Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Year In Books

I probably read more for pleasure this year than any other year of my life. I recommended a lot of books this year, so I won't re-recommend any of them here, but, if you have read any of these books, I would love to hear your thoughts on them.

The best of the best:

Gilead, by Maryanne Robinson
Lush Life, by Richard Price
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles
Straight Man, by Richard Russo
How I Became A Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely

The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote For Money, by Nick Hornby
Lost in the Meritocracy, by Walter Kirn
Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

The Best Books You've Probably Never Heard Of:
The Remainder, by Tom McCarthy
How I Became A Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely
The Tourists, by Jeffrey Hobbs

The complete list:
Gilead, by Maryanne Robinson
Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Chronicles: Volume 1, by Bob Dylan
The Tourists, by Jeffrey Hobbs
The Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby
Shakespeare Wrote For Money, by Nick Hornby
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, by Nick Hornby
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
Buffalo Lockjaw, by Greg Ames
Novel About My Wife, by Emily Perkins
Maps and Legends, by Michael Chabon
Lush Life, by Richard Price
Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher
Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles
Clockers, by Richard Price
A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, by Jonathan Mahler
The Woman Chaser, by Charles Williford
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida
This Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips
Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami
The Big Rewind, by Nathan Rabin
The Remainder, by Tom McCarthy
Old School, by Tobias Wolff
How I Became A Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
My Custom Van, by Michael Ian Black
Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon
I Drink For A Reason, by David Cross
Straight Man, by Richard Russo
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
Prospect Park West, by Amy Sohn
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons
Lost In the Meritocracy, by Walter Kirn
Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Karen O and Rock Stardom

Loading up the retro shuffle that Jake bought me for Christmas, I rediscovered the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 2003 album Fever To Tell. Other than The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the first 'indie' rock band I really got into, and I still have fond memories of playing it over and over on a long car trip that spring. Once I had played it out, I put it back into my cd wallet and more or less let it sit there until last week.

I wouldn't say that Fever To Tell is a great album - too many of its songs don't do enough for me to call it 'great' - but its highs are as high as almost any album that came out this decade. The critical and commercial success of "Maps" was such that few would consider it anything other than a modern standard, and "Y Control" is as good of a dance-rock song as anything released by The Killers, Bloc Party, or Phoenix. There were plenty of albums with ten songs as good as Fever To Tell's, but very few with two songs as good as those.

Listening to the album again after all of these years, the main thing that jumped out at me was that it just bleeds "rock star" - that "it" factor which, to paraphrase the great Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's expression about pornography, is impossible to define, but I know it when I see it. Most of the leading singers in the indie rock movement go out of their away to avoid the trappings of rock stardom, acting like just a member of the band, and keeping their partying low-key and their love affairs out of the spotlight. They produce serious, artistic albums, albums for your consideration. But every time Karen O opens her mouth, she evokes booze, sex, small, sweaty night clubs, and the mystique of Robert Plant and Janis Joplin. A little mystique goes a long way. There are a lot of great musicians in indie rock; what it needs is a few good rock stars. Karen O, Jack White, Jenny Lewis, and Julian Casablancas are among the only ones we've got, and from time to time we need to close the Pitchfork window and let them rock us.

Also, in case you haven't seen it, "Y Control" has one of the more memorable music videos I've ever seen. Thank you, Spike Jonze.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Who Knew?

Last week, I blogged about Julian Casablancas' appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The main point of my post was that Casablancas and The Roots sounded great playing together, even if it sounded as if the song was written five minutes before they went onstage. At the time, I honestly thought it was a casual one-off thing, never to be heard again. Needless to say, I was surprised to find that Casablancas has previously released the song as a single, complete with retro 1950's-ish cover art. I'm a little embarassed - I expect myself to be on top of things like that - but really, who knew?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

CSD Book Club Selection - Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

The new Common Sense Dancing Long Book Club selection is Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. Discussion of the book will begin on February 1st.

Winter's Tale was published in 1983, and in 2005 the New York Times voted it one of the 25 best American works of fiction of the past 25 years. The original review from the Times can be found here. A couple of years ago, Paste Magazine critic David Langness, wrote about reading it in one sitting, crying for 15 minutes afterward, then re-opening it and starting again. So, we're hoping it will be a little more easily accessible than our current selection, Moby Dick.

Winter's Tale is structured differently than Moby Dick, and, to make it work, the weekly discussions will cover different numbers of pages. Our preliminary schedule for the first four weeks:

Week 1: Prologue through "Pearly Soames" (39 pages)
Week 2: "Peter Lake Hangs from a Star" through "Beverly" (60 pages)
Week 3: "A Goddess in the Bath" through "Lake of the Coheeries" (57 pages)
Week 4: "The Hospital in Printing House Square" through the end of book one (43 pages)

We will try to get the discussion threads up on Mondays, though we may need to stay flexible as real-world stuff gets in the way. Please share your thoughts and comments as we read along!

ADDED - Discussion of A Winter's Tale will begin on February 1st. I somehow forgot to include that in the original post.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Emo Thoughts

Little things keep happening to remind me of how things change as you get older. Today is the last day of my Christmas visit home. Today is my fifth day away from New York City. It feels as if I have been away for an indulgently long period of time, and yet, I only took two days off from work. The other three days were a national holiday (a real national holiday, not one of those like Columbus Day when a lot of people go to work anyway), and a two-day weekend. Its funny how, once you get into the habit of working long week days and sunday afternoons, a couple of days off feels like an unimaginable luxury. Tomorrow I will be back at work, and probably put in a pretty long day, and before too long this vacation will seem like a distant memory.

Related to the first story, I am beginning to realize that it is important to get some physical distance from your office from time to time. When I am at home, and the office is a relatively short commute away, it always feels as if I could go to the office if I choose to, and, because of that, it is sometimes hard to relax because you know that there is always more work you could be doing, if you were only at the office. Being hundreds of miles away, you don't really have a choice other than to make the most of your time away and wait until you get back to the city to get back to work. A change of scenery is good for you in more ways than one.

Growing up, I knew that I lived in a nice single-family house, and had parents that loved me, but I didn't appreciate how lucky I was in the big scheme of things. I have become more and more appreciative over the years, as I have learned more and more about the world around me, and been exposed to more people with backgrounds different than mine. Having spent the past few years in a series of small New York apartments, and having spent the past few days in spacious north Buffalo houses, I amazed by several things - by the space and quiet I took for granted growing up, for the large meals we always shared with our extended family at the holidays, and for the way that our parents were somehow able to manage the demands of raising children with those of demanding jobs that paid them the salaries it took to live lifestyles like our own. I'm at the beginning of my professional career, working a public interest job in an expensive city, and I find it amazing that for more than twenty years I took for granted the accomplishments of people like my parents and my friends' parents, who have led good and charitable lives while balancing so many competing demands. Being an adult is hard, and my parents have pulled it off with extraordinary grace. This holiday season, I am thankful for that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Kind of Rocks

Albert Hammond's surprise appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon earlier this week provided one of the cooler Christmas-related moments on network television in recent memory. Yes, it sounds as if they wrote this song about five minutes before they went on stage, but Julian Casablancas and The Roots sound really great together, and the entire experiment reinforces the message that the difference between a Christmas carol and a Christmas rock song is a bitchin' rhythm section. I love the way that ?uestlove's drum kicks in from off-screen before you know the Roots are even involved, and as the camera pans to the main stage you can all but hear the audience thinking "wait, who does that sound like . . . that's the guy from The Strokes!" Its not the most ambitious Christmas special I've seen, but a surprisingly effective one nonetheless.

Five Holiday Wishes

Without really intending to do so, I have turned this blog into a Steve Martin tribute site over the past couple of weeks. Really, its a coincidence - I just happened to read this month, which happened to coincide with Christmas, which Steve Martin seems to have a particular talent for exploiting for laughs. His "Holiday Wish" sketch from 1986 is a short-list Christmas classic, but because of NBC's byzantine office politics, was difficult to find for many years. (Lorne Michaels left Saturday Night Live for the 1985-86 season and, though he eventually returned, has always gone out of his way to avoid excluding skits from that season in SNL's various "best of" collections.) Thanks to the miracle of Hulu, it is now online and available to be viewed at any time, without Lorne Michaels' gatekeeping.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Funniest Christmas Song Ever?

Steve Martin, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel teamed up to create one of the weirdest and most hilarious Christmas recordings we've ever heard. The disc jockey gets a few of the details wrong - Simon and Martin were never on the same episode of Saturday Night Live, and this rehearsal never led to the obscure, CSD-favorite "Christmas Wishes," bit that Steve Martin recorded and that NBC, for some reason, refuses to re-broadcast. Even if this recording was never made at NBC, Simon and Martin are good friends, and have probably had access to their fair share of empty recording studios over the past thirty years. Probably nobody except for the principals knows where or when this was recorded, but we wish it received a little more radio play around this time of year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Week 10

I overshot a little bit last week; the meeting with the Samuel Enderby happened in this week's reading, though I blogged about it last week. I'll admit it - the novel is dragging on, chapters are blending into one another. This week's reading contained more soliloquies, as well as the chapters on the carpenter and the blacksmith which, let's face it, sort of state the obvious. Besides the meeting with the Samuel Enderby, the most significant thing to happen in this week's reading is that Queequeg became deathly ill with a fever, so ill in fact that the ship's carpenter made him a wooden coffin. After days of illness, Queequeg arises from the coffin one day in good health, ready to hunt whales as if nothing happened. The coffin stays aboard, though, and becomes Queequeg's sea chest. As with some of the novel's earlier instances of foreshadowing, its clear that this coffin is going to play a significant role in the story before the novel is through - at this point, it screams "Chekovian gun!" How it will be significant, of course, remains to be seen.

What were your thoughts on this week's reading? I found some of this week's chapters to be among the most stylistically interesting, with the exception, of course, of the chapter of soliloqies.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Wild and Crazy Guy

Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is not the memoir I expected it to be. Its not even an autobiography. Rather, Martin makes it clear that this is a biography, because it details the life of somebody he used to know - Steve Martin, the stand-up comedian.

The book details Martin's long apprenticeship in comedy, as he goes from performing in a magic shop at Disneyland in grade school, to performing at dinner theaters, small night clubs, headlining small night clubs, opening for bigger acts, and finally becoming a headliner in his own right. The anecdotes of day-to-day life as a working comedian are entertaining, but what's most interesting is the way that Martin, while still in college, decided to become an avant garde comedian, even if, at the time, he didn't really know what it meant to be avant garde. He just decided that he didn't want to be like everybody else, then set out to make himself different, even if that meant a fifteen year process of trial and error.

Originally, Martin gave himself until his thirtieth birthday to make a success of himself in comedy. When his thirtiest birthday arrived, he almost gave up performing for a more conventional career. But he had already appeared on the Tonight Show a few times, and he decided to stick it out. When one of his subsequent appearances on the Tonight Show, in which he did a speeded-up impression of a Vegas night lounge singer ("Frank Sinatra personal friend of mine Sammy Davis Jr. personal friend of mine Steve Martin I'm a personal friend of mine too and now a little dancin'"), the cameras caught Johnny Carson in the background, doubled over in laughter. A shot of Johnny Carson in hysterics was the best endorsement a comedian could get in 1974, and it elevated Martin's career to new heights. Before long, he was playing the Nassau Coliseum and other 20,000 seat-plus venues; venues so large that fans in the back row could not see the balloon animals and sight gags that were such a beloved part of Martin's show.

By 1978, he was booked solid for the next two years, and his punchlines had become so popular that the fans would shout them out at his live shows like Springsteen fans singing along to "The River." Unfortunately for Martin, sing-alongs work better at stadium rock shows than they do for stand-up comedy. He was so popular, and so beloved, that people would laugh in anticipation of his jokes, so that Martin couldn't tell if he was actually being funny, or if fans were just laughing at the memories of his previous performances. He checked into a hospital after having a panic attack, and a nurse asked him to sign his EKG. People he had known for years asked him for autographs. People would laugh when he asked what time a movie started, or ordered food at a restaurant. In 1981, Martin walked away from stand-up comedy, and hasn't gone back.

By the time I was old enough to be conscious of stand-up comedy, Martin had long since retired. Its easy to forget that, before he made L.A. Story and Parenthood, let along Cheaper by the Donzen and Sgt. Bilo, Martin was the most popular stand-up comedian of all-time, and that his stand-up album A Wild and Crazy Guy once reached the mind-blowing position of #2 on the Billboard charts. Martin has made a lot of terrible movies in the past 28 years, but he's still one of my favorite funny people, with his occasional Saturday Night Live and Academy Award hosting gigs, well-written comic novels and New Yorker pieces, and his universal high regard as a renaissance man - he's widely read in philosophy and is one of the most distinguished private art collectors in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote that, after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, he wanted to talk to Steve Martin, because he knew that Martin would have something insightful to say about them. We see more of the learned, philosophical Martin in Born Standing Up than we do of the Martin who once routinely filled the Nassau Coliseum, but its still a funny, engaging book, and a must-read for anybody with a serious interest in comedy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Week 9

As much as I enjoy posting to this blog, real life takes priority. This week is one of those weeks. I do not intend to give this week's reading less than its due, but there were a few more well-written passages about whaling that were only tangentially related to the plot of the book, and an interesting 'gam' with the Samuel Enderby, a British ship whose captain had lost his arm to Moby Dick, much like the Pequod's Ahab had lost his leg. However, the captain of the Samuel Enderby does not share Ahab's thirst for vengence, and Ahab's madness is highlighted in our eyes by his comparison to the other captain, who, to a neutral observed, had every bit as much of a right to want revenge. Again, a bad sign for the Pequod and its crew. My guess is that Moby Dick is soon to make an appearance - the plot seems to have been building up to it for some time now.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Three Best Songs With Which To End A Mix Tape

On Monday night, I went to Union Hall in Brooklyn to see the Onion AV Club staff read from their new book, Inventory. Among the presenters were Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Josh Modell, Amelie Gilette, Sean O'Neal, and Andy Battaglia, and they were all funny and cool and riffy. You can see how much they love music, movies, books, and television and the way those things connect to form what we call "pop culture."

Inventory, as you may have guessed, is a book of pop-culture lists, such as "16 films featuring manic pixie dream girls" "10 great songs nearly ruined by saxaphone." All of this talk of making lists has inspired me to make one of my own: the best songs with which to end a mix tape. The list is a work in progress, but these, I think, are the top three:

1) "If You Want Me To Stay," by Sly and the Family Stone
2) "Let Her Dance," by the Bobby Fuller Four
3) "Mr. November," by The National

What are your favorites mix tape songs, and which ones end it on a high note?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Takes after the Old Testament

How often have I been treated by him in a similar manner.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Weeks 7 & 8

Once again, I am impressed with the quality of Melville's writing, but wish he spent more of it describing action - a plot of any kind, instead of describing whales, the jawbones of whales, the legends surrouding whales, etc. I am consistently impressed with the quality of his writing, but, to quote an old friend, who became mired down in an unabridged copy of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, I am badly in need of some bridges.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What's Your Favorite Iconic Music Video Hook?

Much like we tend to remember pop songs by their hooks, we tend to remember music videos for a single shot that captures the essence of the video. Some friends and I discussed our favorite music video moments the other day, and these are the ones we came up with. Which of these are your favorite, and what are the ones we left out?

Guns N' Roses, "November Rain" - Slash storms out of the church and rips a mournful guitar solo:

Dr. Dre, "Ain't Nuthin' But a G Thang" - The D.O.C opens up a refrigerator full of forties:

Daft Punk, "Around the World" - Entire video.

Madonna, "Like A Prayer" - Black Jesus sheds a single tear of blood:

Bonnie Tyler, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" - Ninjas doing ballet, gay swimmers being doused in water, leather jacket greasers dancing on the stairs of a British boarding schools, and all of the other crazy non-sensical shit that happens in that video:

Laura Braningan, "Self Control" - The futuristic dystopia that spontaneously turns into a dance party on what appears to be a gymnastics mat

The Thermals, "Pillar of Salt" - Random breakdancer guy and the nun outfits

The Saddest Movie Scene Of the Decade

Or, maybe, just the best. I've watched the "life" montage from Up! three times, including once in the movie theater, and it has made me cry every time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Great Moments In Ownage

Compiled by Onion AV Club commenter-turned-contributer Zodiac Motherfucker, Great Momemnts in Ownage is a great way to kill time, if you don't mind killing a few brain cells every time you click on a video. There are about thirty of them in the series so far.