Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paternity Leave Reading

I'm currently wrapping up my paternity leave. My brand spanking new daughter is awesome, but let's face it, infants are kind of boring. She has about 20 minutes a day that she's awake and not nursing, and I enjoy those minutes. I've used some of the other time to catch up on some reading.

I recently finished Steven Millhauser's short story anthology, Dangerous Laughter. It was my first book by Millhauser, and I wasn't even halfway through the 13 stories presented here before I knew I'd be reading more of him. Millhauser's biggest claim to fame, outside literary circles, is that the relatively recent movie The Illusionist was based on one of his short stories (the story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist," is not in this anthology). It was a pretty decent movie, and Millhauser is a very clever, thought-provoking writer. Many of the stories force the reader to consider some aspect of the world that we take for granted--a Tom and Jerry cartoon, laughter, words, household objects, our sense of touch--from a completely new, slightly skewed perspective.

"History of a Disturbance" made me incredibly self-conscious about the words that came out of my mouth for days. Even as I think of the story now, weeks after I initially read it, it makes my mind feel kind of itchy. In the story "The Other Town", which isn't so much a story as it is a narrative description, we are introduced to a town that has created an exact doppelganger of itself; a copy that is kept updated minute by minute whenever a fork is shifted in a drawer or a leaf falls from a tree. How the town maintains this replica is vaguely interesting; why the town puts forth such an effort is much more intriguing.

Some of the stories feel like sci-fi or fantasy, but none fall easily into either genre. Some are character driven, some don't even have characters. Nearly all the stories were entertaining, and all of them made me think. Dangerous Laughter was easily the best anthology I've read in ages and I would highly recommend it.

On a much, much lighter note, I also finished John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise (or if you prefer the complete title, An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order By Me, John Hodgman, A Professional Writer, In The Areas of My Expertise). Most of the world knows Hodgman as the PC guy in the Mac vs. PC ads. He's also a frequent contributor to This American Life, for you NPR fans out there. I remember hearing an interview with Hodgman a few years ago when this book came out and thinking it sounded cool. I promptly forgot about it, then found the book relatively recently and decided to check it out. I'm glad I did.

A book consisting of entirely made-up facts probably won't appeal to everyone, but I found it highly amusing. Consider one of Hodgman's favorite topics, hoboes. He devotes several pages to a list of 700 Hobo names. And in one of the more amusing passages, he describes part of Hobo history:

At his inauguration in 1933, a new crippled president named Roosevelt addressed the nervous crowd: "The people of the United States have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. An so I will kill all the hoboes, and together we will gnaw on their bones." It was time for a comprehensive Hobo Eradicaiton Plan called "The New Deal."

And so on. He also expounds upon facial hair, how to win a fight, failed palindromes (e.g. Slow speed: deep owls), and eels, among several other things. It's all very absurd, but you have to actually be somewhat well-read and reasonably intelligent to understand just how absurd some of this stuff is. In other words, you might appreciate the book more if listen to NPR (or its Canadian equivalent). It's not something I would recommend reading in one sitting--or even 10 sittings--but it's a fun book to pick up once in a while for a good chuckle.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mini Music Reviews: June 2009

Most of these albums came out at least a month or so ago, but I'm playing a little catch-up. Here are some newish things that have been getting some spins...

Laura Gibson - Beasts of Seasons

The last time I listened to this album in its entirety, I was playing chess with my dad. It's that kind of music. To say that it's background music would be a little too damning, because it is good, it's just not something I can throw myself into. For the most part, it's good chill-out music, but "Spirited" is definitely a stand-out track and worth checking out. The album's not going to be one of my favorites of the year, but this track might be. Overall, I'd give it a B-.

the boy least likely to - the law of the playground
When I picked up the second album by The Boy Least Likely To a few months ago, I was more than a little afraid it would disappoint me like I'm From Barcelona's sophomore album, which saw that band becoming a big bummer. TBLLT's debut, The Best Party Ever, was happy scrappy fun, and I wanted more of the same. This time, I got it. The band still manages to deliver some pretty dark lyrics under some of the fizziest, child-like music you'll ever hear, and that's a pretty neat trick. Their music is not for everybody--even I'm often at a loss as to when I can actually play this album out loud. It's not something you want to blast out of your car window, and I'd be laughed out of work if I ever tried to play it there. Maybe it's something my two-year-old would enjoy listening to with me. I think I might revert to about 4-years-old when I listen to it. Whatever. It's kinda cheesy, but it makes me happy, and I'll give it an A-, without (much) embarrassment. Also, it's about time I found a song with the lyric "And I know kung fu...":

Every Goliath Has Its David from The Boy Least Likely To on Vimeo.

Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan
Art Brut is also not for everyone. For one thing, as anyone who's heard the band can testify, Eddie Argos can't and doesn't sing. As those of us familiar with the first track of their first album know, he's not being ironic. That's really just the way he "sings". But their songs are often clever and entertaining, and the songs from this album may be their cleverest and entertainingest so far. It's a morning after kind of album, and Argos bluntly shares the repercussions of an alcoholic lifestyle. Frank Black (aka Black Francis, aka Charles Thompson) produced the album, which is essentially live, in studio. Or "Slap Dash For No Cash" as one of the song titles explains. It's easily the best thing Thompson has had a hand in for years. "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake" and "Mysterious Bruises" are excellent tracks, but the whole album is surprising listenable--by far Art Brut's strongest effort so far. A-

Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
The thing about Camera Obscura is, they're one of those bands that's just much better live. After seeing them live a few years ago, their albums just don't measure up. On top of that, even as far as the albums go, I think My Maudlin Career is a step down from Let's Get Out Of This Country, which is still my favorite Camera Obscura album. That said, I still love Tracyanne Campbell, and "French Navy" is a pretty catchy tune. It's not a bad album, but I have to give them a C+ for failing to capture the energy of their live show.

Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali
Amadou and Mariam make some danceable, yet soulful music. It's as simple as that. I didn't like this album quite as much as 2005's Manu Chao-produced Dimanche a Bamako (which I would get first if you're not familiar with this duo), but it's still a fun listen if you want to bop your head but don't really care whether or not you understand the words. A solid B.

St. Vincent - Actor

I'm still making up my mind about this one. Like many of the albums in this post (apparently) I like one or two songs, but I'm not in love with the whole album. In this case, the single, "Actor Out of Work", is easily one of Annie Clark's best songs, brief though it is. I'm not sure the rest of the album stands up all that well next to it, however. Also like many of the other albums in this post, I liked St. Vincent's previous effort, Marry Me, considerably more. That album was kind of a slow-burner for me, however, so I may have to give this one a little more time. For now, a B-.

Yusuf - Roadsinger (To Warm You Through The Night)

My problem with Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) is that I have a hard time interpreting any of his songs as secular. He still has a unique and pleasant-sounding voice; he still knows how to right a good hook. I just can't help but feel like I'm being preached at sometimes, and I don't care if he
's Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, I don't like that feeling. Many of his new songs probably are religious in nature, but certainly not all of them. In any case, I'm starting to get past those feelings and just getting back to enjoying the music of a pretty amazing artist. I grew to like his "comeback" album, An Other Cup, quite a bit, and this follow-up is growing on me, too. B

The Vaselines - Enter The Vaselines

I should confess from the outset that I have yet to listen to the second disc in this two-disc set, a "greatest hits" album for a band that never really had any hits. The second disc is primarily live versions, and since I'm not yet familiar with the studio versions, I figured I'd get used to those first. I have yet to read a review of this album that doesn't mention that Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of The Vaselines, so...there you go. As for the music itself, it could pretty much be its own genre: pop-psychedelic smut. C'mon, are we really supposed to believe that "Rory Rides
Me Raw" is about a horse? And it's almost unfortunate that "You Think You're a Man" is so catchy, because it's definitely not a song I want to be singing out loud if the tune pops into my head. That said, I appreciate the frankness of the lyrics, and the music itself is some straight-up rock that doesn't suffer from the overproduction that dilutes similar artists of today. B+

Chairlift - Does You Inspire You
Speaking of sexy and catchy all rolled up into one, check out "Bruises", my favorite song off this album:

I should point out that I quite liked this song before I watched the video with all its skin and whatnot. Technically, I think Does You Inspire You came out in 2008, but it was re-released in 2009 with a few extra tracks. I don't know that the extra tracks make much of a difference, but this odd trio is growing on me quickly. I wouldn't say every song is stellar--some of the tracks are downright weird, even by my standards. But out of the pile of newish CDs I'm currently listening to, I find myself listening to this one a lot. Enough so that I'm going to give it an A-.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Drifting Life

I should preface this review by saying that though I read comics and graphic novels, I've never been into manga. I'm not an authority on the style and I'd honestly never heard of Yoshihiro Tatsumi before I read A Drifting Life, his manga-as-memoir. I picked it up because it sounded kind of interesting and received a rave review from a comic critic I've come to respect.

Tatsumi (or Katsumi, as he calls himself in the book) starts his story shortly after World War II, as he and his sickly brother become obsessed with the manga of the time and start drawing it themselves. He's published before he's even a teenager and rises quickly through the ranks of manga artists. We see him grow older and experiment with new types of manga, creating a new genre. We also see him struggle with new publishers, new cities, and various personal issues.

Make no mistake, this one's a talkie. That makes things a little awkward, since this was obviously written in Japanese. The dialogue can be a bit stilted at times, but have you ever seen or read a natural sounding English translation of something that was originally in Japanese? I've always wondered if that's really the way the Japanese talk, or if it's just inevitably how the English translations turn out. Everything is stated so matter-of-factly that it can be slightly jarring at times. And as someone who's much more used to detailed (and often colored) American comics, the Japanese style can seem a bit bare bones at times. Then again, it reportedly took Tatsumi 10 years to write and draw this 800+ page epic, so I was able to quickly get past the simplicity of some of the illustrations.

But I'll cut to the chase. Reasons I liked this autobiography:
  • I felt I learned a lot about post-war Japan, a subject I knew virtually nothing about. Tatsumi takes great care in describing the state of the country every few years during the narrative, commenting on the culture, politics, and major events that were shaping Japan.
  • It does a good job getting us inside the head of an artist who is passionate about his medium. His desire to create, and not just to create, but to invent something new within the realm of manga, comes through clearly. Here's a man who learned to make a living doing something he loved. Yeah, it sucked at times, but it's still an encouraging story.
  • It seems like a pretty honest autobiography. Tatsumi takes credit for some major innovations in manga, but he doesn't shy away from his own failings as an artist or as a person.
  • Though I'm sure the logistics of producing and publishing manga is different in many ways from the types of comics I usually read, I still feel I learned a lot about a medium that I've come to enjoy more and more.
There are also plenty of reasons the book may not be for everyone. Tatsumi gets into some pretty nitty-gritty details about publishing at times, or even details about seemingly random every day events. Why does he spend two pages showing to people eating noodles together? I actually thought the depictions of "normal" Japanese behavior were kind of cool, but I could see them becoming tiresome for the casual reader. I also found myself having the same issue with this book as I often do with Russian literature: I lost track of names. I confess it's a lame weakness on my part, but after dozens of Japanese names were thrown at me, I started losing track of who was who after a while.

Ultimately, I would never reccomend this book to anyone who's not into comics or graphic novels already. You definitely don't have to be into manga to enjoy it (though you might enjoy it even more than I did if you are), but coming into this with an appreciation for the graphic medium is a requirement I think. If you haven't picked up a comic of any kind for 20 years, this is not the place to start. But for those of us who like their stories in panel form, A Drifting Life is a satisfying and illuminating read.