Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What Did Kyle MacLachlan Know...And When Did He Know It?

I enjoyed John Hodgman's remarks at the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner, but after reading this BBC story about a Dune-loving conspiracy theorist, I began to wonder, could Hodgman's whole routine have been, in fact, a series of coded messages revealing the secrets of a dark government conspiracy right under the President's nose???

Or perhaps "Kwisatz Haderach", far from being merely an innocent, if spectacularly nerdy, Dune reference, was actually a "trigger word" intended to "activate" the one-man sleeper cell otherwise known as our 44th President. And you thought McCain was the Manchurian Candidate!

I also found this passage from the BBC News story quite interesting:

"A document on Muad Dib's website reveals he believes he is the Messiah and that George Lucas wrote Star Wars after being told telepathically what to write, by the very 'Force' to which the films refer."

[insert your own Phantom Menace/Jar Jar/Xmas special/Kessel Run joke here]

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Good Day in Lovejoy

Just found a video of the mighty World Saxophone Quartet playing at a school in Lovejoy, IL (aka Brooklyn), an economically depressed but historic town just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Musically, it has been known as the site of after-hours jam sessions attended by Miles Davis, the one-time home of Albert King (he named one of his best albums after the town), and the birthplace and current home of WSQ baritone player Hamiet Bluiett.

I've been listening to a lot of music by the WSQ and its members (esp. Julius Hemphill) lately. Interesting compositions, great ensemble and individual playing, with nontraditional instrumentation (some of the horn-only lineups would be my jazz-and-sax-hating friend Chris K's worst nightmare).

Anyway, check out the video. Not only does it feature funky, bluesy, powerful music, but the kids' reactions are fun to watch, seeming to range from "Wow!" to "WTF?!?".


Just finished watching the other three videos from this event. Don't miss #3, where they bring down the house with quite possibly the best version of the O'Jays "For the Love of Money" ever played. BTW, this is an edition of the Quartet with James Carter and Greg Osby alongside original members Bluiett and Oliver Lake (maintaining the 75% St. Louis quotient of the original group).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Grant Me A Wish, Musical Genie

Listening to some of the stuff I bought at today's Brooklyn Record Riot, I had the following thought:

If I was granted a wish to be able to play any musical instrument exactly like any instrumentalist, living or dead, I think I would choose to play the piano like James Booker. I'm not saying he's my all-time favorite instrumentalist, or even my all-time favorite pianist, but when I sit down at a piano, that's what I wish would come out.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Coming Crotch Contraband Epidemic

I don't really talk about politics, government, or the law here, but this one really jumped out at me.

I read briefly about the recent Supreme Court strip search decision (short version: 13 year old girl was strip searched at school because another student said she was carrying ibuprofen - she wasn't and the court decided that her rights re: "unreasonable search and seizure" had been violated), but what caught my eye is that it was an 8-1 decision. Who was the lone dissenter? Clarence Thomas. Check these quotes from his opinion (begins on p.23):

"Judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in the school environment."

"Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments. Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."

Thomas' opinion seems to be saying that, in effect, students should hand over their constitutional rights and protections at the schoolhouse door. If you have a problem with that, he has some suggestions (here he quotes himself, from an earlier opinion):

“If parents do not like the rules imposed by those schools, they can seek redress in school boards or legislatures; they can send their children to private schools or home school them; or they can simply move.”

The one thing they shouldn't be able to do, in Thomas' opinion, is challenge anything a school chooses to do on constitutional grounds.

I think we now have a slightly better idea of what Clarence Thomas' America would look like. I'm thankful that it only exists in his mind.

Side Note

Of course, there are cases where parents upset with school policies might be well-served to follow Thomas' advice to home school or "simply move". This one in particular comes to mind.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Michael Jackson Memories

I. When Thriller came out, I was in grade school. A friend in my neighborhood had the record. I didn't. Somehow, we came up with the bright idea of making a copy by putting a cassette recorder up next to the speaker of his cheap portable record player. I think it was in the kitchen of his family's house and we had to shush his sister and make sure she didn't bang the screen door on her way out of the house. Didn't want to "ruin" the recording. As I recall, the tape was pretty much unlistenable.

II. Around the same time, rolling skating was a big thing in my hometown, and I guess in a lot of other places too. There was a big screen in one corner of our local rink where they would sometimes show music videos. Toni Basil's "Hey Mickey" was one I remember seeing there. Anyway, when they showed the "Thriller" video, something happened that never happened with any of the other videos. Everybody stopped skating and stood in front of the screen to watch.

He became a joke to a lot of people toward the end (not without reason), but he was a big deal back then.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In The Loop (A Review in Six Parts)

1. In The Loop is a sort-of spinoff of the British TV show In The Thick of It, a satire on the inner workings of British government. Both were directed by Armando Iannucci, a BBC veteran familiar to me only as the director of Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge series. The idea Iannucci (a Scot of half-Italian lineage) arrived at to expand his show into a feature is a juicy one: the interactions between mid-level functionaries in the British and American governments during the runup to a war in the Middle East (Iraq is never mentioned, but the parallels are clear), full of leaks and manipulations, and building to a crucial vote at the UN. The characters have power, but it's limited. They are never fully "in the loop", often scrambling for crucial information. The big bosses - President, Prime Minister, Defense Secretary, etc. - are never seen.

2. While having James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan in the same movie is a good start (though they're never in the same scene), In The Loop is full of excellent but lesser known British and American actors. Many, many funny performances. It couldn't have been easy to pull off the feat of making a very dense, wordy comedy script seem to flow naturally and rhythmically, but these actors did it.

3. The movie has lots of fun with the British-American "special relationship". It goes beyond easy, obvious, culture clash jokes to expose the inferiority and co-dependence issues beneath the relationship's surface. The portrayals of both sides are sharp, but the observations and humor seem a little sharper on the British side, probably because the director and the writers (as far as I know) are British. The collision of the two worlds is what really makes up the heart of the movie, though.

4. The portrayal of the inner-workings of government in In The Loop reminds me a little of The Office (particularly the original BBC version). The tone is quite different, but they both manage to feel "true" as to the dynamics and relationships of the worlds they portray while also heightening things for comedy's sake. Pulling this off seems to be require a real understanding of both the specific world being portrayed and of human behavior in general, as well as the comedic sense to know how far you can push a joke or a character without hitting a false note or throwing off the balance. Iannucci isn't quite as expert at this balancing act as Gervais and Merchant, but that's less a knock on In The Loop than an acknowledgment of how high The Office set the bar.

5. As the movie wore on, I started to become aware of the truly epic amount of cursing that was going on. Maybe not Pulp Fiction levels (NSFW!) of cursing, but still an impressively relentless stream of expletives, many of them British-flavored and Scots-accented.

6. For much of the time Anna Chlumsky was on screen, I was trying to figure out what well-known movie or TV show she'd been in as a child actor. Turns out, the movies I couldn't think of were My Girl (with Macaulay Culkin) and My Girl 2 (without Macaulay Culkin). I never saw either of them, but the memory of their existence was somehow lurking deep in my mind, awaiting the IMDB prompt. I also learned this interesting(?) fact from IMDB: L.A. country-rock legend and frequent Eagles collaborator J.D. Souther was also in My Girl 2. Besides co-writing some of the Eagles' biggest hits, he also had a country-folk-rock duo with Glenn Frey called Longbranch Pennywhistle, one of the more whimsically named branches of the Eagles-Poco-Byrds-Buffalo Springfield rock family tree.

Bonus Links

Former British press secretary Alastair Campbell's less than enthusiastic review of In The Loop - he's thought to be the model for one of the characters in the film and TV show, but claims to have been more bored than offended

Longbranch Pennywhistle (including downloadable MP3s) on Glenn Frey's website

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Paul Kotheimer's Familiar EP (Post #3)

Rather than writing one long piece, I'm dragging out my coverage of Paul Kotheimer's new EP, Familiar, over several posts. Mainly because it's easier (and more "bloggy"!) than organizing my thoughts into a more comprehensive piece. For today's entry, I'm going to concentrate on just one song.


After several listens to Familiar, the song that keeps going around in my head is the final, "bonus" track, "The Great Comet". In what could be considered a sequel to his 1997 classic-to-those-who've-heard-it "Sputnik Lullabye", Paul takes an intriguing set of elements and images - a comet, a Polaroid picture, an answering machine in a landfill, and the "sparkly eye shadow" of the comet's tail - and alchemizes them into an even more intriguing song, one that's as much about memory and regret as it is about celestial objects. The melody is great, the cheap keyboard figure sounds like an interstellar transmission, and he somehow manages to turn the awkward-sounding name of the comet, Hyakutake, into a hook.

Paul is, as the British would say, a past master in the art of pop song profanity. He knows when and how to deploy it for maximum effect, to punctuate a line or administer a kick in the pants at just the right moment in a song. The repeated money line here, "a million f***ing years ago", may call to mind a foul-mouthed Carl Sagan but it delivers a little thrill each time it comes around. I have a long list of favorite Paul Kotheimer songs, but this one certainly deserves a place in the top rank.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"a drumkit made of atom bombs"

One of my favorite ongoing internet projects is Tom Ewing's attempt to write about every song that hit #1 in the UK pop charts. If you haven't discovered it yet, set aside a few hours and get caught up.

One of my favorite entries so far is his recent piece on Bonnie Tyler's bombastic/fantastic "Total Eclipse of the Heart". Tom is definitely a "popist", so it's no surprise that he gives this song high marks. As with the best critics, his pieces are worth reading even (and maybe even especially) when you don't agree with him. Even if he doesn't convince you, you might find yourself thinking more deeply about your own opinions and reactions.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

For my first post on this blog, I compiled a list of my favorite movies from the Criterion Collection. I just saw a movie that I need to add to that list, John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It has everything I could want in a movie: "exotic dancers", gangsters, gambling, guns, Chinese gangsters, hard drinking, standards sung by a man in white makeup (I'm sure David Lynch saw and enjoyed this movie), and the great Timothy Carey.

(Side note: Timothy Carey had one of the great character names in film history as a horse-killing sniper in Stanley Kubrick's crime masterwork The Killing - "Nikki Arcane". I figured somebody would've used this as a band or stage name by now, but I couldn't find anything. There is a John Zorn-Eugene Chadbourne album called In Memory of Nikki Arcane, though.)

Chinese Bookie looks great - gritty '70s LA, beautiful night shots of dimly lit gangsters and the softly glowing tail lights of big American cars. It sounds great, too - Bo Harwood's score and songs evoke an era, but somehow still seem fresh and unexpected. The basic plot is classic Hollywood noir/crime material - a gambling debt, a man with a gun in a desperate situation - but the way this material is filmed and cut is definitely '70s American indie (of course, Cassavetes is considered one of the forefathers of that movement).

"Indie" is often used as shorthand for "loose", or worse still, "sloppy" or "languid", two things that Chinese Bookie certainly is not. The movie isn't a tight, clockwork construction, but it builds genuine tension, and when Cassavetes lingers on something or someone longer than a traditional Hollywood director might, it's always something worth looking at and/or something that adds to our understanding of the characters.

I'm looking forward to seeing the "Director's Cut" from 1978 (the original was released in '76), a rare example of a "Director's Cut" that's shorter than the original release. There's an interesting-looking essay on the two versions here that I'll probably wait to read until after I've seen both. From the little I know, though, it sounds like the later cut shifts the balance more toward the crime story by trimming some of the scenes in the Crazy Horse West nightclub, the strange world where Ben Gazzara's main character feels most at home.

In the original version, the club is where much of the movie takes place. Gazzara's character (Cosmo Vitelli) and the film itself keep returning to the Crazy Horse, temporarily regaining a sort of warped normalcy between episodes in the deadly series of events set in motion by a bad night at the card table. I don't want to create any spoilers by discussing my interepretation of the ambiguous ending in detail. Suffice it to say that I think Cassavetes gives us enough information to guess which direction Vitelli's life is headed, and it ain't up.

Bonus Links

Scene from the movie featuring "Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic" by Bo Harwood

Harwood's unsolicited but sound - in both senses of the word - advice to the Obama campaign

A Timothy Carey interview from 1990

Website for Carey's production company - seems to be run now by his son

Monday, June 8, 2009

Recommendation for a Light Meal or Snack

Methi paratha (Indian flatbread w/ fenugreek leaves)


mango-lime chutney


Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA

I got the paratha & chutney from Kalustyan's at 28th & Lex in Manhattan. Here's a methi paratha recipe in case you want to make your own. I'm sticking with Kalustyan's.

Dream Journal #1 - A Dark Premonition???

Posting this makes me a little uneasy. I guess I'm afraid that I might be opening a window into a corner of my psyche best left hidden. But here goes:

Last night, I had a dream about tonight's David Byrne concert in Prospect Park. Except it wasn't in Prospect Park. The tall, two-level stage was set up in an empty lot. The Dave Matthews Band was also on the bill. Among other items for sale, you could buy a George Jones Greatest Hits album at the merch table.

And here's the weirdest part: playing in David Byrne's band were MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, on standup bass, and his father, also on standup bass. For the record, I know nothing about Joe Scarborough's father or even if he's still living.

David Byrne was on the upper level of the stage playing acoustic guitar. Scarborough and Scarborough were on the lower level, side by side, plucking away at their basses. I have no idea what song it was.

I'm planning to attend the real David Byrne show tonight, and I have two wishes: that the forecast for rain turns out to be wrong, and that my dream doesn't turn out to be a premonition.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Epigram of the Day

"Every pop song describes a delusion. I am deluded, and this musical delusion is the world to me."

- Paul Kotheimer, from "Everypopsong"

I got the new EP in the mail today, but I've already been listening to the MP3s for a couple of days. Review coming soon.

Free Prog-Folk

Free as in "doesn't cost money", that is. In musical terms, can something be "prog" and "free" at the same time, or does "prog" imply too much in the way of structure? Let's consider that a rhetorical question and move on.

The point of this post is that Amazon has several free Stackridge MP3s available, just the thing for those who prefer their downloads guilt-free and their English folk-rock progressive. Stackridge is one of those bands I'd heard about but never heard until coming across these tracks. "English", "folk" or "folk-rock", and "progressive" are all probably accurate descriptions of the music, but they don't quite capture it. The band's Wikipedia entry lists a rather preposterous-sounding set of influences, but I definitely hear a bit of the Beatles and maybe some Syd Barrett. They certainly seem quite a bit poppier and more eclectic than folky contemporaries like Fairport Convention or Pentangle.

I particularly recommend "Dora the Female Explorer", which preceded the TV show by about 28 years.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Two Duos - Grimes/Cyrille, Scheinman/Fulks

I saw two duos perform in NYC recently - Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille at the Bang on a Can Marathon in Battery Park City, and Jenny Scheinman and Robbie Fulks at Barbes in Park Slope. The only obvious links between the two were violin (Grimes and Scheinman both played one, Grimes doubling on his main instrument, bass) and Bill Frisell (Grimes and Cyrille followed him, Scheinman frequently plays with him). Otherwise, these were very different experiences - Grimes and Cyrille free-improvising in the glass-and-palm-tree canyon of the Winter Garden, Scheinman and Fulks harmonizing with guitar, fiddle, and a bunch of songs in the tiny back room of Barbes.


It's a good thing that the Bang on a Can Marathon has a big, attractive venue to accomodate it's annual orgy of free music, but the long, tall open space of the Winter Garden tends to swallow up sound. When I saw a Johnny Cash tribute concert in the same space last year, I thought my problems with the sound might've been a result of sitting too far away from the stage. This time, though, I was much closer but still found that many of the details of the music got lost in the reverberations of the space. The new piece (noirish, soundtrack-y, a bit like Blues Dream) that Frisell performed with the Bang on a Can All-Stars sounded good, but I think I would've liked it better had it been louder (Frisell himself was conspicuously quiet, though this might've been partially a result of his wanting to keep the focus on the band and the composition) and longer.

As for Grimes and Cyrille, a tremendous amount of music was being produced by just two men, but I couldn't help thinking how much better it would've been in a small venue, where every nuance could be seen and heard. Grimes alternated between bass (olive green and covered with shiny star stickers) and violin. On bass alone, he was something of a one-man orchestra, bowing, strumming, double-stopping and producing a wide, deep stream of music. Cyrille's drums, skittering, restless, kept the music moving forward, though not in anything like a straight line.

The music was decidedly and proudly free, and clearly could've continued much longer (Grimes has a recent double-disc that documents a 2.5 hour continuous solo improv session!), had a PA not been given the extremely unenviable task of coming on stage to give the "wrap it up in five" signal. I know they had to keep the (extremely full) program moving, but can you imagine someone tapping Mingus on the shoulder and telling him to wrap it up? Maybe the musicians asked to be signalled so they'd know when to stop, but I still don't envy the person that had to do it.

I also saw a string quartet performance of Gavin Bryars' watery, "Amazing Grace"-haunted "Sinking of the Titanic" at Bang on a Can (after which the news was announced from the stage that the final survivor had died!), but I came away thinking that the title might've been more appropriately applied to Grimes and Cyrille's music. As opposed to an underwater quartet, playing calmly as the ship goes down, Grimes and Cyrille conjured the shreiks of the drowning, the groaning of the ship's hull. That's part of the beauty of this kind of music - not only is it "free" of harmonic and rhythmic constraints from the players' point of view, but the listener is also left entirely (and perhaps uncomfortably) free to interpret the music, including interpreting it as grating noise.


Though she's clearly capable of playing just about any style of music, violinist Jenny Scheinman is probably best known for her jazz work. Talking genre in relation to Scheinman's work can be misleading, though. The music she's made with Bill Frisell, for example, incorporates significant classical and American folk elements. And if last night's show was typical, her recent live collaborations with singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks have been showcasing her love and talent for country music. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that these two musicians were working together, as I was to hear that Fulks is now living in Brooklyn. He may now qualify as the borough's finest country musician, though that's a little like having the finest knishes in Nashville (sorry, country musicians of Brooklyn!).

This was my first time seeing Fulks live, and he lived up to his reputation for on-stage wit, even getting laughs with a between-song riff on Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. I'd always thought of Fulks primarily as a songwriter, but his guitar playing and singing (lead and harmony) impressed at close range, testimony to his experience and mastery of traditional styles. He played some great songs that I'd never heard, including some from his 50-song MP3 collection 50-Vc. Doberman. Fulks is the kind of songwriter that creates and inhabits characters - a fed-up barroom troubadour in "Goodbye, Virginia", a homicidal father in "Whitetail Woods Incident". His songs rarely seem to be sung from the point of view of "Robbie Fulks". He's also able to write new songs that sound old - he's obviously a serious student of country music, in all its forms.

Songwriters that have these characteristics are like "genre" film directors, in that they tend to be thought of as great "craftsmen" rather than great artists, often an unfair or incomplete judgment. It's no insult to point out that Fulks' craft as a writer is exceptionally strong, though. A close listen to the way he chooses words and fits them into the structure of his songs will tell you that much. Nothing is out of place and, at the same time, there are little sparks and surprises in the songs that take them beyond the workmanlike.

Having only heard Jenny Scheinman in jazz and instrumental contexts, I didn't know quite what to expect of her as a singer and folk-country songwriter. Maybe it's some kind of latent bias I have toward vocal music that makes me surprised to find out that someone I associate with instrumental music has a good voice - "if they can sing like that, why aren't they doing it all the time?" Actually, Scheinman seems to do a good job in her career of balancing and accomodating all the various types of music she's interested in (another Frisell associate, bassist Tony Scherr also sidelines as a rootsy singer-songwriter). There seems to be deep emotion behind Scheinman's songs, but they're not straightforward confessions. She incorporates dream logic and imagery and uses suggestive and allusive lyrics to set up and increase the impact of more plain, direct declarations.

Her fiddling is top notch, totally embracing the style of whatever tune she's playing. No showiness. No "jazzing things up" to show she's more sophisticated than the material. Besides trading original songs, Scheinman and Fulks also played two associated with the Carter Family, "Single Girl, Married Girl" and "John Hardy", plus a Jimmie Driftwood tune and an Alvin Crow instrumental, "The Broken Spoke Waltz", which a young Scheinman learned from a record her father brought home from a trip to Texas. This was the last of the Scheinman-Fulks shows at Barbes, but her ongoing Tuesday night residency continues. The next couple weeks look to be a return to jazz territory.

Bonus Henry Grimes Links

video of Grimes at Newport playing "Blue Monk" with Monk - a lot of this is shots of the crowd and sailboats, but Grimes appears at about 1:20 and again after the 4-minute mark

the entire Jazz on a Summer's Day documentary appears to be here - it's an absolute classic

Henry Grimes' mind-boggling discography - sessions with the biggest of big names in the late-'50s/early-'60s, then a 37-year gap

What?!? Seriously? (Another Baseball Post)

Have I become so out of touch with Cardinals baseball that I didn't know that Rick Ankiel has HIS OWN WINE?!?

(via The Will Leitch Experience)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Death On (and Adjacent To) the Diamond

This Slate article is full of very strange facts taken from what must be a very strange book about a very strange subject, death in baseball. I'll never be able to think of Manny Mota the same way again. Seriously.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Recent Reading - Human Smoke

After taking a vacation hiatus (I decided it was too heavy to take along - in weight, though perhaps also in content), I recently finished Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker's book on the run-up to and early days of WWII. The book is provocative in the best way, challenging accepted notions about the specific period in question and the conventions and assumptions of history writing in general.

The initial press I'd read on Human Smoke seemed to focus equally on the controversial content and Baker's method of presenting it. The format is unconventional, but at the same time simple and effective - an accumulation of brief, chronologically ordered episodes, 2 or 3 to a page, taken from journals, letters or newspaper accounts, narrate the story of how much of the supposedly civilized world was drawn into a vortex of death and destruction. Every reader knows how the story turns out, but the facts and details Baker presents are constantly surprising. It is the way that these facts resonate with the foreknowledge of the terrible events to come (the account ends shortly after Pearl Harbor, with the worst carnage still ahead) that gives the book much of its power. To read about Jewish would-be refugees being denied entry to country after country when there was still time to save them is sickening (in particular, the failure of the Wagner-Rogers Act has to count as one of the more shameful votes in the history of the US Congress) . Human Smoke is full of such ugly facts, footnotes that have been hidden in plain sight behind the more familiar, more comforting (while no less true) narrative of heroism, fortitude and victory.

Though his own authorial comments in the text are limited (though subtly pointed), Baker is clearly constructing an argument and presenting a point-of-view via the historical materials he has selected from the vast wealth of available source material about the war and its prelude. This point-of-view is one that questions, merely through the calm presentation of historical evidence, such near-sacred truths as the heroism and brilliant leadership of Churchill and Roosevelt and the inevitability of war with Hitler. Rather than overturning these truths, or effectively proving them untrue, Baker's skillful presentation introduces uncomfortable notes of doubt, adds complexity to the familiar narrative, and forces the reader to readjust and attempt to synthesize new and sometimes conflicting information.

For most of us, knowledge of WWII's roots is limited to scattered names and phrases: Versailles, Weimar, the Beer Hall Putsch, Munich, Chamberlain. Wars, full of battles and generals, sell books and are easy to teach and remember. The periods leading up to and following them are more difficult to understand. There are more threads to follow, the cause-and-effect relationships are often unclear or controversial, and these periods don't lend themselves to easy summaries or straightforward timelines. The pre-Civil War period and Reconstruction, for example, may be two of the most understudied and misunderstood, yet most important, periods in American history. Human Smoke makes a strong case that those wishing to prevent wars, or at least understand why they happen, should devote some serious study to the machinations, missed opportunities and disastrous choices of the 1930s.

In an afterword, Baker explicitly states his sympathy with the pacifists who sought to prevent the war, but after reading the body of the book the reader is already well aware of where, and with whom, he stands. It is not necessary to subscribe to the thesis that war is never justified to entertain the heretical notion that WWII, to use the title phrase from Pat Buchanan's book, was an "Unnecessary War". Buchanan's book, released within months of Baker's, apparently taps many of the same sources, though I would assume that his sympathies lie more with the isolationists than with the pacifists.

One of the most appealing aspects of Human Smoke is that amidst the parade of inhumanity and error, it pauses over many acts of compassion and personal courage performed by relative unknowns in the most trying circumstances. It upends expectations again and again, not only showing the darker facets of some 20th century icons, but also forcing the reader to reconsider figures that have been neglected or vilified. Perhaps most fascinating in this regard is the portrayal of ex-president Herbert Hoover, a man known today as the heartless villain of the Great Depression and viewed favorably only by a few hardcore fiscal conservatives and perhaps a small, proud faction of his fellow Iowans. The Hoover seen in Human Smoke is the Quaker humanitarian, the man that first rose to international prominence by organizing relief efforts for the victims of WWI. Before the US entry into WWII, Hoover wanted to organize a similar effort to feed the starving of Europe and give shelter on US soil to (at least some) refugees, efforts that were mostly rebuffed in deference to Churchill's blockade strategy (Roosevelt's petty - and mutual - hatred of Hoover probably didn't help, either). Though finally appointed by Truman as head of post-war humanitarian efforts, Hoover's earlier, perhaps timelier, efforts to aid Hitler's victims should not be forgotten as part of his complex legacy.

Even if you're not convinced by the implicit thesis of Human Smoke, it will at least add to your understanding of the 20th century and suggest plenty of possible avenues for further reading. Baker himself has said that "I didn't want to convince, but only to add enriching complication," which seems like a fine goal for someone setting out to write about any aspect of the past. History and historical figures, especially very familiar figures and episodes, tend to become richer and more complicated the more we learn about them. There seems to be no limit, no end point, to this enriching process, as demonstrated by the publishing industries that have grown up around Shakespeare, Lincoln, and indeed WWII. Amid the ever-flowing river of ink spilled on the subject, Nicholson Baker has contributed something relevant, resonant, and worthwhile.