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Washtenaw Flaneurade
7 March 2011
Lord Help The Mister
Now Playing: Sleater-Kinney--"Living In Exile"

One of the familial relationships that, to me, feels most alien is that between two sisters. I have a brother, and we get along fine, but I always wondered what having a sister would be like (although I now have a sister-in-law who rather wonderfully feels more like an actual sister). To be a sister's sister might be a more remote imagining for me than to wonder what it would be like to be female, if that makes any sense. So it's always interesting to see these relationships portrayed on screen, especially when it offers a blitheringly obvious way to link a few films--one all right, two terrific--that I've seen recently.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): I used to get Entertainment Weekly, and, though I just a couple of weeks ago liberated myself from its poisonous, superficial, middlebrow dreck (and those were just the film reviews), I   remember seeing Sunshine Cleaning in the reviews fairly recently. When I realized that "fairly recently" meant nearly three years ago, I figured it was safe to say that I'm getting old, and that time which seemed an eternity to me twenty, ten, or even five years ago looks like much less now. This accidental reminder of my mortality may have prejudiced me against Sunshine Cleaning. That's not to say I don't necessarily like it. Rose and Nora (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) are two sisters living in New Mexico, Rose a single mother and Nora a directionless twentysomething. They have a quirky, endearing father (Alan Arkin, and there were many who thought he was basically repeating his performance that I haven't seen in Little Miss Sunshine) and Rose is carrying on an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn, long may he work). Rose's son has a learning disability, but her need to get him transferred to a special school runs into financial problems. A chance remark by the cop regarding the high pay of crime scene cleaning staff gives Rose the idea to start her own business in that field, and she enlists Nora to help her do it. The plot isn't exactly Dumas. Rose and Nora confront their friends, family, and their own misgivings before finding themselves by the end of the movie. Dad gets mixed up in all sorts of ridiculous business ideas, and it's all very quirky. By far the strongest feature, and what saves Sunshine Cleaning from being one of "those" movies, is the combined power of the leading performances by Adams and Blunt and the believability of their relationship with each other. A lesser movie would have Rose ensconced in a comfortable, "middle-class" job and in a safe but boring relationship, married or otherwise, willing and able to look down her nose at Nora for not being able to hold on to a "working-class" job or relationship, especially as both, according to dominant media narratives, are in eternally plentiful supply and supremely dependable (all other evidence to the contrary, if my suppressed rant isn't obvious enough). Maybe Nora could show up and embarrass her at some pivotal moment at a company reception or christening or some such. In Sunshine Cleaning, though, Rose is a "waitress" (as they still call them in movies), a couple of sick days or a rude customer away from sharing Nora's socioeconomic status, and the change works well for the movie. Rose and Nora are a lot more alike than either want to admit, and Adams and Blunt beautifully render the ambiguity of their sisterhood (it hardly hurts that I'm more than a little in love with Adams, and my respect for Blunt has consistently grown ever since I saw her play Boudicca's daughter in that British TV movie with Alex Kingston). Though the movie itself isn't such great shakes, its portrayal of Rose and Nora's sibling relationship, and the relative realism of its context, lift it well above many of its peers.

Beeswax (2009): Andrew Bujalski is, to some, the leading light of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, and to my mind, he's one of the best directors working in this country today--if not the best. Part of my high regard stems from the instant familiarity of his dialogue and situations. There's probably nobody else living (though I hope to find others, and have noticed a fairly large contingent of IFC-looking films at the library, so we'll see) who so accurately portrays the lives of relatively "aimless," predominantly white, vaguely left-of-center American twenty- and thirtysomethings*. One could take his work, drop it smack in the middle of Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and that's pretty much it, to a considerable extent.** I first encountered his work in 2005's Mutual Appreciation, and seeing 2003's Funny Ha Ha further bolstered my admiration. His first two films were set in Boston and New York, and operated in an obviously quasi-bohemian setting. Beeswax, though, relocates to "flyover country," which would be more exciting to me if it wasn't set in Austin, Texas, which along with Portland, Oregon, has been sucking up the bohemian-minded since I was in high school, if not before (including several friends over two decades). Real life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher play, respectively, Jeannie and Lauren, two young women living in Austin with, like the sisters in Sunshine Cleaning, more similar lifestyles than one would think from their respective status. Jeannie is part-owner and manager of a small hipster clothing shop (think Orchid Lane in Ann Arbor), and Lauren is frequently employed, shall we say, eventually starting to think about teaching in Africa. The plot hinges around a threatened move by Jeannie's partner Amanda to sue Jeannie and take sole ownership of the business, while Lauren helps her sister handle her troubled relationship with legal adviser Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) and tries to fend off well-meaning family advice for both sisters. There isn't a great amount of dramatic plot here, but plenty of quiet tension and honest charm, as it feels like a chapter in the lives of two people has been boiled down into a straight, unaffected docudrama. Given the actresses' real life relationship, it's unsurprising how good they are in their roles--the Hatchers are affecting yet low-key, with (full disclosure) an earthy gorgeousness that put me in mind of several women in my own past. Though Maggie Hatcher has wonderful moments, such as her postpartum glee in breaking up with an uninspiring boyfriend or helping her sister out with an impromptu photo shoot in a rural pasture, Tilly Hatcher owns what there is to be taken from the movie's commons, finding her own kindness and good humor put to the test by Amanda's complaints and potentially troublesome workers, gently fending off Merrill's desire for their relationship to be something more, teasing Lauren over her legal advice on what to do with Amanda, and wordlessly implying the effect her own situation as a paraplegic has had on her life (a situation the movie--mostly--effortlessly downplays). Though Bujalski's films have immortalized situations like the sisters' before, Beeswax marks a new care that's taken with the visuals; every location looks authentic and lived-in, in a way that was sometimes hard to tell with the rudimentary color of Funny Ha Ha and the grainy monochrome of Mutual Appreciation. It's a wonderful movie, especially if you come across it in the library with--best of all--liner notes from Kevin Corrigan (long-time stalwart of American indie film and well-known in these quarters for playing Uncle Eddie in Grounded For Life), who waxes just a little rhapsodic about some of the performances and situations, but then who am I to gainsay him? Jeannie and Lauren's experiences (sorry, Randall in Clerks) are just as epic and timeless in their own way as some of the greatest stories and novels.

Away We Go (2009): Away We Go will always rank as one of my great surprises of the cinema. I first read about it somewhere (Entertainment Weekly, probably), and it tripped all sorts of alarms in my head: quirky hipster/slacker couple (John Krasinski seemingly having been created in some foul social lab as the perfect male type--especially the glasses), script partly written by Dave Eggers (who I knew about from his involvement with McSweeney's, the producers of one excellent national secondary school literacy program and two godawful literary anthologies--nice mix, that), Peter Travers had probably given it a thoroughly ass-kissing and characteristically inaccurate blurb in Rolling Stone... I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I think I'd sworn at some point to avoid it like the plague. I can't remember the moment or reason I'd decided to check it out--my guess is (a) mild, slightly bored curiosity or (b) "There's no way this thing can be any worse than (500) Days of Summer." Whichever it was, thank you (or, in the words of Krasinski's Office character Jim Halpert, "Congratulations, universe; you win"). Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a couple in their early thirties living near Burt's parents in upstate New York, and Verona is pregnant. A rash decision on the part of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) makes them realize that they need to shop around for parental examples and a good place to raise the kid, as they both (a little conveniently?) have jobs they can always do from home. A cross-country odyssey follows, from New York to Arizona to Wisconsin to Quebec to Florida, visiting friends and relatives who may provide guidance... It started dangerously, with quirky quips between husband and wife that made me worry, but Away We Go almost instantly righted itself, and dreaded imagined trowel-loads of pointless irony were replaced by a gentle, touching rumination on impending parenthood (yet another fundamentally alien situation for this reviewer). Much of the credit must go to Krasinski and Rudolph, who make Burt and Verona one of the most all-around sympathetic and believable couples in recent cinema. They help to keep things steady through some iffy patches that seem a little unbelievable (Maggie Gyllenhaal's New Agey academic) or overly literary (a speech delivered over pancakes in a Montreal restaurant, which is redeemed by some excellent acting from the supporting cast). One of the best moments comes when Verona visits her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) in Arizona, and the two have a lovely moment of reconnection (and, it seems, reconciliation) over the tragedy of their parents' death. It's sisterhood, even if it's only there for a bit, and it does influence much of what follows from Verona's perspective. By the end, they seem to have settled on the answer to their question, but then they can always ask more. This was Sam Mendes' first film from an original screenplay since the hugely overrated American Beauty, and it was too bad this didn't garner the kind of Oscars that the earlier work did. From the DVD extras, it appears that he went after the kind of actors he'd always admired, and it helps that he might as well have cherry-picked my own brain: Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, the exquisite Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, O'Hara and Daniels, and best of all Melanie Lynskey, whose ongoing role in the grotesque Two and a Half Men (relevance! today's headlines!) has hopefully left unobscured her work in such films as Ever After, Shattered Glass, Flags of Our Fathers, The Informant! and Up In The Air. I was blown away by her work in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and puzzled for some time afterward why she hadn't had the kind of career that co-star Kate Winslet (deservedly) amassed. It's good to see her doing so well, and she (playing the pair's college friend Munch in Montreal) probably has the most memorably haunting moment in the film. There's so much wonderful stuff here, even unintentional (?) meta-moments like Paul Schneider playing Burt's brother Courtney in much the same way as Schneider plays the kind of generically witty "Jim Halpert" character Krasinski established on The Office in Parks and Recreation (my new favorite show, incidentally). It's a great film, with an agreeably contemplative score by Alexi Murdoch, and all the more for my surprising love for it. On top of everything else, it means that I'll actually have to read Dave Eggers (and Vendela Vida) now. As I'm in the middle of a contemporary American fiction kick right now (Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson), I suppose it won't be too much hassle.

Downton Abbey (2010): And just for laughs... my Anglophilia's taken on bit of water since I started reading the comments at the Guardian, but it's had a huge impact on my own consciousness (largely for reasons described towards the end of the last blog post), and there was probably a time when I would have swallowed Downton Abbey hook, line and sinker. The Edwardian saga of a country estate and noble family threatened with dissolution, and the ongoing travails of their servants, it was a huge success in the UK, and unsurprisingly became one of PBS Masterpiece's biggest hits in years, possibly decades. Part of this may be that it hearkens back to the days of its distinguished forbear, Upstairs, Downstairs (which was remade last year to mixed critical reaction, and will be appearing on PBS soon), and part that it portrays a settled, luxurious (for some) lifestyle (soon to fall victim to war and upheaval) in a time of economic and political uncertainty. There are, of course, a number of differences. Upstairs, Downstairs was rather more subtle, at a time when stories could proceed at a more relaxed pace, and was created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, two English actresses of working-class origins. Downton Abbey uses the cinema shorthand of the modern age, almost every plot point blatantly telegraphed (with a few clever fakeouts) and was created and written by the excruciatingly aristocratic Julian Fellowes (writer of Altman's Gosford Park and Kilwillie on Monarch of the Glen, if you're into that sort of thing), apparently a lord as well. There was a time when I thought that the fascination in some American quarters with the British aristocracy was due to a secret discontent with democracy and a lust to be ruled, rather than governed. I still believe this to some extent, but I also think that there's a simple fascination with difference--people speaking the same language and maintaining anachronistic, seemingly ludicrous institutions like monarchy and aristocracy, are inevitably going to be of interest in one way or another. It was with this charitable view in mind that I watched Downton Abbey (amusingly mistyped Downtown Abbey by my DA-loving friend on Facebook--that would have been something to watch), and on the whole I enjoyed it. It was hard to forget that its creator and writer is associated (as a Tory peer) with the present political drive to return the UK (or at least England) to the social conditions prevailing at the time of Downton Abbey, but that perversely added to the enjoyment. There are also three sisters: languid, haughty Mary (Michelle Dockery), deceptively mousy Edith (Laura Carmichael), and inquisitive, idealistic Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), all daughters of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) by his American mercantile heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Mary, the eldest, needs to be married off first, and Mary alternately schemes to make this happen and resents the need for it. Edith resents the attention paid her elder sister by parents and admirers and tries to make more room for herself with both, sometimes emulating her sister by using underhand means. Sybil couldn't seem to care less, being a little more worried about getting the vote than marrying into a family like her own. Into the toxic mix comes Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin of the Granthams who has now become the heir apparent overnight with the death of the other candidates aboard the Titanic (seriously, although they did that on Upstairs, Downstairs, too). It's all great fun until somebody loses an eye or says something like "dreadful news about that Austrian Archduke" (which practically happens, I swear, even if they probably would have been more worried at the time about the potential rebellion of Protestant Ulster in reaction to a possible Home Rule Act). It's trash, but wonderfully entertaining, and one must say that Bonneville and McGovern have fantastic chemistry. The locations are all sumptuous and sybaritically rustic, and Maggie Smith makes her largely inevitable appearance as Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess (which reminded me of the Leonard Maltin Guide's take on Joan Collins' performance in The Bitch or The Stud--can't remember which: "a role she could play in her sleep--and does").*** The acting's generally terrific, with good turns by longtime favorites such as Penelope Wilton and Jim Carter, and it's great to see Coronation Street's Rob James-Collier (Liam Connor "himshelf") as a devious footman. All in all, it'll be great fun to follow the story into the Great War and beyond, see who survives, and what other kinds of devious plots and junior high exposition will result. If nothing else, it's been a boon for Masterpiece, and by extension, PBS, and let's hope that every little bit helps.

 *I would have said "middle-class," but I'm actually starting to buy the culturally tenuous nature of class in America, and just as I wouldn't describe myself as middle-class in my present situation, I don't think one can describe Lauren in Beeswax as such, although Alan in Mutual Appreciation and Marnie in Funny Ha Ha qualify to an extent.

**On a more upscale and blockbuster level, the first section of Cloverfield was surprisingly squirm-inducing in this manner.

***It's not that bad, but it gives me an excuse to call to mind another favorite, the review of Iron Eagle: "Not boring, just stupid."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 7 March 2011 4:53 PM EST
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28 February 2011
Saturday Paradise
Now Playing: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Night"

William Boyd, Any Human Heart (2002): My reading log that I kept for most of the 1990s records that I completed William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach on 13 July 1998. That was a difficult summer (and year) for me and it's not much of a surprise that little of the plot or themes stuck with me as I was occupied with much else at the time. I did have a lingering respect for Boyd that kept nagging at me for much of the intervening twelve years--he was a critically acclaimed British writer, much of whose work involved the interactions between Western and non-Western cultures, especially in Africa. Any Human Heart touches rather more briefly on the theme than his other work, but it was lying on the "free book" shelf at the Ann Arbor Public Library and I figured that was probably a sign of some sort (it didn't hurt that I knew a British TV adaptation--C4--was on the Masterpiece schedule after Downton Abbey). Any Human Heart poses as the collected journals of British writer, critic, and onetime spy Logan Mountstuart, and covers the 1920s to the 1980s. It's a grand, kaleidoscopic look at the twentieth century as seen through one man's wonderfully imperfect eyes, and, as some may note, bears no little resemblance in large to Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time. The resemblance doesn't last very long--Powell's alleged British riposte to the likes of Proust or Musil was tedious, meandering, and fatally quotidian, arguably the most overrated literary work I've read in a good long while (and it didn't have the excuse of being written in the 80s). Boyd's "discovery," on the other hand, is brisk, engaging, and indulges in a terrific degree of smartassery (I also can't avoid the exhilarating suspicion that he wrote it as a combined defiance/pisstake of his lauded "precursor").* Logan (LMS as he's termed in the entertaining "editor's notes") begins life as an Anglo-Uruguayan student at Oxford, experiences brief celebrity as a writer in Paris and a journalist during the Spanish Civil War (palling around with Ernest Hemingway, among others), gets involved in intrigue and incarceration during the Second World War in the Bahamas and Switzerland (crossing swords with the ex-Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson), experiences the heady rush of Manhattan life in the 1950s as an art dealer during the apogee of Abstract Expressionism, finds late adventure both as an English teacher in Nigeria during the Biafra War and a naive (?) participant in a radical left-wing revolutionary, possibly terrorist, group, and reflects on his amazing experiences at the end of his life in a remote corner of France.

I started Any Human Heart without any grand expectations, but it's a marvelous job and well worth reading. It could have been a name-dropping nightmare ("oh, hello, Hemingway") but somehow LMS' humanity and flaws shine, however great the tarnish at times, through any possible obscurement by the great and "good." With LMS, Boyd's basically raised one of the multifarious, often anonymous supporting characters in the lives of so many famous twentieth-century artistic figures to center stage (it would be like Floyd Dell becoming the central focus of Reds). If LMS has a real-life counterpart, it would probably be someone like Cyril Connolly (who, I recently discovered, died the day after I was born), who published one novel and a rumination on failure before moving on to become one of the century's most influential critics. Boyd also identifies one William Gerhardie as a primary inspiration in this excellent Guardian interview.* LMS has much the same kind of career, but with a number of picaresque scrapes and follies that barely touched even Connolly's eventful life. It helps, too, that not only are his flaws are front and center but that he's generally honest about them. He's a bit of a womanizer and hardly ever knows what he really wants, but tends to readily admit to this, at least in his journals. Through minor triumphs and appalling tragedies, he manages to keep his wits about him and never stops enjoying life in one form or another well into his twilight years, when even his retirement sojourn in France yields one more compelling mystery. The journals are breezy, clear and incisive throughout, and Boyd's mischievous editing brilliantly fits the spirit of his fictional "subject." The "liner notes" tend to help the story along in surprising ways, and the interaction of creator and character in this way is deliciously exhilarating. LMS' central "moral," if it can be called that, is that "we're none of us the same person" (literally translated in the series, as described below), and his own life, going through enormous swings of joy and sadness, triumph and tragedy, is a very good proof of such. Most of us probably won't hit the highs and lows of such a life, but it was heartening to read, especially for one reader nearing middle age who hopefully has a while yet to truly peak.

The TV series would inevitably be a disappointment, but it wasn't as much of one as I'd feared. LMS is played by three different actors--Sam Claflin, Matthew MacFadyen, and the great Jim Broadbent--and the action necessarily clips by at great speed, with fairly sizable chunks excised (most sadly the Nigeria sequence) and certain events altered or subtly ignored (LMS' reason for moving back to London from New York). Fortunately, it gets better as it goes along, with the older, wiser, sadder LMS visibly showing both the weight and benefit of his advancing years. Weirdly, the Masterpiece promo namechecks Gillian Anderson (Mrs. Simpson) and Kim Cattrall (LMS' friend and mistress Gloria)--and even MacFadyen (admittedly familiar to Masterpiece and British TV viewers)--but not Broadbent, the only Oscar-winning member of the cast. It clicks along nicely towards the end, which is at once both heartbreaking and heartwarming, with LMS full to the brim of memories, especially of the great love of his life, Freya Deverall (the smolderingly gorgeous Hayley Atwell). Even the unexpected appearance of Myanna Buring (aaaaigh!) as a German revolutionary of the Baader-Meinhof era wasn't as annoying as I'd dreaded (I think I'm on record somewhere calling her the "modern-day Yutte Stensgaard," but that's probably wildly unjust). All in all, it certainly wasn't a match for the book (and probably didn't achieve the extraordinary popularity of the preceding Masterpiece phenomenon, ITV's Downton Abbey), but it was an affectionate abridgement by Boyd of his own masterpiece, and will hopefully get more people interested in this tremendously engaging writer, as I myself have.

Masterpiece itself was the result of an amalgamation of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, both of them PBS staples for decades. There are now Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, and Masterpiece Contemporary (the latter mainly concerning itself with British imports that can in no way be considered period dramas, at least from before the 1960s or so). Watching these shows was a major part of my adolescence (not as great as Doctor Who, although the early 90s repeat of I, Claudius came pretty damn near), and, though they're a major target of those who would rid this country of one of its great cultural triumphs (and are coming close, having won a vote in the House of Representatives to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), had an enormous impact on how I saw the world. Watching shows made for a different country will inevitably change one's outlook on how one sits in the wider world, and this was never more true than of British imports on PBS. Shows like Masterpiece Theatre, privileging though they are (or have been in the past) of a certain kind of British identity (upper-and-middle-class, rural and suburban), do a great job of continuing the work shows like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood started, demonstrating to interested viewers that they aren't alone. They're special, but so is everybody else.*** Seeing people with the same language but radically different accents on a regular basis on TV helps to both consciously and unconsciously underline this reality; it "humanizes" "others," if you like. It follows therefrom that we're all in it together, facing many of the same problems, and that it therefore makes sense to work together on an equal footing. These are the messages I got as a kid and young adult from public broadcasting, and I've never seen any convincing argument against them (they also lay at the conceptual core of just about all the world's religions--one reason why I'm hesitant, devout agnostic though I've become and critic of organized religion though I've been for decades, to offer blanket condemnations of such institutions). In the world we presently inhabit, too, they stand as some of the only positive reinforcements of this same emphasis on cooperation and togetherness that have given this country some of its finest moments and greatest glories. Especially in places where there isn't access to cable TV or the internet, it's one of the only conduits for a wider culture and a showcase for differing views and voices. **** Even with the existence of cable, PBS shows personally come out on top for me largely due to their cooperative ethos (you only have to compare egregious cable cooking shows, focusing on camera-friendly primping and standards of competition that suggest the contestants haven't mentally cleared kindergarten, let alone culinary school--and let's not open that can of worms, eh?--or the vetting process, with something like Simply Ming). It's a great thing that exists in this country, this cooperative impulse, and has been trodden into the ground over the past several years, if not several decades, largely by people who can't bring themselves to believe that other people are worth anything, let alone as much as themselves. In short, PBS stands for everything that's finest in America, and it would be an extraordinarily stupid act of cultural self-harm if we let it fall into the disrepair these Tea Party-influenced legislators seem to want so badly.

*"27 November 1936: Evelyn [Waugh] was in the bar with some people and, in conversation, I let him know I'd just been in Spain and told him how impressed I'd been with the Republican spirit. He looked at me pityingly, his pale blue eyes wide and bright. 'Spain has nothing to do with you or me, Logan,' he said. And then immediately contradicted himself by asking if I'd seen any burnt-out churches. I'd seen locked ones, I said, but no signs of anti-clericalism. Then he changed the subject and started asking me questions about Aethelred and the Edgefields. Sometimes I think I'm only of interest to Evelyn because I married an earl's daughter."

**Their reviews are often shit, but they usually do good interviews.

***I've often seen the spectacularly wrong-headed accusation made elsewhere that Mr. Rogers actually encouraged self-centeredness among children by his emphasis on personal "specialness." I was well aware at the time that he was talking to many other kids just like me in that regard, and I'm pretty damn certain everyone else knew the same (just about every lesson imparted by the Kingdom of Make-Believe involved this idea, with a subtle anti-monarchist twist). When the arguments reach that level of crapitude, you can be fairly sure you're dueling with someone on bad faith.

****My friend Richard lives in California's Inland Empire, and apparently the region is already suffering the effects of KCET's harebrained decision to detach itself from the CPB and run itself largely on British imports, forgoing the kind of educational and grassroots American programming that forms much of the rest of PBS' output. That's the kind of thing we can anticipate across the country if the CPB gets defunded.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 28 February 2011 1:16 PM EST
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19 February 2011
A Poor Judge Of A Great Masterpiece
Now Playing: Blur--"Sunday Sunday"

From the outset, it should be made clear that today's title was my college friend Will's opinion of my take on the 1961 film epic El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the starring role. The most unusual slice of 90s nostalgia that's resulted this week from my furious fit of memory-gouging, inspired by what follows...

 Sara Marcus, Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010): Riot Grrrl was a feminist movement for political, social, and cultural change that began in the early 1990s and linked the myriad concerns of many disaffected young women. It expressed itself most famously through the music of a variety of performers, most notably Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and later Sleater-Kinney (itself the product of earlier Riot Grrrl bands like Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17), but also through instances of social connection and political action--Riot Grrrl chapters were set up in the movement's hubs of Washington, DC, and Olympia, Washington, as well as a number of other cities throughout the country. Though enormously influential on both the development of third-wave feminism and independent music, it foundered for a time on both hostile mainstream media attitudes and the internal tensions which were largely inevitable among so many passionate, intelligent, and talented individuals. Though Riot Grrrl chapters as such had gone their separate ways by the late 1990s, the movement remains a powerful inspiration and example to a great many women (and not a few men, myself included).

That, at, any rate, is a relatively neutral portrayal of a protean phenomenon that lay beneath the pop culture mainstream of my own young adulthood like a simmering fault line. I started the 1990s as a teenage boy intellectually and idealistically sympathetic to feminism but riven by the same hormonal tug-of-war that can make life at that age such a glory and a hell for young people. This conflict arguably helped to reinforce, to some extent, the same patriarchal norms that some (at least I) tried desperately to escape. I didn't encounter Riot Grrrl in any obviously discernible guise until I read a piece on Sleater-Kinney in Rolling Stone, a chance encounter from which they would proceed to become my favorite American band of the 90s, but in reading Sara Marcus' superb history of Riot Grrrl's life and times, I was struck at how many times my own life had nearly intersected with, if not Riot Grrrl, the same problems and concerns it faced.

At sixteen or seventeen, I was involved in a counterdemonstration against Randall Terry's grotesque "pro-life" Operation Rescue outside Baton Rouge's now sadly defunct Delta Women's Clinic. The rise of groups like Operation Rescue had been a major catalyst, along with the tortured Supreme Court tale of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, for pro-woman action and organizing, as well as the much-ballyhooed declaration of 1992 as "The Year of the Woman." In college in Virginia, I had a number of female friends who held Sassy magazine in high regard, and caught a few echoes that way; Sassy, being a young women's magazine with a relatively "alternative" approach, was one of the primary media battlegrounds for Riot Grrrl. The rise of zines and DIY publishing was another prominent feature of the movement, and I remember quite a few friends and acquaintances of mine who started their own in senior year--one of them a friend of my friend Annie's (whose name I sadly can't remember), whose concerns and pieces were squarely addressed in opposition to the dominance of patriarchal culture (reading them, I felt a profound helplessness, which was fairly educational in itself). Then there was our college's inaugural Take Back The Night rally, at which I remember hearing people I knew muster their enormous courage and take the stage to describe their rapes or abuse; I'm pretty sure the organizers were familiar or had links with the movement. Much of the movement's activity, even during its alleged decline, was centered around the DC area and Northern Virginia, and it's sad to think that the only time I ever managed to get up there during my time at Roanoke was for NORML's National Marijuana Day in 1996. All this blather is by way of expressing how tantalizingly close many of these events, discussions, and issues came to intersecting my own life and possibly changing it for the better, and this is all coming from someone--a straight white male of middle-class background--who arguably needed the movement's help the least. I think it would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to make any personal claims on its background or development, and I'm not trying to do that here. Its ideals, though, still point a way towards a better world where much of the bullshit that's negatively impacted my life in many ways (and may have done the same to people I knew who I cared about or loved, and perhaps still does) is no more, or at least has been shown to be vulnerable to challenge. I also love the music (even if the stuff I was listening to while Riot Grrrl was in the ascendant was closer to my "now playing" selection on today's blog post).

Sara Marcus, a writer and musician who had been a Riot Grrrl (and arguably still was), came to the University of Michigan to give a talk on her book (she gave a reading the next day, but I had to work). It was with all the aforementioned in mind that I went to hear her speak, on the origins of Riot Grrrl, its historical context, and its complex relations with an often hostile mainstream media. The room, a fairly decent-sized one in Lane Hall, was packed with people of many ages, which was good to see. It was an excellent talk (with great musical samples), all the more so for the questions and discussion that followed--these latter ranged from the ability of music to be political, the necessity of physical tangibility to revolutionary messages (i.e. zines vs. blogs), and some of the undercurrents that helped to fracture and change the movement. I was completely unprepared for the rush of 90s nostalgia that hit me while listening, and though I didn't need to be sold, I bought the book (a little surprised I didn't buy two), and looked forward to reading it (in between Hawthorne and Maupassant--it was an interesting time for reading) all week. I got done with it a couple of days ago, and it's fantastic.

It's great both as an even-handed, wideranging narrative of an important historical moment and as a piece of nonfiction literature. Marcus draws her personal experience into the book from the very first, describing her hellish adolescence in suburban Maryland, what Riot Grrrl meant to it, and how it changed it. The narrative runs from 1989 to 1996, examining how Olympia, with its alternative mecca of Evergreen State College, and DC, with its political and cultural resources and legendary punk and DIY scene of the 1980s, became the movement's twin nodes. Bikini Kill, achieving popularity in its Pacific Northwest scene, developed the concept of "Riot Grrrl" as a way to help young women faced with the same conflicting messages that they were, especially those powerless in a legislative sense (under 18). They, and their fellows such as Bratmobile, migrated to DC in the early 1990s as a way to harness the potential inherent in such a scene (with the help of established musicians like Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi). By 1993, Riot Grrrl had become a national phenomenon, commented on (and more usually caricatured) by major media outlets. Young women everywhere conducted meetings, went to rallies, formed bands, demonstrated, and carried out the occasional act of "culture jamming" (in one such described, a couple of Riot Grrrls went into a magazine section and slipped self-affirming, body-neutral messages into fashion rags like Cosmo or Vogue). 

By 1994, though, a number of conflicts had arisen. Bikini Kill's success put distance, however unintentional, between the movement's founders and the very women that Riot Grrrl was supposed to help. The movement's ideals, too, formed a paradoxical obstacle. Riot Grrrl was all about subverting the media, but there were times when some kind of media presence was the only way to reach women without the often privileged communication networks on which the movement had started. Privilege also played a role in the complex relations the movement explored with women of different races, sexual orientations, body types, and economic backgrounds, with a number of arguments and divisions arising therefrom (it should be mentioned that Riot Grrrl's approach, with all its faults, was a lot more self-aware in this regard than previous feminist movements). It didn't help that most interactions with the wider media resulted in grotesque misintepretations, the result of simplification and stereotype. The end is left as something of an open question--the Riot Grrrl "movement" ended in whatever "official" sense it had existed, but there are still plenty of Riot Grrrls out there, and thank everything for it.

Marcus' work has risen to one of my all-time favorites in non-fiction. It's hard to tell whether this impression will last, but it's also hard not to admire the often seamless way in which she integrates political, social, and cultural history, having to focus in one instance on the electoral politics that produced the legislative climate of the early 90s, and another on a close reading of songs like Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (as well as my favorite, "Alien She"), and then the same on a striking piece of confrontational art in which activist Angela Seguel posed naked with a pro-Riot Grrrl message written on her body--the mini-history of that one statement is marvelous. That particular instance also serves as a great example of how the movement influenced and helped create, to a certain extent, third-wave feminism, a more inclusive, sex-positive discourse than its occasionally puritanical predecessor of the 1960s and 1970s. Marcus sometimes makes that point directly, but more often wisely lets it arise naturally through the actions and examples of the Riot Grrrls themselves. Her style is breezy yet authoritative, with colloquialisms employed much more deftly than other writers I could name (and admittedly love, like Sarah Vowell).

I also find it remarkable how non-judgmental it all is throughout (although this tendency--constructively criticizing one's fellows without the negativity--is fairly appropriate for a history of Riot Grrrl). Nobody stands out as a "hero" or "villain," and even the most rigorous of popular histories that I've read on nearly any subject tend to get that one wrong. The only ongoing obvious villain of the piece is the patriarchal culture that made (and make) Riot Grrrl's struggles so necessary in the first place. As for heroes, Marcus makes quite clear that they all are in one way or another. Kathleen Hanna arose early as a representative figure of both Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill (both names the brainchild of bandmate Tobi Vail), but her own frequent disavowals and colossal misgivings regarding this common human tendency effectively scuppered any claim to traditional hero status. Teen maverick Jessica Hopper, whose celebrity-seeking and association with movement-bashing Courtney Love made her a suspicious figure to many Riot Grrrls, comes across rather sympathetically, as a confused young woman trying to make the best of her situation. The links with the nearby Seattle grunge explosion of the time are interesting to note, too; Kurt Cobain was friends with the Bikini Kill members, habitually plugged the band in interviews, and was Tobi Vail's ex-boyfriend (only one reason for Love's hostility, and Vail was disappointed in what she saw to be Cobain's selling out), and his own internal tensions (DIY purity vs. rock megastardom) hold an interesting mirror to what would happen with Riot Grrrl later down the road.* It's a very understanding yet clear-eyed lens through which these stories are seen, and the difference is enormously refreshing. Marcus conducted numerous interviews with movement veterans throughout the country, and the result is a bracingly collective recollection of a transformative time in many lives. It's a marvelous work and I anticipate rereading it with pleasure.

It's really served to inspire me, too, in rather alarming ways. This year's been a pretty shaky one already, both abroad and at home, and my own resolutions to do something about lingering and negative issues in my life (obliquely described above) have only gotten stronger both through observation of the world scene and the examples provided throughout Girls To The Front. Listening to the discussion at Marcus' talk earlier this week made me wonder what's keeping me from doing what I need to do. It's a wonderfully frightening, liberating feeling and I hope it stays with me for a considerable time to come.

*As someone who largely couldn't have given two figs for Cobain or his music (and who only remembers where he was when the news came that he'd killed himself--at college one morning via the primitive pre-Internet IRC--because of the national youth freakout that promptly ensued), I came away from Girls To The Front feeling more than a little sympathy for the guy. Still not into the music, though.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 19 February 2011 12:27 PM EST
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30 January 2011
High-Octane Ennui
Now Playing: Wolf Parade--"Two Men In New Tuxedos"

I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater in late 1994. It was a very strange time for me; I'd just gotten back to college (in Virginia) from a family funeral, it was the middle of the weekend and my friends were all off doing other things, so I found myself at looser ends than usual. For lack of anything else, I drove down to the Grandin Theater in Roanoke and saw that Pulp Fiction was playing. Why not, eh? The girl at the counter (who I recognized from campus as a friend of friends) asked me if I'd seen it before, and the sly look that passed across her face at my "no" was alluringly alarming. I went in, sat down, and was promptly blown away. I remember being a Tarantino nut for a year thanks to Pulp Fiction, even to the extent of reacting rather sharply to my John Woo-loving friend's tearing apart plot holes in her own criticism of the film (pot kettle black, of course, when it comes to John Woo, but I should have been more sportsmanlike about the whole thing). I had earlier encountered QT in Reservoir Dogs, which I'd seen with my friend Rob that summer, but somehow didn't really link the two together (it's gone steadily down in my estimation since then). After Pulp Fiction, I didn't keep careful track of the man's movements, and his screechingly annoying segment in Four Rooms--which at least has a happy ending, I guess--pretty much dampened my enthusiasm for good. Since then, he became something of an artistic figure of fun for me (even though I heard--and hear--that 1996's Jackie Brown was really good).* I had--and have--no desire to Kill Bill, and one may well ask what possessed me to revisit his work in the past couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember. 

Inglourious Basterds (2009): "Ah-haaaa! He got the spelling wrong! Oh... oh, yeah. It's '"'"'"'ironic.'"'"'"' Go to hell." On a superficial level (not that there's really anything else here), Tarantino's Second World War orgy of self-indulgence is a remake/homage of Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 actioner Inglorious Bastards, with Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, and Ian Bannen (and just the mere typing of that cast does make me want to see it a little). Curious to see what the great middlebrow authority Leonard Maltin (formerly my film Moses) thought of it, it looks like the verdict was "great scenes in search of a movie." There's a fair amount of truth to that, although I don't think many of them were all that great. A group of Jewish GIs (including the majestically obnoxious Eli Roth, The Office's B.J. Novak, and--huzza!--Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine), led by Appalachian mystery man Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)--well, I wonder where that name came from. I think QT may have seen old movies before and enjoyed them. Let me start over. A group of Jewish GIs, etc. etc. are dumped into Festung Europa in 1944 to basically massacre Nazis in conjunction with the big invasion. They, and a gutsy Jewish resistance fighter named Shoshanna (the excellent Melanie Laurent, who deserved better), find themselves in opposition to the wily SS Colonel Hans Landa (the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz), and lots and lots and lots of people get killed, including Goebbels and Hitler under circumstances that, spoiler alert, do not match the historical record. I'd heard that last bit was going to happen, and I was fine with it, in much the same way that I loved A Knight's Tale, despite the fact that people in the fourteenth century didn't enjoy Queen or David Bowie for obvious reasons. My problems with Inglourious Basterds lay elsewhere. If Donnie Darko was the kind of movie I (all other things being equal) would have made at seventeen (not necessarily a bad thing; I was fascinated as a result, probably more than the movie deserved), Inglourious Basterds is the one I would have made If I'd been pumped full of knowledge of interwar European cinema (about which people talk, and talk, and talk)? There's no real believable link between various scenes, and the vaunted "time-shift" qualities of Tarantino's script are really just a result of screenwriting diarrhea. Pitt is fun, and the acting is all generally fine (I think Roth's character is supposed to be obnoxious, and he's also really, really... from Boston). It's especially good to see Michael Fassbender (so good in Centurion, and so amusing in the great but really depressing Eden Lake) as the posh Brit agent who comes along for the ride. Not only do we get Hitler, but we also get Churchill, played by a much (personally) loved leading actor of the 60s I didn't even know still lived. Sadly, he has to share the screen with another relatively low-billed, and supremely off-putting cameo (the cameo actor probably reacting to the job with the same glee that drove QT to make this travesty). Waltz is great, but nowhere near the marvel he was touted in the media. This is understandable, I think, as his achievement is akin to dropping a live-action Paul Scofield into an episode of Jabberjaw. There's no emotional investment in any of the characters, and the standard goalpost-shifting many critics habitually do when it comes to Tarantino movies left me feeling a little depressed (albeit a lot more sanguine about my relative lack of attendance at the theater these days).

Death Proof (2007): He really ought to be doing more stuff like Death Proof. The second half of Grindhouse, his retro collaboration with Robert Rodriguez to resurrect the feel of 70s drive-in cinema (down to the "feature presentation" titles), Death Proof actually pleases both on a visceral level and the anything-goes cartoon world of Tarantino's cinematic influences. A party of young women in Texas are out on the town, and attract the unpleasant attentions of a mysterious stranger known as "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell) who drives around in a black Chevy Nova with a skull on the hood. Things get hilarious, then tense, then grisly, and soon Mike's back on the road again, tangling with a new bunch of ladies in Tennessee--only this time things don't go quite according to plan. It's great, trashy fun; some of the dialogue, especially in the early scenes, is comically unrealistic, but one expects these things from QT. The film starts out purposefully grainy, and there are a few other entertaining gimmicks for "historical authenticity" (despite the film's taking place in the present) that would normally piss me off but which actually come off as rather endearing. The acting is a trip--Russell is an absolute blast, from start to finish, and the women are by and large terrific. Rosario Dawson, as ever, is a delight, and Vanessa Ferlito shines as Arlene (aka "Butterfly). There are great jobs done, too, from non-actors like stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who spends much of the film sprawled atop the hood of a car going top speed down a highway). Tarantino himself inevitably shows up (and Eli Roth), but he's less of an onscreen annoyance than usual. The visual cues to other classic films (Vanishing Point in particular) are fairly apposite for a change, and it all somehow fits together. What's dangerous about Death Proof is that it might encourage me to stay halfway interested in Tarantino's work. Though the future will take care of itself, I worry.

*Things didn't improve after I read Killer Instinct, the hilarious 1997 memoir by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy of their time spent as producers of 1993's Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino wrote (full disclosure--I hated Natural Born Killers). Hamsher, of course, would go on to greater fame in the past decade as the founder of FireDogLake, the problematic online scourge of centrist Democrats (I have profoundly mixed feelings on FDL myself), and Killer Instinct is unsurprisingly full of incisive, hilarious critique of the way things are done in Hollywood. Even better are the various stories about Tarantino and director Oliver Stone (the latter racing around the Arizona desert in a cape to throw any drug-sniffing cops off the scent). The book was subject to a few lawsuits, and Murphy and Hamsher apparently ended their partnership not long after as a result. Unfortunate, but I'll always cherish the memory of seeing QT's note he passed to Hamsher at some kinnd of meeting or awards dinner extolling her "pretty legs" in the prose style of a not-particularly bright second-grader. The picture was captioned along the lines of "a work of Academy Award screenwriting nominee Quentin Tarantino."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:44 AM EST
Updated: 30 January 2011 11:39 PM EST
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31 December 2010
Easy As Cake
Now Playing: Crystal Castles (!!!)--"I Am Made Of Chalk"

2010 (subtitled The Year We Make Contact) was a pretty decent sequel to Stanley Kubrick's classic adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel," overseen by British journeyman director Peter Hyams. It's a good, solid sci-fi film, and a refreshingly evenhanded plea for tolerance and goodwill among humanity (it was made in 1984 and concerned a joint US-Soviet expedition to Jupiter, not knowing that the Soviet Union would be gone within the decade). Though certainly nowhere near the classic status of its forbear, it's got some great actors and good performances (I'm trying to think of any bad performance Helen Mirren's actually given), and allows one of our great character actors, Bob Balaban, his moment in the sun (or the reflected light of Jupiter, in this case) as the obsessive Dr. Chandra, HAL-9000's creator who comes along on the expedition to reason with his troubled brainchild (their final scene together still brings a tear to the eye). I haven't seen it in over a decade, but I'm pretty sure there's a flying car in one scene, and that hasn't happened yet.

Still, 2010 was, for me, a good, solid year. There were none of the social or occupational fireworks of 2009, and some of the political promise that had many of us cautiously excited has dissipated. For myself, there's been a lot of creating and a few solid achievements. I was made head gardener (the actual title would mean nothing to most of you) at work, along with my regular duties, I had a batch of film reviews published in Darrell Buxton's excellent collection The Shrieking Sixties, I acquired a fun new hobby with buying a camera and have taken some really good shots, from what people tell me, and I just completed a much longer project that fulfils a long-standing ambition. So it's been a bit quieter than 2009, but none the worse for it.

I'm wrapping it up with a mess of society. Mittenfest in Ypsilanti finally opened early enough for me to make it out there (the buses stop running back at 10), now to Woodruff's, a fun new club in historic Depot Town. I snuck in there the first night, said hello to Brandon and Annie, and marveled at how much my life had changed since the first proto-version of Mittenfest played at the Madison House on Memorial Day, 2005 and kick-started my social life (it's interesting that I started the decade on a high and went out on one, despite a huge slump right before the middle). Mittenfest primarily benefits 826michigan, a species of the nationwide 826 program started by writer Dave Eggers to help promote literacy and creative writing for secondary school-age kids. I think they do great work, despite their de facto tenuous connection with the egregious McSweeney's. Sadly, the acts I saw (only a couple, to be sure) weren't terribly inspiring, with the exception of Hamtramck's superb Pewter Cub, who I firmly plan to investigate further--their CD the door opened; you get in... is pretty sweet, too. Tonight I'll be hitting my friend Margot's party (after a trepidatious period of seeing if we'd be getting any rain, as I'll be taking the bike) and then, if I'm feeling silly enough, hitting the Bang! at the Blind Pig in a ludicrously circuitous route home. I have to work tomorrow, too, so can't stay out too late. And then I just found out there's another party tomorrow at another friend's house. If you'd told me I would have had to worry about this stuff six or seven years ago, I would have told you "yes, please."

I think this decade could be an eventful one, and I hope they aren't the wrong kind. This next year I think will be rather weird. Just a feeling; there are minor shakeups coming at the job due to the construction project that will double the business in physical size and we still have little idea as to what they'll really be. I've made a decision regarding my personal life that I hope to put into action this year, and it could be pretty influential--it's certainly frightening. In any event, it won't be boring. I also need to make a bird feeder.

Wherever you are, have a happy New Year, and I'll see you around! Maybe people, myself included, will realize we don't need flying cars by the time New Year's Eve 2020 rolls around.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:28 PM EST
Updated: 31 December 2010 9:30 PM EST
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1 December 2010
Bookworm Hamsterdam
Now Playing: White Cowbell Oklahoma--"Get On Get Down"

There's been a recent online trend of "top lists," taking our apparent human tendency to compile lists and applying it to favorite movies, TV shows, songs, etc. The book lists have understandably been around longer than most, and a spate of British "100 books you can't live without" compilations (the BBC, the Guardian) were recently cited by one or more friends on Facebook. Noticing that the list included books by disgraced (in a just world) Detroit sports columnist Mitch Albom, icily uninvolved Mississippi-born phenom Donna Tartt (The Secret History was, at times, spellbindingly awful), and Dan Brown (enough said, although I'm surprised the British people didn't initiate a class action suit en masse for defamation in The Da Vinci Code's character of Leigh Teabing), I figured it was probably just as well that people came up with their own lists, and others agreed with me, especially if you check out this superb rundown of one man's essential literature.

In trying to think of mine, I found that I kept revisiting my own history of reading. I started very early (my first prose work Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon) and went through a number of genre manias--if you'd asked me my favorite book at seven, it might have been one of the pocket-sized biographies of explorers written by Adele DeLeeuw and illustrated by Nathan Goldstein; if at twelve, almost certainly something by Jules Verne. I went through the "high classic" phase in high school, throwing myself into what was known in those days as the "Dead White Male" "school" of literature, and only started to branch out in college into the literature of other cultures and other genres (science fiction in particular). Working in a bookstore, however obnoxious, after college only broadened my reading range and grad school not only failed to constrain my outside reading, but also enriched it through a wider understanding of what constituted "literature" (a colleague of mine's grade in his historiography class suffered because he refused to write a two-page paper on the excerpt of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution we studied*--I still find that a profoundly silly move). My growing interest in the "weird fiction" movement of the early 20th century helped to break down the barriers, as did the example of British film historian Darrell Buxton, who seemed to view the great, canonical film classics and, say, anything "starring" Robin Askwith through the same critical lens.

The process and examples cited above essentially destroyed the partitions I'd been encouraged to erect in high school and college between high and low art, but not necessarily in a leveling way. I still don't contest the greatness of many of the works I studied in lit class (although I do consider any time I spent on Spenser's The Faerie Queene to be time wasted, the genocidal old fart); rather my concern is with the "lesser" works, some of which rise to be classics in their own right, seen through my own lens. To take a couple of examples from below (spoilers!), A Wizard of Earthsea or The Black Arrow (or, to a lesser extent, Scaramouche) have character development just as compelling, for me, as anything in Hamlet. I know that I'd rather read any of those three instead of Hamlet, and not simply for escapist reasons (indeed, there's little that's truly escapist about any of the three mentioned). Hamlet's still a marvelous work (though I knew more than one English teacher who didn't care for it), but so are those other three. One of the reasons I look askance at some of the stuff we're asked to take seriously as modern American literature is that there's still a stuffy attitude towards what's known as "genre" literature from the powers that be, even after the crossover success of authors like Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (there were times when, reading Laura Miller's The Magician's Book--her "re-examination" of The Chronicles of Narnia--you could hear her grit her teeth through the pages). That's why I don't really like or trust, say, McSweeney's and their occasional anthological attempts to "revive" genre fiction; it carried the powerful whiff of "adults" revisiting the "playground," when there are many who consider that playground, at times, a more accurate reflection of the world and adulthood than the "adult" world with which we're constantly presented in the media (their "humor" collection was appalling, too). Thoughts such as these influenced my list all the way through.

I stuck with novels. I've never been a big reader of drama or poetry, and can't remember the last book of poetry I read (last play was Harold Pinter's magnificent Betrayal, in preparation for a friend's performance I couldn't attend due to unforeseen work-related causes). I used to write a fair amount of poetry, but haven't done so in probably a decade; prose was and is definitely my medium. I started drawing up a list, but kept getting stuck on fifty. There's no real reason I need to keep with a hundred. My reading habits have suffered in recent years due to my own writing; I made the somewhat trepidatious decision that I'd read enough and needed to start writing my own stuff. This hasn't been a hard and fast rule; I've kept reading, of course, but nowhere near as much as I used to, when I habitually read about a hundred books a year. In recent years, too, I'd started reading more (non-history) non-fiction, to the extent where I could probably think about a non-fiction list (but maybe in a couple of years, not now). As for the novels themselves, the criteria were necessarily elastic. The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, has been my favorite novel for a good two decades, but the precise purpose for the others' inclusion vary wildly. Some were profoundly influential, some call to mind particular times in my life, some simply carried me away, some had unimprovable setpieces at certain points in the book, and some were the best representation under the circumstances of authors I love who wouldn't be included otherwise. It's interesting, too, for me to note how many of these novels have become "primers" of mine in writing my own fiction (and some have mainly been included for that reason). So the list is a bit... methodologically shambolic, but it's mine, and I think it's a good one (although with the exception of #1, there's no particular order to these). Get ready for lots of words like "hypnotic," "engrossing," "indelible," "riveting," "affectionate," etc. Read and enjoy, and go forth and compile.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas pere: My friend Karen loves it too, but called it a "trashy romance novel." It could be described as such, I guess, but I think she did put a lot of stock in those aformentioned partitions that I've discarded. To start, I'm simply going to direct the reader here (along with a review of the 1998 miniseries with Gerard Depardieu--once you read the novel, you'll realize how ridiculous those words should appear). It's long (in the unabridged version), frequently schmaltzy and overripe, many of the "good" female characters are little better than dolls, and heavily reliant on concidence. It's French, though, and the Victorian cliches and mores (then in their relative infancy--the book was serialized in the early 1840s) have that little twist to them that makes it an entertainingly offbeat experience. The dominating theme of revenge, and the near superheroic title character, undeniably imprinted themselves on my literary--and general--subconscious, and probably influenced my own work in ways I can hardly guess. Add to that the tremendous political and social ferment that went on in France at the time (probably more acceptably--from a critical sense--rendered in Hugo's admittedly magnificent Les Miserables)--the book runs from the Hundred Days of 1815 to the height of Louis-Philippe's Orleanist reign (the latter the apex of modernity to Dumas' audience), and you have a literary experience that, to me, is more sensual and intoxicating than any eternal sonnet.

2. Flashman at the Charge, George Macdonald Fraser: G-Mac's bullying Victorian rogue (hilariously lifted from Thomas Hughes' pious Tom Brown's Schooldays) figured in a number of exciting, informative, politically incorrect (occasionally gratuitously and reachingly so, in step with G-Mac's rabidly reactionary tendencies) adventures, but my favorite has to be his account of the Crimean War, exploits as a POW in Czarist Russia and then as a reluctant freedom fighter in Central Asia, the latter empire's "Wild West." The brio, sex, and humor are still there, but so are a chilling account of one of history's most famous military disasters and a surprisingly affecting reflection by our antihero on his own nature. Well worth seeking out.

3. Wise Children, Angela Carter: Carter's glorious late-career triumph is both a fictional history of south London and and an affectionate love letter to the trust and bonds between two heroically daffy sisters, who find their particular odd talents put to the test as never before as they have to save an ungrateful family and unravel a number of long-standing mysteries. I need to read this again; it was a joy to see the plot strands whip here and there with perfect precision, like one went through a really awesome carnival ride. The Bloody Chamber may seem more germane to my own fictional interests, but... really, not much beats Wise Children. Except The Count of Monte Cristo.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jon Le Carre: Many may be more familiar with the superb British TV series with Alec Guinness as spymaster extraordinaire (all the more so for his ordinariness), but Le Carre's original novel is rather deeper and more involved, with the betrayals and intrigues that underpin the plot unfolding in deceptively simple patterns and hints. Definitely one of my all-time favorite spy novels and certainly my favorite of Le Carre's.

5. Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, Jim Munroe: I found Munroe's story of a Toronto college student who becomes an insectoid superhero (by changing into an actual--size-accurate--housefly) by chance in the Akron Public Library in grad school, and learned to my utter shock that not only was there someone out there who wrote a lot like me, but he even looked slightly similar. It was entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and socially progressive without being too strident, and though Munroe's later work hasn't found as much favor with me (excepting his sci-fi novel, Angry Young Spaceman), I still find much artistic inspiration from his ongoing lo-fi efforts, many of which can be found at his website.

6. Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens: I love Dickens and read all his novels almost back-to-back in college (helped by "Phiz" and his illustrations, all included in those particular editions). I've gone back and reread many since (Bleak House is magnificent, as some of you probably know), but none quite evoke the curiosity and thrill that the great man's offbeat fictional account of London's 1780 anti-Catholic "Gordon Riots" does. It's especially interesting as it seems to take place in a kind of "pre-history" of Dickens' traditional literary world (A Tale of Two Cities excepted). Knowing that "dark histories" like Barnaby Rudge lay at the root of so many tangled inheritances and relationships in the following century added immensely to the appeal. There's also a crow in it; they're very, very cool.

7. Therese Raquin, Emile Zola: Zola's a (surprisingly?) huge favorite of mine, and I get the impression he isn't terribly well regarded these days; his philosophy of literary naturalism has fallen long by the wayside, as has his earnestness in the "scientific" dissection of his characters' upbringing and influences. I don't think, though, that I've ever read a Zola novel I didn't like. His first work, though, which caused a scandal in the France of Napoleon III that was about to get steamrollered by Prussia, is probably my favorite. Germinal, L'Assomoir, Le Debacle, Nana, and Au Bonheur des Dames are all great works and favorites (with the possible exception of Germinal, but I just need to reread it again), but they don't have the drive and aren't quite as dripping with evil and greed as Therese Raquin. Drink up for one of the most excruciating dinner scenes you'll ever read!

8. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton: She explored the same truths Henry James did in a much similar milieu, from a subaltern perspective, and with fewer words in a prophetic nod to future readers. Lily Bart is a superb tragic heroine, and the novel's portrait of high-society sharks in late 19th century New York and Italy isn't to be forgotten, especially after Terence Davies' 2000 film adaptation (one of my favorite book-to-cinema translations) with Gillian Anderson as Lily.

9. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest M. Gaines: One of the best books ever written about my home state, and a moving look at the changing role of African-Americans in both Louisiana and the United States through the eyes of a young slave who manages to live (and I mean live) into the dawn of the civil rights era, meeting and surmounting a number of tragedies along the way. The TV movie with Cicely Tyson is well worth watching, too. I had the honor of working at a book-signing with Mr. Gaines in New Roads over a decade ago, and I'll never forget his patience with his well-wishers and the good humor with which he recounted his life and work.

10. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides: A magnificent portrait of southeast Michigan, Detroit, and a marvelous lead in Cal, who crosses all manner of boundaries in the quest for personal fulfilment and identification. Not only is there a rich cast of characters in support, but also a fantastic setpiece (see?) in Eugenides' description of the Detroit "rebellion" (Cal's words) of 1967. The image of young Cal racing through the streets on a kid's bike during the violence isn't easily forgotten.

11. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: The best novel ever written about New Orleans and one of my favorite comic novels of all time. I suppose my background prejudices me in its favor, but Ignatius J. Reilly is a brilliant creation and the characters (even now, Ignatius apart, I couldn't put my finger on a favorite--Jones? The Levys? Patrolman Mancuso? Mr. Gonzalez?), put together, furnish the ammunition for a fully roundabout satire that, for a change, accomplishes the rarely genuine achievement of "equal opportunity offense."

12. The Sundering Flood, William Morris: Morris was essentially the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre, and is better known for his long saga The Well At The World's End. I prefer this tighter work, though, charting the fate of two lovers across a bucolic, deceptively timeless landscape with a bracing finale and a political surprise at the end. More fantasy writers should look behind Tolkien to people like Morris for their inspiration, if you ask me.

13. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Thomas Kenneally: More boundary crossing with Kenneally's tragicomic tale of the title character, an Australian aborigine who, rejected by white society, goes on the lam as a late-period bushranger in a much less socially Manichean tale than one might think. I read Schindler's List (or Ark, written by Kenneally) before I saw the movie, and though I thought Spielberg improved on the book (problematic though the film seemed at times), I'd like to have seen him try with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Stark, moving, and atmospheric.

14. The Devils, Fyodor Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky's rigid conservatism somehow enriches this dark tale of nihilism and revolution in 19th century Russia, loosely inspired, I believe, by the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. Stavrogin is the ultimate progenitor of modern-day right-wing literary bogeymen, but is arguably all the more hypnotic and engrossing for it.

15. Dark Star, Alan Furst: Furst has sadly (in my opinion) only been pleasing himself for a while, but his first few novels were truly exceptional works of historical espionage. Dark Star is probably the best, examining questions of identity and loyalty while providing an exciting, eventful back-and-forth journey across the fateful, darkening landscape of Europe in the late 1930s, with ultimate outcast and spy Andre Szara as the reader's stand-in, a desperately sane man in a rapidly maddening world.

16. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen: Deserved classics Pride and Prejudice and all the rest may be, but I prefer Austen's mildly prophetic jaunt into "meta" territory, as young Catherine Morland lets her Gothic fantasies run wild once she receives an invitation from some new friends to a mysterious country house. The cliches of Gothic novels (and even the kind Austen wrote) are gently and keenly parodied, but the characters never seem less than real, even though they may be less vivid, say, than Lizzie or Darcy.

17. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis: Of all the Chronicles of Narnia, this one is probably my favorite. Aslan pokes his snout in when you least expect it as usual, but the moral lessons seem rather sensible in this one, and it takes place against a rather wide-ranging backdrop, with Shasta and Aravis well-matched as a bickering couple who wouldn't seem entirely out of place in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The vast land of Calormen may have been a conservative English parody of Orientalist fantasies, but the Tisroc could have stepped out of The Arabian Nights (which Lewis unsurprisingly didn't like, the more fool him) as a shrewd sultan or adviser. And, once again, there are talking animals.

18. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The first volume of the Buru Quartet is my favorite work by Indonesia's most famous writer. A heartbreaking love story and a compelling historical account of colonial Java, I wish it had been a little shorter so I could have assigned it in my Southeast Asia class instead of "Pram"'s more didactic debut, The Fugitive. Annelies' travails are truly heartbreaking.

19. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle: I've loved all the Holmes stories since I was a kid, and I still think the most famous Holmes novel is my favorite of the longer works, the change from the great crimefighting pair's usual London haunts and the grim, forbidding Dartmoor setting serving the story wonderfully (not to mention the classic contrast between the great detective's unflinching rationalism and the brooding folklore that inspired his case). 

20. The Feast of All Saints, Anne Rice: I don't care for Anne Rice, and her historical novel chronicling the fortunes of New Orleans' antebellum gens du couleur libre (free blacks) is probably her least obnoxious work. Fortunately, it's also terrific, Rice's cartoonish Gothic morbidity finally meeting its match in the grotesque world the characters are forced to inhabit. The result is riveting and haunting in the extreme. 

21. Claudine at School, Colette: Colette's semi-autobiographical account of her younger years was a revelation, as much of my reading from the fin de siecle had been awfully stodgy in comparison. Bitchy plotting, back-stabbing, surprisingly warm and affectionate friendships, implied lesbianism (that may have been my imagination or misreading)... it offered a picture of nineteenth-century France (one of my favorite historical and literary backdrops) I'd never discovered and thoroughly enlivened a rather grim period in my life.

22. Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini: Perhaps not as well-known as Captain Blood, the story of pathological smartass Andre-Louis Moreau and his adventures before and during the French Revolution is (a) a lot better and (b) gives us one of popular literature's most indelible and appealing (for me, anyway) characters, as well as a first-hand open-air demonstration of the history of the commedia dell'arte. An interesting and superior contrast to stuff like Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel

23. Dwellers In The Mirage, A. Merritt: I discovered Merritt by chance in Akron, and he swiftly become one of my favorite writers, a masterful champion of the pulp form without the morbidity and loquacity of, say, Lovecraft (love the latter though I do). The Moon Pool was my first Merritt love, but his finest work is probably Dwellers, in which northern Alaska is revealed to conceal a hidden civilization (a Merritt specialty) which not only offers high adventure and rugged doings but also a surprisingly melancholy take on fate and inevitability. Merritt at his finest, and for me, that's saying a lot.

24. The Plague, Albert Camus: I haven't read any Camus since college, but The Plague took me aback, as the characters' existential struggles in pestilence-ravaged Oran gave voice to a surprisingly life-affirming message, as a motley band of outcasts have to band together in order to face the remorseless and faceless title enemy (not to mention themselves). Probably well worth rereading one of these days.

25. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin: I read the Earthsea Chronicles at about the same time I read Lord of the Rings, and while the latter's stock with me has steadily declined, the Earthsea books have only grown in stature. I need to reread the whole thing, but Wizard was something of a mold-breaker, refashioning sword-and-sorcery tropes into a mysterious, hypnotic saga of dashed hubris, self-discovery, and redemption that pulls away purely escapist elements like a flag before a bull. Fantastic stuff, and especially interesting when read alongside the (hilariously) lackluster SyFy miniseries.

26. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner: Faulkner was something of a mania with me ever since I was convinced to revisit my As I Lay Dying-induced hatred in high school and try The Sound and the Fury. I enjoyed several of Faulkner's novels, but Absalom, Absalom! and its examination of the weird, wild Sutphen family, was probably the extreme Faulkner experience, as far as I was concerned. I haven't looked back, really, but it's become one of my mind's enduring shadows.

27. Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery: A very pleasant surprise, and a lovely evocation of rural life and the pleasures of... Canada. Occasionally sugary and sappy, but nowhere near as much as I thought it would be. There are good reasons for its popularity, and Anne Shirley is as beguiling a heroine as has ever appeared in print. I was so taken with Anne that I actually read a few of the others (even though I got stuck on the third or fourth).

28. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad: Conrad's another of those figures who captured my imagination while not having written much of anything for which I have great fondness. Two exceptions (arguably three, if one counts Victory): The Secret Agent and Nostromo. While The Secret Agent's the most influential, Nostromo is the most epic and ambitious, with a rich cast of characters and an unforgettable setting in the breakaway rebel province of Sulaco, with a fortune in gold missing and any number of armies or factions vying for its control and the power that would bring. Nostromo himself is a vivid, compelling figure, but it's interesting to note, too, how often he's simply at the mercy of events, a thoughtful philosophical statement from Conrad.

29. A Soldier Erect, Brian W. Aldiss: Aldiss is best known for his science fiction, but his semi-autobiographical account of his soldier days in Burma during the Second World War struck me sideways during college, mainly for how clear-eyed yet plucky young Horatio Stubbs remained, even in the face of military obtuseness and Japanese attack. One of the top subconscious influences in my own work, and all the more cherished because of it.

30. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne: I'm still not sure I can really make head nor tail of it, but Sterne's pre-meta classic (made into a wonderful film--somehow--by Michael Winterbottom) is a continuing inspiration, both in the character of Uncle Toby and the reminder that, in fiction, anything is possible so long as you know how and when to package it. That reminds me, too, I still need to read A Sentimental Journey.

31. The Deluge, Henryk Sienkiewicz: Sienkiewicz is probably best known outside Poland for Quo Vadis? and inside Poland for his mammoth historical fiction trilogy on Poland from 1648 to 1672 (written in the nineteenth century, when Poland was still ruled by Russia, Prussia--then Germany--and the Austrian Empire). Fire on the Steppe is the most highly regarded critically (Basia's a wonderful heroine, too), but I prefer The Deluge myself, mainly for the redemptive story of Andrei Kmita and the staggering setpiece in the novel's midsection recounting the epic 1655 siege of Czestochowa. If it gripped any harder, I'd choke.

32. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury: I'm not a huge fan of Bradbury--his nostalgia addiction turns me off--but he was never better than in subverting his own ideals in one of his most famous novels (more a collection of connected short stories, but I tend to consider it a novel). Some of the stories are quiet pinnacles of sci-fi/horror, some gentle ruminations on the inevitability of decay. Eloquent and brilliant.

33. Old Mortality, Walter Scott: Stark, striking story set against religious and political unrest in 1670s Scotland, and here Scott's at his best, with vivid characters interacting with real-life historical personages ("Bonnie Dundee") and plot lines handled with seemingly effortless brilliance. Old Mortality was so striking that I'm using it as a primer of sorts on how to write (among other works).

34. Mother London, Michael Moorcock: Moorcock's more an inspiration to me for his influence and artistic philosophy than for any large-scale work he's actually written, but Mother London was a fantastic blurring of genre lines that help to underscore how silly the partitions are at times, examining the postwar history of the city through a few interconnected families, some with legs in both Moorcock's "sci-fi/fantasy" and "literary" universes. "Literary" nativists beware!

35. The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger: A cliched choice, to be sure, but Holden's various plights spoke to me at that age as eloquently as they spoke to a great many other (probably male) adolescents, and the impressionistic picture of 50s New York is undeniably captivating. Even in the novel's riotously masculine world, Phoebe stands out as another great female character in the place you'd least expect.

36. Our Man In Havana, Graham Greene: Greene's knowledge of the tangled espionage circles of pre-Castro Cuba and his innate, yet often compromised humanity meet to superb effect in the character of Wormold, who, in the words of my own co-worker, "makes it work for him" and causes panic and uproar in the secret halls on both sides of the Atlantic. A wonderful satire and a great (if only implicit) bucket of Cold War cold water on the lies we're so often told.

37. (There's A Slight Chance) I Might Be Going To Hell, Laurie Notaro: Notaro's another of those writers I found by chance who swiftly went on to become one of my all-time favorites. Mainly a writer of humorous essays, #37 was her first novel and mirrored her own relocation from Arizona to Oregon, as a newly-arrived transplant discovers that her bucolic new home hides many (often hilarious) dark secrets. The alternately witty and merrily vulgar humor that infused her essays hasn't lost any of its sparkle in the transmutation to fiction. Excellent use of canine characters, too, probably some of the best I've ever read.

38. The Space Merchants, C.L. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl: Gloriously cynical, far-seeing advertising sci-fi satire written in the 1950s and set well into the future, as corporations run the U.S. government (to quote someone I can't remember, "a far-fetched and unlikely scenario") and dominate space. An ad exec runs off the rails and finds himself exiled to Central American plantation/gulags as he tries to clear his name and/or destroy the system that's trying to destroy him. Probably the closest book I've ever read to the manic spirit and scabrous joy of a film like Theodore Flicker's The President's Analyst.

39. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: Many may find this a surprising choice, but I've reread it twice since my boyhood and I still think it's great. One of the most literary titanic statements of humans vs. fate is considerably enlivened by the maritime setting and expert knowledge of the whaling world of the mid-1800s. If that doesn't spell "fun," then I don't know what does (or I need to be committed).

40. Isara, Wole Soyinka: Soyinka's follow-up to Ake is a warm, affectionate semi-autobiographical account (got a lot of these in here) of his young adulthood and the continuing ambitions of his traditional, often flummoxed father. Vivacious yet unflinching in its portrayal of the Westernization of Yoruba Nigeria and the identity crisis of its middle-classes, Isara's a marvelous introduction (not that it was for me) to African literature and a classic of semi-autobiography, from one of my most admired favorite writers.

41. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis: I'll never forget how hard I giggled when I first read it; every time I have a twinge of regret at not staying in academia, I just have to reread it. Written for 1950s Britain but still applicable just about anywhere, the twisted saga of Jim Dixon and his struggle to survive at one of the new "red-brick universities" despite the often unwitting opposition to his efforts from a calcified department and administration is at once unquestionably a product of its time and personally eternal. "You sam?"

42. Caleb Williams, William Godwin: Caleb Williams looks like just another classic Gothic tale of sinister, mysterious family doings in another gloomy old pile in the country, but this time it's told from the perspective of one of the servants, whose treatment during the course of the novel offers a riveting subaltern look at both English literature and English society as a whole during the late 18th century. Considering how influential the former was for English-speaking literature as a whole, it's mind-boggling to track the influences as they radiate outward, but the book itself is a gripping read, for all its grim tone.

43. His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke: Clarke was arguably the progenitor of Australian literature, and the first great Australian novel is still one of the best, and an astonishing surprise when I turned it up by chance in the former PTO shop by the Produce Station. Rufus Dawes' unjust conviction and nightmarish journey through the penal system in Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island, and New South Wales, and his gradual escape and redemption were likened by Jan Morris to the post-Stalinist works of someone like Solzhenitsyn, and some of the same themes hold sway, in a world where the verities and shibboleths of the noble and middle-class families of a work like Caleb Williams have been literally upended. A number of fictionalized real-life incidents occurring throughout the book offer almost an alternative Australian history to the sanitized version that held sway in the country for well into the twentieth century. The implications and processes are dizzying to consider when reading His Natural Life, and the book itself is excellent to boot, if occasionally a little sentimental and reliant on coincidence (for which we can probably thank Dickens in any case).

44. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley: One of the all-time classics of any sort. The haunting, perceptive themes are still relevant nearly two centuries after its creation and it's interesting to note how high it rises in several categories. One of the greatest ever science fiction novels? One of the greatest pre-1900 novels written by a woman? One of the greatest examples of the epistolary form in a novel? One of the greatest novels--probably the greatest novel--ever written, essentially, on a bet? Oh, yeah, it's all of those. Almost forgot to answer.

45. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: Especially good after reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, The Forever War was Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman's brilliant attempt to exorcise the madness of the war he'd fought by transposing it to outer space and focusing on the ludicrously long distances troops would have to travel to fight. As the war stretches into thousands of years long, Private William Mandella starts to wonder why he's there, and if he'll ever get a moment alone with a cute comrade. Heartbreaking and hilariously funny, it's one of the towering achievements of American sci-fi.

46. At The Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft: A technical cheat, as I think it's usually classed as a novella, but the latter form really deserves more respect, and it is, after all, Lovecraft's ultimate statement of the best (and most surprising) aspects of his philosophy and a haunting, increasingly terrifying exploration of the unknown reaches of Antarctica. The greatest achievement of the most justly celebrated American cult author.

47. The Star Diaries, Stanislaw Lem: I read a lot of Lem in college, and The Star Diaries was probably the greatest expression of Lem's strange discomfort with humanity. I read somewhere that he regarded the species as a "disease," and while I've agreed with him only in the darkest depths of depression, it's still bracing and continually surprising to remember the existence of such an unusual attitude, and how it could infuse a thoughtful kind of literature. Astronaut Ijon Tichy and his encounters with a number of unusual civilizations and situations merely serve to underscore how strange we must appear to others and how strange we actually are.

48. The Black Arrow, Robert Louis Stevenson: I just read it on the plane, but whatever. I'm not a big Stevenson fan, particularly, but The Black Arrow was a terrific example of how a novel technically serialized for children can provide the moral ambiguity and believable character development of an "adult" literary phenomenon, and this almost a century and a half ago. One of the characters turns out to be a bit of a letdown, but it's a great reminder to familiarize myself better with the young adult fiction of today.

49. Down In The Zero, Andrew Vachss: I went on a huge Vachss kick in my early twenties, and though I would probably find the moral overkill hardly to my taste today, it was hard to resist the adrenalin rush of these things, and Down In The Zero combined Burke's brooding machismo with the rotten backdrop of a New England suburban Potemkin village. Down, dirty, and utterly compelling (I thought then; it would be interesting to gauge my reaction today).

50. Pawn In Frankincense, Dorothy Dunnett: Dunnett was one of the great masters of historical fiction, combining swashbuckling action and (more usually) labyrinthine intrigue with charismatic yet morally ambiguous heroes. Pawn was probably the most striking of her Lymond Chronicles, as our heroes follow the trail of a... charismatic yet loathsome villain from war-torn 16th-century Scotland to the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Dunnett at the height of her powers, and again, that's saying something.

*Describing the relationship between Danton and Robespierre, and the latter's jealousy of the former, in case anyone wondered.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 1 December 2010 12:07 PM EST
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26 November 2010
Worse Than Nazi Germany
Now Playing: Belle and Sebastian--"Me and the Major"

Not at all, of course, but how many of you just then thought the Internet had taken over my brain? More than a few?

I fly to Baton Rouge once a year, usually at Thanksgiving (although relatives' travel plans caused me to switch to Christmas last year, and a damn good thing too, as it enabled the best Thanksgiving/birthday combo ever). I don't mind flying, and used to have a fascination with airports (which has dwindled considerably in recent years). I hate commercial airlines with close to a passion. So I generally have mixed feelings about flying, and these were complicated considerably once I learned of the new security measures put into place by the TSA (Transport Security Administration).

Things got even more complicated in trying to untangle the various pros and cons of the situation. Let me be clear: at least, the TSA has done a spectacularly awful job explaining why these measures are necessary. I understand that least year's "underpants bomber" has been given as a proximate cause but (a) surely that's an argument for increased security in foreign airports (Dutch, if I remember rightly) and (b) there's been plenty of anecdotal evidence (unless it's all completely fabricated) that items like water bottles and other bigtime no-nos have actually slipped past the screeners (and surely this is one of the few places where anecdotal evidence is actually important for a change--it only takes one). I also have grave doubts about these measures as a whole, even the post-9/11 routine to which I had become pretty well used by now; security experts like Bruce Schneier have actually suggested going back to a pre-9/11 framework (though I think that's a bit excessive). Obviously the government should try and do all it can to make air travel as safe as possible, but is it ever possible to be completely safe in an airliner? Add to that the health concerns of scientists and laypeople over the new X-ray scanners and the grotesque spectacle of the "patdowns," and you had a very tricky situation for a traveler who doesn't care for airline flights in the first place.

It was also interesting in that this dilemma--scan or patdown--was the first big online kerfuffle to affect me directly. Usually during something like the Polanski extradition controversy or the Shirvell stalking circus (actually, I suppose the latter could have affected me directly as I might have conceivably run into the guy at one point), I'd amass information from a number of different sources and consider my opinion accordingly. Here, in the case of something I was actually scheduled to confront, it proved more intractable than usual. There are a few things that instantly raise my hackles--or at least mildly arouse my suspicions--than whenever I find them lying in wait on the Internet. One is the tendency to equate both American political parties or "extremes" as somehow being both equally bad. I am biased on the question, to be sure, as a self-described liberal (whose indulgence, from a left-wing perspective, of a problematic Democratic Party, can partially be attributed to the historically low curve under which I grew up in Louisiana). Ideologically, they may be equally unpleasant (and here we speak of extreme extremes), but the "extreme left" may have its share of dodgy characters, but in no way does it dominate the airwaves or (to some extent) Congress, the way the other side does. So when I see formulations, online or otherwise, I don't even try to restrain the eye-roll. On this issue, though, there seemed to be standard agreement on the measures' unprecedented (for middle- and upper-middle class whites, mostly male) violations of privacy. Was I perhaps mistaken in this?

Right-wing outlets condemned the moves because they violated libertarian tenets and could in some way be attributed to Obama. Left-wing outlets condemned them because they violated human rights, were much more intrusive for women and minorities... and for all I know, because they could in some way be attributed to Obama. After reading through some of the various arguments, I found myself in very broad general agreement, though with a number of caveats. As someone who's needed privilege-checking lessons in the past (and still does), I found it pretty instructive to read the observations that people of color (and to some extent women) put up with this sort of thing on a much more regular basis. Similar were the comments that the people who'd found little wrong with the Iraq War or torture of anyone, let alone innocent people, were now crying foul because their winkies were being cupped. None of that makes the measures any less intrusive or unjustified, but they were useful points to keep in mind. The latter, more right-wing objections also gave me pause, especially given some of the new congressional "leadership"'s avowal to try and shut down government 1995-style. I don't generally give much credit to conspiracy theories, but the accusation that the probable astroturfing of dissent was aimed at abolishing the TSA and replacing it with private firms sounded a little more plausible than usual (something tells me, that, oh, Xe wouldn't be much of an improvement). So... I was opposed, but it was definitely a qualified opposition.

I publicly announced the plan online and was taken to task by left-wing (I think) critics of the measures. Though I understand that "following orders" isn't much of an excuse, not everything is a "Niemoller moment" (any more than the Michigan smoking ban was implicitly tantamount to Nazism), and it wasn't much of a stretch to check my privilege (see?) and acquaint myself with the shit deal TSA staff have. I also have a hard time trusting the judgment of people using "why don't they just find other jobs?" in the present economy. I did sympathize, though, with the idea behind National Opt-Out Day. The TSA apparently urged people not to go for the patdowns, but then why offer them as a possible option in the first place? I wasn't about to criticize people for exercising their perfectly legal rights. What was less clear was how I would personally respond.

I was leaning towards taking the patdown. I honestly wasn't bothered by what TSA employees would be able to "see" (maybe my privilege talking again, though I was very aware of why people would be bothered), and my leeriness of the radiation from the scanners petered out once I reminded myself of how reminiscent of the worry over microwaves and cellphones the discussion was. In the end, I reckoned that I'd rather have my privacy violated by a human being than a machine. Then, the night before, I started flipflopping again, and did so pretty much right up to leaving the taxi at Detroit Metro. It turned out that I didn't have to worry, at least as far as my personal experience was concerned. There was only one scanner up, and I wasn't sent through it (didn't know there was a "choice"), although the guy behind me was (and that raises a whole other set of questions). There was hardly any line and nobody was taking patdowns. I even overheard a couple of other people who had gotten to the airport very early (as I had) in order to avoid a line, so at least I wasn't alone. My objections still stand, but the episode functioned just as much as a lesson in the misinformation powers of the Internet (like I needed one of those).

One thing is certain, and that's that the uncertainty surrounding my Thanksgiving trip was pretty much the last straw for me as far as air travel is concerned. I'd been checking the Amtrak schedules, and was kicking myself that I didn't make the switch I'd been mulling for the past several years before I got airline tickets. It was a good hundred bucks cheaper than my plane ticket, and I would have saved an extra hundred bucks as I wouldn't have to take the shuttle to and from the airport. The long hours spent en route could be a genuinely decompressing experience and the kind of honest relaxation I expect people rarely find on family holidays. There's lovely scenery, lots of space, a bar car, and the possibility of a long layover in Chicago (side trip to the Art Institute?). It's looking better every second. I suppose I'd better move soon in any case before the so-called "security theater" swallows up our dwindling railroad system...


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:14 AM EST
Updated: 26 November 2010 12:02 PM EST
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20 October 2010
Kickabout Intruder
Now Playing: Guided By Voices--"Teenage FBI"

I don't play sports, and haven't for a very, very long time. If one counts quiz and college bowl (and trivia) as sports, I had a bit of a flourish in high school and undergrad, as captain of the high school team and then a player in college (our success in the latter was such that the Wieder-McKay "era" was labelled the triumph of an "upstart team" online several years back by bowl veterans of one of the eight jillion other small liberal arts colleges dotted around the Virginia countryside), and then won $100 at a trivia contest at one of the other chain restaurants run by my militantly sketchy first boss in Ann Arbor. If speaking of sports where more than the thumb was required, I haven't played since I was a very poor soccer player in elementary and middle school. There's been a fair amount written in the flurry of hysterical, slightly xenophobic comment on the alleged rise of American soccer in the past few years that the game's popularity among parents from the 1970s onward was due to its nonconfrontational qualities. I really don't remember it that way; what little memories I have of "league play" in Dave Treen-era Louisiana revolved around the anticipatory mix of ten percent excitement and ninety percent shorts-soiling terror that someone might pass the ball over my way. This would be succeeded by the memory of a sea of thuggish, jeering preppy faces rearing up to shriek in rage when I did something wrong. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, soccer (now that I have access to the internet) holds an interest for me that none of the other sports can really manage.* With no other sport can I really place myself on the field mentally.

Soccer in America has had a fraught economic and cultural history, never more so than since the introduction of Major League Soccer in 1993 (to replace the defunct North American Soccer League of the 1970s and 1980s). In that time, the World Cup was held in the United States, franchises developed in various cities, and soccer became a major niche interest for people throughout the country. For my part, my general lack of concern for sports certainly didn't extend that far. I vaguely remembered my own days of "playing," but that was about it, until I started to notice through my aforementioned reading campaigns what a big part the game played in global culture. Those interested can find an excellent fictional summation of the game's history (from a long-suffering Anglo-Scot's perspective) in George Macdonald Fraser's short story "D'ye Mind Jie Dee, Fletcher?" from his collection The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988). Running across myriad references here and there started to pique my curiosity a little, as did growing awareness of the game as we all moved into the new millennium. I remember chats on the subject with a potential flame and former soccer player over a decade ago--sadly, I was never able to take advantage of her offer to "retrain me," and the subject remained on the mental backburner when I moved north and acquired access to baseball and hockey teams. I was vaguely aware of the 2002 World Cup while working at Piatto in Akron, Ohio (the soccer-literate staff Brazil fans to a man), but was unprepared for the local hoopla that would greet the next installment of the world's most popular sporting event.

The 2006 World Cup really crystallized many of my impressions of soccer culture in the States and my own problematic reactions to it, inevitably colored by my love-hate relationship with my beautiful yet icy saucepot of a town. The interest level in Ann Arbor was astonishing (although given the presence of so many international students, it really shouldn't have been), and the fascination the Cup engendered was personally unprecedented. People were talking about it on the streets and watching matches in bars, and before long I found myself checking out games on TV at Conor O'Neill's and following the fortunes of various national teams in the news (a few years before the country went digital and I declined to join). I'd been prepared a little by my enjoyment of the Torino Winter Olympics earlier that year, and the World Cup seemed like a more entertaining and boisterous version without all the fleece. Due to my contrarian bent, which has served and hindered me so well in the past, I wound up supporting France going into the final mainly because everyone else seemed to be backing Italy. My feelings, as one might imagine, were pretty mixed when it was all over, but I knew one thing: I did enjoy watching soccer.

The simplicity of the game appealed to someone who'd always found football a little overloaded, both physically and conceptually, with uniforms that looked like astronaut outfits from 70s Italian porno and accretions of arcane rules that seemed to reflect the American game's lack of a long-term tradition (nothing wrong with that, but the discrepancy was a little off-putting). Baseball suffered for me from its practical sanctification by the national elites as the "national pastime"**. I still enjoy watching football on occasion (or did back when I had TV), and baseball if there's absolutely nothing else available. Basketball's theoretically exciting, but impossible for me to follow (though I probably have more nostalgic memories of basketball than any other sport, probably down to hitting LSU games as a kid). Hockey's okay, but about on the same level as baseball (I've become a default Red Wings fan, though, both through my friend Karen who gave me the idea to move here in the first place, and my first Ann Arbor roommate George--the sane one--who breathed steam off the ice at Joe Louis Arena and is now a hockey blogger somewhere). Drawing on my childhood experience, if it can be called such, I could inhabit the space the players did in a way that simply wasn't possible with any other sport. It was more than a little exhilarating, and the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of it all really captured my interest. The way it could be so relatively laid-back (sure, or boring) much of the time and so tensely exciting when the ball came into possession of a really good player or neared a goal made for an excellent tension--other games seemed overstuffed by comparison.

The game was pretty scarce in my parts of the world for the next few years--there were never any matches carried on the big American networks, and CBC would only show one once in a blue moon due to some tangential connection with the Great Dominion. I resolved not to be caught napping when the next World Cup rolled around, as that seemed to be the only time soccer games had any widespread exposure in the States. Once again, the Winter Olympics prepared me for a global competition, as I cackled at the media-fuelled "conflict" between Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn and lost my heart to Canadian snowboarder Maelle Ricker. I was now able to watch games via ESPN online and CBC, and resisted the "Spain's gonna win" media narrative (they were basically 2010's Italy) for as long as I could (even Johan Cruyff couldn't do it, and--honorary Catalan and all--he's Dutch). The disgraceful final, though, encouraged me to throw in with one of my ancestral countries and end up happy that I did. I wondered whether I'd be so interested in the game again when the Cup was over, but this time I had a lot more options. I was happy, because I was able to enjoy the game on my own terms, and work out a few problems I had with the culture.

The comments of lucratively self-loathing hipsters on the subject may be hyperbolic, cartoonish and calculated, but they do contain a grain of truth. I made a joking comment once in an email to a friend that "Ann Arbor ruins things that should feel good, like progressive politics or an interest in food." There's more than an element of truth to it, and it applied to soccer as much as anything else. It's depressing to see fresh and original ways of thinking, eating, and living become status symbols, and it was weird to see people who would evince such contempt for machismo and thuggery in American culture and politics throw themselves headlong into machismo and thuggery in other cultures simply because the latter wasn't American. The Spain juggernaut was a case in point--it was like being a fan of the Dallas Cowboys or Manchester United a few years ago (i.e. easy). So, as I enjoyed the games, I tried to avoid becoming one of "those" soccer fans (I'd never been to Europe, for one thing), and tried to apply an impartial worldwide standard to my enjoyment of the game. Part of this involved me becoming interested in American soccer--the aforementioned Major League Soccer, games of which I began watching soon after the World Cup, with the SuperLiga competition (a contest between several intermediate-ranked teams of Major League Soccer and Mexico's Primera Division) first and foremost--the feisty Monarcas Morelia ended up on top this year. Following around the world, I'm now rooting in various degrees for Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, Chivas USA, New York Red Bulls, Cruz Azul, Corintians, Santos, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St. Mirren, Fulham, Everton, Arsenal, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City, Newcastle, Bristol Rovers, Poole Town FC, Stade Rennais, St-Etienne, FC Barcelona, CF Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Inter Milan, Palermo, Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Ajax Amsterdam, Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Birkirkara, Bursaspor, Trabzonspor, and Hapoel Tel-Aviv. That's a lot to keep track of, and I don't really follow Argentina yet.

I went with some friends from work to see a match this August in the run-down but enjoyable Pontiac Silverdome. Berlusconi's team, AC Milan, and Greek warhorses Panathinaikos were playing a friendly match organized by area Greek-American entrepreneurs who, it was rumored, had an eye towards establishing a local MLS franchise (there was one very early in the MLS' existence, the Detroit Wheels, who lasted one or two seasons in the mid-90s). The last game I'd seen live had been a girls' high school match in Baton Rouge, and it was interesting to see one played in a venue that reminded me with a pang of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU, with two of Europe's most storied and experienced soccer sides duking it out in a charismatically shabby industrial American town. In contradiction to Mr. Lander's admittedly satirical take on the game, the crowd was heavily involved in the match on a personally and culturally "authentic" level (quite a few probably second- or even first-generation Greek immigrants and a substantial number of Latinos). There were inevitable swathes of empty seats, but we were definitely in the "baby steps" of something. It was great fun to follow along with the chants of the relievingly well-behaved "ultras," and there was an unexpected sideshow when a pair of Oakland County chunkheads ran across the field towards the end of the game and were soundly thumped by security guards. The game was thankfully engrossing, with Panathinaikos seeming to be in control much of the time but AC Milan finally winning after it went into penalty kicks. So pretty true to life there, then. It was especially exciting to see Pan goalie Alexandros Tzorvas in action so soon after his terrific performance for the Greek national team during the World Cup. It was a great evening out (with a relatively sizable attendance of 30,000) and hopefully it'll encourage local interest in the game.

So that's how I ended up at Conor's this afternoon after a six-day stretch of work (much of it entertaining and hilarious, don't get me wrong) with a back-to-back evening and morning shift at the end, watching Manchester United narrowly defeat Bursaspor (which sucked--I wanted to watch Rangers vs. Valencia, but I don't think there was enough support). There's a new way to chill, even if it involves clenching at various moments. I'm a little alarmed, after last weekend, that this new interest of mine might have strange side-effects. Watching the Lions beat the Cardinals at the Red Hawk might actually get me interested in the NFL, which would be rather unnerving. Still, so long as I don't actually care about the Big Ten, I think things will be okay.

Incidentally, as this is a sports-themed post, there should be a PSA at the end, and so there will be. Fitting, too, that it should be about bullying. I went to work at 5:30 this morning, and so didn't get the call to wear purple until I got home with a few beers in me. I was never bullied as a kid in high school, at least not to my knowledge (there was a one-off incident in freshman year, but it was very much a one-off, and I was partly to blame). I was certainly never bullied for my sexuality, which, as I'm straight (to the best of my knowledge), stood to "reason" in the dominant culture. I can't imagine what it must be like to have that done to one, and the recent rash of bullying and suicides, Mr. Clementi's in particular, is an appalling comment on the way things are. I don't know in what position I might ever find myself to be supportive of a teenager going through such an ordeal, but if you are, I strongly urge you to offer help or comradeship. Thank you, and go all Detroit area sports franchises.

*I need hardly point out that the rest of the world calls it football in its various forms. It's become commonplace for ostentatious American soccer enthusiasts (I've gotten tired of typing "hipsters") of a certain type to call it such (or worse, "footie"--it reminds me of when certain Americans started saying "shite" because they'd seen it in Trainspotting), but it's hard for me not to view it as an affectation of the kind mentioned above. I tried calling it futbol, the Spanish term generally used in the Latin American circles for which the... OASEs have little time, as they aren't in Western Europe. I've decided that, since I'm an American, I'm calling it soccer. Besides, that's what Canadians call it, too.

**There's a great scene in Philip Kaufman's 1972 Western curio The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid in which an unsuspecting burgher played by MacGyver's Dana Elcar excitedly turns to a mild-mannered visitor (in reality famous robber Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson) during an 1870s baseball game and chirps "It's on its way to becoming our national sport!" Younger calmly replies "Our national sport is shooting, sir, and always will be."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 21 October 2010 4:46 PM EDT
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12 October 2010
Karlsefni? Beringians?
Now Playing: Japandroids--"Heart Sweats"

Getting back into a bloggerly swing of things will be awkward, painful and bloody, and may involve a great deal of self-indulgent rambling. So nothing new there, then. Ann Arbor area residents, for example, may find the recent news that David Arquette and Courtney Cox have split up both distressing and pertinent. One wonders if factions will develop among the townspeople who've taken our most famous recent part-time immigrants to heart. I think that might have been "several weeks ago," but you never can tell. I'm also pretty sure it wasn't my co-worker's fault, but again, I have no proof one way or the other.

Yesterday saw both National Coming Out Day and Columbus Day. I'm wholeheartedly in support of the former--to the point where I consider further comment unnecessary--and somewhat conflicted about the latter. I've often found wholesale liberal condemnation of European explorers for the crimes that followed their exploits (and often accompanied them) ahistorical and counterproductive. I remember getting in an extremely silly and circular argument with one friend a decade back who probably just enjoyed watching my brow furrow (maybe literally--I should have been more proactive with her). If Columbus had known that smallpox would wipe out millions because he was bad at math and geography, would he have still done what he'd done? Probably, and just as probably invented some spurious religious justification for doing so. It still leaves a slightly uneasy taste in one's mouth, especially as the critics often turn out to be as teleological and reductionistic as the unthinking cheerleaders for European supremacy. With all that said, though, the talk of a "National Reconsideration Day" finds a willing supporter in this blogger, as more thought and reflection on the history those of us with European ancestry (even if, or especially if, we might have Native American ancestry as well) share with their fellow Americans without, could hardly hurt, especially in times such as this when political extremes (or, to be accurate, one political extreme) hogs the headlines and airwaves with screams of "socialism" and "immigration." So bring on National Reconsideration Day--just make sure you don't solely rely on either Francis Parkman or Dee Brown in discussion (excellent though both are in their ways).

George Kennedy, Murder on Location (1983): My college friend and future roommate Mark's roommate Geoff's friend whose name I can't remember (see how this kind of thing starts?) came to visit Roanoke one weekend in '94 or '95 and we got into a couple of surprisingly vigorous arguments. One was on the relative merit of Phil Ochs and the other on whether or not George Kennedy was a good actor. I would have thought the man's decades-long dependability and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cool Hand Luke would have sealed the deal, but apparently not. I wound up astonishing myself over my vehemence in Kennedy's defense, but it was next to impossible for me to understand how he could have caused such offense. When I noticed his 1983 murder mystery on the fifty-cent shelves at Dawn Treader a couple of months ago, I immediately jumped at the opportunity, even though it took me a mystifyingly long time to finish. How could I turn it down? "Actor George Kennedy stars in a new role as sleuth--when murder on the set turns the cast into corpses!" The high-profile Western The Godless is filming in Mexico and the hopes and fears of many ride thereon--the much buzzed-about picture is due to signal the return of the Western (represented at that time, from what I remember, by 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger--a turkey I actually saw in the theater--and 1982's Barbarosa, with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey), a little wish-fulfillment, I suspect, on Kennedy's part. Filming is already tense and nervous enough without cast and crew starting to get all murdered and shit, but the latter they do, and it falls to Kennedy and a wisecracking former New York cop-turned-character actor to suss out the villain.

Now, I didn't think it would be bad, not the kind of godawful celebrity-penned potboiler I'm pretty sure I've never read. I certainly didn't reckon it would be good, either. It's in the middle--not exactly groundbreaking, but a fun, brisk entertainment that serves more than anything else as a showcase for its author's proudly square-but-fair personality. Kennedy comes across as a regular-but-savvy Joe tossed in the middle of a seething, churning Hollywood maelstrom and forced to pry himself loose with the help of common sense and an unusually detailed knowledge of airplanes (Kennedy is apparently a trained and enthusiastic pilot in "real life"). There are sleazy reporters, tough broads, wide-eyed ingenues, gay matadors (yep), and cameo appearances from real-life actors like Glenn Ford, Raquel Welch, Dean Martin, and Mariette Hartley (yep--last  one's the coolest, unsurprisingly). Along the way, Kennedy takes time to dish about the problems with "Hollywood these days" (what must he think of the present, I wonder?), as well as debate with neo-Nazi pilots and kvetch about his kids' "godawful music." It's a forty-proof hoot enlivened considerably by detailed and relevant knowledge about how filming works on big-budget Hollywood films (at one point he has to take over directing, and I suspect he would have done fine in "real life"). It's great to find an actor I greatly admire (and who was, by all accounts, widely respected offscreen) doing such a good job in other forms of entertainment. A great way to while away a Sunday afternoon, even if it took me around three or four.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:37 PM EDT
Updated: 13 October 2010 12:18 AM EDT
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30 September 2010
Drinking! Yay!
Now Playing: Caribou--"Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday"

I suppose I should feel guilty about not updating my blog. I do to some extent, but my time has been taken up with so much else in the way of creative endeavor and (semi-?) professional responsibility that the energy can scarcely be mustered. When I look back on this year in comparison to last year, it seems especially weird. Weirder still, to be sure, are the new setup and graphics seems to have installed in my blogging absence. It looks like a PBS Kids' version of those propaganda stills used to brainwash Warren Beatty in The Parallax View.

I kept a journal through pretty much the entirety of 2009, something I don't think I ever did before, and recently started it up again after I let it slide at the beginning of the summer (shortly before my bike ride to Dexter and Livingston County). Among other things, I was worried that my dreams would go unrecorded and subsequently wither. There was also the need to keep some of the more ludicrous aspects of life at work--and in Ann Arbor--generally recorded, in the hope of one day mining them for fiction (every time I get exasperated with a certain aspect of my job, I simply have to remind myself that it's never boring). It's not like I can claim to have been writing feverishly during the summer, either. My aforementioned midlife crisis did for that, and I think throwing myself back into the cultural swing of things with writing, music and films may well have done for the blogging.

When I started the blog, I was just coming off arguably my worst year in Ann Arbor. Moving here in 2002, I was able to temper my initial disillusionment with the place by socializing furiously with people from work and becoming a lot more culturally savvy than I had been at grad school or before. Unfortunately, my job (despite the many cool co-workers) was awful, and a new gig at Cafe du Jour and a new place in the beautiful but largely sterile Old West Side of Ann Arbor failed to compensate for a powerful loneliness, all the worse for the fact that I turned thirty shortly thereafter. My work friends mostly drizzled away and the social cadre system in town proved near impossible to crack. The winters at either end of 2004 were especially bad. There were a few silver linings--I met a couple of really cool people at my new job and started to seriously learn about cooking; though I had to move in August, the new place improved dramatically once some of the loons moved out and I had the house practically to myself for an entire year; and I saw New Year's Eve out in fine style thanks to my friend Jess at Planned Parenthood (another silver lining), partly in the company of someone I'd later befriend at another job and who may well be reading this post! I started blogging shortly thereafter, inspired partly by the late lamented Ann Arbor Is Overrated, and began meeting people in social situations after that. I went to a show last night and ran into an old friend from that era, recently returned to Michigan, and we had a great conversation on how much the "scene" has changed in the intervening half-decade. It bewilders me now to find how many of my posts were simply show reviews and the like. Ever since, though, I've kept it up off and on, and tend to feel guilty when I have nothing that seems worthy of expression in such a forum.

It's especially weird to compare this year's output with last year's, as last year was quite eventful and productive in many ways. I suppose this has been more a year for contemplation than activity. Mental, anyway; I've probably spent as much time on my bike as off, and have been riding hell-for-leather with the camera in search of fun nature photos. It's wrought hell on the writing, but it's kept me active and, to a certain extent, creative. I've been talking with my co-worker regarding sundry subjects and we're both excited for this winter, partly because we're convinced it'll see a renaissance in both our creative outputs. I've finished three stories this year (two of them languishing from way back, but still) and have a rather longer project (two years in the making, and which I'm still leery of lending a classification easily subject to ridicule) very near completion. The goal eventually is to try and write a story at least every two months, and there are plenty of ideas and false starts still in existence I can choose to finish. I wonder sometimes what it all means, but then I remember the people who mean to write but never do, let alone get published or recognized in some fashion. It helps to see people like my burlesque chums turn their dreams into reality, and though Ann Arbor can be a really obnoxious place, it's nice to know so many people involved in creative pursuits.

All this blather is more or less by way of an apology if anyone enjoys following the blog. I keep meaning to post twice every month, but something always intrudes, and I'm at a bit of a crossroads regarding how I'm going to proceed with this merry shambles of a life (I think this is the more positive and productive component of the "midlife crisis" earlier this summer). In many ways, I'm where I wanted to be when I arrived in Ann Arbor--well-employed (in my particular field, at least), creatively active, and wealthy in good friends who are interesting and genuine. Having drooled thus, it probably won't be a problem to write something every week (maybe). Thank you for reading.

Oh, man, Dan Snaith is a genius.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:09 PM EDT
Updated: 30 September 2010 9:11 PM EDT
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