Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Writer to Watch

When I first came across this story, I couldn't find out much about its author, Jeff Bender. Now, he's got a website up and running. It turns out he's an English teacher and wrestling coach in Philly and he's working on a wrestling novel called The Weight. That may not sound like a good idea, but see what you think after you read the piece I've linked to above. It seems to be an excerpt from the novel (he's got another sample on his site), and it's one of the best things I've read all year.

I'm currently reading Sam Lipsyte's Home Land. Lipsyte taught Bender at Columbia and selected the piece, "Coaches' Night Out", linked above. They're both very good at writing from a very particular male point-of-view - slightly twisted (more than slightly in Lipsyte's case), very funny, but recognizably and painfully real.

MJ's Tsochkes

Comedian Paul Scheer (who I once stood in a long line to see introduce clips from Trapped in the Closet with Aziz Ansari - it was worth it, but still not as entertaining as just watching Trapped in the Closet on its own, if that makes any sense) has posted a Flickr set of items from the Michael Jackson Neverland Ranch auction. Unless your time is unbelievably valuable, it is worth your time to look at it.

[Via Time Out NY]

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29, 1975

I was reminded by Wikipedia that the evacuation of remaining American personnel (along with some South Vietnamese allies) preceding the fall of Saigon happened on the day I was born. This was the event that effectively marked, and certainly came to symbolize, the end of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. I found an amazing collection of photos and written accounts of what was called "Operation Frequent Wind" here and here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer's new novel has received high profile reviews in all the big spots lately. I've been waiting to read these reviews until I finished the book (which I did on Saturday), but I thought I'd write down a few of my thoughts on it before seeing what the critics had to say.

I rarely read "current", as in just released, fiction, but I was lucky enough to acquire a castoff review copy, I was curious about Dyer, and the premise sounded interesting. Being unaccustomed to reading books set in the two-thousand-oughts, I kept getting little shocks from references to iPods and other features of contemporary life. I suspect that these references have a purpose, though, as one of many devices Dyer uses to both link and create contrast between the two halves of the novel and the two cities in which they take place, Venice and Varanasi (aka Benares, India). In the first half, the often comic up-to-dateness of the art scene (and scenesters) at the Venice Bienniale is played against the city itself, which is perceived as unchanging, timeless from the point of view of the narrator, Jeff, resident of ever-changing London. In the second half, he discovers what timelessness means from an Indian viewpoint in Varanasi, gradually shedding his technology and other links to the West and adopting his own quirky version of the Hindu mindset.

The two-part structure of the novel is one of its most interesting features. The linkages between the two halves are everywhere. There are premonitions, hints of Varanasi in Venice, while the Varanasi section seems haunted by a specific version of Venice, Thomas Mann's in Death in Venice. From the reference in the title to plot points and specific quotes, picking out all the parallels to Mann's novel could keep a Cliff's Notator busy for some time.

Both halves of the book are quite funny. Dyer lands sharp jabs at art world types, the hassles of international travel, crunchy backpackers, and if we assume that there is a lot of Geoff in Jeff, himself. Beneath the jokes and satire there is a sadness, an emptiness to Jeff that allows his story to take on weight and become more and more involving at it goes along. By the end of the novel, Dyer has led Jeff to a place we might not have expected at the close of the Venice section, a place far away from where he began and much farther than the mere distance from London to Varanasi.

A great pleasure to read. Highly recommended.


I almost bought a used copy of Dyer's jazz book But Beautiful a couple months ago. I'll definitely seek it out now. The sections on Indian music in Jeff in Venice certainly suggest that he's someone I'd want to read on jazz.

For a more sombre but very beautiful rendering of some of the same themes (perhaps also inspired by Mann), I recommend Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Five Points on Tyson

1. I've enjoyed every James Toback movie I've seen, but he does tend to make some questionable (his defenders might say "bold") artistic decisions. I'm thinking of Harvey Keitel naked on a piano bench in some sort of fetal-y position at the end of Fingers or the repeated docu-hacky shots of Mike Tyson meditatively strolling along the beach in Tyson.

2. Toback does not bore you. Tyson held my attention for the full 90 minutes, in spite of (or more likely because of) the movie consisting mainly of interviews with the titular subject. Toback is fascinated with sex, violence, and a good line of B.S. (Tyson might say "skulduggery"), which goes a long way toward explaining both his friendship with Tyson and his (relative) success as a writer and director.

3. The accidental poetry of Mike Tyson - a sample: "I might be scum and trash, but I'll be angelic scum and trash" (hope I'm quoting that correctly - I almost got out a pen and wrote it down)

4. I'm sure there's going to be debate about whether this is a whitewash by Toback on behalf of his buddy. While he's clearly biased to an extent (their friendship is no secret), he certainly leaves in plenty of unflattering footage. Still, there's plenty of fodder for critics (beyond the obvious and aforementioned beach shots). It certainly isn't a "balanced" portrait as Tyson is given the last (and on some subjects, only) word, but Toback gives the audience enough raw (and in some cases, very raw) material to make up its own mind, or at least to have a good discussion after the movie.

5. Bottom line: the fight footage is fun to see if you're a boxing fan, and I now know that my limit for listening to Mike Tyson talk about himself exceeds 90 minutes. A troubling self-revelation, to say the least.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Hard to decide the best thing about this brief profile/interview with Lemmy from Motorhead (sorry, I don't know how to do umlauts on Blogger), but it might be the fact that Lemmy: The Movie is coming out sometime this year. Can't wait to see Tyson and Lemmy fighting it out for Best Doc at the next Oscars.

Be sure to go to IMDB and check out Lemmy's filmography as an actor. Frezno Smooth?!?!?

Bonus link: Lemmy's early band The Rockin' Vickers (sic)

(Via the Village Voice, photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Brotherhood of the Upper Lip

I'm sure this has already been covered by Deadspin and/or somebody on a Cardinals message board, but when did Rick Ankiel start taking facial hair cues from Rivers Cuomo? The "Separated at Birth" side-by-side practically Photoshops itself.

And speaking of baseball mustaches, I still need to see this movie.

My Wish For Today... that the "new Depression" produces something as weird as this musical gem from 1939.

[Via Soul Sides - scroll down]

Monday, April 20, 2009

Name That Book = Cure for Writer's Block

I noticed this new discussion group on the book cataloging site The idea is that if you can't think of the title of a book you remember reading, you can post what you remember about the plot and somebody will presumably be able to ID it for you.

After looking at the postings so far, though, I think an alternate use would be as an idea generator for writers. Want to write a book, but not sure what to write about? You could do worse that these ideas, cut and pasted as-is from the subject lines of "Name That Book" posts. Plus, they're vague enough that you won't be sued for plagiarism.

"Breeding ochids (or roses), on a Island, during the war, she grows to become a model, pearls?"

"An anthropolgy major who lives in a tent, finds a buried vase with prehistoric corn"

"many kinds of demons wreaking all kinds of havoc" [this person may have just been remembering an old Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode]

"Pink river dolphins"

"Harlequin or Mills & Boon Romance set in Wales about mining" [insert "shaft" joke here]

"Sci-fi/fantasy where girl has special sweat that allows her to dance in fire"

"Romance - retired race car driver and young nursing student"

"Kid drowns in smelly creek/river/some body of water"

"Elephant with Peanut"

"Zombie Book Set In Baltimore, MD"

"Woman in abusive relationship becomes a reader for books on tape"

"Children's book about a 10 year old bald alien..."

Netflix Navel Gaze

Via a link in this Slate article, I came across a Netflix history analyzer. I was a little afraid to try it out, afraid of finding out that it would have been cheaper to have patronized a good local video store all these years. I've always had a sense that I wasn't watching enough movies from Netflix to "get my money's worth".

So, the results were somewhat heartening, especially considering that I got a bunch of things from Netflix that I would've been unlikely to find at a video store. Here are the highlights of the analysis that was generated from my rental history:
  • You've rented 334 DVDs over 72 months from April 25, 2003 to March 31, 2009.
  • Your average price per rental was approximately $3.88 each. [My local vid store charges $4]
  • You kept each rental for around 18 days on average.
  • The longest you kept a single DVD was 306 days.
  • You rented about 5 DVDs each month.
The movie I kept for 306 days? David Lynch's Lost Highway. I watched and returned 31 other discs before getting around to it. I guess it took me a while to get in the mood.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Anthony Braxton & The Walter Thompson Orchestra - 4/17/09

On Friday night, I went to the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn to see multi-instrumentalist/composer/educator Anthony Braxton perform a new composition with Walter Thompson (a former Braxton student) and his eclectic (and partially electric) orchestra. I knew almost nothing about Thompson going in, and knew Braxton less from his music than by his reputation, revered in "creative music" and avant-jazz circles, mostly dismissed by the more traditional jazz world.

Braxton was a busy man, moving from composing to playing three instruments (alto, soprano and sopranino sax?) as part of the ensemble. At times, Braxton and Thompson were conducting simultaneously, using a combination of their musical systems (Language Music and Soundpainting, respectively) to shape the music and action (there were also a group of actors who moved behind and through the musicians and contributed various vocalizations - spoken, chanted and sung). Instruments included (prepared?) piano, synth, electric guitar, bass, various horns, gong and woodblock percussion, cello and violin.

I was able to catch on to the meaning of some of the signs used to conduct, but mostly it was like watching the Sorcerer's Apprentice - arms were waved and things happened. Braxton occasionally consulted a thick score in front of him and wrote out some sort of instructions or notation on a small whiteboard which he would show to the orchestra before giving them more hand signals. The presence of the actors and the very physical conducting style made it a very visual night of music.

The performance was divided into two parts with an intermission. The second part featured musicians only, no actors. While the second half was nearly as fascinating musically as the first, with different instruments coming to the fore (more prominent guitar and synth, especially), it was a slight comedown after the visually and musically dense first half.

My favorite moment of the night came in the first half, as I gradually became aware of additional music that didn't seem to be coming from the orchestra in front of me. At some point, a quartet with its own conductor had begun playing from the balcony above and behind the audience. It was a wonderful surprise and a great way of exploiting the possiblities of the performance space.

You might notice that I haven't given much description of the music itself. I'm not sure I'm up to the task of description, much less classification. Strangely enough, the combined sound of strings, woodblock percussion, and drums reverberating in a big space very briefly called to mind Pet Sounds. Other than that, I was without musical reference points for most of the night, which was a nice place to be.

Braxton and Thompson's improvisational conducting systems seem capable of producing music that is not only unique in itself but also capable of assuming completely different forms from night to night or even moment to moment. There were to be three performances, and at least this night was being recorded (audio and video), so maybe I'll get the chance to revisit this music in some form at some point. In any case, I need to hear more Braxton.

Bonus Links

A Braxton interview

John Philip Sousa in the Underworld - Braxton's Composition 58 performed by the Taylor Ho Bynum Chicago Big Band

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eaten Lately, NYC (#1 in a Series)

Almondine Baguette at Almondine

Almondine, in DUMBO, showed up on my radar screen when Cornell history professor and French bread expert/fanatic Steven Kaplan rated theirs the best baguette in NYC (not a great distinction in Kaplan's bread worldview) in a taste (and smell and feel) test organized by NY Magazine.

As a bread lover and amateur baker, I'm mildly to moderately obsessed with Kaplan. I heard him several years ago on NPR (probably The Splendid Table) and found it amazing that an American (a Brooklynite, no less) could be recognized by the French as the expert on their bread. I was seriously tempted to buy his untranslated French-only guide to Parisian boulangeries when I encountered the only copy I've ever seen (at the Upper East Side's Kitchen Arts & Letters), even though I can't read French and wasn't planning a trip to Paris anytime soon. And of course, his appearance on Conan in which he engaged in some heavy petting with a baguette (seems to be gone from YouTube, but worth tracking down if you can) just reinforced my fascination with this strange, brilliant man.

Before I get to Almondine's bread, here are some choice Kaplan quotes taken from the NYC baguette showdown (linked above) and a separate NY Mag interview:

“It’s as if the female crumb has completely reduced the male crust to helpless impotence.”

"...I yearn for a symbiotic relationship between crust and crumb. I covet the voluptuousness of a fleshy crumb, laden with aromas, tightly embraced by a virile, caramelized crust, together dancing a tango of flavor."

“It’s insipid. It lacks sapidity."

"If the baguette is engaging in appearance, if it emits a bewitching bouquet of aromas, if it's crusty and sings to me under my caress, if I suspect that it will be a sumptuous treat, then I will eat it on the way home from the bakery. Such a baguette needs no accompaniment — neither butter nor cheese nor jam." (Though I wouldn't express it quite this way, I'm in complete agreement with Kaplan's sentiments on this one.)

So, on to Almondine's bread. They offer a traditional baguette (I'm guessing that Kaplan would point out that the term "French baguette" is redundant) and an Almondine baguette, which is shorter, a bit plumper in the middle, and with pointier ends than the traditional style. While the difference in shape is more obvious, the use of whole wheat flour in combination with white flour is what really makes the Almondine a distinct offering.

In any case, the Almondine is what I had and it didn't last long, not even making it out of DUMBO. I don't have an elaborate Kaplanesque point system, but I've eaten enough bread to know this was excellent. Great, contrasting textures inside (crumb) and out (crust), and whatever the proportion of whole wheat is, it really makes a nice contribution to the flavor. Next time I'll try the traditional version.

I should do a roundup of other NYC bread highlights at some point, and I'll have to work in something about my hometown's truly excellent 222 Artisan Bakery.

Bonus Link: the syllabus for Kaplan's "Social History of Food and Eating" course at Cornell.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pedantry on Parade

Wikipedia gives this definition for "pedant":
"a person who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who 'makes a show of learning'."

To see this tendency in full flower, take a look at the comments section here.

This is my favorite:
"This grammar error has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, as it is committed by many grocers both in my home community and in the places to which I routinely travel. Most of the time it does no good to point it out, as few clerks grasp the distinction."

I understand now why I encounter so many surly grocery clerks. It's not the crappy wages and long hours, it's people complaining to them about the wording of the "10 items or less" sign. This is one reason I can respect the way Kenny Shopsin runs his restaurant. You know what would happen if one of these guardians of the English language came into his place and pointed out a grammar or syntax error on the menu? He would tell them to GET THE F*** OUT. Too bad the average grocery clerk doesn't have the power to tell somebody to take their pedantic a** down the road to Trader Joe's.

I'll admit that unnecessary apostrophes on signs bug me, but I can't imagine actually complaining to an employee or a business owner about the "incorrectness" of their sign. But obviously, that's just me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Roundup of Recent Reading

The Penguin History of Medieval Europe
- Maurice Keen

Reading history makes me realize how much history there is to be read. This book, which I'm still reading, covers a huge amount of ground admirably, but it's so compressed that there are tantalizing hints for further reading on almost every page. Who wouldn't want to know more about Walter the Penniless, Peter the Hermit, and Baldwin the Leper King, all names dropped in the section on the Crusades? There are also lots and lots of popes. Anti-popes, even. I probably would never have read this book if I hadn't come across it for free, but it's turning out to be fascinating.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

One of the acknowledged classics that I'd somehow missed. Frequently referenced, I wonder how often it's actually read nowadays. I certainly wouldn't recommend assigning it to impressionable minors, although having to read it in school might rob it of any sinful allure it might have for young minds. Though it eventually shows the bad ends to which hedonism and amorality lead, Wilde can't help making the way of life propounded by Lord Henry Wotton look pretty attractive, if more than a bit boring.

Wilde was truly an aphorism machine. His mouthpiece Wotten spouts dozens, perhaps hundreds, of paradoxical and subversive witticisms in the course of the book. A page-turning fantasy story and a vivid record of a time and place that also deals with serious philosophical ideas, the Picture takes some of the radical ideas of Huysmans' unconventionally structured A rebours (which Wilde more-or-less openly acknowledges in the text) and fits them into a compelling plot.

After The Quake - Haruki Murakami

Death, the inevitability of death, the longing for death, and the centrality of death in Japanese society are mainstays of Murakami's work. The stories in this collection, though self-contained and quite varied in content, all have some connection to the deadly Kobe, or Great Hanshin, earthquake of 1995. In some of the stories the quake is only alluded to only briefly, in others it figures as a plot point, but it is something that is talked about, remembered, or seen on television. The earthquake zone never figures as a setting.

Aftershocks, consequences, are what Murakami is interested in here, mostly emotional rather than seismic. He displays a lot of his range in these stories, from the surreal and fantastic to the romantic and domestic. Sadness and regret are dominant moods, but there are some lighter and more hopeful moments too.

This recent NYT article on short stories and their authors is worth reading.

Flight to Canada - Ishmael Reed

A burlesque, deliberately (and comically) anachronistic treatment of the Civil War period from the point of view of a group of slaves in the forcible employ of a certain Massa Swille. Reed uses outrageous situations and wild juxtapositions (a sex scene occurs during a live broadcast from Ford's Theater of the fatal performance of Our American Cousin) to make some sharp points about freedom, black identify, and the myth of Dixie. I enjoyed this a bit more than the only previous Reed book I'd read, Mumbo Jumbo, which takes a similar kaleidoscopic, irreverent approach to the Harlem Renaissance.

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

Death, romance, jazz, mystery. A woman out of the past. Smoke and cocktails. Imagine Nat King Cole or a Miles Davis mute trumpet solo on a slow ballad from the '50s. Then imagine it all in Toyko, and you're starting to get the idea.

Nana - Emile Zola

Must've been a hot (and rather shocking) item when it appeared in 1880. Nana makes clear why acting was once considered a disreputable profession, particularly for women. The actresses Zola portrays double as high class "courtesans" or out-and-out streetwalkers (with some characters operating at both ends of the spectrum), while most of the men are varying shades of pimp or john.

The society depicted here is run through with venality, greed, lust, and stupidity. The aristocracy is rotting, dying from a moral poison that the blonde bombshell Nana has unwittingly carried from the pestilent swamp of the lower classes, or so Zola's thesis goes. Part of the 20-book(!) Rougon-Macquart cycle of the Second Empire, Nana is a beefy, robust book from the days when novels were novels, stuffed with characters, incidents and settings. Conrad's Nostromo is a book I might put into the same category.