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Washtenaw Flaneurade
19 April 2013
Now Playing: Appleseed Collective--"Mani"

"Enormous strides are made in star-measurement, theoretical economics, and the manufacture of bombing planes, but [the memoir-writer] doesn't find out about them until he picks up an old copy of 'Time' on a picnic grounds or in the summer house of a friend. He is aware that billions of dollars are stolen every year by bankers and politicians, and that thousands of people are out of work, but these conditions do not worry him a tenth as much as the conviction that he has wasted three months on a stupid psycho-analyst or the suspicion that the piece he has been working on for two long days was done much better and probably more quickly by Robert Benchley in 1924."

--James Thurber, "Preface to a Life" in My Life and Hard Times, 25 September 1933. 

Lying awake very, very early this morning, I was struck by the realization that my life wasn't really that eventful anymore. For some reason, my former habit of keeping a diary had crept into mind, and I remember thinking how thankful I was to have kept one more or less consistently throughout 2009, when so much went on in my life. There's much less need for a diary these days (I may try again next year, if just to mark my turning forty), and given how long of a hiatus this blog's taken already, there's an increasingly sound argument to be made that maybe it's time to draw the curtain shut.

My life in Ann Arbor used to consist of shows, movies, volunteering, socializing, and random occurrences on the street or at my sometimes inspiring, often lackluster job. All these really fed my inspiration and led to a great deal of writing in these here pixels (and a more erratic rate of production in my fiction). Some years after the height of this carefree lifestyle, I don't go out or socialize as much. No big dramatic cause or anything for that; people, myself included, are busy with various things, and I still see most of the old gang around once a month. I have a pretty good job for food service: fairly well-paid, with benefits, and no bosses treating me like I'm in preschool (some reading these words may understandably doubt that, but it really is different from my old job in all the good ways). I've actually started exercising regularly, outside of biking, by swimming a set number of laps a week at the city pool. Best of all, I've gotten into a consistent writing schedule, finishing stories more often than not, and though I haven't gotten any acceptances so far this year (though one last year), some of the rejection mails have been encouraging (however vaguely, and getting rejection mails in the first place is a considerable step up from where I was just a couple of years ago). The volunteering could use a revival; there are opportunities through work, but fitfully presented. Last but not least (actually, it is least, come to think of it) I hardly watch movies that much anymore, focusing instead on streaming TV, classic or contemporary, and--this year especially--reading a lot more. The latter trend has intensified with the opening of a new independent bookstore in town, whose inspiring trek to existence can be found in sprightly archive. There just doesn't seem to be time anymore to chronicle my various doings in the manner to which I've been accustomed.

Therefore, I've decided to put an end to Washtenaw Flaneurade, with this post the final entry. I'll leave it up probably until the end of May, or until I can figure out how to archive or save some of the stuff I want to preserve for whatever posterity has the curious fortune to find it. It feels weird, this, but I think it's the right decision. It may not be an end to blogging; I've had the notion in the back of my head to start a more focused commentary, the details of which I leave purposefully vague in case it never gets off the ground. It does, however, mark the end of an era in my life, a fact I don't think I've properly considered until typing these words. I always had some half-hearted urge to keep it going as long as possible, even if the entries shrank to once or twice a year. It would have been interesting to see the various transformations in society or culture reflected somehow in the same off-yellow background and black type, especially with my awareness of how many other blogs of my acquaintance have gone by the wayside over the years (especially with one's emptily snarky "blogs are so 2004, right?" still ringing in my ears). In the end, though, Washtenaw Flaneurade ineffably symbolized a part of my life that I sense is now passing (largely for the better), and I think it's right to let it go. My thanks go out to all of you who've read and commented over the years, especially those from the early days like Sara and Margot, enthusiastic later adopters like Tara and Shelly, and immaculate, bloggerly role models like Himadri. The only person I wouldn't thank would be that utter knob who tears down flyers from downtown streetlamps. It's been a real blast these eight years sharing my rambling thoughts on this movie, that album, or those loud office guys who probably thought I was there to rob their internet startup or whatever the hell they had going in the old piano warehouse at First and Washington on a Chateau Fluffy work delivery. I take leave of my former address with pride, and hope its relative longevity can serve as some kind of inspiration, however meager, to those still plugging away out there.

Posted by at 3:55 AM EDT
Updated: 19 April 2013 7:05 AM EDT
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11 January 2013
Perfectly Normal Space Nuts
Now Playing: Grizzly Bear--"Gun-Shy"

Some time in the recent past, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I've lived now for over ten years, became something of a film hotspot due to a special tax incentive the state offered various filmmakers in return for working in Michigan. For whatever reason, Ann Arbor became a favored location for producers and directors who were forced to ply their craft in that existential hellhole (their--probable--words, at least judging from the general message of The Five Year Engagement) that comprises the entire country between Bakersfield and Hoboken. You would see bits and pieces of Ann Arbor scattered in film from Whip It to Conviction to Scream 4 to Cedar Rapids (the latter featured a shot of a despondent Ed Helms--I don't get it, by the way--in Broadway Park that's now forever ruined the place for me). The Deuce also, for a time, donned the ill-fitting cloak of celebrity hotspot, as people shooting in Detroit--or, indeed, Ann Arbor--would want to hang out there. There were sightings from the Circus to Zingerman's, from Drew Barrymore to Hugh Jackman (I still regret not thanking Peter Gallagher for playing Sandy Cohen on The OC outside of Liberty Street Video--that's how long ago said misfire took place--and Neve Campbell's far cuter in person), and excited chatter on the Internet proliferated thereof. For some considerable time, David Arquette actually came close to threatening the honored place of "Shaky Jake" in the town's collective memory. The glory days are over, for now, as the tax incentive was one of the first things to go in Rick Snyder's misadvertised (to put it mildly) arrival as governor.

It's strange to think back on that time. Ann Arbor has had a cinematic connection with the wider world for decades in the form of its eponymous--and hugely scattershot--film festival, even if the University of Michigan itself hasn't quite kept pace with this starry strand. I was a proud patron of Cinema Guild until its sad demise some years back, and the Projectorhead series, which showed a number of widely varied fims in the Modern Languages Building (I have rarely laughed harder in any kind of theatrical setting than I did during their showing of Barbara Peters' 1972 classic Bury Me An Angel), has apparently been dormant since the winter of 2011. The various film series of any vitality going on right now are put on by foreign language organizations, and I'm not sure how well even those are doing. So maybe it wasn't so weird that such a rush of cinematic buzz took people by storm. I do not exempt myself, by the way. Any bemusement I expressed regarding the widespread fawning over Jason Segel--I don't get that either, by the way, but then I'm sure there are women out there on whom the wondrous magic of Amy Adams is utterly lost--was more than counterbalanced by Alison Brie's presence in town for Scream 4 and The Five Year Engagement, and this at a time when I had just discovered Community. My own "Segel sighting" was somewhat strange, too, resulting in a raised eyebrow from the fellow (in fairness, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was actually pretty good). It was all good fun, to be honest, and so there may well be no better time to have a look back at a few films that involved Ann Arbor in some way...

Answer This! (2011): One problem I have with Hollywood films is that so few of them treat the regional and cultural differences between the constituent parts of our fascinating republic (apologies now to any foreign readers) with any kind of respect or even accuracy. It was for this reason that Answer This!, written by Michigan grad Christopher Farah in and about Ann Arbor, intrigued me. The idea of an Ann Arbor-centric film, made by people with a feel for the place from actually having lived there, sounded at least worth a look. Here's fun: it's awful. Christopher Gorham, maybe best known as Harrison on the surprisingly brilliant cult turn-of-the-millennium WB dramedy Popular, plays Paul Tarson, a whiny doctoral student at Michigan who breezes through the classes he teaches thanks to his famous and charismatic father Elliot Tarson (played by Ralph Williams, a locally celebrated Michigan professor renowned for his "Last Lecture" series), and who secretly only finds fulfillment in pub quizzes at Ashley's (where I pretty much lived for my first few years in town) until he meets vivacious freshman Naomi. The latter is played by Arielle Kebbel, the movie's sole bright spot, who played a med student several years previous in the accidentally hilarious Anglo-Irish-American horror film Red Mist (in which Ulster doubled for Massachusetts, hopefully making James Curley spin in his grave). The plot of Answer This! essentially puts Paul through a variety of hyper-privileged crises and daddy issues, all the while getting him het up over pub trivia (managed by Chris Parnell of SNL and 30 Rock fame) and going on bike rides and lake swims around scenic Ann Arbor with Naomi (from the look of things, they got permission to film in Barton Hills, which I sadly find impressive). Jokes fall flat and clever setups trip over themselves, like Nixon handling a yo-yo. It all builds to a crescendo of self-righteousness and maudlin absorption, as Paul handles the big trivia final with characteristic emotional incompetence, and I still don't get the ending. It'd be interesting to get feedback from other Michigan doctoral students, past or present, on the subjects of academic nepotism and potentially pointless career suicide, and whether either are remotely plausible in the context presented. As a result, the chief pleasures, though dubious, to be derived from Answer This! mainly consist of voluminous location shots of the Diag. There has to be a better movie waiting to be made involving the latter.

The Five Year Engagement (2012): Work was psychically laid waste by the news that a major Hollywood romantic comedy would not only be filmed at said workplace, but would also be set there, as much of the action would take place in Ann Arbor. My primary reaction was disappointment. The studio involved wouldn't be MGM, let alone MGM/UA, so there wouldn't be the chance to switch the roaring lion in the classic production ident with our former--intensely camp and aggressively flirty--retail colleague, whose distended face would ideally emerge from the famous crimson oval shrieking "Hi!!!!" It would not be the last disappointment, though I expected little, and I did get to watch a scene being filmed (in which the protagonists amorously splay around a snow-covered Liberty Plaza). Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are a bright young couple living in San Francisco, Tom a sous chef and Violet a psychology grad student. Violet, her heart set on Berkeley, instead gets a fellowship at Michigan--gasp!--portrayed throughout, despite the oft-pubicized love for Ann Arbor trumpeted by cast and crew, as an unsophisticated cesspit. They move, despite Tom's misgivings (and despite his boss being played by Lauren Weedman, whose entertaining memoir A Woman Trapped In A Woman's Body amusingly--and probably accurately--portrayed her short stint on The Daily Show as a nightmare of "lookism" and condescension). Violet instantly connects with her boss Winton (Rhys Ifans, my other celebrity obsession of the time due to his tangential participation on the Super Furry Animals' first album Fuzzy Logic), but Tom quickly sours on his new job (filmed, as promised, at my workplace, but also in several different locations) after failing interviews with a number of local chefs, including one played by Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!'s Tim Heidecker. Winton sleazes over Violet, while Tom goes slowly "insane," indulging in abhorrent and degenerate behavior like killing his own food, brewing his own beer, and growing facial hair. Such offenses, of course, qualify him to suffer in hell along with Francesca da Rimini, but everything rights itself eventually, as happens in real life, and Tom and Violet rediscover love after, of course, moving back to the West Coast. A number of likable actors and comic performers suffer accordingly, including the aforementioned La Brie, Chris Pratt, Mimi Kennedy, Mindy Kaling, Brian Posehn, and others. Chris Parnell plays Tom's new friend, and I'd have given him a pass anyway for his work as Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock, but he genuinely seems to like the place, based on his presence in Answer This! There are stabs at emotional authenticity, but The Five Year Engagement really leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, even if there's an entertaining foot race scene down Liberty Street that shows off downtown to fairly good advantage. It got a good deal weirder when my former co-worker, a cook in Ann Arbor, moved to Massachusetts to live with his girlfriend, a psychology professor at a small liberal arts college, in a delightful and instructive inversion of the film's premise. Strangely enough, this same co-worker was cited by another friend and co-worker as a kind of talisman against the celebrity terror that swept town during those hilarious summers, mainly because "you could see his nuts from space." That should have been the movie, maybe turned into a horror film involving ghosts from King Philip's War or something, but I can always dream.

Dreammaker (2005): The plot of Dreammaker has nothing whatsoever to do with Ann Arbor, but I actually worked its Michigan Theater premiere when I still worked at Chateau Fluffy, and thereon partially hangs a tale. Christina Morales Hemenway, an actress, writer, director, and singer, and her husband Brent (both of whom more or less play themselves, as "Carmen" and "Chuey," anyway), were frequent patrons of my former workplace, and developed a friendship with Fluffy herself. They were terribly sweet folk, and hard not to like. Hemenway eventually asked Fluffy to provide catering for Dreammaker's premiere, which took place in the screening room at the Michigan. I didn't see it then, as Fluffy turned down Hemenway's invitation for us all to watch, going herself and preferring instead for us to break down the catering setup and truck it all back to the Chateau. I didn't really mind, as the film didn't sound like my cup of tea, and provided a majestically crass memory for me to take away from those four Fluffy years. Seeing it almost a decade later, I don't especially regret the loss. A mysterious psychic, Esmeralda, gains the trust of a diverse array of Hollywood entertainment types, for what appear to be altruistic reasons to some and sinister reasons to others. Her customers' various relationships and preoccupations come to a head at an ill-conceived "Hollywood" party thrown by Carmen and Chuey. That's... largely it, though it probably comprises a more extensive and engaging plot than many mumblecore films (it helped a lot that I watched this one whole work shift after seeing Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends*, and it's certainly better than The Puffy Chair or Baghead). It's also hugely amusing to watch Esmeralda give Carmen the same kind of pep talk that the Bryce Dallas Howard's "narf" gave M. Night Shyamalan's character in The Lady in the Water (yes, I saw it, and yes, I'm sorry). A Latino gang shows up, too, though I'm not sure what that was about. Mind you, if cultural inaccuracy is your thing, make sure you watch Dreammaker at least for the worst English accent I've seen since Rock 'N' Roll Nightmare (though at least the character, who winds up menaced by the Latino gang, and pines for an OBE like Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodiesdoesn't occasionally decide that he's Australian). Even if the ending strikes me as trite and slightly lame, it strangely fits the film's implicit condemnation of entertainment industry superficiality. It also reminded me that I almost saw Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers (star of a past AAFF) in the same screening room that hosted Dreammaker's premiere, and of the relief I felt when I finally watched the DVD of the former and was awestruck at its wretchedness. If you've seen a lot of mumblecore and "IFC" films, Dreammaker actually comes as something of a quaint relief, its lo-fi manners pleasantly contrasting with some of the put-upon realism of the other genres (I except the indomitable Andrew Bujalski). It also qualifies as something of a preemptive Midwestern vengeance on the attitudes of films like The Five Year Engagement; the "Hollywood lifestyle" appears pretty vapid and unlikeable from this perspective, even if one doesn't necessarily have to kill one's own food to stand on the other side. Dreammaker's a hell of a lot more honest than films like The Five Year Engagement, at any rate. Dancing Star Productions is still up, by the way, if any are interested, having filmed Naked Angel in 2011, starring frequent Gregg Araki muse James Duval (and, once more, premiering at the Michigan).

*Nights and Weekends was arguably the conceptual standard-bearer for the mumblecore movement, on which I've written both praise and criticism in the past. While it can be a cathartic experience to watch two relatively likable characters navigate emotionally turbulent situations while suffering a peculiar handicap--namely, articulation or even simple human speech apparently causing physical pain--one sometimes longs to see one character, or even both, shoved up against a wall by two hirsute fellows with rough, commanding cries of "You don't fool us! Where's the stolen microfilm?"

Posted by at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 11 January 2013 9:14 AM EST
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1 January 2013
Forbidding Doctors and Other Wizards
Now Playing: Hey Ocean--"Big Blue Wave"

I began 2013, as I ended 2012, sick as a dog. I'm getting better, but my sickness obviously involved my absence from the various New Year's Eve (and weekend) celebrations around (Plastic Passion and Mittenfest, first and foremost). Though sad to miss them, I wasn't as secretly wrecked as I would have been had I been, say, in my twenties (or even early thirties), though I was objectively sorry to miss a rendezvous with a visiting friend from Massachusetts (today, what's worse). Maybe it's the passage of time, but I seem to give less and less of a damn about New Year's Eve with every passing second. There's logic to this, I reckon; it's sobering enough contemplating one's increasing mortality without having the fact of it shoved in your face for two days. Add to that the frenzied pressure of having "THE BEST TIME EVAR!!!" and it can be a little much.

Atop all that, my biology-enforced ennui *almost* scuppered my planned goal of finishing one story a month last year. I could forgive it near anything else (including the planned completion of a longer project by, well, yesterday night, part of which I spent watching this*), but never that. I'm not entirely satisfied with the results, but I *did* finish twelve stories in as many months, thereby proving I could do it. Now I can start behaving a little more sensibly. Said behavior will almost certainly include further blog posts. Part of the reason I've been so reticent on this score for essentially half of 2012 is the heavy writing load I've set myself. Much like cooking for a living, it's not something one's terribly anxious to get into when "off," but part of the project over the last year has been to get myself into a better balance of life and work (of both kinds), and I think it's worked pretty well. I've even toyed with the idea of starting a new blog, one focusing primarily on literary matters, but will likely stay with the old girl for the time being. So whatever else this year brings, the present address will doubtless lumber along (hopefully in the next week or so), with a little more agility than before.

*I had never seen that episode before, which surprised me. Starts off beautifully, tightly written and directed, and then that happens. What the hell? Though, to be sure, there's also this.



Posted by at 1:48 PM EST
Updated: 1 January 2013 1:53 PM EST
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18 September 2012
Argos Rebuilt
Now Playing: Kathryn Calder--"New Frame of Mind"

If only there were some proper way to explain my bloggerly absence. Sadly, since the last entry, I've done little except work, break from writing, occasionally party, and go to Michigan's gorgeous Straits of Mackinac for a few days. Events carry on nevertheless. My house is now a bustling hive of activity with all rooms filled, some quite agreeably. In contrast, my workplace just hemorrhaged several people I knew and/or befriended, and though it's been easier getting used to the place without them than I thought, many are still missed. At present, I'm home sick, and it'd be pretty silly to let the day go by without blogging about something, even if it's about the fact that I haven't blogged in months (see precedents above, I forget where).

It seems as if every time I shred a pile of books, another one appears. Cashing in a windfall of credit at Dawn Treader, I hooked myself up with ten or so classics, including Wuthering Heights and Flaubert's A Sentimental Education (the former I've been meaning to reread, the latter will be entirely new). A couple, A Confederacy of Dunces and Robertson Davies' High Spirits, are longtime favorites I somehow didn't have at the time. I have a novel and three short stories to finish before the end of the year (halfway done with the former), I want to keep up with the reading, cook a proper meal once a week, and at some point I mean to learn the rudiments of the guitar (it's not what you think). 

Eight years ago, I would have killed to have such a set of tasks before me. Today, whenever I feel things seem too overwhelming, all I have to is remember those cold, sometimes lonely days. I keep worrying sometimes about the inevitable decline, and feel that this helps to feed my determination to do all the aforementioned right. It'll hopefully help me, too, to have something to write about on the blog other than some kind of long-winded existential statement to the fact that I'm still alive.

Uh... Happy Equinox (in a few days)! 

Posted by at 3:23 PM EDT
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12 June 2012
Digital Underclass Carfare
Now Playing: Beach House--"Lazuli"

It may come as little surprise to readers that I manifest, on occasion, signs of artistic conservatism (just look at that sentence, for example). I make a point to delve into old, even ancient, sometimes long-forgotten works of fiction, history and other subjects, and my own writing owes a great deal in inspiration--and often style--to the "weird fiction" produced by Anglo-American writers of the early twentieth century: Lovecraft, Dunsany, Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, M.R. James, and others. That said, I don't consider my interests and orientation to be the hallmarks of a reactionary. My fondness for the past isn't based, for the most part, on a rejection of the future (grim though it objectively appears, and little of it though I think I'll live to see). There's just so much material out there, though, a pile that grows inexorably larger by the day, and I worry over the literary and scholarly delights on which I may well miss out if I don't cast my net as far and as wide as possible. In addition, I think a thorough--and continuing--foundation in the work of the past better enables one to understand and appreciate art of the present and future. The same goes for a knowledge of history and a consciousness of humanity's present situation, and its bleakly likely tomorrow. I could certainly do a better job of balancing the old and the new, but have been improving, I think, over the past year. There's little doubt, though, that this delicate balancing act will only get more precarious as I age.

It's all a terribly pompous and long-winded way of announcing that I bought a Kindle. One of the chief pleasures of my life has been the purchase of books, especially in used bookstores, where the possibility of discovering a long out-of-print classic daily tempts so many to penetrate the murky exteriors of establishments such as the intermittently functioning Cross Street Book Shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, as well as the stalwart, delightful Dawn Treader in Ann Arbor. Many favorite boyhood memories connect with the snooty yet lovable Elliott's Bookshop in Baton Rouge (d. 1996-97), and few of these with actually acquiring books, but simply exploring the wealth of experience, both real and imagined, that lay behind the serried ranks of spines and covers both tasteful and gaudy, muted and colorful. That said, though, I'm not one of those people who fetishize the physical existence of books--their feel, smell, heft, etc.--at least to the exclusion of all else; the words are the important thing. I didn't connect the development of e-readers with any interests of my own, but this wasn't due to any hostility. Like post-Romanesque architecture, non-Islamic ceramics, post-Greco-Roman sculpture, video games, and comic books, it was a medium (though "content delivery system" sounds more appropriate) that somehow failed to evoke a personal response. Still, it was genuinely all right for some people, and as my friends, family, and eventually I became more and more culturally dependent on the Internet, the idea didn't seem as far-fetched or foreign.

My reasons? For an aspiring writer such as myself, the idea of a device that (theoretically, at least) allowed for the greater dissemination of material not so beholden to established publishing concerns greatly appealed. There's naturally the danger of so much offal released along with the gems, but that, to me, makes the whole enterprise that much more exciting. One of my heroes, Canadian sci-fi author and multimedia artist Jim Munroe, has long touted the virtues of self-publishing--or at least keeping the option open--and the Kindle offers a number of possibilities in that regard which I feel I should at least support. My own extant published stories, appearing years ago in The First BHF Book of Horror Stories (Northwich, UK: BHF Books, 2006), were collected and edited by Chris Wood, who has recently published his own novel, Dead Weight (2012), available in the US on Kindle download, and which I feel impelled to visit from both gratitude and curiosity (primarily the latter). Another major factor in my decision was the sheer wealth of pre-1923 (???) material available, some of which--U.S. Grant's Memoirs and Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of Paris--I've already earmarked for download once the thing arrives. Though friends of mine and Amazon reviewers have drawn attention to potential drawbacks and multitudinous errors in the works' transliteration to e-readers--Tolstoy and Gibbon being prominent examples--I reckon it's a small gamble to dare (especially given the long and honored history of bastardization and bowdlerization in orthodox, paper-based publishing). There's also the issue of physical space. Unlike (I suspect) most people of my age group and cultural background (and possibly present socioeconomic class), I might as well inhabit a monastic cell when it comes to storage space: my "apartment" is a room of maybe 125-150 sq. ft. in a commonly-inhabited house. Desires to keep current with modern literature, further explore the "long tail," and support fellow writers, clash with basic household logistics, to say nothing of the eventual possibility of moving (I don't want to live in my cozy cell forever, and there are various externalities that might remove the element of choice). Last but certainly not least, a story of mine (on which I have mixed feelings, but that's enough of that, eh?) was accepted last month for publication--scheduled late summer of this year--and the venue, both current and back issues, is available on Kindle. Atop everything else, I'd feel remiss if I didn't check out the competition-cum-colleagues. 

The thing arrived on the 7th, and after a little mystery, I started to have fun, reading Dead Weight and adding several other titles, most of them nineteenth and early twentieth century French novels (Zola, Prosper Merimee, Pierre Loti, Maurice Leblanc) poorly available through terrestrial sources. I'm almost at the end of my spring pile (an Icelandic saga and an out-of-date medieval history are all that's left) and will likely alternate Kindle and "handhelds" afterward. Browsing through the various features, the concept of "Kindle Singles" intrigues the most. Apparently an attempt by Amazon to stem the unsurprising tide of fraud and spam that hit the Kindle shortly after its release (still unsure how that works), the Singles are a variety of pieces shorter than novels--essays, humor, short stories--available over the Kindle. Though inevitably increasing the size of the haystack at the needle's cost, it's a refreshing way to acknowledge that the novel isn't the end-all, be-all of writing. Maybe it'll even help the short story make a comeback; who knows? I haven't browsed very far, of course, though it appears that Showgirls and Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has a tell-all of his troubled relationship with Mel Gibson that must surely be worth the three bucks--in entertainment, if nothing else. Again, I haven't looked very far. The actual experience is quite relaxing, if a little weird at first. I'd seen Kindles before, though bigger than my own, and the backlighting is just as unintrusive as advertised. It's strange, too, to notice the ergonomic differences between reading a Kindle and reading a physical book (mostly having to do with having another hand free, and not what you might be thinking). I was a little put off at first by the constant display of "space read" at the bottom, but then realized I often did that myself by checking page numbers or book width. So, all in all, pretty positive thus far. I don't see it replacing the physical book anytime soon--it's more of a supplement--but I'm glad it's here.

Chris Wood, Dead Weight (2012): Towards the end of The First BHF Book of Horror Stories, there was an extra tidbit that surprised those of us who contributed. An old-fashioned "printer error" (numbered 666), followed the end credits, and was followed in turn by a hair-raising little tale from the pen of one Ambrose Dubois, found a suicide in his prison cell while awaiting execution for murder in the late nineteenth century. Our editor's surprise story apparently formed the seed for this novel, set in the present day and focusing on the travails of Will and Lewis, a pair of small-town journalists who realize that all isn't well in their "car park"- laden landscape after a series of bizarre murders begin to suggest a supernatural connection. Chris's victory in a BBC competition, supplying the end to a story begun by British cult horror phenomenon Shaun Hutson, inspired him to start the "Your Creations" forum on the British Horror Films site, which in turn helped to convince yours truly that he wasn't completely without talent (and introduced me to a number of other, very talented, writers). Dead Weight is a lively, pacey tale that takes a familiar British horror trope--the friendly village concealing dark secrets--and turns it on its head. The method might sound familiar in a contemporary context to those who've seen the Edgar Wright film Hot Fuzz (2007), but there are a number of differences. The village in Dead Weight is more of a small town; there's very little touristy ambience and a palpable feeling of depression and unease that has little to do with the supernatural threat hanging over the proceedings. The journalism angle is also refreshing; Chris started out as a journalist, and the constant reminders of the profession's doldrums almost give Dead Weight the feel of The Wire's fifth season at times. Will and Lewis's small town paper is in decline due to falling subscriptions and impersonal corporate ownership, and the eldritch terror that eventually pursues our heroes actually vies in existential dread with the looming, faceless doom that threatens their vocation. The pacing is fast and loose, with a number of well-written action setpieces that anchor the horror. Though fully contemporary, it (unsurprisingly) has happy echoes of classic British horror films (Will and Lewis carry on a passive-aggressive meta-argument throughout concerning Hammer films vs. 80s slashers), with Will occasionally wondering "what would Peter Cushing do?" when faced with various threats. I'm obviously biased, as it's written by a great guy, friendly editor, and cracking writer, but also as it's a great example of how self-publishing can actually work (and a good inspiration for me, perhaps, some time down the road). And at less than two bucks (if, of course, you have a Kindle), I feel confident in saying that it's a pretty great deal.

Posted by at 4:30 AM EDT
Updated: 12 June 2012 4:46 AM EDT
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7 May 2012
Armor Class Warfare
Now Playing: Jim Ford--"Workin' My Way To L.A."

  Before, during and after my exposure to Mr. Martin's doorstop fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (examined last post), I made a couple of tentative jabs back into the genre where I'd spent so much time as a boy. The choice was hard, especially as it's a bit of a trial to run down a decent story without it being part of some publisher-mandated trilogy or other. Just as irritating was the continuing proliferation of so many obvious Lord of the Rings ...homages, tracking the progress of various heroic quests on the part of various heroes and heroines with quasi-Celtic names and heritage. The heroic quest, of course, goes back to the beginning of world literature, and I have nothing against books grouped in threes so long as any one can be read independent of the others. Fortunately, I was able to run down a couple of likely leads that give me hope that there'll be others of their ilk, if perhaps of varying quality. These veer away from the overwhelmingly pastoral emphasis of Tolkienian fantasy (which can be seen to a small extent in A Song of Ice and Fire), have some kind of class awareness that often goes similarly unseen in the genre, and take place largely in cities and populated areas, all changes I heartily support.

Ellen Kushner and Riverside: My first effective foray back into the genre essentially led me to the jackpot first thing. Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword, followed by Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings (at least in the order I read them, the last co-written by Kushner's wife, writer Delia Sherman), takes place in an unnamed city featuring the unsavory slum district of Riverside. The aesthetic identity derives from early modern, rather than medieval, Europe, though the importance of the university, especially in the last named, suggests eleventh and twelfth century Paris as a possible inspiration. The general tenor, though, is more Restoration and Georgian London, with gaudy brothels, actresses, witty conversations, fine townhouses, and plenty of swordplay. The fractious aristocracy, ruling in uneasy symbiosis since their overthrow of the last king two hundred years earlier, avoid class suicide through employing a loose guild of professional swordsmen to fight their duels for them. These latter feature prominently in the first two books mentioned, while The Fall of the Kings concerns the travails of the university's two rival historians, in a bravura saga of intellectual thrills and political intrigue that actually manages to outdo its two bookends. The Riverside novels have a slight inbuilt advantage, I think, in their relatively unusual setting, but the dialogue is of a high sophistication in its own right. The characters' reserve, too, works well in maintaining the deceptively understated tension. When something really important or powerful happens, it's doubly effective as a result. One tangential twist towards the end of Swordspoint is a particular coup in this regard, reminiscent of another at the end of Visconti's classic 1963 film The Leopard: it doesn't fundamentally alter the plot or characters, but does put a different spin on certain scenes and relations that delivers a subtle new perspective. The world-building maintains a similar light touch; the city, let alone country, surrounding Riverside is never explicitly named (though the country has a number of conceptual kinships to Britain), and though there are various foreign lands across the sea, they don't get explored in any great detail, nor, indeed, does much of the country itself beyond Riverside.

Saladin Ahmed and the Crescent Kingdoms: In a rousing contravention of the Tolkienian western European paradigm, Saladin Ahmed offers a bracing new vision of fantasy fiction loosely based, rather than in Charlemagne and Alfred's legacies, in a fictionalized version of the medieval Middle East and its cultural adherents. Ahmed has written a number of award-winning short stories, was born in Detroit (and lives in the area), and is mutual chums with a cherished friend of mine who's sadly decamped for the Upper South (in a mildly cruel reversal of my own trajectory). It's both alarming and thrilling to think that I might not have known of Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) had I not been aware of its publication through these channels. The Crescent Kingdoms appear to approximate the Middle East--taking in Egypt and Iran as well as the Fertile Crescent, with the central city of Dhamsawaat reminiscent of Cairo. The African-inflected Soo Republic lies in the southern jungles, and the mighty land of Rughal-ba sounds more influenced by northern India, and its long Muslim control in the form of the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughals.

 In the midst of all this opulence lives Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, tea enthusiast and ghul-hunter, whose skill and zeal in ridding the kingdoms of the undead pests magically raised by unscrupulous mortals are starting to flag, at least in the eyes of outsiders. All he really wants to do is sip his beloved beverage (which I fear I can't really get behind, so long as it's tea) at his favorite tea house and watch the spectacle of Dhamsawaati urban life pass him by. Unfortunately, not only are ghul attacks on the rise, they now strike in the midst of ominous political disaffection, as the tyrannical new Khalif bleeds the people dry, despite the best efforts of the mysterious wealth-redistributing bandit, the "Falcon Prince." Hired by his longtime (but mostly unresponsive) object of affection, brothel madam Miri, Adoulla must join forces with his straight-arrow dervish assistant Raseed, and a fiery girl of the desert nomads whose secret powers give the old rogue one more potential headache in his exploration of dark mysteries. They have to move fast, too, lest the mysterious visions everyone seems to be having of rivers of blood flowing through the city come true.

The beginning's a trifle clunky, with Adoulla delivering a number of eloquent perorations on "gettin' too old for this shit," but things right themselves quickly. Dhamsawaat itself is a marvelous creation, and one really gets the sense that it's a city with a real, breathing life and history. The world-building has the light touch of someone like Kushner rather than Martin, with Adoulla's good friends Dawoud and Litaz hailing from the Soo Republic and the "Warlands" (Europe) dispensed with in an amusing aside (though "Braxony" must surely be a land to gladden Poul Anderson's heart). The real triumph in Throne, though, is the character work. Adoulla is an endearingly flawed protagonist--touchy, irritable, defensive of his advanced age--and all the more appealing for his being primus inter pares in something of an ensemble cast. He, Raseed, and Zamia (the growing regard between the latter is movingly if unsentimentally portrayed) come to rely more and more on Dawoud and Litaz, whose own homesickness and ambiguous regard for their adopted city frequently come into play. The sight of such friendly, likable people against a magically dire threat really takes one into the Crescent Kingdoms' world in a visceral way, and the denouement is both heroically typical and excitingly uneasy. There will apparently be further books in the series, and I'll be on the lookout, especially if any more closely involve the intriguing Soo Republic.

As a postscript, I just finished reading Charles de Lint's modern classic Moonheart (1984), which would have gone in with this batch but which (a) veered too close to Celtic miasma for my liking and (b) took place largely in Ottawa, which is very real. I'd definitely recommend it, though, if read as a fable of 80s urban bohemia and the psychic underbelly of Canadian life (the Mounties are even involved). Mr. de Lint has, however, set a number of stories in the fictional North American city of "Newford," apparently, so I'm sure I'll be checking those out before long. The summer reading list is still this side of manageable, so expect more posts along these lines.  

Posted by at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 7 May 2012 4:42 PM EDT
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29 April 2012
The Maester's Club Westeroast
Now Playing: The Horrors--"Still Life"

A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin (1996--) 

"A fantasy series for hip, smart people, even those who don't read fantasy." That appalling blurb (from The Detroit Free Press, no less--maybe it was Mitch Albom) first appeared on the back of A Feast for Crows (2006), George R. R. Martin's fourth (and much underrated) novel in his uncompleted series A Song of Ice and Fire, now filmed as the hit HBO series Game of Thrones (named after the first installment). Even had I not already gone through the first three, it irritated me and made me feel slightly uneasy that I'd taken to the series so. Martin's ongoing magnum opus has in many ways become U.S. cultural shorthand for "fantasy" in a way that Tolkien used to serve (Martin's been called the "American Tolkien," too, in a way that does him little justice). The buzz long predated the shows, to be sure, even for someone like me who wasn't paying a great deal of attention: co-workers were trading synopses, criticism, and even books when I first started working at my present job four years ago. Intrigued by the news of not only the series, but also Martin's cultural adulation by people who likely wouldn't go near fantasy otherwise (even Laura Miller seems to approve), I decided to take the plunge last year, reading A Game of Thrones (1996) on the bus ride back from Toronto. My doubts evaporated: it was superb. A vibrant, robust, detailed saga with rich characters and dialogue set in a world that was at once so recognizably generic yet utterly unique, Thrones whetted my appetite for more, and I followed suit, finally finishing A Dance with Dragons (2011) last week.

Though further familiarity with Martin's world and characters brought to light a few problems that weren't quite as obvious in A Game of Thrones, I still love it. The world of Westeros (the large continent vaguely reminiscent of Britain and western Europe, bisected towards the north by a coast-to-coast wall) is tremendously involving, and Martin's narrative device of telling chapters through the eyes or presence of a single character (by the end of A Dance with Dragons, the count's reached over thirty) works wonderfully for this complicated world and the complicated moral universe he constructs. That it's complicated in the first place is one of the series' major themes and draws: nobody's completely good or evil, just players in the game of thrones--or, indeed, the game of life (one that involves neither Art Linkletter nor apparent Gilded Age fashion icon G.I. Luvmoney).

It's a great device to hook someone like me, who largely forsook fantasy because of these reductive schemes. That notion, after all, has been paramount in "literary" fiction (sorry, Himadri) pretty much since its inception, and certainly throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Tolkienian project was partly aimed as a riposte to modernism, to be sure, and when I remember the fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, much of it followed that formula. It's hard, for example, to conjure my fondness for Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, with their clever aping of Celtic and medieval European history and style, and to realize how two-dimensional her characters (for the most part) are. Thrones came out in 1996, around the same time I gave up fantasy. I wonder if I would have recognized its challenge back then, or if I did, rejected it as something that could be more profitably explored in a book by... any non-genre writer. Dickens. Philip Roth. Rosario Castellanos. At any rate, it seemed to answer many of the questions and criticisms I'd developed through my boyhood. There had been fantasy novels I'd read before that did present relatively complicated characters--or, taking another route, making practically all of them nasty, obnoxious or unpleasant, as in the dismal works of Robert Adams--but none with the psychological depth of Martin's characters.

The "Seven Kingdoms" of Westeros, ruled over by King Robert Baratheon since his overthrow of the mad King Aerys Targaryen, enjoy peace and prosperity--both of which we'll find are hugely relative. The Wall, overseen by the military order of the Night's Watch, protects the rich, fertile southern lands from the wildlings and barbarians of the frozen North. King Robert's Hand--essentially his prime minister--dies, and Robert asks his longtime friend Lord Eddard Stark--whose lands border those of the Wall--to come to the capital city of King's Landing and become his new Hand (in a wholly non-sexual way). The Starks view the new job with a certain degree of misgiving--"Ned" Stark has little taste for what he sees as the capital's (and the south's) enervating corruption, and a letter arrives at their seat of Winterfell suggesting that the last Hand's death was no accident. On top of all this, the Westeros-world's years-long seasons are due to change, with grim consequences; "winter is coming," as people (especially the Starks and various northerners) can't stop saying (the motto might not cause me such irritation were I not presently suffering from a near-constant barrage of tired, unfunny catchphrases at work). That's all the plot I feel I can safely deliver, but it sets up A Game of Thrones (more or less). Considering that the TV show is now well into the second book, my reticence may strike some as a little silly, but just in case, I'd prefer to leave the major plot points untouched for anyone who hasn't read, seen, or heard about it. Call it an overdue middle finger to Internet culture. The saga careens through bucketloards of violence, intrigue, suspense, heartwrenching moments, and mysterious supernatural threats which may or may not have anything to do with each other. Lots of people die, get mutilated, raped, etc. That could, of course, be a prescription for the worst kind of intellectually empty sword-and-sorcery slugfest (Robert Adams springs to mind again, heaven knows why), but the richness of the characters and of Martin's worldbuilding really militate against that. This is a series that sucks you in: I was fully prepared--indeed eager--to dismiss the hype as the online frothing of cultured elites who's been given some kind of critical go-ahead to actually enjoy speculative fiction (as per the Freep blurb earlier). 

Its many narrative virtues, at least, have rightly won A Song of Ice and Fire much acclaim and popularity. Unsurprisingly, though, for such a cultural touchstone, there's also been considerable criticism of the series' various approaches to questions of power, identity, and agency. Heady stuff, maybe, for an epic fantasy series, but game nonetheless, all the more so for its present pop-cultural prominence. The main buzz seems to concern its portrayal of women, particularly Marin's apparent fondness for rape scenes (or the casual mention thereof, and the TV show's allegedly kindred tendency to insert nudity and sexual violence). A good example is Alyssa Rosenberg's cogent discussion at ThinkProgress (in post and in comments), itself a response to Sady Doyle's ad hominem onslaught that briefly made much of the rest of the Internet look like Dick Cavett's old PBS talk show. There's also been comment on the degree to which a fantasy series so dependent on dragons as an existential threat (or are they?) should follow the historical milieu of medieval Europe (or rather modern society's perception of that milieu). Saladin Ahmed's piece in Salon is a good examination of the issue, as well as an affecting apologia for childhood fantasy enthusiasts bemused at the series' success (some of the comments aren't bad, if only for the immortal line "Thor never got as popular as Jesus, so they made Jesus white instead").

My take on these questions? It does seem to me like the sexual violence quotient increases as the series unfolds (and, perhaps, as the editors wielded less and less power over their distinguished author). There are ways to show the presumed brutality of a medieval society that don't rely so heavily on a device that starts to look--possible offense aside--lazy by Dragons. Coupled with the increasing disappointment of at least one of the series' most potentially fascinating women, the problematic treatment of female characters (both speaking and non-) is an issue that deserves at least to be taken seriously. I think the "too white" charge is a little trickier to unpackage, but I will marvel at people's zeal in defense of the series' demographic whiteness. A lot of their assumptions appear to rest on a monolithic view of Western European culture during the Middle Ages. The areas near the Wall (running with this assumption of equivalence) may have been representative of the typical Tolkienian fantasy kingdom, but more southerly places like King's Landing gave off a strongly Mediterranean, even Byzantine, vibe (a notion borne out, I think, by its somewhat stereotypical politics and by the TV show having the same idea in terms of art direction--as well as being filmed in formerly Byzantine--and Arab!--Malta). These latter would have been much more ethnically diverse than the standard picture of medieval Europe. Throw in the tidbit that Westeros is apparently supposed to be the size of South America (which would fit a Europe and a half, or maybe three or four of the western bits), and things get even weirder. 

Taking both questions a little further, I'd like to see a medieval historian's view of the series, heavily based as it appears to be on the period (and as Martin and its more zealous defenders have pointed out). My closest friend in grad school was a budding medievalist, now teaching in Arkansas with a Ph.D. from UC-Santa Barbara, and I remember well, even over a decade ago, how wrong I (and hence the general conception of medieval history) was regarding the Middle Ages, a time when, it turned out, women had many more rights, and power, than they would in the Renaissance and early modern eras, and in which feudalism (more properly termed "manorialism") was nowhere near as important as popular imagination suggested. Something tells me things have only progressed further along this line in the years since my own time in academia, and it would be illuminating indeed to hear how different the paeans to historical accuracy would sound, set against a historical analysis of the series' inspirations. None of these observations, I should add, are meant to cast aspersions on the legitimacy or quality of what I think is a terrific (if sometimes stylistically indifferent) work of the imagination, but I do think these are all questions worth exploring (the last paragraph of Ahmed's analysis puts it far better than I). That is, unless Martin gets the biology of the dragons right this time, without all that PC "science" (will no one stand against this multi-culti onslaught???).

Maybe it would help to mention things I like? Martin knows how to write a cliffhanger ending. The finishes of the last three novels are beauts indeed, and the end of Dragons elicited a startled "WTF?" that may have alarmed the creepy old bastard living next door, not that I care. His willingness to kill off central characters is technically laudable, even if it starts to seem like borderline sadism (not that I generally deny the value of a good hand-rubbing, especially if coupled with a cackle). Nobody is really safe in this world, however well they play the game. One thing I love is the prevalence of unreliable narrators. I'll try not to give too much away, but the picture and knowledge we're given of Westeros' generally situation--especially political and cultural--change over time, not only forward, but backward, altering presumptions that inform the development of the plot, and casting characters into different lights than previous. Not only are there battles, (ambiguous) adventure, and intrigue, but also full-blown mysteries that give the plot added dimensions. It's been a while since I regularly read fantasy, but I don't remember those being so important (or compelling) in any of the stuff with which I was familiar. It's also a pleasure to see possible influences of classic "weird fiction" (and favorite present-day fantasies) in the lands of Westeros (and beyond), influences that seem to arise naturally and don't feel like shoehorns. The Drowned God and his hold on the Iron Islands call to mind Cthulhu, while the curious mansions of Qarth might have come straight out of Clark Ashton Smith. Oldtown, on the other hand, evokes the academic intrigue of Ellen Kushner's Riverside, and so on. Another positive is the relatively low profile of the supernatural. There aren't wizards running around willy-nilly in starry robes calling forth "mind flayers" or some such. Whispers come of sinister doings beyond the wall, and rumors of dragons in the east, but for the most part this is all sweaty human action, with magic the province of rumor or hearsay (maybe this emphasis lends the "historical accuracy" cries some of their power). Things start to change through the series, but the narrative never loses sight of its human focus (thus far).

That the series' popularity has brought to light the pleasures and pitfalls of "nerd culture" hitting the mainstream, or that such a talked-about phenomenon doesn't actually seem to be about anything in the larger thematic sense, lies beyond my present purview, partly because I haven't quite made up my mind on either issue. One great thing, though, that the series has done is decisively rekindle my interest in fantasy. As mentioned in previous posts, I took Michael Moorcock's advice to stop reading the stuff a little too much to heart. My withdrawal had its benefits, and now it's time for confidence in my own tastes and capacities and not to worry that fantasy will somehow rot my brain. There'll certainly be a few titles showing up in later posts. Elitism can be a good thing; I've never believed otherwise, but as with all good things, there can be too much. One can even say that about fantasy series, but even with the increasing lengths of the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has yet to reach that point in my neck of the woods (unless there isn't heavy-duty maester action in Oldtown for The Winds of Winter; then there'll be rage). 

Posted by at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 29 April 2012 5:28 PM EDT
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15 March 2012
McSweeney's Pitchfork Narnia
Now Playing: Grimes--"Oblivion"

The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009) 

C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-55) are a classic of children's and fantasy literature and very likely special to many readers of this blog. Hence, a brief revision of the following exchange from The Horse and His Boy (1954) may help to approximate the feeling I've had over the past couple of days.

"Do you know why I tore you?" [asked Aslan]

"No, sir." [answered Aravis, an attractive teenage girl of Middle Eastern derivation, or Calormene, as close as the Middle East comes to Narnia] 

"The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother's slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like." 

"Oh, what the TITS???" [Aravis now sounds like Nick Kroll in The League, even if she didn't actually say that; valuable moral lesson aside, Aslan now sounds kind of a perv]* 

That was a good likeness of the effect Lev Grossman's The Magicians had on me when I read it. The first in what's hopefully a trilogy (The Magician King followed in 2011), The Magicians takes the tropes and effects of Narnia and pits them squarely against the neuroses and concerns of twenty-first century America. Even its flaws seemed more fascinating than foul, and I'm still trying to find a way to honestly criticize it.

Quentin Coldwater, an introverted, geeky teenager living in (where else?) New York, is a little unsure what to do after high school, and receives a mysterious application for an exclusive college upstate. He answers the summons after some tortuous context, and winds up at "Brakebills College," the first of many borderline satirical references to Lewis' successors that had me smiling a little each time I saw it. The students--primarily manifesting in The Magicians as Quentin, the shy, brilliant Alice, vivacious, toxic Janet, fey, frantically witty Eliot, and loyal, lumbering Josh--spend the next few years learning magic in a strangely English setting for such an undeniably American institution. Quentin's precocity and insecurity indirectly call up a chthonic demon that wreaks havoc on Brakebills and serves as a reminder of the outside world's dangers, one that unsurprisingly returns to haunt them. The gang endures the frenzied social dramas so common to college and then, finding themselves at typically loose and subsidized ends for Brakebills graduates, decide to go crazy in a sick loft in Manhattan. An acquaintance, punk outcast Penny, shows up out of nowhere and reveals his possession of the key to another world, a possibility frowned upon by magic's shadowy officialdom. Upon discovering the truth of Penny's words, the gang make their way to the enchanted world of Fillory, filled with talking animals, dangerous witches, and clock trees. Will their adventures bring them the wisdom supposed to accrue to questing heroes? Who is behind the grotesque depredations of the dreaded Watcherwoman? Last but certainly not least, will we ever discover the secret of waspishly sexy, made-for-Ann Arbor Janet's mysterious allergies?

My personal dealings with fantasy literature have often been touched upon in these pixels, and The Magicians sits at a curious place in relation. I started on fantasy early, with my mom and dad introducing me to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (and indirectly to Ursula K. LeGuin, whose Earthsea trilogy I found on a dusty top shelf in our house den). Lewis and Tolkien were two of my favorites until about the end of middle school, coupled with other passions I now cringe to remember (Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, for example). For whatever reason, I didn't tend to read a lot of other fantasy (or at least stick with it), despite an ongoing interest in Dungeons and Dragons' character-building mechanies (as opposed to the game itself) and a fascination with Arthurian legend. Eventually, partly as a result of reading an eye-opening interview with protean British writer and personal hero Michael Moorcock, I more or less gave up on fantasy altogether. Moorcock's point had been that most published fantasy basically consisted of slavish homages to Tolkien--effectively, pale imitations of a work that seemed something of a pale imitation itself. On the whole, my resolve had overwhelmingly beneficial effects, similar to those in Kevin Murphy's charmingly recounted story of shedding his servile devotion to Tolkien once someone played him all of The Clash's London Calling. I delved far and wide into literary fiction (a term understandably despised by some but whose present utility can't be denied), ranging from Aphra Behn to Emile Zola to Ishmael Reed to everywhere, tasting rich samples of different styles, different tastes, different worlds (a look here will give a few examples). I didn't give up on genre fiction--my fondness for classic sci-fi intensified and I made a few stabs at mysteries and thrillers (mostly historical, i.e. Elizabeth Peters or Alan Furst). It never once crossed my mind that I might be doing fantasy an injustice. 

It's hard to say when I mellowed. My intermittent ambitions to write something of a fantasy novel myself led me to think a good deal about the genre as a whole and some of the questions and presumptions it embodied. Exposure to the Internet certainly helped; I wouldn't have known about Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering (a pair of novels mirroring The Lord of the Rings by upending the perspective and moral focus--written by a Michigander!) were it not for my college chum Patrick. Similarly, the accretion of buzz for George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series on any number of blogs and culture websites finally got me to read A Game of Thrones, which easily defeated my hype-ready defenses. Finally, a random hunt for new stuff in the throes of Borders' demise yielded my favorite, the work of Ellen Kushner, whose universe, owing more to the buckled swashes of Dumas or Sabatini than Tolkien's hoary elfquests, showed to spectacular effect in Privilege of the Sword and Swordspoint (I've been deliberately putting off Kushner's central work--The Fall of Kings--written with Delia Sherman--in order to prolong the excitement). Hearing of The Magicians was like having the final puzzle piece fall into place.   

The Magicians' selling point seems to be the "maturation" of the "adolescent" fantasy, an idea that comes with a number of caveats and footnotes. In a sense, it's the fictional equivalent of something like Laura Miller's C.S. Lewis critique The Magician's Book, a work of or about fantasy or speculative fiction that has the right critical approach or literary cred to be acceptable to tastemaking venues like The New York Times or NPR. Like, say, the McSweeney's anthologies, it presents commercially successful (or at least vital) genres like fantasy or sci-fi (or, to a lesser extent, crime and mystery) translated through the literary talents of critically approved authors like Michael Chabon or Heidi Julavits. Grossman himself is a writer and critic at Time; while no Dave Eggers, say, he's certainly highly placed in the nation's literary strata. His earlier novel, Codex, was promising and to a certain extent intriguing, but in the end a bit of a disappointment. As a result, I didn't quite know what to expect when I first turned the pages of The Magicians. Quentin and his friends fulfill the typical roles of fantastic heroes, but in a very knowing, ironic way that could have been intolerable (and, for some people I know, was). Their interactions with magic filter through the familiar smartass weir of American young adulthood, and the dangers of the outside world, and of Fillory, receive similar treatment. It's hard to know how to get more discrete or specific without revealing plot points of a spoiling nature.

It's a little easier to pinpoint the effect Grossman's various references and influences have on the world the Magicians confront, not to mention Fillory. Brakebills is obviously reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, though the alarming effects of Quentin's prank are more evocative of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea (as is the existential threat that looms in The Magician King), and Ged's arcane folly in the Academy of Roke. Narnia, though, forms the primary reflection of The Magicians, with many of the plot points and setpieces blatant, intentional homages or riffs on events in Lewis' books. There's a mysterious, wintry affliction afoot in Fillory that our heroes have to correct (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). There's a curious enchanted land full of portals out heroes must master to complete their journey (The Magician's Nephew). There's a vaguely smug noble mammal as which the divine power manifests itself (Aslan). There are four kingships at stake, one of them High, and so on. Narnia is probably the best represented in The Magicians' array of predecessors, so it's worth asking what aspects of the Narnian worldview (i.e. Lewis') The Magicians challenges or transforms. 

The question is somewhat complicated due to the existence of another fantasy series, this one designed as a (specifically atheist) riposte to Lewis' muscular Christian classic. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (under different titles in his and Lewis' native country), arrived early last decade and caused quite a splash, especially in the States, due to their open denial of the divine. Pullman's a charming and talented writer--his Sturm und Drang Gothic homage Count Karlstein is a hoot and well worth seeking out--but HDM came complete with a couple of issues. First, it was explicitly a series of children's novels, thoguh some of the themes--atheism completely aside--sat a little ill-at-ease with the designation, as if Pullman was trying to woo adults to his universe and worldview in a clumsier way than, say, Rowling. Secondly, Pullman's understandable passion to combat Lewis' often saccharine, hectoring moralism (Adam Gopnik probably made up for any errors he might commit elsewhere in his superb mid-aughties New Yorker essay on Lewis, in which he made the razor insight that Aslan was more Mithraic than Christian) eventually leads him, especially by The Amber Spyglass, to be just as didactic, possibly more so, than his literary forebear and frenemy. The Golden Compass is flat-out magnificent, but the latter two suffer from Pullman's cheerleading rationalism, despite some spectacular settings and setpiece moments (Cittagazze, Mary Malone's discussion of love, etc.). Grossman's novels, on the other hand, are explicitly for adults and treat the whole question of godhood rather matter-of-factly (Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum about science and magic from Childhood's End--published right in the middle of the Narnian procession--is quoted at least once). Of course, there are only two of them so far.

As far as The Magicians and its sequel have any kind of theme, it's the typical one often found in these stories, stretching back past literature's beginnings into myth or legend: the hero's achievement of wisdom and/or experience against incredible odds. The Magicians, though, unlike the Harry Potter series or His Dark Materials, is, once again, unrepentantly adult, shorn of the cross-generational appeal that garnered the other two such commercial success (and controversy). Grossman tends more along the line of more worldly progresses like Middlesex or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Though there are familiar sights and sounds such as talking animals and magic spells, they've been leached of their potential coziness to a degree that Rowling, Pullman, or even Lewis, for all the surprising darkness to be found in each, never quite manage. It makes Fillory an interestingly sinister place, with the heroes, at their pinnacle of success, feeling decidedly uneasy in their hard-won power and majesty.  I read the climax of The Magicians in the intermission of a local student performance of Waiting For Godot; it seemed unexpectedly fitting. 

That may be part of the point, of course. Unlike practically all his influences, Grossman is American, with little of the implied homage to such countryman genre progenitors as George Macdonald or William Morris, whose fantastical works of the late nineteenth century directly inspired both Lewis and Tolkien and which make very interesting--and dare I say enjoyable?--reading even today. That's a distinction that can certainly be taken too far. Morris the Victorian Brit, for example, was also a visionary socialist, and the recent criticism-proof swooning over Downton Abbey (guiltily enjoy it though I do) arguably points to a worrying nostalgia for aristocracy and empire among my fellow citizens (though I may be reading a little too much into that). Nevertheless, there's a bracing "colonial" willingness to forgo the pleasantries in the two books; unlike, say, Neil Gaiman, there's nothing twee in it. One or two characters even comment on the weirdly English character of Brakebills, which I thought was just as much a dig at the forelock-tugging worship of the English public school system by U.S. private schools, especially in the Northeast, as it was a comment on the often derivative, Anglophilic nature of American fantasy. Quentin and his friends believably fit into a recognizably real world at the same time they just as believably traverse the bizarre worlds that lead to their destiny in Fillory. A friend of mine condemned the post-graduate empty boozing and sex in Manhattan as "boring" (the "inspiring" material, which looks a lot like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney, certainly was), but I think the ennui is intentional, a palate cleanser before hitting the fairy dust. The Fillory adventures come almost as an afterthought to the strained achievement and dirty laundry on show in The Magicians, and from what I know of fantasy novels in general, that's excitingly unusual.

There are, of course, flaws (seriously???). Quentin is a strikingly ordinary character, shy, charming, and unreasonable all at once. If he weren't still practically in adolescence, he'd be a Nice Guy (TM) of the first water. His struggles are believable and relatable to earlier experiences. Despite all this, he sometimes tends to blend in with the other characters. All parry each other's barbs with witticisms both pop-cultural and standard that are quite plausible for their era, but which have the effect on the page of making them seem a lot samier than they probably are. Whereas in the Harry Potter novels the main character ends up far less interesting than his best friends (it's a discussion for another time, but it has a lot to do with Harry's not actually doing anything genuinely wrong), in Grossman's novels the leads are sometimes indistinguishable. It may simply be a bit of cultural satire, but I doubt it (though I'm soberingly reminded of Ken Loach's take on character consistency as rendered by Ian Hart, mentioned last post, that it's "bullshit"). The rhythm and tone, too, suffer at times from Grossman's sympathetic desire to undercut any possible hint of literal fantasy. The leads may be millennial hipster nerds rather than Enid Blyton-like drips, but the constant deflections of any sort of mystical grandeur by flip quips lose their novelty after a while and start to stick out (even so, there are a couple of instances where jokes don't actually work and yet are still funny, like Taco's bizarre "Naginta" song in The League). The ghost of gender issues arises as a result of Quentin's third-person narrator status, but I think much of the second book helps put paid to such (I'd love to see a gender critique of this thing, but I doubt I'm really the person to light the fire). The homages, too, seem a bit literally delivered at times, as if we're headed through a classic children's fantasy theme park with Louis Theroux as the tour guide. 

All that aside, The Magicians is a riveting work likely to change the way a lot of readers view fantasy literature and the "mainstream's" relation thereto, possibly more so than even the Harry Potter books. Grossman himself shows signs of the same leveling impulse in interviews that I feel in my own bones, even if I'm divided on its actual necessity (distinctions by all means, but no hierarchies!). Some have criticized the novels for implicitly mocking fantasy fans, but The Magicians' satire (if satire it really is) is pretty keenly focused on the Narnian mythos; sword-and-sorcery, for instance, barely gets a look in (though that, too, is a discussion for another time), as it's a far cry from the tea-and-scones universe of a Lewis or Rowling (or even Pullman). It does something that's needed doing for quite a while: shaking up some of the genre's conventions and assumptions while introducing a degree of literary and psychological realism with whose presence in the genre I'm unfamiliar (George R.R. Martin's work, so far, comes close but isn't quite the same). There's talk of a third novel coming up, which would be historically fitting for this genre's sea of trilogies, and I for one can't wait. 

*The Horse and His Boy appeared the same year as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (and a year after Clarke's Childhood's End, a somewhat neglected "golden age" for British literature?). The idea of Jim Dixon instead of Professor Diggory Kirke as the kids' initial "spiritual advisor" really ought to be a subject for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style pisstake one day. "'The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It's only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto...' He paused and swayed; the heat, the drink, the nervousness, the guilt at last joined forces in him." Further up and further in!


Posted by at 5:33 PM EDT
Updated: 15 March 2012 7:00 PM EDT
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26 February 2012
The Immaculate Infection
Now Playing: Trust--"Sulk"

The League (2009-) 

After seeing Portlandia, I found it grimly enjoyable to contemplate the collective worst nightmare for its characters. Among my favorite possibilities? Being stranded in a Midwestern sports bar surrounded by braying, sociopathic chaches obsessed with football as a means to social dominance. It would, of course, look like F/X's The League. It's a strange bird, this show, especially if one's used to dealing with critical darlings like Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation. It's structurally and tonally uneven and suffers from sore thumb characters and a host of other issues. Despite it all, though, it's a hugely entertaining experience.

The League follows a Chicago fantasy football league, composed of six friends who've more or less known each other since high school. Kevin (Steve Rannazzisi) is a henpecked lawyer for the D.A. whose wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) provides the brains for Kevin's outfit and concentrates on raising their daughter Ellie. Ruxin (Nick Kroll) is a lawyer in private practice, married to Sofia (Nadine Velazquez), whose hotness and non-Judaism (and ferociously annoying brother Rafi) give Ruxin perpetual headaches. Longtime league champion Pete (Mark Duplass) works in an office whose function is left amusingly unspecified, at least for the first two seasons. Divorced partly as a result of his league obsession, Pete is the closest to an audience viewpoint character--almost a "Mary Sue"--towards the beginning, but he thankfully fits into the ensemble more as the show proceeds. Andre (Paul Scheer) is a plastic surgeon who's probably the most frequent butt of jokes, especially regarding his garish, Ed Hardy wardrobe and fantasy football ineptitude. Last, and frequently least, there's Taco (Jon LaJoie), Kevin's ne'er-do-well brother, who's apparently the Kramer figure (series co-creator and writer Jeff Schaffer wrote for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), constantly floating get-rich-quick schemes, as well as providing a deus ex machina of general weirdness for the show's convenience. The most infuriating thing is how often the "Taco Play" works.  

Each season (there are two on Netflix thus far, and some of the third on Hulu) matches the football season, with the players competing for the "Shiva," a standard trophy with a picture of their high school classmate Shiva stuck at its bottom (there's also the "Sacko" for last place, with a stylized hairy scrotum dangling above). Though the fantasy football element provides the show's general structure, usually contributing the initial motivation for episodes, there's little knowledge of football genuinely required (certainly not for Andre). At heart, the show's about people trying, and failing, to "grow up," their obsession with football only providing a fig-leaf excuse for their lack of maturity. Game-inspired trades, pranks, or trash-talk, interferes with one or more characters' business or personal lives, and chaos results. That's the only formula I can really ascribe to this often problematic yet bracingly fun show.

It's hard to know where to start. For one thing, it's nice for once to see an American show not confuse maturity or character with material success. Taco's the slacker character, but in a way he's really only different from the others in that he has no steady job. Kevin's pathetic, Jenny's shrewish, Pete's smarmy, Andre's crass, and Ruxin is... sort of evil (though hilariously so). For someone towards the  lower end of the financial spectrum, it does a lot of good to see our cultural masters treated with such derision. The show, however, celebrates a kind of boozy, dudebro camaraderie at the same time that it satirizes it. Pete's a good example. Ostensibly the show's "hero" during the first season, he becomes more and more of an asshole through the second (a "change" that may have been planned all along), sinking far enough to try and give his ex-wife's boyfriend a heart attack. Though his true colors are eventually revealed (the episode "High School Reunion" delivers a great moment of self-realization--courtesy of Party Down's Martin Starr--that's typically swept under the carpet, whether by Pete or the writers), the show takes a while to get there, leading me to believe that The League's trying to have its cake and eat it (much like Portlandia). In "Fear Boner," Pete's reminiscence of a disturbing college experience lays the show's soul bare: "He was cowardly, gay, homophobic and racist at the same time: the perfect quadfecta." Pairing "gay" and "homophobic" in that negative description says a lot about Pete, of course, but maybe also a little something about the show.

Then there's Taco. I've been increasingly following The A.V. Club, the Onion offshoot that's now my go-to source on American entertainment, and one irate commenter called him a "jock's idea of a stoner." I can see where they're coming from, but for me it's more that he's just there to fulfill whatever role the show requires, regardless of character or plausibility. On the one hand, it's very true, I think, as Ian Hart put it in the Ken Loach documentary on the Wind That Shakes The Barley DVD, that "character is bullshit; people act out of character all the time," but on the other, Taco has the consistency of a Lego figurine worked by a five-year-old. One minute, he's just one of the guys, the next, he's completely ignorant of the basics of Western science, believing that free-basing Andre's coriander can cure any number of illnesses. There's been speculation that LaJoie was cast as a result of his success in the world of Internet comedy music, and it makes a kind of sense. Every few episodes, he'll wheel out a (usually funny) song, often towards the end, much like Ricky Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, only here the intended audience are all slightly creeped out douchebags in a bar or pathologically nitpicky, potentially misogynistic fans on YouTube or the A.V. Club, rather than squealing bobbysoxers. It's more down to the writing, though; Taco's weirdness is all over the board. There's too much of a realistic strain running through the show for him to fit in the way they intend, and half the time he tends towards that sore thumb tendency mentioned earlier. In this case, it isn't so much of a "have cake, eat it" situation, but more of a laid back, shambolic approach to the show as a whole from creators and performers.

Much of the fuzzy inconsistency is intentional, and so it's hard for me to fault The League too much on that score. Rannazzisi, LaJoie, and especially Scheer and Kroll use their extensive comedic experience to develop the dialogue, much of which is apparently improvised (more on Aselton and Duplass later). Upright Citizens Brigade veterans Scheer and Kroll are pretty recognizable from elsewhere, Scheer from roles as the sinister Head Page from 30 Rock and Roman's successful former partner on Party Down, and Kroll as Pawnee shock jock The Douche on Parks and Recreation. It's perhaps little surprise that these two give the most entertaining performances. Scheer's character is almost as conceptually offensive as Taco, but he manages to make Andre funny and sympathetic as well as a thoroughly worthy punching bag. The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of many of the others; part of the show's appeal, despite its issues, is the tremendous chemistry among the cast, some of whom came from decidedly different theatrical backgrounds, but all of whom work to make the atmosphere as endearing as it is obnoxious. Happily, "endearing" doesn't quite describe Ruxin. Even given my high regard for the cast in general, Kroll owns this show. He gets all the best lines ("Kid's dumber than her parents") and sells Ruxin's frequent awfulness with a sneering charm that just makes the poison go down easier. At one point in "The Expert Witness" (just about everyone ends up in a courtroom, don't ask why), Ruxin runs into Taco (busy flirting with Alia Shawkat's courtroom artist), who hails him (inaccurate as ever): "Hey Ruspin!" Ruxin: "I don't know you here." The knife-edge between joky friendship and deadly seriousness is hilarious in a way that's... obviously? hard to explain. I was hugely excited to hear that Jeff Goldblum will play Ruxin the Elder in Season 3.

The League, in a comparison the show might appreciate, is like a Budweiser or Labatt in relation to the "higher" comedies' microbrews. Actually, that's a little unjust; it's more like a Sierra Nevada to, say, Party Down's Anchor Steam or Parks and Recreation's Bell's Two-Hearted. It's a little hard for one to appreciate after partaking of the others' more rarefied charms, but if one's in the right spirit, or doesn't expect too much, it can deliver great rewards. The frequently crass humor and infectious masculine insecurities (Aselton aside) can certainly put people off (the football references shouldn't, as the specifics aren't generally fundamental to the plot), but there's much to enjoy in the show's weird lack of ambition (or maybe a kind of ghost overreach) that somehow matches the characters' flaws and foibles. Not every show can be a Parks and Rec or Community, and plenty of slots still await between the Shiva and Sacko Bowls, even for sitcoms. 

The Puffy Chair (2005): League cast members Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton are not only married, but also appeared in this early mumblecore entry, written and directed by Duplass and his brother Jay. As with The League and other Duplass Brothers films such as Baghead (which I didn't get), much of the dialogue is improvised. I was already interested in mumblecore through the works of Andrew Bujalski at the time I learned of The Puffy Chair, and the filmmakers' background stirred my interest: both were fellow native Louisianians (from New Orleans rather than Baton Rouge), and close to my age (if a little younger). One of those thanked in the credits, in fact, was a Byron Westbrook, who I'm pretty sure was a friend of my brother's and acquaintance of mine, last I heard an experimental musician in New York (I'll be surprised if it wasn't). The Puffy Chair tells the story of musician Josh (Duplass) who takes his girlfriend Emily (Aselton) and his ne'er-do-well brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins, and there's that description again) on a road trip from New York to Georgia to deliver a recliner much loved by his father during their childhood (or the same kind, anyway, having bought one online from a collector in North Carolina). This complex set-up sparks off a fairly simple, not entirely satisfying story. Josh and Emily have problems almost from the beginning, exacerbated not so much by events as by their own fundamental inability to agree on commitment. Rhett, a well-remembered (and -portrayed) type of Southern hippie sleazeball, thinks little of wandering off and marrying sexy recluses in the woods, and Josh thinks little of acting as his best man (they play Saturday Looks Good To Me's "Alcohol" during the "reception," making me sit up like a shot--well aimed, especially as I first became familiar with the music during the time of filming). By the time they reach Josh and Rhett's parents, things have built to a really muted climax, which I won't give away partly because I'm surprised I can remember it. The Puffy Chair is an enjoyable movie, but not terribly affecting. The actors are all good, the relationships are well-written and -realized, but the story itself doesn't carry a whole lot of heft. Leonard Maltin (or his staff) wrote of 1979's Wanda Nevada, starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, that "if it were any more laid back it would be nonexistent." I thought of the words while watching The Puffy Chair. Though I heartily approve of the impulses and ethos that filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers bring to American cinema, I can't always entirely approve of the results. 

Posted by at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 26 February 2012 2:34 PM EST
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17 February 2012
Mountain Lion Bookpile
Now Playing: Veronica Falls--"Come On Over"

Shortly after I started blogging, almost seven years ago, I began hitting shows at Brandon Zwagerman's Madison House, a pastime which heavily involved me in local music, if only as a connoisseur. My own musical talent extends to a few songs and accompaniments on harmonica and a fearsome vocal impression of the late, lamented Bob "The Bear" Hite of Canned Heat. Nevertheless, I wound up attending the living crap out of shows in Ann Arbor and loving most every second. After a year or so of off-and-on depression, the tremendous proliferation of music in the area not only filled something of a void in my life but also brought me into contact with many of the friends I have today. Ann Arbor can be a pretty cold, unfriendly town to someone with no prior connections to the place, as I was in my first few years, and the sheer novelty of haivng a social life came as a heady, near-ecstatic rush. 

Even as familiarity bred the eventual decay of my enthusiasm, the initial pleasure I took in the scene itself and the music it provided never entirely evaporated. It certainly marked a new chapter in my relationship with music. As early as middle school, I became so bored with the current pop tunes (around 1985-86) that I largely withdrew from any interaction with such, preferring to immerse myself in the classics--i.e. the sixties and seventies--and commence my ongoing education in orchestral music. When the nineties blessedly arrived, I largely bypassed grunge and, thanks to the help of my friend Emily and others, got into Britpop, shoegaze and Riot Grrl. I mention the movements, but they all manifested largely as single bands: Blur, Lush, and Sleater-Kinney. There were still huge gaps in my own musical history and appreciation: I was almost wholly unacquainted with punk and the lore of new wave until I got to grad school, where expert tutelage was this time courtesy of my friend Matt. At Akron, I got to know of a couple of local bands (and know one pretty well). One, the House Popes, was a folk/country, Americana outfit composed largely of grad school friends and acquaintances. Another, Disengage, was a punk-metal fusion act partly led by my favorite record store clerk. Apart from them, though, there didn't seem to be much of a scene, at least one I can either remember or discern (naturally, the Black Keys became deservedly huge a couple of years after I left). The unfolding panoply in Washtenaw County, on the other hand, was heavily laden with folk and alt-country bands and musicians (with outliers such as the Ultrasounds, Starling Electric, and Saturday Looks Good To Me), and thence I gravitated, having had little interest in that kind of music before. The end of the Madison House shows, various band breakups and personnel changes, and simple shifts in personal taste, led me away from the close-knit wonder of those Friday and Saturday nights, especially when I realized that I had been caught up in local music to such an extent that I lost track of much any other music, and started hurriedly making up the omission.  

Ever since, I don't think I'd ever really gone to see a show sound-unheard at the Blind Pig. Before my local introductions, I'd gone there all the time, to hear both pop acts like Saturday Looks Good To Me and a great number of Detroit area garage acts, the latter trying to keep the vitality of the sound strong in the wake of the White Stripes' troubling "slash-and-burn" international success (probably my favorite night in Ann Arbor prior to the blog's birth was the No Fun Records Showcase Night at the Pig, 16 October 2004). During and after my... relations? with the great wave of folk and alt-country, though, I'd rarely gone to see anyone there except for the aforementioned outliers--one of which broke up, one of which went on a three-year hiatus, and one of which moved to Chicago. In the interim, my social life had gone through a few changes and I'd stopped going out as much, especially when it came to just dropping in on random acts at what was still Ann Arbor's main pop/rock venue.

That changed the other night, when Scottish band Veronica Falls came to the Pig, with San Francisco's Brilliant Colors and SLGTM head honcho Fred Thomas' latest project, Swimsuit, for openers. I'd been planning to hear Swimsuit anyway, and after hearing a few Veronica Falls songs online (they sound like a higher-fi Vaselines at times) and then learning that a few of my friends were going, decided to check it out. Truth be told, I missed my old habits just a little, and after a few months of living in a somewhat restrictive (though highly productive) hibernation, I was ready for something exactly like that. 

The night started at Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, itself a link to my past as it inhabits the space formerly disgraced (in a retrospectively hilarious way) by Don Carlos Mexican Cantina, where I worked when first moving to Ann Arbor. It's a wonderful space, home to a number of failed businesses over the years, and it's a delight to see the Dexter-based brewery finally make a success of the place. I met Shelly and Stever there, we talked horror films, music, work, and Courtney Love (specifically her grimly amusing alibi for the death of Frances Bean's pets), and then we met Josh, Carla and Rachel at the Pig. I contented myself with a couple of beers, and almost on arrival knew I wasn't going to last the night, and was perfectly fine with it. It was a strange feeling, considering how much I used to anticipate the event and then relish the crowd, the spectacle, and the music. I'd perch at a table and read or write while everyone swirled around me, and then we'd all head up to the front and listen to the band (I did it less once I actually knew people, but it's still a habit, one I highly recommend). I wound up leaving halfway through the Veronica Falls set, right around midnight. Though part of my "hurry" was down to overfamiliarity with the environment and the fact that I'd been up for almost twenty-four hours, there was another factor. "Yes, I am going now. It's after 2009."

Swimsuit was fine, stripped-down indie-pop that felt rather more introspective and spikier than SLGTM, including Dina Bankole of Secret Twins (a group I'd wanted to hear live but never did) on guitar, and was a decent entry for the local scene in this unusually global lineup. Veronica Falls was almost certainly going to be good, and they were (I felt little compunction over getting the CD even before they went on). The sound spanned decades of influence, the lo-fi fuzz of the 90s linked with pre-grunge influences like the Vaselines (the Scottish connection may have affected my thoughts on that one). Listening to it now, it gives me a pleasantly hazy feeling. It's not one that'll go up in the pantheon, but it's a great marshaling of past sounds for a present (or almost present) year. The big surprise, and one that might hit my big time, was Brilliant Colors. For some reason, they're a little hard to describe. I can only say that I danced harder at the Pig than I have in a very, very long time, and that's taking into account how little I've gone there in the past few years. I remember that the consistency of my frenzy matched a Dirtbombs show I saw there in 2005, and that hardly ever happens. They had no CDs, sadly--it's weirdly touching how many bands seem to expect everyone to have vinyl capability--but I'll be getting one soon, hell or high water.

It's unclear whether I'll make it much of a habit again. There's lots of good stuff out there if you know where to look, and most of the scene I previously frequented has relocated (their shows, anyway) to Ypsilanti, especially around Woodruff's in Depot Town. I also have to keep asking myself how vital music really is to me, or at least the kind of music you have to follow through online sources. My friend at work and I had a conversation about keeping up with the times; we hadn't really found a lot of good new stuff recently (the best stuff I encountered in last year, at least before discovering St. Vincent, consisted of new releases from existing favorite acts). Is it really that important to stay new and current? I think so, to a certain extent, if only to get the full effect of the historical and cultural moment. If you shut yourself off, you sell yourself short. Especially with longtime favorites of mine getting sweet writeups in area outlets, it's hard for me to justify losing or compromising this passion for the new that it took so long for me to discover. So there'll probably be quite a few more of these, even if I have to watch a few more sitcoms first.


Posted by at 8:26 PM EST
Updated: 17 February 2012 9:17 PM EST
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