Thursday, December 13, 2012

On music: Sadstalgia

Sadstalgia - noun - the alluring depression felt when thinking about certain music, films, books, or people. "I was up all night listening to the second Counting Crows album and wallowing in sadstalgia."

Like many people, I have an emotional relationship to music. Perhaps it was the years of oldies radio my mom listened to when I was a kid. Or the years of Kenny G, Sade, James Taylor, Patsy Cline, and Whitney Houston my mom also listened to. Constantly. Maybe it's because of all the times my best friend Scott and I listened to Metallica in fourth grade. Or how my sister leant me that Faith No More tape and said "I'm not sure I like it" but then realized she did like it and I liked it and how could you not like it?

Nostalgia is a perfectly good word for fond memories, but I feel like it's not quite accurate when it comes to the experience I have when listening to certain albums/songs. As someone who's long suffered from depression, I've got many, many songs that spark a solid, crystalline sadness when I hear them. Sometimes there are particular people associated with the music (past crushes, lost friends) sometimes events (long road trips, summer vacations).

I feel that Sadstalgia is a nerdy way to talk about those pieces of music (or books, movies, people) that cause me to feel a vibrating tightness in the bottom half of my heart. It's sadness but the kind I can get near without being damaged -- as if time has applied a layer of protection from the pain radioactivity still pulsing outward from those potent moments of my youth. Douglas Coupland's Life After God describes this potency of certain memories most effectively:
I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments—we hear a word that sticks in our mind—or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly—we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed to the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen[...]
And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real—this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives. [quote taken from Goodreads]
Sadstalgia is the feeling you get when you don't want to go back to the time associated with something, and even you've been reminded of that time and have moved far enough past it to not be dragged down too deeply into a destructive sadness.

So, in that joyous spirit, here are a list of my Sadstalgia albums:

Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde -- Most severely felt in the opening track, that moody, bass-bouncing opening I most readily associate with the era my sister read tons of Anne Rice and I was just getting tired of Stephen King even though The Dark Half kinda kicked ass. Most potent moment: "You were a vampire and now I'll never see the lie-ee-ii-ee-ii-ee-ight!"

Recovering the Satellites by Counting Crows -- Freshmen year of college, particularly the first semester. Most potent sadstalgia: opening notes of either title track or "A Long December." Dear god, I feel it. DEAR GOD.
No Adam Duritz! NO!!!!
Parachutes & b-sides by Coldplay -- makes me think of a particular girl and the Northeast extension of the PA turnpike, which I had to drive to see her. In some ways, it's best if I don't listen to Coldplay at all, but when I hear any of their early songs I'm thrown into the moment of driving at night on a road where the exits are 20 miles apart (what is WRONG with you Pennsylvania?!) Most potent song: "See You Soon"
"See You Soon" by Coldplay

"Protected from the Rain" by Grandaddy -- this b-side sends me to an overseas business trip I took in 2002. Not a dense feeling of sadness as much as disconnection because I was far from home for two weeks and full of anxiety. Most potent moment: "that poem you left on my windshield wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain...protect it from the rain..."

The River Runs Red by Life of Agony -- this hardcore-ish concept album has some of the most horrible between-song skits that are supposed to tell the story of a teenager with a shitty life who ends up killing himself by the end of the album. The songs, however, are more well done. Still, this album puts me right back into a particular winter with a pile of Marvel comics that I re-read obsessively. Most potent moment: First 40 seconds of "River Runs Red."

Vulgar Display of Power by Pantera -- school bus and crappy headphones for a walkman cassette player (I'm old). While Far Beyond Driven and Cowboys from Hell also got tons of my attention back in the early nineties, this album has that perfect balance of guitar solo nastiness and control and aggressive that triggers my sadstalgia feeling. Most potent sadstalgia: the "1-2-3-4!" opening to "Fucking Hostile" right up to the chorus (i.e., first 40 seconds).

Bringing Down the Horse by The Wallflowers -- as a testament to my random musical taste, I include the two songs that haunted me for years from the summer before I went to college. It was a rough year! Potency overload thanks to life changes and summer relationship and anxieties and really catchy choruses: "One Headlight" and "6th Avenue Heartache."

Last three tracks on Third Eye Blind's debut album -- these songs still have the power to knock me for a loop and I'm still not 100% sure why. I didn't like this band until I saw them in concert (I went with my cousin simply because Our Lady Peace was the opening act). But then I heard these songs on the album and something about them -- I have no idea. Was it a girl? Was it depression? Was it life changes? Was it some hidden code that only reveals itself if you listen to the songs backwards 666 times? Who knows. Most potent sadstalgia: Pretty much the entire three tracks are poison and yet I've listened to them countless times because I enjoy causing myself existential pain.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On music: favorite albums from 2012

I pay for my music. As such, I tend to be a little picky about what I buy. Spotify was the greatest thing to happen in music in the past few years, at least for me, because it meant I didn’t have to be shady about my music listening habits. I could listen without stealing and pay for stuff without buying it. Good for the bands and labels, good for me.
Now, I don’t label this list “best of 2012” for a reason: taste is too hard to argue though fun to discuss. While I certainly like lots of different sounds, I’m also very stubborn about recommendations. It’s sad and difficult. I don’t see myself as a hipster who only listens to bands with a fanbase of less than 500 people; but I do have the hipster tendency to prefer my own discoveries over the suggestions of others.
That being said, the previously mentioned Spotify does allow me to explore a little more liberally. Still, when people send me songs, I don’t always rush to listen. I think I’m getting better.
Anyway. Below are some albums I bought this year. I enjoy them. Some I really enjoy and will likely listen to for years to come. Others might seem great now but fall out of rotation. So be it.

Andrew Bird - Break it Yourself - the album I listened to the most and one that will likely get plenty of play in the future. Basically, Andrew Bird makes music I can fall into easily. Great lyrics, great rhythms, great arrangements, and his voice is stellar.

Serj Tankian - Harakiri - Didn’t even know this was coming out and yet there it appeared in iTunes one day. The drumming on “Figure it Out” is speed metal drumming. Blistering. Amazing. Great hooks, silly lyrics. And not overproduced like the prior release.

Murder By Death - Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon - Some great tunes including “Lost River” and “I Came Around.” Another strong, distinct vocal performance. The aggressive cello work stands out as the highlight of certain songs.

The Lumineers - The Lumineers - I feel like this is the version of Mumford and Sons that I can get into. Short, sweet songs. Great vocals. Great hooks. My son even loved this album and his taste in music is still being ironed out.

Mark Lanegan - Blues Funeral - Mark Lanegan has one of the greatest voices in music. Is it the cigarettes and liquor or some evolutionary trait that ensures he’ll procreate with plenty of people? Who knows. This album throws a few curve balls (“Ode to Sad Disco” being one) but nothing seems like a reach for Lanegan and his band. So much fun, so sad, so dark, so real. All at once.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend - I’m still amazed. I can’t figure out if the album is really good or that it’s been so longsince their last release that I’m willing to enjoy anything. This doesn’t deviate from the typical Godspeed songwriting:in this case two 20 minute epics coupled with 6 minute palatte cleansers. But the drums and texture seem better than the last release and reminiscent of their masterpiece Raise Your Skinny Hands….

Menomena - Moms - I had no idea this band was such a mess. But the last album did seem disjointed with a few gems but a lack of momentum that their sophomore album, Friend and Foe, had plenty of. Fortunately some of the best elements of the original trio’s work has not been lost on Moms, even with one member off seeking greener pastures. Here’s hoping they can carry on and build on this album.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock - Fast. Fun. Just perfectly done rock.

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light - Truly does feel like a sibling to the masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.
Albums that just didn’t hit me, despite how much I liked prior release:
Patrick Wilson - Adventures in Your Own Backyard - A random discovery on Spotify, the opening track (“Lighthouse”) alone got repeated plays from me. Some other great tracks but, honestly, that opening track might be all I ever need.

Band of Skulls - Sweet Sour - Not a bad album at all, but it didn’t feel as energized as their debut. I will pick up their next album and hope it’s got the spark.

Amanda Palmer - Theatre is Evil - Got through this once can’t remember any of it. Perhaps it’s the production, the arrangements, the lack of piano? No idea. Though, I will say I have a playlist of Who Killed Amanda Palmer that leaves out 2 tracks so maybe I wasn’t meant to be her biggest fan.
Air - Le Voyage Dans La Luna - Such a cool idea: an updated soundtrack to the famous silent film Voyage to the Moon. The music IS good as a standalone album, but it doesn’t really seem to fit with the movie. I was really surprised at how disconnected the two seemed.

Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania - I have such a softspot for Smashing Pumpkins. I still listen to their first four albums constantly. The opening track is promising but without the jazz-influenced drums and the 90s crunch distortion Corgan made his signature and later dropped, it’s just not the same.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Some of my favorite 2012 reads

Throughout the year I've read and reviewed a few books (certainly not as many as I bought). Some of my reading time gets devoured by the college lit courses I teach, so I've re-re-read a number of great titles this year (Passing by Nella Larsen, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Medea by Euripides, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and various short fiction by Flannery O'Connor).
But I'd like to share some of my favorite reads and reviews from this year. One thing I realized as I gathered these links: all but 1 of these books has a great (i.e., perfectly fitting) cover. (Sorry Billy Lynn, while your cover isn't particularly BAD it's not as striking as the rest of these.)

Boy21 by Matthew Quick -- If you don't know who Matthew Quick is yet, you will. Aside from the mammoth critical success of the film adaptation of his debut novel, his 2013 release, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, will be in the running for major awards. Before all that, though, there's Boy21, a fantastic exploration of two boys who become friends thanks to basketball, the music of Sun Ra, and a shared disconnection from the world.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain -- ended up on tons of Best of 2012 lists (even lists that were otherwise dull). Worth the recognition and something you should check out if you want a good satire about the Bush years and domestic perspective of Iraq War part deux.

Little Velázquez by Kathryn Kopple -- I blurbed this book. But even if I hadn't blurbed it and didn't become friends with Kopple back in 2008 at the Breadloaf Writer's Conference, I would love this book. A historical fiction about a little known dwarf living in the court of Isabel and Ferdinand, this book blew me away from start to finish. Great sentences, great use of history that never overwhelms, great analysis of women with power, and women without power.

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour -- A book that haunted me, although that might suggest a more serious subject matter (such as LaCour's debut . The complexity of this road trip novel is never weighed down by the prose and offers some amazing scenes. 

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness -- A short review back when I read it because it's the kind of book that elicits a strong response and begs to be experienced purely. Sad, profound, funny, and beautifully illustrated. The kind of book you want in hardcover since the story and the pictures work together.

Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins -- The second book on this list that offers beautiful, crushing, complex presentation of women in crisis. Moves between perspectives with deft and has me looking forward to her collection of fiction, due out in January.

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews -- a funny and honest presentation of a teenager's views of death and friendship. Walks a fine line and, in my opinion, succeeds. One of two books I read in about 1 sitting, pretty much against my will (Boy21 was the other.) 

(Note: all of my reviews are on Goodreads, though some of these links will send you to my blog instead. The content is the same regardless of which site it appears. I just didn't figure out how to get the Goodreads posts to appear on my blog until a few months back.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(disclaimer: Matthew Quick and I are good friends. But that's not why I love this book.)

Put simply, this is an intense, gripping portrayal of a teenage boy who decides to kill his former best friend. Fans of Quick's previous work will sense, immediately, that this is something of a tonal shift, though all of Quick's narrators find themselves in emotionally challenging, often dark, places. In this case, though, we're introduced to Leonard Peacock -- a boy who's in a darker place than we've ever seen in prior books by the author. Amber, of SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR, certainly has her depression midway through her novel. But Leonard is an all encompassing, authentically sad and angry character.

He has reason to be.

I can't review the bulk of this book without spoiling plot elements. If the setup doesn't grip you, then know that the other hallmark's of Quick's work -- a unique, engaging voice; earned emotional moments; visual descriptions that linger long after the story's done -- are present. This is not a departure, a change, a reinvention of Quick's path as an author. This is the best exploration of a teenager's angry despair that you may ever read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: BUTTER

Lange's debut novel works with a profound mixture of crucial topics: obesity, bullying, the power of the internet, parenting woes, and the power of music. If you suspect this book is a mess because it attempts to work all of these ingredients together, you suspect wrong. (Also, that's my only food related metaphor for this review. I promise. Oh wait, Promise is a non-dairy spread. argh!)

Back on target.

Butter, the protagonist, walks a fine line of being sympathetic and unsympathetic. He's obese and relatively okay with it, though plenty of things in his life cause him to question his lifestyle. It's not difficult to see why he's complacent, since his mother obsesses over his eating habits but seems incapable of controlling his diet in a meaningful way (aside from cutting out sugar at one point). I could see a version of this book wherein Butter drives readers away, but there's something about him that's vulnerable without being forced. Butter doesn't begin to change his behavior until he finds an online forum featuring comments from his friends at school, who vote him Most Likely to Die of a Heart Attack. He's forced to see himself through the eyes of his peers -- and the internet certainly can make that feeling sharp and profound. He doesn't like what he sees (and reads). So he decides to give up.

Now, it's never completely clear whether Butter truly meant to kill himself live on New Year's Eve or if he meant to just create another buffer around himself by showing people he knew what they said/thought about him. Butter goes back and forth, which means I go back and forth as well. In the end, it doesn't matter what his INITIAL intention is, just what he ultimately chooses to do. I think the book succeeds because of Butter's ambivalence to his own decision. The threat to kill himself, though, needs to feel possible, and Butter gathers information that suggests he is planning his suicide, though, he's more than willing to back off when something positive happens in his life (weight loss, cute girl is nice to him, etc).

In many ways, the specter of death is one of the most crucial aspects of life's meaning. Without death, life carries on endlessly. Death forces us to ponder meaning, purpose, morality, and more, simply because we know we'll run out of time eventually. (Anyone who's read any Modernist literature knows the importance of death to literary characters. It's the fuel for much philosophizing.)

Here, Butter decides to eat himself over the edge and it causes him to change his behavior. He gains popularity, gains access to the girl he's had a crush on from afar (and a relationship over the internet), he gains a sense of worth. All because he decided his life had no worth.

As the plot progresses, Lange rightly focuses on Butter and his struggle as opposed to the various social issues the novel threads together. I found his complexity and hypocrisy very satisfying more so because Lange does not obsess on certain aspects of the story -- the power of the internet, as well as parenting woes. In lesser hands, a certain amount of moralizing and demonizing would occur to be sure the reader understood that the internet is bad or that parents are just "doing their best." While I can't answer for other readers, I never felt Butter's parents were simply good or bad, just frustrated (and, for me, frustrating in their believable behaviors). Nor did I find Butter's experience on the internet to be a judgment of the internet itself, (though it plays a huge role in Butter's self-esteem issues, Lange is clear that the internet both enhances and harms his self-worth).

I think Butter is a fantastic addition to books about suicide and bullying because it doesn't pander and it allows its characters to be real, especially towards the climax when Butter and Anna have a few key conversations. While the ending might feel a little too happy, I believe Lange earns the feelings because she wasn't afraid to let Butter be real in the rest of the novel.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On Mental Health

I've got a post over at The Crowe's Nest (my agent's blog) about the connection between reading and mental health. As a college adjunct who teaches literature, I see the way reading gives students a chance to talk about mental health -- both as a part of stories and as part of their own lives -- in a productive way.

Please check it out and comment! Thanks!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Book from Another Era or Stuck

Back in 2002 I was working for a self-publisher that I'll call One Horse (because that's the name of the Menomena song that's playing now). It was a life-altering, bizarre, stressful, hilarious workplace. Know this: in a parallel universe, I accepted the offer to live in the Philippines for 7-8 months a year and oversee a book production department. (I would "live like a king" on my salary. I would gain "invaluable experience." I would be a "valued asset, even twelve time zones away.")
In this, preferable reality, I declined and moved on from that place. I earned a couple of graduate degrees, adopted a dog, started a family, played my guitar and some video games.
But during my time at this self-publishing juggernaut , I decided on a much-needed ass-kicking project: write a short story collection. I had a story from college that won an award. I had ideas that involved using that story as a hub of sorts and telling other stories about characters from that central piece. Why not find a way to finish a project? Something that couldn't be brushed aside! Something with a structure, so it wasn't just a bunch of ideas that I had no reason to finish.
Outlines and legal pads full of rough drafts began to take cover my apartment floor. My collection, titled Stuck, would take a cue from James Joyce collection Dubliners. The structure would follow, roughly, an arc with each successive character somewhat older than the main character of the prior story. The opening story follows an 8 year old girl and ends with an 80 year old woman.
"This is a book written by a depressed person." -- paraphrase of my therapist back in 2002
My final year of college, when many of the ideas for Stuck began to appear in the muck of my brain, I lived in an apartment complex near Rowan University with two friends. It was not college housing, so most of our neighbors were regular people, some significantly older and retired, some younger, some single mothers/fathers, etc. Shaped like a U, ringing around a big grass field with a lone tree (which would get struck by lightening shortly before I moved), the complex felt perfectly suburban and lonely. My upstairs neighbor often sat on his balcony in gym shorts (though he never went to a gym), drinking Bud from a brown bottle. He drove a large, white-and-aqua Ford Bronco and demanded that he get a particular parking space. He pounded on our door one Friday night to ask who dared park in his space.
The collection eventually came together as I worked for Philladlephia-based self-publsiher, a job that taught me more than I can ever say (both good and bad). It taught me little about traditional publishing, sadly, but a lot about marketing, cubical jobs, personality disorders, conflict resolution, and more. (Plus, I met my wife there.) I eventually completed my book, designing it during my free time and constructing the cover with the help of my sister.
The end product was not just a book, but my book. Something that I had made as a writer but also as a designer. The cover photo was a photo I had taken. I wrote the copy, picked the fonts, designed the interior.
Literally, Stuck is my book cover-to-cover.
This is not to discount my love for my forthcoming debut novel, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets. That book is wonderful and fun, but profoundly different. I was a different writer when I wrote it. I was a different person. I was writing for different reasons.
Stuck will always represent another time for me. My post-college listlessness was made worse by living alone and wrestling with serious, longstanding (and undiagnosed) mental health issues.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder (that tepid, commercially neutered term).
Stuck, as my therapist at the time said after reading it, was written by a clinically depressed person. She asked me how I felt about that. I don't remember my answer, just her statement. I don't even remember whether I wanted her to like the book or not. I was ok that she read it, of course, but I didn't know what to expect.
Stuck, unlike Dr. Bird, is not a young adult book. It's not that teenagers can't relate to depression or loneliness or characters that are beyond their teens. But Stuck is steeped in depression and anxiety. The very purpose of the book is to soak the reader in those feelings and find as many ways to describe those feelings as poetically possible (or so I believed then).
Stuck's stories are like paintings of loneliness, pacing, alienation, sorrow. (There is a moment of uplift, but really only one and when it arrives, who knows if a reader will be able to see it as genuinely uplifting or just cynicism.)
The characters are all reflections of feelings that possessed me. The title story is about a girl who isn't invited to a sleepover; she packs a suitcase and decides to go anyway. Another follows the apartment complex handyman, who steals things from apartments to distract from the guilt he feels about his alcoholic father. The entire second half of the collection involves stories about various characters who all interact on a day when an unhappy, obese woman appears at the communal swimming pool and causes the other residents to gossip.
My therapist read this collection and asked me something very important. "Evan, are you afraid that you will not be able to write if you start managing your depression?"
Was I afraid of discovering that my writing was fueled by my emotional turmoil and that my creativity would sputter out if I began to seriously manage my newly diagnosed clinical depression?
I told her no. I didn't want to be depressed all the time, so if I did lose something, I would at least be better off losing the need or urge to write if all I was writing for was to battle depression.
Honestly, I did fear losing something. I feared losing myself, being numb. I didn't believe I would stop writing, though. Not then.
Still, my writing process, my very writerly life, didn't ignite totally for another five or six years after that -- with almost eleven years between my self-published personal project and my first novel. But I managed to get through. I manage my depression and anxiety. I am not numb or perfect. But I write and have many things that help me feel happy.
And thank goodness that's all true and I didn't lose my will to write. Writing is too much damn fun.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how to review this book without gushing and thus losing the chance to convince people to read this novel. So, know my goal is to encourage people to read this book; I will not summarize plot. I will try to contextualize why I think this book is worth your time.

Perhaps it's just one of those "perfect timing" novels where I found exactly the kind of book I wanted at the right time. Fountain's novel swept me along and I never wanted it to end. The climax is fascinating and surprising and nearly perfect. If you have any interest in novels about 21st century American culture -- teh culture of money and competition and violence and spin, then this book will satisfy you. It is a book about soldiers and war, but not in a warzone. It's a book about friendship and family and the things that give people a reason to keep going.

To keep it simple: BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK truly does feel like a CATCH-22 for the Iraq War (as one of the blurb proclaims). Now, that's a heavy burden for a book, since CATCH-22 is a classic of war satire (in fact, is it one of the only war satires? LYSISTRATA comes to mind, but I blank on others at the moment).

Let me also say that I am a rabid Tim O'Brien fan. Any fiction I read about war is always read through the filter of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Ben Fountain's novel manages to coexist with O'Brien's philosophy on stories about war. Mainly because this is a novel about how America views itself during wartime. Billy Lynn, rather than being an O'Brien-esque story-spinner trying to make sense of his experience is, instead, a semi-sober critic of American culture. He spends the bulk of the novel trying to reconcile what he's fighting for with what he sees during the course of a 2 week 'victory tour' with the rest of his unit. Yes he struggles with the purpose of the war, but he also quickly realizes what O'Brien's short story collection contends: a soldier cannot explain the war experience to civilians. (Hemingway's IN OUR TIME argues this as well).

So, while he does spend some time pondering his life, his future, and his family in a particularly effective chapter, Billy Lynn can spend more time wondering how the Americans flooding Texas Stadium for the Thanksgiving Day game can be so happy and dumb. As Lynn points out: "Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached." It's one of his many great DeLillo-esque observations that might seem "out of character" for a 19 year old from a small town in Texas, except that Shroom -- one of the casualties of the battle in Iraq that made Billy & his unit famous -- certainly pointed him towards deeper thinking.

A fantastic book. One I'll make time to read again.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Negative Reviews (reprise)

This originally appeared over at Alice Ozma's blog in a slightly different form and with more pictures.

I have history posting with my real name on the internet. Blame my age and how I, like millions of people born before reality TV, who didn't know that the internet was supposed to be anonymous. Students have happily asked me about embarrassing posts from the late 1990s that I made on Radiohead websites using my real name. Those posts were full of frothy, college-aged-Evan music-rage, aimed at people who acted like Radiohead lyrics were talking about their life experiences and not Thom Yorke’s. (Seriously, how is “Fake Plastic Trees” about some teenage breakup?) But they were not posts I expected students to see years later.

<image of Thom Yorke removed, imagine him being sad> 
Thom Yorke has enough of his own pain.

Fast-forward to the age: I joined thousands of self-appointed experts, reviewing music, books, and movies to reveal to anyone with an internet connection my very important opinions regarding John Steinbeck’s novels, Godfather III, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums. I was saving people time and money and emotional frustration by writing about bad things and somehow increasing audiences by writing about good ones.
It didn’t help that I went to graduate school from 2003-2008 to get a Masters degree in Literature and then an MFA in Creative Writing. Graduate school trained me to believe I was good at judging literature, so that by the time I decided to become a writer I already had set ideas about writing based on the handful of books and writers that academics had deemed good. It’s not that academics are often wrong about what books are good. It’s just that our opinions are often dated. Put another way: the quality and importance of books published now cannot be determined now. I did not understand that books celebrated now might be forgotten in 100 years; and lots of the books that are celebrated 100 years after their publication were initially ignored (see: Herman Melville and Zora Neale Hurtson.)
So, while I learned much about literature during my period as a graduate student, I did not learn how to critique contemporary fiction (or movies, music, laundry detergent, etc). Five years in academia plus a predisposition to snobbery resulted in a number of harshly negative reviews for books on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Not the greatest tragedy of my life, but certainly a character flaw.
I eventually went too far.
Back in 2008 I posted a review for a book on Goodreads; the review actually got the attention of the book’s author. I said some unnecessarily rough things, spurred by my belief that I knew a good book because I was a double-expert! I had an MA in Literature and I was getting an MFA. Why shouldn’t I post a review questioning the awards given to this novel and its author? Why shouldn’t I question this author’s skills? Chances were high that millions of people were considering whether or not to read that very book! I had to warn them!
The author emailed me and, in a very polite way, suggested I was being unnecessarily harsh. (He was happy to see that I actually liked his second book a bit, joking that at least he was improving — the kind of self-deprecating humor I normally would appreciate).
At the time I joked with fellow MFAers about how sad it was for an author to write a reader. I thought it was desperate and weird for him to go out of the way to contact me. Others agreed; no one seemed to think I was wrong for ripping the guy and his book on the internet. Ripping things on the internet is my right; that’s the very purpose of the internet. Right?
As you can probably sense, this was a terrible way to live. Fortunately, a couple of published authors said some key things about reviews and being a writer that helped shake up my persona both online and in the real world. A weekly coffeeshop conversation with author Matthew Quick, which stretched over many months, helped me shed some (though certainly not all) of my natural and acquired snobbiness. It’s not that Quick would show up and lament the nature of internet reviews. Nor did he chastise me for my own transgressions (yes, I did tell him about my harsh review and the resultant email). But he did push me to consider reviews from the other perspective. The irony is that I used similar thinking when teaching literature. Books force us to consider other perspectives! I said this in class to students but failed to consider it when writing reviews.
In an email, author Rick Moody once told me that he “wouldn’t object to a ‘negative’ review if that review were substantive, and about a resistance to the material based on concrete ideas about how it might be improved” but that negative reviews without substance “are bad for everyone.” I agree with him, even though I have yet to feel the barb of a negative review (my first novel having yet to see the light of publication).
Consider: readers can be talked out of a novel by the opinion of one person who may or may not share that reader’s sensibilities. How are you supposed to know if a reviewer shares your perspective without reading the same books? Who wants to read only the books that a reviewer reads? That doesn’t even cover all the reviews found on Goodreads and Amazon — how can a reader trust the opinions of strangers without knowing the sensibilities of those strangers? My students tell me that they will often pay more attention to how many good or bad reviews something gets online in their effort to decide what to buy. If I followed this rule, I wouldn’t read Don DeLillo’s Underworld because it “only” has a 3.5 star rating on Amazon. (Underworld is one of my favorite novels. So is Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death; also a 3.5 star Amazon rating)
Negative reviews hurt authors, of course. We already endure the criticisms of our own ego both before and after dealing with the many rejections on the road to publication — and those rejections don’t to stop for authors who have successfully released multiple books. I’m not saying only positive reviews should get published, but Moody’s quote puts the importance on the depth and substance of the review. Valid negative responses can lead to interesting conversations for readers (mostly for readers who have read the novel in question).
 In our email conversation about online reviews, Moody went on to assert that “The bilious, cantankerous reviews are posturing and narcissism. I don’t read them, and I feel sorry for the people who write them.” I’m sure we’ve all seen reviews for books or movies that seem to explode from the very gall bladders of the reviewer. I cringe when I see “worst books of the decade” or “most overrated authors” lists because they reek of basic internet jackassary: get people to click on an article by flailing one’s arms and speaking in tongues. Plus, when people who claim to love books and claim to lament the decline of reading write negative things about their very own industry, what hope do any of us have?
What these two authors in particular taught me is crucial: writers are nourished by tiny morsels of praise and nearly choke on the torrent of negativity online. It’s the struggle of being a writer in the 21st century. Self-promotion requires an internet presence; readers require an outlet. The internet, as everyone knows, puts authors in direct contact with readers. Of course, readers have a direct line to the authors — a megaphone five feet from their face. When one person reaches out to thousands it’s considered a huge advance in direct marketing; when thousands can shout in the face of one person — even if they shout praise or say nothing at all — it’s akin to that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex DeLarge is reprogrammed by having his eyes kept open.
Most readers would probably suggest an easy solution: all writers should avoid reading negative reviews, especially the ones written with the goal of ruining the author’s week. I’m not sure it’s that easy. Is it possible to avoid reading blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses and reviews on Amazon or Goodreads? Hell no! Writers, as part of our profession, need to self-promote, and the internet is the main way that happens. Promoting yourself while also ignoring what others are writing about you on the same sites? It’s not reasonably possible. Plus, some reviews will find their way to your inbox or into conversations even if you manage to ignore them.
Friend: “I saw you got a few bad reviews on Amazon. How’s that feel?”
Writer: “Thanks for letting me know of their existence.” 
I didn’t relinquish my stance about reviews and my opinions overnight. But I eventually got to a point where I wrote to the author I'd trashed and apologized. I explained not only why I had written the review but also why I eventually took it down. I told him that I didn’t expect him to accept my apology. And I told him I hoped he was still writing. None of that should be read as a noble thing on my part. I should’ve never written the bad review in the first place. There was no need. So, to get to the point, I have stopped writing negative reviews. I've taken down my Goodreads reviews below 4 stars. If I don’t like a book or movie, I don’t post comments about it. As a writer, I need to spend time writing new stories and books. And if someone wants to trash them online, I’ll be sure to debate with myself whether it’s worth sending an email to the critic, ignoring them, or just getting better.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Angels: A Novel

Angels: A Novel
Angels: A Novel by Denis Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the kind of book Charles Bukowski wished he could write but never had the sentence-level talent to pull off. At least, that's what I thought when I was about half way through. Then this book takes a sudden turn into insanity. Which is both good and bad. In the final third of the book, Johnson conducts a frantic dismantling of his characters -- Jamie loses her mind; Bill loses his freedom. But it's done in such a way that they are parallel sufferers. In fact, I'd argue the book approaches commenting on the way men and women living on the fringe suffer. And while the conclusion is not cynical, it does seem to linger on the experience of Bill and his brothers moreso than Jamie, despite the fact that Jamie's journey is, in my view, the more compelling one.

Worth reading if you like reading about life on the fringe -- expect drugs, miserable sex, and the easy mistakes of violent crime. Also, Denis Johnson writes some damn fine sentences.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets or: why the new title?

Ladies and gentlefops, I'm very excited to announce that my first novel, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, will be published in March 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Be sure to put my book on your Goodreads "to read" list.

I warn you now that I will be promoting the pigeon-poop out of this book over the next year. I appreciate those of you who are already excited and hope to attract more and more fans as the months progress, so share this blog, share the updates, share your love.

The following updates will occur between now and launch day, to keep you all interested in my wondrousness:
--a cover reveal!
--an official website featuring my giant face!
--an awesome website feature specifically designed to make you laugh AND kill time!
--more things I can't mention yet!

What's the deal with the title, you ask (infected with precious curiosity)? Yes, some of you may remember this book by it's working-title YAWP! The change was NOT something I resisted and I am actually more excited about this title than YAWP!.

This new title meets the following 5 criteria:
  1. It's awesome. More awesome: I can refer to my book as DR BIRD. 
  • I'm doing a signing with Dr. Bird tonight.
  • Photo caption: Me and Dr. Bird, chillaxing with some lemonade.
    1. It's easier to understand when someone says it, whereas I found myself repeating "Yawp" three times when people asked for the title. Even then, I was often met with the classic "I'll never understand what he's saying so I'll just nod" head-nod. 

    2. It'll be easier to remember, which means booksellers will not have one of those sad conversations at the information desk that goes like this:
    CUSTOMER: "Do you have a book called Yelp?"
    BOOKSELLER: "Doesn't look like it."
    C: "It's by Evan Rosco."
    B: "Spell that?"
    C: "R-O-S-C-O. I think. I'm not sure."
    B: "Don't see it."
    C: "It's got a blue cover, I think."*
    B: "Sure, let me just search our cover color database...oh wait, that doesn't exist."
    C: "Can't you read my thoughts?"
    B: "Not yet...."
    *FYI: the cover is NOT blue. 
    1. It's still my title, as it was part of a brainstorming session that my brain cordially invited me to attend. I'm happy that I was able to come up with a good title myself, not because I don't trust my editor or her team, but because I pride myself on titling things. (This is not a joke but something of a character flaw. I love titling almost as much as I love making up songs while I do mundane things:
    Sung to the upbeat 'scaramouche' section of Bohemian Rhapsody: "I am a very very hungry little man. Got to eat, got to eat, should I make myself a sandwich? Peanut butter Jelly, very very tasty me!"
    1. It highlights a feature of the book that brings me the most joy and seems to intrigue people to read: a pigeon. 

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Review: A Monster Calls

    A Monster Calls
    A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    A phenomenal, gut-wrenching book about a monster that comes to a boy not to scare him, but to tell him three stories. The boy, Conor, needs the stories, but "stories are the wildest things of all" the monster says. They will not be simple.

    It's impossible to say more about A MONSTER CALLS without ruining it except to say that buying the physical book -- a beautiful hardcover with amazing illustrations -- is necessary. It's a heavy book with a sad, strong story.

    View all my reviews

    REVIEW: Little Velásquez

    Little VelazquezLittle Velazquez by Kathryn A. Kopple
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Historical fiction always worries me. I love learning about different places, different times, different political systems, etc, but I don't like reading history disguised as fiction. Nor do I think fiction should be shackled by historical accuracy. Don't sacrifice a good scene because it didn't happen that way in real life. And don't excuse bad storytelling because that's how it DID happen.

    Kathryn Kopple's forthcoming novel LITTLE VELÁSQUEZ never left me feeling like I picked up a book from the wrong section of the bookstore. Velasquillo, the heart of the novel (but certainly not the the only character we get to know intimately), emanates a charm and loneliness throughout the novel. These two qualities are not just interesting because of his character -- though he certainly crystalizes very quickly and remains true and real throughout -- they are qualities that tie the various people in the novel together.

    This novel focuses on the court of Fernando and Queen Isabel of Castile (you know, the one that funded Columbus, expelled the Jews and Muslims, and probably yelled at adorable kittens in her free time). Velasquillo manages to trick his way into being the court fool and the novel happily doesn't stick only to his POV. We're inside the heads of Isabel, her Marquesa de Moya, her daughter Juana, and others. This is key, because it shows just how pervasive loneliness is. This novel isn't simply about the loneliness of power. It's human disconnection. It's an exploration of how, at various levels in society (perhaps today's, but at least in the society of the novel), people are disconnected, unable to communicate, easily fooled, and easily fail.

    Constructed to cover the ten year siege of Grenada, one might feel like time moves a bit too brisky from section to section, but Velasquillo and, to my surprise, the Queen herself, keep things connected and clear.

    One of the features I enjoyed most is Kopple's sentences. She's never dry, clearly knows her time period well, but doesn't twist her words around your neck.

    I leave you with this excellent passage from the prologue as evidence of how much fun this book is to read:
    "He didn't need a physician, didn't want one. He wanted only to be young again. How tired he was of hauling his old carcass about; so sick of the sight of wrinkles and spots. He wanted to frolic among the great, wise oaks, to urinate with glee, to feel some heat in his loins. What good did it do him to possess a body unlike any other body, one that amused and amazed, when, inside, he was no different at all--and perhaps worse off than many. He would die like any other man, in a heap of rotting teeth and flesh, with fetid breath, no less. No less.

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    Thursday, July 19, 2012

    REVIEW: Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins

    EcholocationEcholocation by Myfanwy Collins
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    ECHOLOCATION by Myfanwy Collins has me thinking about fission. At first I thought of the collapsing of the universe, but, without giving away too many spoilers, this is more about the collision of distinct, related women and the resulting release of energy. There is destruction and creation in the series of events. Examples of gain from loss begin in the opening pages when Geneva (the main character and the most morally compelling) loses her arm but gains freedom.

    I think the greatest momentum in the novel is created by the consistent PRESENCE of the PAST. This particular aspect of the novel reminds me of Alice Munro, whose characters seem like mental time travelers, moving between now and then. Collins juggles Renee, Cheri, and Geneva and I'm curious what she'd be able to do with just one character put under the microscope of her sentences.

    The closing ~30 pages is quite interesting as it reveals more memories than I expected from the climax of the novel, cementing Geneva as the emotional core of the novel, the potentially tragic figure, and the one who still lingers after I've shut the book.

    View all my reviews

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012

    REVIEW: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl

    Me and Earl and the Dying GirlMe and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Wow. I didn't intend to read this one tonight but I started and realized it was impossible to put down. There's so many ways this book could go wrong, but it manages to stay on the tracks (train metaphor!) without crashing into a mountain (plane metaphor!).

    Basically, this book is HILARIOUS and gruff and a little frustrating (but in a way that makes sense and works when I sat back and considered things as a whole). The narrator is imperfect but witty; his friend Earl is phenomenal and smart; Rachel (the titular dying girl) is -- well, I can't say anything without destroying what Andrews has created here.

    Suffice to say, I bought this book on a whim: GREAT cover + description that mentions filmmaking HS kids who watch Aguirre, The Wrath of God too much + great voice in the opening = winner.

    I am not sorry I succumbed to the whim purchase. and now I will begin to champion this book.

    View all my reviews

    Friday, June 22, 2012


    This movie is messy. Both in the horror/sci-fi sense with blood and violence, but also in the plot sense. But I think the writers had some sense of what they were trying to do: hint at possibilities without being concrete. Not a surprise they wrote for Lost.

    Plus, I think there are some intriguing possibilities when it comes to the plot.

    Spoilers ahead. Duh.

    It struck me that the opening was weird -- was it a metaphor or literal? Would aliens really drop down on the surface and sacrifice their bodies to create a new life form based on their own DNA? Sure. why not. It seems pretty inefficient, but let's just accept that it's the process they tested and decided upon. who needs robots or unmanned probes. 

    In fact, let's not even assume that this was a scientist. Let's assume he was a religious figure.  The robe hints at that. Maybe this was a guy that sacrificed himself for some grand, egotistical scheme. He believes he's a god or he wants to feel like one. So, maybe he's not left behind; maybe he sneaks away. We'll call him Engineer Zero.

    And maybe when the other Engineers find out what Zero's done they have to erase his mistake. they don't want Zero's creation littering up this planet they found that could be a perfect colony.
    Might the Engineers have decided to destroy humans simply because the humans were created out of vanity by a powerful, rich CEO/Scientist/Crackpot? Created just because they could be created? Or maybe the entire race created humans and then, like tossing a bad poem or smashing a lopsided clay pot, destroyed the humans because they aren't nearly as good as vanity demands?
    Interesting, but not enough proof to be SURE. Plus, if my friend Mike is correct, Ridley Scott has said that the Engineers did put their DNA on earth this way. He didn't say it was a one-man vanity project. But...

    Should we make the mistake and assume that the Engineers are one cohesive people?  What if we think more like the human society being featured -- the one where Weyland industries as trillions of dollars to spend on a vanity project? What if an Engineer (not THE ENGINEERS) created Human Beings as a vanity project? what if there's a company or a faction of Engineers that wanted to CREATE a being; it's not the goal of the entire race of Engineers. it's a vanity project of one particular Engineer company. The Engineer Weyland Industries.

    Or, perhaps this: what if humans are not a vanity project -- immortality for an individual or an entire race -- but are genetic engineered weapon project version 1.0 and the Aliens (acid drooling, insectoid Geiger aliens) are version 2.0? Ver 1.0 is "see if you can create a form of life that's purely biological, not an android. Then, Version 2.0 is see if you can create a purely biological weapon.
    Or what if humans are simply created as food to feed the weapons. Create a whole planet of food and then deliver the black goop and then you've got a planet manufacturing plant and warehouse. Trouble is the weapon is too aggressive, the military base gets destroyed as they are making final preparations to deliver the goop, leaving the food source to evolve and begin assuming it's 'special' -- like a McDonald's hamburger left in the sun, gaining sentience, and convincing itself it was created for something more than becoming lodged in the large colon of a Geiger monster.

    Creating life makes me feel powerful until I see that the creation is not on the same grand level as me. How sad. David even points out to Charlie: "Wouldn't you feel disappointed if you got the same response from your creator?" when Charlie says David was created just because humans had the ability to do it. 

    Creation for the sake of creation is a vane pursuit. It's good science to explore and experiment, but with the religious impulse of humans it will inevitably lead to the worship of science/technology and the disappointment with the creations. 

    The Engineers may have simply decided to destroy humans because they were too primitive. Made out of pride; destroyed out of disappointment. Humans didn't DO anything wrong. 
    This of course also leads us to look at why there's such an emphasis on MALE creation and the horrors associated with FEMALE creation.

    Enough people have pointed out the psychological trauma of men being impregnated in AlienPrometheus does not reduce the amount of gender imagery. In fact, I think it does an even better job of expanding on the idea of gender conflicts and makes a more forceful illustration of the terror men feel when they feel like they are useless. science and money and technology makes men feel useful; men hoard power because it hides their biologically temporary usefulness (men provide genetic material and then the female does the rest of the work; except with sea horses and a few other creatures. but seahorses didn't take over the planet, so clearly the female-as-baby-maker is the more successful form of reproduction).

    Overall, I think the film argues supports the longstanding argument that men yearn to create life and resent the fact that females actually do 99% of the creating when it comes to human reproduction. Race of Engineers, we can assume, have the same issue. Men have power to destroy but wish they could create AS WELL. (No idea how the engineers reproduce, but since we share their DNA we must assume it's similar. not like viruses or with eggs, which is why the Alien aliens are so terrifying.)

    Consider the various gender conflicts presented throughout the film:
    Vickers -- daughter of Weyland, the guy that wants to live forever or at least be the man to face his creator. Vickers is resentful of male android who gets father's affection; clear that father does not respect Vickers; clear that she wishes he would just DIE already. She's a tough chick in a difficult place: she knows the agenda (her father's vanity is essentially the financial engine behind everything, including the expedition); but she also knows that the people on board the ship are a mixture of science nerds and "true believers." In fact the "truest" believer is a female, while Vickers believes the markings are the scrawls of animals (my paraphrase). Vickers would prefer in a more mundane, scientific explanation -- that there are no creators. that no creature or race would have power over humans. It would mean Vickers, once she's head of Weyland industries, would be close to a god.

    Plus, isn't it fitting that the Captain asks Vickers if she's a robot and the way she disproves this is to have sex with him? her only power is her genitalia. and also that's the way she has to identify herself in a male world. I think Vickers is the saddest character of all. I feel like Dr. Shaw's challenged faith is pretty tame compared to what Vickers ends up going through. And i'm sad that Vickers gets killed as I think her journey to the stars (with or without Shaw) would've been even more telling. Does she take up her father's cause or Dr. Shaw's? Vickers and David in a ship looking for the Engineers? Now THAT's a story.

    Weyland -- dude is human vanity personified. Uses all money and technology at his disposal to face his creator and is rightly murdered for it. In many ways, human stories suggest that one CAN face a creator and win: Zeus overthrows his father and then fears being overthrown himself; the stories of kings are the stories of vanity and fear of death. Even the Christian tradition allows for humans to "face" their god -- Moses and Noah, amongst a few others, get face time with God. Jesus is both god & man. So, it's not surprising that Weyland believes he will have a chance to ask questions of his god.

    Sadly, he forgets the story of Job, a story that's much older than much of the old testament. Weyland also ignores the older version of the flood myth where Utnapishtim -- the Sumerian/Akkadian Noah -- is protected by one god when the other gods decide to wipe out humanity. Utnapishtim is then forced to live apart from humans because he was from before the flood. He's deemed special, but not a god. Some of the god's hate that he survived. But Job is the one that asks questions and is reprimanded. Not with death like Weyland, but intellectually: god tells Job "you do not have my creative power, you did not create the earth, the trees, the sea monsters, so how dare you presume you can question me about why you suffer!" The Engineer that whacks Weyland in the face takes less time to make the same point. (Curiously, Job gets all his stuff back and new, better looking daughters. But that's another analysis...)

    Weyland deems himself powerful enough to look a god in the face; that god smacks him down (note, too, that Weyland dies of head trauma -- the head being the seat of sentience -- while David has his head ripped off of his body, essentially isolating his sentience from his body, the thing that represents his biological humanness (recall that Charlie says David has no biological processes, but even so David needs senses to analyze the world. A digestive tract? not so much.
    Plus, David but does not die -- he will be able to continually explore this issue because he has no soul; Weyland says "there is nothing" and David confirms this but still says "enjoy your journey." David might actually have the potential to understand the nature of the soul, even without 'having' one.)

    <image removed, but you can google it I swear!>
    Fassbender as David is awesome. Just look at him all awesome there.

    David -- made in "man's image" David is the obvious parallel to the creation of human beings by an Engineer. David says that despite not needing biological human processes (breathing, eating) he looks human because it makes human's more comfortable. But we know that it's not comfort but vanity. Weyland calls David his "son" who lacks a soul. David is made to look like a human. Even David has some sense of self in dying his hair and mimicking TE Lawrence as portrayed by blue-eyed Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (a movie about an outsider in a desert much like David is an outside amongst humans in the desert of deep space).

    David's gender conflict is that he has a proscribed gender (male) but no need for a gender. He is not a biological creature but is still a man. He and Vickers are perfectly at odds -- both are cold, but Vickers has one of 2 emotional moments when she slams David against the wall and demands information. (The other is when she has to torch Charlie.)

    Engineers -- all male. We have no sense of female presence on the entire planet. the ship in the beginning could be called an Ova, though the military ship is a bent penis or a snake eating itself. Either way, the moon the Engineers used to create their weapons of mass destruction is masculine: tombs with male faces, a mountain peak jutting into the sky, the comment "god does not build straight lines" made by Charlie.

    Black Goop Created Creatures -- There's all these hints of phalluses and vaginas here. Once the black goop begins to transform the worms in the dirt of the tomb, we get the first vagina. The worm looks sperm-like when it raises out of the black goop, but as the idiot biologist (who says "good girl" and "what a pretty girl") approaches, the sperm-like work opens up and reveals a toothed vagina (and there's that classic toothy vagina myth, of course). The worm is male AND female. Not surprising that it grabs idiot biologist, breaks his arm, and then penetrates him and impregnates him. The biologist is raped (just as the face-huggers rape the men and women in the Alien films).

    Dr. Shaw -- performs an abortion on herself. There's no need to belabor the suggestions here. The machine is "calibrated for male patients only" and she must improvise. (the machine is clearly there for Weyland and not Vickers.) She suffers through a c-section of sorts, the horrible alien fetus is removed from her, and she's stapled back together. She's a modified virgin mother -- sterile but impregnated by the aliens (because the Engineers are godlike they can impregnate a sterile woman just like god impregnates the virgin Mary. if you're willing to believe that Mary's a virgin, but it seems more like she'd had sex with her husband but was IMPREGNATED without having sex. immaculate conception yes, virgin no.)

    Dr. Shaw is caught in between two intriguing binaries: she's a woman, but cannot get pregnant; she's a scientist that believes aliens created humans but believes in God (or, at least, wears a cross? It's not as clear as it could be).

    Oh, and David snooped on her dreams and memories while she slept (a memory rape). So, she's also the equal partner of a scientific duo with Charlie, but also under the thumb of 2 men: Weyland & David.

    In the end, I think Prometheus is fascinating and flawed. As a movie it has great moments of tension, some astounding visuals (some "ruined" by the trailer), good music, great acting, and a reasonably pleasing set of possible interpretations. I just feel like it could be a little more on the nose about one or two things instead of being so satisfied with the "I am still searching" conclusion offered by Dr. Shaw's voiceover. 

    Interesting collection of quotations that elaborates on some of the vagueness.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012

    What makes a band "dated"?

    "Tonight / I'm gonna have myself / a real good time." -- "Don't Stop Me Now"

    Recently my wife and I stumbled upon the Palladia channel on cable and watched the second half of a fantastic Queen concert from Montreal that has been remastered sometime recently.

    My wife LOVES Queen. I, too, love Queen, but not as much as her. She knows the lyrics to more than just Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. She's certainly not a huge fan as compared to others, but in our house she easily takes the honor.

    I found myself recalling various things about Queen that I've learned throughout the years -- from Freddie Mercury's demise, to the lyrics to "Bicycle Race" (back in 4th grade, my friend's father used to sing it constantly), to the fact that Brian May can play a mean guitar. What I never considered, though, was the fact that Queen doesn't exist anymore. Or, to put it more precisely, Queen-like bands don't exist anymore. Rock music's too cynical.

    Cynicism has made Queen seem dated.

    (NPR even published this short piece for "Old Music Tuesday." Clearly there's something in the air.)

    I don't mean in the "Queen sounds too naive/simplistic/crappy compared to current bands." I mean there's no one else out there that tries to sound like them or can sound like them or will sound like them. They might be one of the most talented, fun, skilled, and (most importantly) successful bands ever. Yes, The Beatles had fun and their albums were ahead of their time, trippy, layered, meaningful, etc. The 60s and 70s had lots of fun music. Led Zeppelin, too. Pink Floyd. But post-Queen? Who compares?

    Consider what they were: a 70s British Arena-rock band with a flamboyant frontman. They collectively wrote orchestrated songs ranging from goofy (the aforementioned "Bicycle Race") to serious ("You're My Best Friend.") "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You" will forever play in stadiums across the USA, if not around the world because they are earnest anthems. They have a song about the radio ("Radio Ga-Ga") -- to be fair, so does Hall & Oats. They wrote the goddamn soundtrack to Flash, a campy sci-fi radio-show-turned-80s-movie. It was the soundtrack Queen was born to record.

    They are one of the few bands I can think of that takes being not-serious, seriously. And can still be serious when they want.

    Think about the arena-rock bands that have followed them:

    • Journey -- big music. didn't take themselves too seriously. Steve Perry has a tremendous voice and they made an intentional shift in songwriting in the late 70s to embrace a more commercial sound, resulting in their "peak" performance albums Escape and Frontiers.
    • Def Leppard -- terrible lyrics, great guitarist, decent Journey-esque singer. Hysteria sold over 12 million copies, doubling their prior album. But 2 albums of 80s-arena-rock does not compare to Queen in terms of success. Plus, their multiple hits from Hysteria don't stand up to some of the unique, iconic Queen songs.
    • Aerosmith (to be fair, didn't really "follow" Queen, but developed around the same time) -- American rock -- a very light Zeppelin, particularly back in the late 70s. Once they got off the drugs for a while, they were more a light Journey than anything else. Lots of hit songs; flamboyant frontman; didn't take themselves seriously. And while I dislike 99% of their catalog, they remained successful, albeit not necessarily relevant, up to the end of the 20th century. Not sure they match the skill of Queen.
    • Van Halen -- The less I say, the better, but this is a successful arena rock band that swings between serious and silly. David Lee Roth is an American Mercury in terms of showmanship, but he lacks the consistency and the songwriting skills.
    • U2 -- they take themselves very seriously, to the point where Bono's lack of lyrical prowess sounds silly in a bad way when he probably wants to be silly (from time to time) in a Queen way. (Look at the lyrics from "New York": In New York summers get hot, well into the hundreds / You can't walk around the block without a change of clothing / Hot as a hairdryer in your face / Hot as a handbag and a can of mace / In New York, I just got a place in New York." is that supposed to be funny or serious-and-thus-horrible? The song eventually talks about how the Irish came to NY as well, so I'm assuming it's supposed to be horrible.)

    The so-called cock-rock bands of the late 80s are technically arena-rockers, and while they are clearly not better than Queen, they changed the landscape when it came to 'big' rock music. Could you imagine Mötley Crüe writing a song like "Fat Bottom Girls"?

    Mötley Crüe started rocking in 1981 with songs like "Public Enemy #1" ("Hear the screams / Another one dies tonight") and "Come On and Dance" ("She's a leather tease / When she's on top / Well, you can't be stopped / Watch her scream / Watch her suck you clean / And you should've seen her dance.") Subtlety be damned, the Crüe will rock! (these are not the best examples of their early work, but they really don't get big for another album or two.)

    Queen started 10 years prior to Crüe. In 1981, Queen released The Game, including "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" (Vanilla Ice remembers that year well. Or, at least, the song.)

    I point to Mötley Crüe not out of a person preference (I only ever owned a cassette of Dr. Feelgood); just that they are one of the biggest hair bands aside from the one band I think came close to comparing to Queen post-Queen. It's going to pain some of you (particularly my wife who breaks out into a rash when I sing this band at karaoke).

     Yes, the one band I think gets close to the stage and album theatrics, the band with the flamboyant (albeit aggressively heterosexual and misogynistic) front man, the band with the total musical skill to back it all up:



    Not even his best jumpsuit.
    Try not to stare at the bulge.

    Seriously. Epic songs? "November Rain", "Estranged," "Rocket Queen", "Coma", "Paradise City". Crazy-good guitarist? Slash. (He's even got Brian May-esque HAIR!)

    In the end, of course, Guns N Roses has a great musical range that stems from Rose's skill as a songwriter, but on the whole he doesn't have the ability to laugh at himself. (Axl DID cover a Charles Manson song and wrote lyrics like "You're daddy worked in porno / now that mommy's not around / she used to love her heroine / but now she's underground." But he's not gonna be caught dead singing "Bicycle Race," except maybe in the shower after a long night of coke and hookers. Even then, he'd probably deny it.)

    Mötley Crüe has nothing on GNR, but GNR still pales in comparison to the tremendous breadth of Queen's skill and imagination and success and overall JOY.

    Still, if you doubt my GnR comparison, you can't ignore this:

    That's Elton John & Axl Rose singing "Bohemian Rhapsody". Maybe Axl CAN laugh at himself.

    So, here's what we have: the world has moved on from true, bright, upbeat, optimistic, nearly endlessly fun rock music. For every Jet that appears, one dies.