Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Baby, I'm not SO much a dino. I still like new things.

Perhaps I go on (and on) about old songs much of the time on here, imploring you to get on these Sara-deemed Classics if you know what's good for you (dammit!), but I do get excited about new things. Really. I may be dinorific, but I can adapt! Really. Shut up, it's true!

That said, I wanted to direct your ears and eyeballs towards some new stuff coming out for which I am excited:

Wounded Rhymes - Lykke Li



Lykke Li's first album was something I always meant to get around to purchasing, yet I never did. Back when I still had DVR (*sniff*), I'd record Subterranean on MTV2 (which is still inferior to the original 120 Minutes) and she would often pop up on there. Now she has a new album coming out, and I love what I've heard. FILTER magazine has the entire album up for streaming. Go forth. My 3 year old son is dancing to it right now, which is a seal of approval unlike anything else, dontcha know.

Different Gear, Still Speeding - Beady Eye



Well, of course I'm going to be interested in Oasis-Minus-Noel/ Beady Eye. I'm not wild about the name Beady Eye, but "The Roller" and "Bring the Light" are bloody infectious in all the right ways. I'm curious to see Liam's songwriting evolve, and this will certainly hold me over until Noel gets around to releasing a solo album.

And this video has motorcycle stunts. What more do you need?

21 - Adele



Adele's another I never got around to owning, but girl can sing. NPR has her newest album up for streaming, and though the subject matter is rather singular, it's good stuff. The above video is a cover of the Cure song, which also appears on 21, which I can't argue with.

EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ - Glasvegas



Reading about Glasvegas in Q Magazine hooked me before I'd ever heard them. I just had one of those unrelenting musical hunches that I would love them. And I do. Their first album is magic, and singer James Allan has the interesting ability to cram a lot of word/sentiment into a few bars of music. Since I am but a lowly US resident, I can't get their video for "Euphoria, Take My Hand" to play, but this audio-only of "The World is Yours" has me excited for the new album.

Born This Way - Lady Gaga



This song is already ubiquitous, but I'm including it anyway. Haters gon hate, but I love Gaga. The boy loves Gaga. The girl loves Gaga. The mister ... well, he likes Gaga. He certainly appreciates her commitment to being a living art project. As far as the Madonna comparisons regarding this song -- Well, being compared to classic Madonna (versus more recent incarnations) is a compliment, isn't it?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Liner Notes #4: "Finest Worksong"

Liner Notes is my ongoing music column with Electric City Creative. Each issue, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this site. In Issue #4, I talk about listening to music while writing.



That column title was a REM reference, if you were wondering. Speaking of REM, I find their song, "At My Most Beautiful" one of those both inspiring-yet-distracting songs whenever I hear it. It really is perfect. Here is an audio-only live version:



In my column, I mentioned that the music at work has improved lately. I'm a barista inside a grocery store, and usually, the music is horrible -- think Celine Dion-type horrible -- but I've been pleasantly surprised lately. More than half the songs are ones I'd listen to of my own free will. Here are some of the songs that I've not only liked, but didn't expect to hear:

"Wrong Impression" - Natalie Imbruglia


You shut up, hipper-than-thous. Natalie Imbruglia is awesome. And nice to look at. Apart from "Torn," she didn't exactly get a lot of play here in the US, so I didn't think that this would be the song that would pop up on a grocery store playlist.

"Spiderweb" - Joan Osbourne



I don't even think this was a single. I heard this for the first time today, and it made me wonder if the playlist people were spying on my music collection from the mid-90s. The entire Relish album is fantastic. Unfortunately, I haven't heard any of her more recent stuff.

"Someone's Daughter" - Beth Orton



No seriously, playlist people -- Are you spying on me? Until I searched for this song on youtube, I had no idea this was a single from her album Trailer Park. I don't think I'd ever seen a video of hers before. Look at her, she's adorable.

"Chasing Pavements" - Adele



Okay, this was a pretty big hit, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised to hear it at work, but I do enjoy this song. Adele's certainly better than Duffy, who also appeared on every talk show and SNL in 2008.

"Fame" - David Bowie



This isn't even the ONLY David Bowie song on the playlist. I've also heard "Thursday's Child." MADNESS, I tell you, MADNESS.

There are also at least 7 Fleetwood Mac songs that filter through, and although one would expect to hear them just about anywhere with preset radio, they're still one of my favorites, so I don't mind. However, it's mildly surprising that they play a single from their last album, "Say You Will."

I also appreciate hearing INXS on occasion, though in general, you do hear them in stores pretty often.

Also surprising to hear: "Right on Time" - Lucinda Williams, "Paparazzi" - Lady Gaga, "Halo" Beyonce, "Emotions" - Mariah Carey. That last one takes me back to being 7 years old again, but those high-pitched notes are a bit rough at 6 am.

Of course, the only trouble with hearing songs I like while working is not singing along. Loudly...

Monday, February 14, 2011

C by Tom McCarthy

C
by Tom McCarthy


C is a hard to describe book. So expansive within 300 or so pages, it covers nearly the entire life of one man searching for immortality in early 20th century England and Egypt. Serge Carrefax grows up with a father who teaches deaf children to speak, when he’s not constructing apparatuses for wireless communications. His sister Sophie is eccentric and science-obsessed (particularly with insects), and Serge finds comfort in the voices coming in over his homemade radio device. From an early age, he is observing and recording, skills that serve him well as a solider during World War I. He loves the flat view from above while piloted into enemy airspace. Perspective, he admits, was never his strong suit. He craves the adrenaline and the feeling of being connected to everything around him.

It doesn’t take long before he discovers new ways to feel connected:

“I’ll snap the area, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell that with my naked eye, through all the smoke.”

“Try rubbing cocaine in it,” Pietersen tells him.

“Cocaine?” Serge asks. “Isn’t that for teeth?”

“Yes, but it works wonders on your vision. Sharpens it to no end. Go pick some up from the Field Hospital in Mirabel.”


Exchanges like that, I find amusing — Ah, yes, potter on over to the hospital, and they’ll sort you right out. Never mind the stinging, you’ll be ready for anything in just a jiff. Rubbing coke in his eyes, while revelatory, doesn’t quite work as well as he wants, so he snorts it instead. He eventually moves on to heroin, and for awhile, he enjoys its sinking, swimming feeling.

Still, this is not a story of a drug addict’s chemical peril. As a doctor told Serge before his enlistment, “Things mutate. That is the way of nature — of good nature: things pass through on their way to somewhere else, and both they and the things they pass through are thereby transformed.” C tries to coalesce the world into its most basic elements. Serge does not crave connectedness out of a desire for community — No, it is a selfish, primal desire to feel his effect on his surroundings.

I’ll admit, this was a slow-burner for me. Not until the first third passed did I fall completely into the story. The pace, though it covers a fair amount of time, is still on the leisurely side. If you will forgive the easy metaphor — once I passed over the first curve of Serge’s story, I became a more enthusiastic reader. McCarthy has a particular gift for narrative that isn’t overly flowery. He articulates the difficult to describe (i.e. lust, euphoria, delirium) in a natural, forceful way. I have the suspicion that C would benefit from a reread, as I don’t feel as though I caught every thing that I should have — bits that would make the overall story more satisfying. I liked this book, but the more I’ve let my thoughts on it germinate, the more I like it. It is easy to see why it comes so oft-recommended, and also why it's divisive. It’s certainly an original book, enough so that I will keep an eye out for McCarthy’s previous work.

#6/53

Full disclosure: I checked out this book from my local library. Imagine that, I’m not reviewing another book where I have to disclose the publisher who sent it to me. However you obtain your books, be sure to also support your libraries. They are a treasure indeed.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Electric Literature No. 1 - Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard, T Cooper, Lydia Millet, Diana Wagman


Electric Literature No. 1
Stories from Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard, T Cooper, Lydia Millet, Diana Wagman


I’ve followed Electric Literature with some interest online over the past six months or so, both through Twitter and their blog, The Outlet. Part literary journal, part literary app builder (perhaps most notably the custom app they made for Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries), they value both their writers and their readers’ method of subscribing. Of course this not to say that other journals don’t, but I’m not sure how many small lit outfits can afford to pay their writers $1000 per story and still be able to offer print editions.

That said, this isn’t a review concerning the changing business models in the literary world. I’m an avowed print-loving dino who took years to come around to using Google Reader. I’m not the person you want to ask about Kindle vs. iPad. Let us get to the stories then, shall we? Hopeless completist that I am, I wanted to start with No.1 (they now have five volumes — and the fifth cover is a NSFW amusing stunner). I already knew I liked Michael Cunningham, so at least one story out of the five I expected to enjoy.

Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” has the best title in the book, and its frosty, ominous locale reminded me a bit of another recent read, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. While studying snowpack and how it relates to avalanches, a man encounters his brother’s old girlfriend, having not seen her in years. His brother died after an avalanche while the three of them were on a school trip. While it took me a couple pages to get into it, the story is an excellent meditation on grief, blame, and coping strategies.

In “Three-Legged Dog,” Diana Wagman has the art of the intriguing first sentence down: “My girlfriend is missing her left breast.” A man describes the way he met Anne, a 29 year old breast cancer survivor whose hair has hardly begun to regrow post-chemo. He is smitten by her instantly, and the preoccupation with her body takes a rather strange turn. I’ll admit I liked this story better at the beginning than I did by the end.

T Cooper incorporates text message in a rather literary way with “The Time Machine,” and also provides an almost stream-of-consciousness view of getting in our own way. I say “almost” because the narrator is conscious of his audience. He’s aware of his unreliability, his jealousy, but also of the great and consuming love he has for the woman he’s with. He is both exasperating and endearing, and I had the opposite reaction to this compared to “Three-Legged Dog” — by the end, I was much more pleased to have spent time with the narrator. “The Time Machine” packs a lot of suspense into just a handful of pages.

And it turns out my excitement for a Michael Cunningham short story was a bit of a letdown, though only slightly. Titled “From Olympia, a novel in progress,” I recognized it as one chapter out of the recently read By Nightfall. This collection was published about a year before By Nightfall, and so a title change isn’t out of the ordinary. However, the selection was not a word-for-word copy from the book. Detailing Peter’s relationship with his brother Matthew, it also added a scene from later in life that was not included in the final publication. As someone who has had to delete many a treasured scene for the sake of overall narrative, I loved having a more detailed glimpse into the implied background of Peter’s life. Outtakes and in-betweens — it’d be nice to see more of that from some writers, when possible.

Lastly, Lydia Millet’s “Sir Henry” presents a fastidious dog-walker who is the sort to have great insight into the personalities of his charges, but holds little affection for many of their owners. He respects the dogs, but it’s not the ooey-gooey sort of puppy love one might expect. He takes his job seriously and has firm rules about the clients he takes. It’s an interesting character portrait with an ambiguous ending (I thought), and I’m still trying to work out what I think happened next. Perhaps it’s more clear to other readers.

Overall, Electric Literature’s first volume is a strong collection that has instilled the desire for more. At $10 per print issue or $32 for the year, they are certainly worth the attention.

#5/53

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

This review also appeared on Pajiba itself on February 19, 2011.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's make some gender graphs, y'bastards:

The internet is a'simmering over today's pie graph breakdown of women in publishing over at VIDA. And when I say, "the internet," I mean the many literary blogs I keep compulsively adding to my reader and writers I follow on Twitter, thus giving me one more excuse to procrastinate reading actual books or doing more writing of my own.

The point worth making (and I have) is that graphs like these can be misleading. While of course gender disparity exists in publishing, the amount of women published in these handful of publications are not also featured alongside the number of women who submit. So it's difficult to come away from their graphs with any real sense of what the numbers mean, other than we should be somewhat irritated by them.

To be honest, I get irritated by the discussion in general -- Editors are supposed to give my writing extra consideration because I have ovaries and they have a balance quota to meet? No thank you. Either tell me it's great, or tell me it sucks, or that it's "not right at this time," but for Christ's sake, do it on the work's own merits.

This is a somewhat naive and arrogant view to take, I realize. Writers are quite good at that confusing jumble of arrogance and doubt, as I'm sure you've noticed.

However, I'm not just a writer -- I am a reader and I am the publisher/editor of Electric City Creative. For 14 issues, my husband and I co-edited Spoken Spokane.

I haven't run all the numbers on ECC, but just a quick glance shows that Issue #3 skewed more female in arts coverage, and Issue #2 skewed more male. Working as a staff of 2 at the moment, I don't feel the need to make a tally of genders each time I publish an issue. My decisions on coverage are made by what is happening during that time frame, and also who I can wrangle into answering a few questions.

Spoken Spokane had more contributors. Off the top of my head, it feels fairly balanced. Some issues, Tyson wrote/shot more, some issues, I did. We had both male and female writers and photographers contribute -- Faythe Saxton, Shadra Beesley, Michael McMullen (who now edits the magazine) and Lloyd Phillips, to name a few. If you really wanted to do an artist and contributor breakdown, here's the list for the issues we edited. Knock yourself out.

Still, the VIDA graphs are not overall creative culture breakdowns, but rather have to do with book reviews and reviewers. Being one of those reviewers, I decided make my own graphs.



"Both Genders" I mean either books that had more than one author of different genders, or they were edited compilations that may have had a singular editor, but the gender of the writers providing the content varied.

Now then, what about review copies? I went through a lot of those in the past year. Review copies were almost all recently-published books, with the exception of two Graywolf titles (Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky and Readings by Sven Birkerts). I requested these myself, but I didn't spend money or go to the library for them, so they are included on this graph:



And what about those purchases or library visits?



"My gosh," some overly-riled people might say, "look at how she favors male writers! How very dare she ignore her own gender?"

Get off your high horse, lady.




(Can you tell when I started reviewing books and making an effort to read more?)

Here's the thing: I want a good story. Good writing. The rest? Call me what you will, but seems like the only time I start feeling the need to make tallies on gender is when people get up in arms over half-formed statistics. I don't have all the answers -- spoiler: neither do most people -- but I can account for some of the reasons behind my own reading habits.

1. Sometimes it is location/time relevant.

I lived in Spokane for 7 years, and yet it took me five to read anything from Jess Walter, who lives there. Once I did, I loved it, and so I read two more books from him. Sherman Alexie? Spokane Indian. He was doing a reading with Jess Walter one afternoon, and so I made sure to read War Dances.

Richard Russo and Kevin Sampsell were both coming to the Get Lit! festival in Spokane last year, so I made sure to move them up in the To-Read Queue beforehand.

2. I'm a hopeless completist.

I do the same thing with music and with clothes -- I find something I really like and I want all of it. That sweater, all the colors. That band? Bring on the back catalog and import singles. So like I did with Jess Walter, I have also started to do with Patricia Highsmith, Steve Almond, Tessa Hadley, Stephen Elliot. I will read anything Michael Chabon or Nick Hornby puts out. Same with Sarah Vowell. If I like someone's writing, it doesn't have much to do with the equipment they're packing between their legs.

I don't know if this has anything to do with being an equal opportunity ogler as well, but perhaps it's worth noting.

3. I'm a contrarian pain in the ass when I want to be.

And sometimes, I think I'm better off that way. It's not that I'm someone who wants to be the first know of something, or even be one of the few who know something "under-appreciated" -- It's that I tend to bristle whenever I'm put in the corner of "Should" or "Supposed to."

So maybe I'm "supposed to" pay attention to the genders of people, even though we're all "supposed to" be equals in this world.

Maybe I "should" make a greater effort to feature female writers, even though I don't want to ignore books I'd really like to read because it sounds like a damn good story.

Maybe I shouldn't expend this amount of energy on a post that is seemingly congratulatory of my Universe of Me.

But do you know what I want to do? I'm going to go ahead and own my interests. I promote the hell out of the things I like because I find value in them and think others will too. All those RTs, link-shares and "Dude, I read this thing...?" Anyone who pays any attention to all the yammering I do online knows this, and if there's any solution to big problems when it comes to attention paid to other genders, races and sexuality, it's this:

Be who you are, make stuff, enjoy stuff, then tell people about it. Make a goddamn effort.

There's nothing wrong with being white and male any more than there's anything wrong with being Japanese and transgendered. Own your voice. You are the only you, after all. Our experiences and tastes are at once unique and universal. Small changes seem like nothing at first, until they aren't small anymore. Optimism isn't out of line here -- complaining without action is, if indeed this is a serious issue for you.

I wholeheartedly support taking those task who ignore parts of our population. If there is clear discrimination in an organization, then yes, we should pipe up and fight it. But to slap up pie graphs without accompanying information is doing a disservice of its own.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham


Oh, that great search for affection, our clamoring for a spark which makes us feel Of This World — where would our art be without it? We are love, we are in love, and we love the moments that remind us. Michael Cunningham takes that desire and presents a compelling portrait of loneliness management in his latest novel, By Nightfall.

Peter and Rebecca Harris have, by all appearances, a comfortable life in New York. He runs an art gallery, and she works in magazine publishing, and they have an adult daughter living in Boston. However, their daughter has become distant and depressed, and Peter and Rebecca wonder subconsciously if their marriage isn’t just something they’ve grown used to over time, as anything else would be too much of a change. Rebecca has grown quiet and seemingly indifferent to his work, even if it means he takes off for meetings on the days they are supposed to spend together.

The trouble is...

There’s no trouble. How could he, how could any member of the .00001 percent of the prospering population, dare to be troubled? Who said to Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no shame, sir?” You don’t have to be a vicious right-wing zealot to entertain the question.

Still.

It’s your life, quite possibly your only one. Still you find yourself having a vodka at three a.m., waiting for your pill to kick in, with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.

The trouble is...

He can feel something, rolling at the edges of the world.


Then, Rebecca’s twenty-three year old brother, Ethan, comes to stay. He’s a recovering addict, considered brilliant by his family, if only he’d get his act together. His nickname, “Mizzy,” is short for “The Mistake,” as he appeared almost out of nowhere so many years after his siblings. He is the very essence of beautiful and troubled, and at first, Peter is unsure of how to feel about him. Still, even from the first afternoon in which Mizzy appears, Peter can’t help but notice the burning creeping upwards from his thighs, his gut and into his chest.

He hasn’t put on a shirt. There’s no denying his resemblance to the Rodin bronze — the slender, effortless masculinity of youth, the extravagant nonchalance of it; that sense that beauty is in fact the natural human condition, and not the rarest of mutations.


Mizzy’s arrival coincides with Peter’s questioning of where he’d like his gallery to go — the sort of artists he’d like to represent, the line between representing money-makers and passion-cultivators, and where he would like his standing in the art world to be. He’s found that he’s had trouble getting excited about much of the work that comes his way, and he’s eager to rediscover the exhilaration he used to feel. His observances of the world are all in relation to other art — theater, sculpture, pop radio — as only a person who has lived his life identifying with the creative world can. I’ve read criticisms of By Nightfall saying that Cunningham relies too heavily on these references, and that they are superfluous, but I disagree. For every person who can talk about Rodin or Arthur Miller, there’s another who can relate any moment in life to something they saw on The Simpsons or Seinfeld. To reference them is not laziness — it is a realistic portrait of our modern train of thought and the way culture makes us feel less alone.

Though this is not my favorite of Cunningham’s novels — that honor goes to his first, A Home at The End of the World — I will say this: I did not need the first third of the book to really get into the story. For one thing, the book is only 238 pages long, and in order to be successful at that length, a writer really needs to jump right into it. Cunningham writes of lust and desire within just the first few pages, and after reading several rather chaste books in a row, I welcomed the change of pace. I’ve never disliked any of his novels, but I was glad that this one didn’t take one hundred pages of revving before the full weight of it hit me. His last, Specimen Days, was a little like that, even though in the end I liked it a lot.

By Nightfall poses questions about success, how we define love and beauty, and what our basest instincts say about us when we are in peril. Michael Cunningham is an exceedingly good writer, more than deserving of the accolades he’s received over the years. I love any book that makes me identify and sympathize with a character through his/her bad decisions and confusion, since when we are truly honest with ourselves, we know we are capable of the very same things.

#4/53

Full disclosure: Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who sent me this book at my request. As with any review copy, I shall continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.