Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sexism is Tearing Me Up Inside

When I was growing up, my parents watched The Today Show every morning. As you can probably imagine, that quickly drew tiresome; there are only so many pandering interviews, human interest stories, and Willard Scott or Al Roker pandering-to-the-crowd-segments-disguised-as-weather-reports that I could take before writing it off forever. The segments that bothered me the most were the "special report: women today" segments, which claim to be honest reporting about issues that effect women, but which are always heavily sponsored by companies that make women's products, and, not coincidentally, many of the stories tell women that they should worry more, or, most insidiously, appear intended to make women feel inadequate about themselves.

The Onion News Network, as part of its fictional Today Now program, recently ran a parody of one of these segments, "How To Get A Guy To Notice You While You're Having Sex With Him." The main joke, that the story assumes that women have so little self-confidence and are so insecure about their relationships that they feel as if they have to take some sort of extra step to get the men they are sleeping with to pay attention to them, even while they are having sex with them. Its almost Spinal Tapish in the way in which it takes a cliche to its furthest logical extreme, and yet the humor comes from the fact that it is only slightly more absurd than the subject it parodies. I realize that this segment is a joke, but once you start to look for this sort of thing, its prevalence is shockin. It is on so many morning shows, daytime talk shows like Oprah, and every women's magazine (where it constitutes the plurality of their content), that it almost stops registering unless you're actively looking for it.

Here's the video:

How To Get A Guy To Notice You While You're Having Sex With Him

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Walkmen at the Town Ballroom

On Monday night, Jake and I saw The New Pornographers and The Walkmen in a 400-person venue. The Walkmen sounded great; the New Pornographers, unfortunately, didn't really get their levels straightened out until six or seven songs into their set. The volume of the music exceeded what the recorders were able to capture, so the bands sound a little distorted at times, particularly the New Pornographers, who employ more loud, high-pitched sounds than the Walkmen. Fortunately, when you are one of the greatest rock bands in the world, you still sound pretty good, even with a little distortion in the upper registers.

Three songs from the show have been posted to YouTube: two from their most recent album, Lisbon, and one oldie from their first record, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone.


"In the New Year"

"We've Been Had"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Weekend Links

The King James Bible: A New York Times appreciation, in advance of the King James Bible's 400th anniversary, says that it "may be the single best thing ever accomplished by committee" and discusses its influence on English literature. The King James Bible-as-literature was a favorite subject of the English department at my university, and, I would imagine, a great many other universities as well.

The Information: In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses books about the internet, breaking them down into three camps: the "Never Betters," the "Better Nevers," and the "Ever Wasers." Be sure to also check out David Remnick on the "making and remaking" of Malcolm X.

The Atlantic Monthly has a handy guide to the data-mining case currently pending before The Supreme Court.

The AV Club's Zach Handlen reviewed David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.

What is the best year in music history? Nathan Rabin votes for 1994. In previous weeks, Josh Modell has written about 1997, and Stephen Hyden about 1966. What is your favorite year in music?

In The Buffalo News, Buffalo-born novelist Lauren Belfer discusses her impressions of Buffalo after spending years living in New York City. This may or may not be a timely article for a particular co-author of this blog.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"TV On the Radio -- that's all you're looking for!"

TV On the Radio played The Late Show with David Letterman in 2006, and impressed Letterman so much that Letterman has invited them back on a regular basis, including a number of special episodes like holiday specials and the like. Last Thursday, they played a FORTY-ONE MINUTE SET on Letterman - the entire episode of the show - which is one of the only times that's ever happened. Good for TV On the Radio - they killed it in relative obscurity for years and are finally enjoying the mainstream success they deserve.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Monday Links

In the Times' Sunday Book Review, Gail Caldwell wrote a thoughtful review of Meghan O'Rourke's new book, The Long Goodbye, about death of O'Rourke's mother and O'Rourke's grief afterwards. O'Rourke is a CSD favorite; we look forward to reading this book, though we know it is going to depress us terribly.

The AV Club had a great discussion on the films of Sidney Lumet - one of those directors who had such a long career, and made so many classic movies that its easy to lose track. Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Murder on the Orient Express are three of CSD's favorites. The AV Club also ran a primer on the films of director Walter Hill, whose films

This New Yorker profile of chef David Chang (recommended to us by a friend) was really interesting. Chang's small empire of restaurants, located mainly in New York's East Village, are one of the cooler things about downtown Manhattan. Chang's cookbook, Momofuku, is well-written and has such gorgeous photography that it is basically food pornography.

The New Yorker's excellent literary blog, Book Bench, picked Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad as its book club selection this month, which is fortuitous, becaue it just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Coincidentally, another Book Bench book club selection, Jonathan Dee's The Privileges, was also short-listed for the Pulitzer.

Bill Simmons's two-hour NBA playoff preview podcast was a must-hear for NBA fans.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Everything And More

A telling detail about David Foster Wallace is that he always referred to Everything and More - a 310-page book about the history of the mathematics of infinity - as a "booklet." The famously wordy Wallace reigns brings as much personality and verve to the subject as one could possibly hope for; he economically sketches the history of infinity, from ancient Greece through the present, with a particular emphasis on Georg Cantor, the 19th-century German mathematician who did more than anybody in history to develop our understanding of infinity. The book tries -- too hard, I would argue -- to make mathematical concepts accessible to a lay audience. For readers who did not take college-level math, no amount of analogies or examples will help you understand the most difficult concepts. I would have preferred to see Wallace just move on with his narrative, rather than waste pages attempting to explain concepts I did not have enough training to understand, not to mention the hundreds (yes, hundreds) or formulas that make for unnecessarily difficult reading.

Like a lot of Wallace's non-fiction, Everything and More has a "micro" subject and a "macro" subject. As ambitious as the life of Georg Cantor is, that's really just the micro focus, a way in to larger questions. For example, are some questions so abstract that pondering them is more maddening than rewarding? And to what extent have mathematical developments shaped larger intellectual trends, and to what extent has it been shaped by them? Wallace's thoughtful discussions of these larger subjects ultimately redeem this interesting, but difficult, book.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Weekend Links

"A Murder Foretold," David Grann's article on a political murder in Guatemala, is a fantastic piece of long-form journalism.

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, beloved by my Sicilian grandparents and liberals everywhere, was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

L.J. Davis, a journalist and novelist who lived in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and one of the earliest writers in the brownstone Brooklyn literature culture, died Friday at the age of 70. His novel A Meaningful Life, set in the earliest wave of 1970's gentrification, was an influence on Jonathan Lethem, among others.

Virginia Heffernan, the New York Times' startlingly perceptive cultural critic, discussed internet addiction and how its perhaps not as worrisome as everybody assumes it to be.

The cooking blog Picky Palate's feature on Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies was mouth-watering.

Mother Jones has a clever illustration of what the covers of our favorite albums would look like . . . if they were books. Very cool.

Did the White Stripes help prevent a government shutdown?

Melancholy Has Never Been This Much Fun

The Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is a classic of nerdy male melancholy, and did not seem like an obvious choice for the icy, downtown-cool gutter-pop Dum Dum Girls to cover, but their rocking cover stands alongside Morrisey and Marr's original. Its a great way for them to end their live shows (CSD has always supported ending with a cover) and makes for a bad-ass way to end their live shows. I think that Dee Dee, the their typically deadpan lead singer, kind of overdoes it with the "I'm really rockin' now!" body language, but we can forgive that minor trespass for a song as great as this one.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Total Unbookening Fail

As part of my never-ending struggle to keep my apartment from getting overrun with clutter, I have lately taken a page from my blogmigo Ellen Wernecke and begun to "unbooken" my apartment. I have donated books to a thrift shop, given books away to friends, and brought some non-fiction books about New York City, as well as my style guides, to my office. But, every once in a while, I find cheap books - at a library sale, or a flea market, or one of those book tables on Manhattan street corners - and end up stocking up again.

Today, I went to the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, in SoHo, which is such a cool spot to hang out, and is frequented by so many writers and painfully beautiful SoHo types that it makes up for its comparatively poor food and coffee. I went armed with a $25-for-$12 Groupon, which Ellen did us all a solid by calling to our attention two weeks ago. Because I did not read the fine print beforehand, I did not realize that the entire coupon had to be used in a single visit. There were enough things that I really wanted that it wasn't worth coming back another time, because Housing Works, by its very nature, doesn't have a permanent "stock" as much as a rotating selection of books that New Yorkers happen to have donated recently, and, if I came back another time, the stuff I really wanted would likely be gone. Fortunately I was able to find enough overlooked treasures to make full use of my gift certificate. Housing Works is not the cheapest used bookstore around, but, including the price of the groupon, $14 bought my copies of two Superchunk CDs, Here's to Shutting Up and Here's Where The Strings Come In, Alice Munro's Open Secrets, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners, and Amy Bloom's Away. Not a bad haul, and all of the proceeds went to AIDS research and housing and feeding homeless people in New York City. Now I only need to find places to put this stuff.

Friday, April 8, 2011

True Grit, by Charles Portis

I don't particularly like westerns, and yet I love many westerns. Like romantic comedies, the genre is so laden with cliches that even the revisionist entries in the genre have their own set of cliches. Regardless, I count many westerns among my favorite movies, and believe that the best westerns (like the best romantic comedies and caper films) are among the most powerful stories I've seen told.

I saw the Coen brothers' film adaptation before reading the book, so, as I started the book, I worried that knowing the plot would spoil the reading experience for me. Fortunately, within pages, one realizes that the reason to read True Grit isn't the story - though it is a good one - or even the characters, though they are memorable. The reason to read True Grit is Mattie Ross's narration - fearless, naive, no-nonsense, equally inspired by the Old Testament and Victorian manners, darkly humorous in her deadpan insightfulness. She has the moxy to tell a Texas Ranger fifteen years her senior ""Run home yourself. Nobody asked you to come up here wearing your big spurs," and persuasive enough that one bounty hunter warns another that "she has got you buffaloed with her saucy ways." And yet, she is, understandably, impressionable enough to be shocked by the violent realities of bounty hunting. She's a wonderful character, probably the best-developed females (oh, how I wanted to use the word 'women' there, despite her being only 13 years of age) in westerns. She becomes a woman before our eyes - not in terms of age, and not in terms of sexual maturity, but just because, by the end of the novel, she has seen more of the world than most adults would ever care to see.

At the start of the novel, Mattie arrives in the frontier town Fort Smith, Arkansas, hours away from her small hometown in the country, to retrieve the body of her father, a horse trader who had been shot by Tom Chaney, one of his cowboys, while in Fort Smith on business. Instead of going straight home from the undertaker's, Mattie goes instead to a merchant to sell back to him the horses her father had bought shortly before his death. Their negotiation - perfectly played in the movie - is a masterpiece of comedy and frontier dialect. From there, she goes straight to the sheriff's office, where she asks the sheriff what she can do to ensure that Tom Cheney is brought to justice. The sheriff recommends hiring a United States Marshall to track Chaney through Indian territory, and accidentally recommends Rooster Cogburn, a drunken ex-confederate bandit who appeals to Mattie because he is the meanest marshall of them all - "a man of true grit." Later, they are joined on their quest by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is pursuing Chaney for his own purposes - he wants to return him to Texas so that he may face charges of shooting a state senator (and the state senator's dog, though the killing of the dog is "arguably malum prohibitum").

Mattie earns her spurs by keeping up with the two veteran bounty hunters as they track Chaney and his cohorts into Indian country. The novel builds to a suspenseful climax, followed by a denoument in which Mattie has some of her best lines. But don't read True Grit for the plot. Read it for its characters, for Mattie Ross' narration, and for Portis' tone, that makes you feel the danger and grit of the frontier west without engaging in any Cormac McCarthyish fake cowboy dramatics, and it ranks among the best western novels I've read.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

They Came, They Saw, They Rocked The Ed Sullivan Theater

The Strokes' new album, Angles, has been in heavy rotation at CSD headquaters since it was released two weeks ago. The release of The Strokes' first album, Is This It?, was so heavily promoted that even now, nine and a half years later, they are unfairly criticized in some circles for never quite becoming the rock 'n' roll saviors some had expected them to be. Too often, the straight-forward pleasures of their sketchy lyrics, bored vocals, and arched-back treble guitar solos were taken for granted, and even their visual imagery - unwashed hair, thrift store t-shirts, black leather, affectless body language - was never as derivative as it seemed, in hindsight, once their popularity had created a new set of rock cliches. As a result, The Strokes have the seemingly contradictory position of being simultaneously one of the most popular and the most underrated bands in our iPods. Hopefully Angles' great songs will remind everybody of what all of the fuss was about in the first place.

Here's video of their appearance on Letterman last week:

I mentioned earlier that this was The Strokes' fourth appearance on Letterman. I still remember their first appearance, in November 2001, and loving the casual downtown leather-jacket insouciance that they embodied. As cool as they looked, it wouldn't have mattered if they didn't also sound great, living up to our expectations and redeeming almost a year of music-industry hype machine promotion.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Best Use of 18th Centure English Literary Cliches in an Advertisement For a Sports Car

I have no interest in seeing Fast Five, or gravel-gargling Vin Diesel in anything, ever, but this tie-in advertisement for the Dodge Charger was a pleasant surprise. I love the deadpan narration at the end. Car chases do make movies better.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Weekend Links, 4/3/11

The New Yorker's Anthony Grafton discusses William Cronon, the legendary early American History professor at the University of Wisconsin who the Republican government is trying to get fired for pointing out, on his blog, that the union-destroying bills passed in Wisconsin were written by a conservative think tank called the American Legislative Exchange Council. An update can be found here.

Ian Murphy, the Buffalo Beast writer who famously pranked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker during the labor union controversy, sat for an interesting interview with New York Magazine. He is also running for Congress in the western New York district whose seat has remained open since Chris Lee resigned in the wake of the Craigslist scandal. His campaign video can be found here.

The AV Club reviewed the Starz miniseries Camelot, and gave it a "C," despite the unmistakable hotness of Eva Green.

NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a must-listen for anybody interested in this blog, had a particularly funny and charming broadcast this week.

ESPN's Bill Simmons, who has been kind of insufferable lately but is still one of the foremost authorities on the NBA, is in the middle of publishing his annual NBA power rankings. This column is teams 30-15; next week is 14-1.

The New York Times reviews Tina Fey's new book, Bossypants.

And finally, just because its awesome, Stephen Colbert sings "Friday" with The Roots, Jimmy Fallon, Taylor Swift and the Knick City Dancers. Yes, it is just as funny as it sounds:

Please Do Not Judge Us For Posting A Take That Video

Right now, you are probably asking yourself why Common Sense Dancing has posted a video by Take That, the aging, recently reunited British boy band best (worst?) known for imposing Robbie Williams upon the rest of the world. Well, four of our six contributors rowed competitively at the college level, and so we are always on the lookout for rowing in popular culture. At a party last night, I met a British graduate student who said "I don't anything about rowing other than what I saw in The Social Network and that Take Five video," prompting a response of "wha say wha?"

The song is full of the sort of meaningless pop poetry that sounds as if it was written by junior high school girls ("Standing on the edge of forever/at the start of whatever/shouting 'love' at the wooooorld" and "although no on understood/we were holding back the flood/learning how to catch the rain/we were holding back the flood/they said we'd never dance again" are my two favorite lyrics), but I can't say I expected anything different. As for the rowing sequences, the band wears a previous generation's Henley shirts, baggy trou, and "spoon" oars, rowing a never-before-seen five-man scull. For those unfamiliar with the sport of rowing, team racing sheels have two, four, or eight rowers in them, and "sculls" - boats rigged for oarsmen to have one short oar in each hand, as opposed to "sweeps," where oarsmen hold one longer oar in both hands - never have more than four rowers in a shell. By comparison, sweep shells hold as many as eight oarsmen, though there are no five, six, or seven-man sweep shells.

My feelings are ambiguous. Of course, the video is ridiculous. It gets the rowing all wrong, and possibly makes the sport look more effete than it did already, which is saying quite a lot, if you think about it. On the other hand, if it introduces even one more person to the sport than it alienates from it, then its a good thing.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Slang That Makes Me Happy

I've heard two new-to-me slang expressions in the past week, love them both, and plan on incorporating them to my speech to the extent I am able. They are:

To Do the Swirl: When a black person and a white person have sex they "do the swirl." I didn't understand it until I thought about it for half a second, then laughed hysterically and wondered how that term hadn't become widespread long ago.

Yatter: A person with a strong New Orleans accent. It comes from the expression "where y'at?" which is how the expression "where are you at?," meaning, roughly, "what's up?" A Yatter (or, occasionally, Yat) is somebody whose New Orleans accent is so pronounced that more mainstream New Orleanians make fun of them for it.

New Song By The National

I've gotten hooked on "You Think You Can Wait," the new single from The National. Its a sad, pretty song, less in keeping with their recent album "High Violet" (wow, is it really almost a year old now???) than it is with "So Far Around the Bend," "Ashamed of the Story I Told," and "Sleep All Summer," the fantastic series of one-offs they released for soundtracks and charity albums in 2009. As much as I enjoy hearing The National rock out, I think they really excel - and arguably nobody currently working in rock music matches them - at the mournful, heartfelt ballad.

Apparently The National wrote this song, for the soundtrack to the movie Win Win. In a related story, the CSD staff now wants to see the movie Win Win.