule audience for poetry for decades, but it turns out the more fragile species are newspapers and magazines. As these publications fight for their life, slim down, and disappear, one of the first things to go are book reviews and book review sections.

The critic’s craft is an underappreciated one, and its role is diminishing as well. Long ago Rolling Stone drew readers away from the music reviewer’s analysis and reflection by posting bold stars at the beginning of the piece. There was no need to read the text; you could just count the stars. You could probably fit ten current Rolling Stone reviews into one of the reviews during their heyday. Likewise, as Siskel & Ebert’s show gained in popularity, the final decision—a robust “two thumbs up” or a resounding “two thumbs down”—overshadowed the content of their discussion.

Though far more books are still published per year than any human can read, sources for learning and thinking about them are drying up. And among those that remain, few of them are going to give you more than 500 words on a book. I remember interviewing for a freelance reviewing gig with piddling pay for a shortlived tabloid almost two decades ago, and the editor said anybody could review a movie or play, seeming to suggest that most democratic of possibilities: everybody’s perspective is equally valuable.

We now live in an world based primarily on two ideas that the quality of the arts can be mathematically tabulated (if you go to the website Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review website, you will see a score, not unlike a song got on American Bandstand or a wine gets from Robert Parker) or that everyone is a reviewer (say on What’s missing is the thoughtful analysis of someone who knows the field better than you do, the possibility of learning more about the topic at hand rather than just getting someone’s take on whether something is good or bad.

Well, last night I read a print review of a print book that reminded me of how good a review can be, of how if you give the right reviewer enough space, he or she can reflect, and give you context, and quote at length, and in the end come up with a compelling, thoughtful piece of writing that entertains while informing. I finished reading Wyatt Mason’s piece, “The Untamed: Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome,” in the February 2010 issue of Harper’s, wanting to know more about this young novelist I’d never heard of, and grateful for Mason’s acute commentary.

Mason is ostensibly reviewing Ferris’s latest, The Unnamed, but he spends the first half of the essay, nearly five full-page columns, discussing his debut, Then We Came to the End. He is in no way entirely laudatory of this earlier work, and he takes other critics to task for the lazy, shorthanded way that they praised it, but in his discussion of it, he brings to the surface qualities that make me want to know more, that in the end make me want to read the novel.

One thing Mason does is quote at length. In the first half of the review, he quotes four separate paragraphs from the novel, and the language in those passages tells me, as much as anything Mason says, that Ferris is a writer I want to spend time with, that he is going to help me see my familiar world in a new and vivid way, something like when I first came upon DeLillo (Ferris’s title is taken from the first sentence of DeLillo’s first novel—important information Mason gives us in the first paragraph of his review).

In the end—or more precisely in the second half of the review—Mason makes it clear that Ferris has fallen prey to the dreaded sophomore slump with The Unnamed, but fortunately, he himself never succumbs to such clichéd shorthand. He quotes from the novel at length again, and explains its unusual premise, comparing it to works by Saramago and Kafka, which gives credence to Ferris even as he comes up short. When he critiques the novel, he does so by quoting shorter passages, and then pointing out clearly and effectively how the prose in those passages lets the storyteller down. You still feel that Mason respects Ferris’s abilities, but that he doesn’t see him executing them as skillfully here as he did in his first book. You also get the idea he will be reading Ferris’s next effort with a hopeful yet critical eye.

As for myself, I will be seeking out Joshua Ferris’s first book Then We Came to the End because of the way Wyatt Mason negatively reviewed his current novel. I encourage you to seek out that review.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best Books of the Year

Unlike the New York Times Book Review and other such publications’ year-end lists, which are so stodgy—including only books published in the most recent calendar year—my list is comprised of the best books I read in 2009 regardless of when they were published.

1. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. McDougall weaves a number of threads together in this engrossing work of journalism that looks at running injuries, ultramarathoning, the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico's Copper Canyon, and the evolution of humans. An unforgettable cast of characters makes this compelling, almost unbelievable reading. McDougall also takes on the sacred cows of the running world, while also returning us to the true childlike joy of running. This book was the closest thing to a religious text that I read this year. Thanks to the good folks at Micawber's for pointing me to this one.

2. Stoner by John Williams. This unfortunately titled novel was originally published in 1965, and it is that rare thing, a work of fiction set in academia that isn’t farcical. What makes it even rarer is that Williams doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire thing. There isn’t a single word out of place. The protagonist of his sad, beautiful novel with the understated tempo of a Townes Van Zandt ballad is William Stoner, who, we are told in the first paragraph, "did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses." Though he may lead a life of quiet desperation, he is a man of heart-breaking principle. More on this unforgettable book from Morris Dickstein and Steve Almond.

3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Originally published in 2002, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel combines a sympathetic protagonist, Magical Realism, a global and historical scope, and a loving portrayal of that most beleaguered of cities—Detroit. The last chapters seemed to me to lack the imagination and brilliance of the first nine-tenths of the book, but there was so much in the first 400-plus pages that blew me away that I can't complain too much about the slight drop-off at the end.

4. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. This novel about a 19th century buffalo hunt in the mountains of Colorado echoes Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick, yet—like Stoner—it manages to be gloriously understated. It is clear early on that nothing good can come of this expedition, and there is more than just a bit of Ahab's monomania in Miller, the leader of the hunt, but every step (and misstep) of the journey is worth watching. Originally published in 1960, this book is likely to gain a larger audience in coming years as major Hollywood players are signing on to bring it to the big screen.

5. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I almost didn't include this one since it was a re-reading for me rather than the first time through, but it is so damn good. A beautifully-crafted work that is about nothing less than beauty itself, and how rare and brief it is. I was crying among strangers at 37,000 feet when I finished it.

Honorable Mention (because it's not a book): Pat Jordan’s beautiful short essay on aging from Men’s Journal.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Line of the Week

"Poets run on rocks barefoot when shoes are available for a dime. They stand on cliffs but not too close to the fatal edge."

—Jim Harrison

Top 5 Will Oldham / Palace / Palace Brothers / Palace Music /Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Albums

1. Viva Last Blues by Palace Music (1995)

2. Beware by Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy (2009)

3. Days in the Wake by Palace Brothers (1994)

4. Joya by Will Oldham (1997)

5. I See a Darkness by Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy (1999)

Honorable Mention: There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You by The Palace Brothers (1993)

Thursday, January 7, 2010