Wednesday, December 14, 2005


It's been over a month since my last post. I guess I've been pretty busy getting ready for the holidays. Plus, procrastinating takes up a lot of my time. I went to see Old Crow Medicine Show a couple of weeks ago for the second time. This time it was in a bigger venue and it was still pretty packed. They sounded great. I think they are working on a new record, too. I was bummed that my wait for Kelly Willis to go on a real tour/finish up a new album is probably on hold. Seems she's pregnant for the fourth time! Yikes.

After finishing The Master, I started reading Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919. It's fascinating reading. In some ways, not much has changed, unfortunately. It's an excellent introduction to how the Great Powers (U.S., France, Britain) set in motion some of the thorniest problems of the 20th Century--and of course, we're still dealing with them as they evolve: Palestine, Iraq, and the Balkans primarily. Usually, unrolling a map and deciding the fate of millions of people (who no one has bothered to consult), doesn't really work out that well. Huh.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Wow! I got to see Alejandro Escovedo and his band for the second time live last night. It's one of the best shows of any kind that I've ever seen. The rockin' songs were amazing, and the slow, beautiful ones were heartbreaking--his voice works wonders for both. He pretty much played everything that I wanted to hear--a lot of songs from Man Under the Influence and a few from his punk rock era. And who doesn't like to see a band with the cellist and violinist totally kicking ass!

This picture is a Flickr photo (not mine) from City Stages in Birmingham, AL this past summer. Though you can't see the detail, he is wearing the Coolest Pants in Texas!

John Fowles 1926 - 2005

I havent' thought about Fowles in a long time. I read two of his books, The Magus and A Maggot, many years ago and liked them. So I suppose he was the first Postmodernist I ever read--way before I knew what that was. I'm sure I would get a lot more out of both now. I never did read The French Lieutenant's Woman or The Collector, both of them more well-known and made into movies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Master

I just finished The Master by Colm Toibin. I'm not sure how it didn't win the Booker Prize last year. It is really beautiful. There is something so convincing in his portrait of Henry James. I think it is because he gets to the complexity and contradictions of his character, rather than presenting Colm Toibin's Take on What Made James Tick. No one is that easily pegged--certainly not someone of James' famous ambiguity. It is also the quality that made James a great writer--trying to present full psychological portraits of people and their very intimate and frequently complicated relationships.

In a departure from fiction, I just started Margaret Macmillan's history, Paris 1919, which I 've had on the shelf awhile. I didn't realize she was David Lloyd George's granddaughter. It must be a kick to write the history of someone who played such a key role in world affairs, and who also happens to be related to you. When I saw Salman Rushdie last week delivering a lecture, he mentioned the book and quoted from it, so that put it back in front of me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

NY City and Sweeney Todd

I just got back from my first trip to NYC. It was very brief, but at least I got my feet wet dealing with the trains and subways. It wasn't too bad. I explored a very small section of the Village on a cool, drizzly day. I walked up 5th Ave. and down W. 1oth toward Greenwich Ave/6th/Waverly Place and around Washington Square. I saw Patchin Place--home to Dreiser and Cummings; also Marianne Moore's old brownstone. I wish I had had more time on some of the side streets too.

We saw the new production of Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on 49th St. It is still in previews but officially opening soon. I enjoyed it--I thought it was really inventive and creepy. Apparently, there is serious disappointment among some viewers on some of the theater sites I've seen. They think it is too stripped down and gimmicky--they want the big show with full orchestra, etc. I don't think I had those expectations, not having seen much of the original, except for a few bits from the PBS version. It will be interesting to see what the critics have to say.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Finally, I finished Waverly, which had its moments. Looking at the novel in its context, I can see why, in the early nineteenth century, it was such a phenomenon. Though it's hard to imagine now, it must have been quite the page-turner with its young, romantic hero getting into and out of scrapes with regularity--kidnappings, brigands, battle scenes, executions, a love story--it pretty much had it all. It also had the novelty of being a story based on historical events--but not very remote ones (60 years), so that many readers probably knew who the characters were based on and might have had some connection to the rebellion, either through their own families or acquaintances. I think Scott really jump-started the novel form as we know it. Before him, there were lots of epistolary novels, there were the comic romps of Fielding and Sterne, and Defoe's rather dark stories. But Scott swept in the big, historical/romantic epic which is one of the standard novel forms today.

Anyway, I shall now rest on my Scott laurels, having read Ivanhoe (with much more pleasure) and Waverly. There are a lot of choices for my next novel--Zadie Smith, Rushdie, Frederick Busch, new Doctorow, the new Booker winner by John Banville...

Monday, October 03, 2005

Apparently, I had a lot more time in junior high...

Waverly...I may never finish this book at my present pace. In the South, eternity is two people and a baked ham. In literature, it's reading a historical novel by Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper.

Jacksonville City Nights

He may be a cheeky brat sometimes, but Ryan Adams makes up for it with really cool music. I love this new CD with his band, the Cardinals. It's straight-up honky tonk with lots of steel guitar and a really smoky piano-based duet with Norah Jones. I was first hooked on Adams' when he was in Whiskeytown (Pneumonia)--firmly in the alt-country mode. He can pretty much do it all--he's an intelligent songwriter and a very versatile vocalist. I've skipped around with buying his cd's--mostly because I can't afford an artist who's so prolific!--but I'll have to consider getting the Cold Roses release now, because this one is so good. Ryan, slow down, buddy! Run a comb through that hair!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Paying for the NY Times online

I'm a little annoyed that the Times has gone over to charging a subscription fee for some of it's "premium" content--including pretty much all of the op-eds, a la Salon. I consume a lot of my news and editorials online. I like to get a feel for different viewpoints, particularly from outside the U.S., so I hope this isn't a trend. Who could afford all those subscription fees? Particularly since I'm a partial subscriber for the home-delivered Times, as well as a full subscriber to my own city's newspaper, it's not like I'm opting out of the whole print newspaper scene. NYT is calling this an "upgrade" to my relationship with them. Ah, no... it's a lot of things, but not an upgrade. It says for print subscribers, the "upgrade" is free, but I have a sneaky feeling they're not including us Sunday-only people. The sign-up is sufficiently bothersome, that I haven't been able to find the answer to that question yet.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Stripes on NPR Sept. 27

Still haven't located an official setlist, but here is Jack's opening regalia--there's at least a little bit of Prince in Jack. Let's hope he doesn't decide to switch to a symbol for his name.

Anyway, I also saw that they are doing a Webcast of the Columbia, MD show on Sept. 27 on NPR. It will be available as an archived stream. Excellent!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

White Stripes in Concert

Thanks to my coworker Smorty, here is a shot from the concert, taken from the balcony. I was close to the stage, right in front of the speakers and some very busy security personnel, who no doubt, would have smacked me down, if I whipped out a camera. I was to the left of Meg. This is from later in the concert I believe, when Jack had removed most of his costume--a sort of Civil War-era long, black military coat and a hat with a cross on it (snagged from the set of Cold Mountain?). The show was great--I got to hear Jolene, which was definitely a highlight. And even though my sternum vibrated with every beat because of my proximity to the speakers and I lost Jack's voice sometimes, it was stunning to watch him play the guitar.

One of the cool things about being close was being able to see how Meg and Jack interact with one another. As you can see in the photo, her drumkit faces the wing, not the audience. Jack is the conductor and Meg follows every move he makes. Every now and then, he'll whisper something to her, and I also thought it was funny that he would reach out and grab her cymbals to deaden them, instead of her doing it. There is definitely something "unique" about their relationship. Megs stays put while Jack plays every other instrument on stage--piano, keyboards, marimba, mandolin, and a collection of guitars. The two techs are the very essence of discretion, gliding in and out with the quiet elegance of English servants in a Merchant Ivory film, and dressed identically in suits and derby hats. There is a lot of precision--bordering on obsessive-compulsiveness. It's as though Jack has created this very confined and orderly space within to go musically mad.

Here's the setlist as I remember it--with omissions of a couple songs that I wasn't familiar with and not in good order: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Blue Orchid, Hotel Yorba, Jolene, I Don't Know What to Do, Forever for Her, Little Room, Doorbell, Ball and Biscuit, The Nurse (awesome!), Denial Twist, Little Ghost, Hardest Button to Button, Seven Nation Army.
I'm sure some good soul will post the official setlist, which I'll link to later.

I would definitely see them again--any time!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


One of my favorite books when I was a youngster--junior high?--was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I haven't read any others since, so I'm starting Waverley, which begins his long series of historical novels. I thought I would like this one since it is set during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, a period that I've always been interested in. One of the places that I visited in Scotland was Scott's home at Abbottsford, near Melrose. (I found out much later that a branch of my family hails from Melrose. It is not at all unlikely that one of my ancestors helped lay the stone on the additions, or worked in the scullery!) It is such a beautiful place--mostly its location there in the Borderlands. But what I loved were his collections of historical memorabilia that hung on the walls and stuffed the curio cabinets. Cuirasses from Waterloo with holes punched through them from bullets, keys that locked in Mary Queen of Scots, a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair. It was wonderful and I could have spent a lot more time mooning about.
The image is BPC, not Scott, by the way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

New Orleans

Others have blogged this, but I feel compelled also to point to this piece from National Geographic, written not quite a year ago, spelling out in eerie detail what just happened to New Orleans. If one more official says that this disaster was "more than anyone imagined," my teeth will be ground down to nubs. It is remarkably bad luck that just about the only people who did not expect such a calamity are the very people we depended upon to respond to it. This excerpt is from the article, written last year.

"It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I needed a laugh

It's been too depressing to post, but last night I read the Books section of the Atlantic Monthly, which you wouldn't think would be all THAT funny, but two reviews were really chuckling-out-loud clever: the mordant summary of Our Bodies, Ourselves by Cristina Nehring and Sandra Tsing Loh's hilarious take on her love of Nancy Drew (and a new book about the N.D. phenomenon). There are, of course, other reviews but these two saved the day. Personally, I never could get into Nancy Drew--next to the the Hardy Boys, she seemed a little too frilly for me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

My soundtrack

I've been thinking about the music that I grew up with and how much of it has stuck with me and formed my listening tastes today. Growing up in Appalachia, mountain music and bluegrass were always a staple. It wasn't really a choice, it was just all around. It's what your family and friends played, not necessarily what you listened to on the radio. These were mostly self-taught musicians, and they taught the younger generations, informally and by example. On the radio, I listened to a lot of country music, back when it comprised playlists of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn; Willie and the other Outlaws; harmonizing groups like the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Bros.

Of course, in my teens, I migrated my radio dial to the rock stations, and they generally played everything from the Classic rock tunes to "new" bands like Loverboy and REO Speedwagon (and hey, I guess they're still around!) There's nothing that puts me in mind of big hair and Budweiser more than hearing a song by Def Leppard or Van Halen. Punk, as far as I remember, made absolutely no inroads into the Appy hinterlands. I remember one girl in highschool--younger than me--an art student, of course, who had pink hair and dressed a little punk. Seriously, I don't think she was from around there--she must have hailed from up North.

I guess the last piece of the musical puzzle was my mother's collection of LPs, which was everything from Classical music to country, 60s rock and folk, swing, jazz, and broadway show tunes. While I'm sure I never admitted it to anyone else, my favorite albums as an adolescent and teen were Connie Francis, Jane Morgan and the Troubadours, The Four Seasons, Johnny Mathis, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez. So it's no wonder I'm still exploring music in just about every genre, plus the ones I missed out on like punk.

I guess my comfort zone in music goes back to the early rootsy influences. As "country" music has morphed into pop schlock, I've turned to the so-called "alt" genres, which to me aren't so much "alt" as genuine country, folk, rock, and honky-tonk--sometimes all together in one artist's album, which is how you can tell that they are real musicians with an interest in--of all things--MUSIC--instead of a bunch of pre-fab, test-marketed, blow-dried musical parasites. Not that I'm bitter about the industry.

Wow, now that I've found that Amazon link to "Fascination," I really want the CD. It's fantastic--I had forgotten about all those great songs. Even when I was a youngster, I felt like I was being transported into some chic, smoky European cafe. Ahhhh...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Cormac McCarthy is scary...and pissed

Actually I love Cormac McCarthy. I visited the CM Forum and saw a post from a new reader who had just finished the Border Trilogy and wanted to read more of him--something more "uplifting." Little does she know those were the uplifting ones! Yikes. She doesn't need to go anywhere near Blood Meridian. Which brings me to No Country for Old Men, which I just finished. The body count is high, though it still can't compare to BM for that. It's set in the early 80s by my counting, on the border between Texas and Mexico, ground zero for the violence and mayhem of cross-border drug running. Llewelyn Moss is out antelope hunting and stumbles across a scene of a drug deal gone very, very bad--everyone dead and dying. He skips the heroin payload but takes the bag full of money and, as McCarthy would put it, skedaddles. He doesn't skedaddle very well and is soon the prey of the law, an ex-Special Forces assassin, and someone else, very like the Devil himself, named Anton Chigurgh (a character in the novel mistakes the name for "sugar," which must be a McCarthy joke; it makes me think of "chiggers"--the little buggers that burrow into your skin and make you itch like mad).

It moves along at a great clip--reviewers seem convinced that it is an action film in the making, and I can kind of see it as a Tarantino movie, if you excise the very thing that McCarthy is most intent on presenting. He intersplices all the bloodletting with the voice of the aging county sheriff, not so much involved in the action, as the sad, helpless witness who tells his story in counterpoint to the brutal action surrounding him. He looks backward to the past, and doesn't see the romantic pioneering of his grandparents and their parents, but the beginnning of the end, which he seems fairly sure is just around the next bend. With McCarthy, there is no romantic Western myth outside of the rough, beautiful landscape itself, which is always the subject of his most beautiful prose. For all things human, his perspective is apocalyptic. The forces of good and the forces of evil are always in battle and the side of good is not exactly winning. In this novel, which I probably need to re-read and think over some more, there is little or no redemption--not for the characters, not for the country, and perhaps nowhere in the world. Not too uplifting, eh?

As for Chigurgh, he is truly chilling. He operates more like a killing machine (and in fact his weapon of choice IS a machine), following his own murderous logic. He seems a little otherworldly, a kind of Destroyer Angel (what's with me and all the Angels of Death??)--a really pitiless Fate, who twice in the novel allows his victims to call a coin toss to see whether they live or die. It's that bit of indifference in him that makes him frightening. He isn't just a psychopath who can't keep himself from killing--he just does. Another image that comes to me is the Basilisk--I haven't seen anyone else mention it, but it seems like a linkage that CM would have in mind, being that he so often dwells in the realms of the allegorical and the mystical.

There is a political undercurrent to the novel. The Sheriff's ruminations touch on just about every Red State/Blue State debate there is: drug crime, the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, the Vietnam War, the fortunes of corporations and what those fortunes are buying (us?). The really radical idea here is that the downward spiral is not the fault of any party, or a single event like Vietnam. Following McCarthy's logic, thinking of what he's written before, the root of the evil goes at least as far back as the first forays of Europeans on this continent. Not an "unclaimed" continent, but one already claimed and peopled, and therefore setting in motion a long, violent war which is not over. Manifest Destiny means subjugating humans and the environment, and in the wake of that march of destiny is all the bloodshed and destruction that make up the body of McCarthy's work.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Stripes stuff

Just because I'm counting down the days to the White Stripes concert, I thought I'd post this "oral history" project about the duo. Very long and interesting compilation of bits from people who really know them. Jack's early career as an upholsterer, Grosse Pointe native Meg (love that movie), and all the early bands and gigs they were in.


Now: (a little more polished!)

Books into movies

I read Patrick McGrath's novel Asylum several years ago, and now the movie is coming out. It was very creepy. The movie cast is promising--Natasha Richardson and Ian McKellan. The wife of an asylum administrator falls in love with an inmate--a sculptor who brutally murdered his wife.

Also, the Gulf War memoir (Gulf War I, if you're counting) from Anthony Swofford, Jarhead, is also being released as a feature with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead. There is a trailer, and it's apparently due in November, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty). Chris Cooper, Jaime Foxx, and Peter Sarsgaard are also in it. Again, it looks like a promising treatment. I thought Swofford's memoir was really well done. After getting out of the Corps, he studied in the Iowa Creative Writing Program, one of the best. He was there with Chris Offutt. I think he's working on a novel, last I heard. Every now and then, I see short pieces or editorials that he has written about the present conflict.

I expect Jarhead will be the season's counterweight to the The Great Raid--a feel-good, morale-boosting film, set safely in the less morally murky WWII era. Hey, if Benjamin Bratt's in it, it has to be good.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Ahead of the Booker Prize

The Booker long list will be announced tomorrow. It is an interesting perspective related to this year's banner year for fiction (in the U.S. too) from the London Guardian.

Verses II

If scientists have discovered a gene that recognizes sarcasm, then it follows there must be similar genes that fail to recognize satire, or at the very least, irony. Apparently religious fanatics of all stripes must be missing this gene. I finished Satanic Verses, and while I would not for a moment suggest that Rushdie is not challenging rigid Islam--he certainly is no Koranic literalist--his "blasphemy" is mitigated by the fact that he is writing satire, denouncing religious violence and sectarianism, and by extension the other evils that heap up when religion is used as a tool against certain elements of society in order to retain or build up one's own, very earthly, power. Within the structure of the novel, the sections that really must have set the Fatwa in motion--scenes involving the Prophet, for instance--are the dreams of the character Gibreel Farishta, an aging, narcissistic Bollywood star who is howling mad--believing himself first to be the Angel Gibreel (revelation) then Azraeel (the destroyer). At the end of the novel, he commits a double-murder, then a suicide. Hardly a ringing endorsement of his views of the Prophet. Of course you have to read to the end: first problem. Then, of course, you have to sympathize with the broader vision: second problem--if you're an Ayatollah. Not so much if you're just a reader. More than that, and I will be preaching to the choir.

There are lots of ambiguities in the story, the rational is mixed with irrational, demons sometimes act like angels and vice versa. I thought the end was very touching--a reconciliation of sorts between a father and son that I didn't really see coming. Rushdie's concern with the sectarian violence in India and Pakistan, and where such movements were inevitably headed is all too familar today, nearly twenty years on. Rather depressing. As always the beauty of his imagery, the power of it, is compelling by itself. He has a gift for mimicry and writes dialogue to die for.

For some excellent notes and other resources for Satanic Verses, try this link. I haven't had time to look through all of the material, but it looks very good.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A patriotic poem

"License my roving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My mine of precious stones: my emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!"

Okay, John Donne predates the actual United States of America--but, uh, that is what he's talking about, right?

From Elegy XX

Satanic Verses

I'm a little more than half-way through Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. (I read Midnight's Children several years ago, and I also like his occasional editorials in the Washington Post or other newspapers.) Reading Rushdie is like walking through a colorful, crowded bazaar in a foreign city--beautiful, teeming with characters; everywhere a story, a joke, a heartbreak; brilliant and alien; and you know that for everything you are "getting," you're missing so much more. Published in 1989, the fatwa coming down very soon after, Verses is still a startling book.

It is in fact, particularly unnerving to read it now, when so much of it seems weirdly prescient--prophetic almost--though I imagine that Rushdie was merely looking around him at the time and understanding where it was all going as a part of the British-Indian community in Thatcherite England, living in the unusual limbo of East-West. The whole story unwinds from the event of an airliner being blown up by a suicide bomber (in this instance, Sikh) over England, en route to London. Fantastically, two of the passengers, both Indian, lapsed Muslims, actors--fall to earth and resume? assume? their roles as the Archangel Gibreel and Shaitan (Satan) to fight their ultimate battle out in, of course, London. The "tinted" community as one of the characters refers to the Pakistanis/Indians/Africans of London is ground zero of the battle, so to speak. Good vs. evil; immigrants vs. White Britain; unbelievers (of both races) vs. "good" Muslims; a suspect, torn-between-two-worlds community. It's a madhouse of a book, layered with meanings, interpretations and Allah-knows-what, so I can well-imagine the mullahs throwing up their hands and just deciding to take the guy out. He is also tremendously funny, loves to make jokes out of cliches, punning, irreverent, and earthy--with a capital E. I'm sure I'll have more to say about it after I'm finished. I should have been taking notes and plotting diagrams of the story--but it's way too entertaining for all of that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Happy Birthday!

To my good friend Fielt Burch, who shares his special day with:

Sandra Bullock
Kevin Spacey
Stanley Kubrick
Kate Beckinsale
Aldous Huxley
Mick Jagger
Carl Jung
G.B. Shaw

What a party! Here are some Shaw quotes, which is why you would want to attend this party:

"I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

"A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul."

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing."

"Virtue is insufficient temptation."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Where is Ingrid Bergman?

Having just watched Bergman and Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's Spellbound, I was reminded once again how marvelous both looked and also, what real movie star glamour they had. So this is where the curmudgeon opines about the stars of yesteryear and dismisses the sorry lot we have today. But--to be fair--I think it must be a lot harder these days to control one's image and retain that aura of elegance and mystery, particularly when there's somebody with a camera phone hiding in every bush, and our info-all-the-time society dwells on every trip to the supermarket, should a celebrity be so foolish as to try shopping for toothpaste and toilet paper on his own. Still, the constant, petty bad behavior; the ridiculous quotes; the questionable fashion all take their toll. So who fares best these days, as having the closest image to the Bergmans, Bogeys, and Hepburns? It's more than looks--its coolness and style, and hopefully talent.

It's a bit easier to think of women. The first person that comes to mind is Nicole Kidman, who always looks good and seems very poised in public. She has a cool exterior that reminds me of old Hollywood. Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Jason Leigh in an odd way, Salma Hayek, Audrey Tautou and Juliette Binoche. The males are more difficult. Russell Crowe is out because he behaves like such a barbarian. Don't even talk to me about Tom Cruise. The one that seems head and shoulders above the rest is Denzel Washington. Very elegant, handsome, reticent with the press, good rep. He even does Shakespeare for kicks. Joaquin Phoenix? He's a bit Indie, but does retain an air of mystery, or maybe it's that undercurrent of tragedy shadowing his career. Jude Law is a thorough bounder, but not as dashingly as Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, or Richard Harris in their heyday. Thank god for Albert Finney, a link to the past and still kicking around in movies, and making them better. Well, just a bit of fluff for a Monday.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Frederick Busch's North

Somehow I overlooked that another of my favorite writers has a new novel (May 2, 2005--I must have been distracted by the KY Derby?!). I just saw it when I was browsing for Cormac McCarthy's latest. North is apparently a sequel to his excellent 1997 novel Girls, about a small, college-town security guard who gets involved in the abduction case of a young girl. The mystery aspect is folded into the story of his struggling marriage after the death of his own baby daughter. Busch is great at delving into the scarred and damaged psyches of his characters and the difficult relationships that they involve themselves in.

I've read the harrowing Closing Arguments, War Babies, and The Night Inspector--one of the best American novels of the last decade or so. The eponymous inspector is Herman Melville--after his literary career has wound down and he is working at a civil service job inspecting ships' cargo. He is not the main character, but is a friend to the protagonist--this time both physically and psychologically damaged. An ex-Civil War sniper, haunted by his killings, and now fated to wear a mask to disguise the disfigurement of his face. It's sinister and creepy and wonderful--set in post-war New York City--a look at the underbelly of American experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ada Byron

Lord Byron's daughter Ada is an interesting person in her own right. As an addendum to my last post, if you would like to know more about the woman who had a Pentagon software program named after her, there is a recent biography and numerous sites on the Web.

Lord Byron's Novel (really John Crowley's!)

I posted previously about John Crowley's new novel, released in June. While I would have loved to read it for summer vacation, all in one fell swoop, I fit it in over several weeks instead, with all the pesky work and chores to distract me from it. It was as different from The Translator, as from Little, Big, and it is only one of the many reasons I love this author, who manages to pull out something completely unexpected from his box of marvels each time (and I still haven't read his earlier fantasy/sci-fi suffused fiction).

Crowley creates the rumored, lost Gothic novel of Byron (initiated, perhaps, on the night of the famous contest with Mary Shelley, who began Frankenstein). The novel portion is doubly framed with annotations of Byron's novel, by his daughter Ada (who never knew Byron--but in this fiction, has preserved her father's secret work by enciphering it and hiding it from her fire-breathing mother) and by the contemporary young scholar who has come into posession of Ada's coded text. The scholar Alexandra, working to unravel the mystery, is similarly alienated from her father, a former professor, who is guilty of a sexual crime that caused him to flee America when his daughter was still a toddler. The Byronic and contemporary plot parallels are obvious, but not shallow. Crowley plays with the two stories like images in a mirror. He cleverly uses the 18th-19th century format of the epistolary novel to convey the contemporary frame--told entirely through Alexandra's e-mails. The funny thing is, the epistolary style--so often used in the days when the posts took weeks and months (making such novels quaintly stylized, if not preposterous), makes perfect sense when messages can be sent around the world in seconds. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that Crowley writes beautifully, slipping from one idiom and voice for the 1800s to others, befitting the "naughties," with seeming ease. He evokes emotions subtly and gracefully--the most touching parts of the novel are often embedded in Ada's annotations which reveal much more than her limited knowledge of Byron's authorial intentions.

I am not so naive as to think this kind of layered, highly eccentric, post-modern novel is going to be a big hit with the readers who rarely range far from the NYT Bestsellers' list. For one thing, a little background knowledge, or a lot, makes the experience much richer. English majors, admirers of Romantic poety, and other such nerdy types, however, should be all over it! It offers many pleasures, not the least of which, it is fun to read in the good, old-fashioned way, not just good for you.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Bob and Willie

A few days ago, I went to see the Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson summer tour. They are probably playing a minor league ballpark near you. I've never seen either one of them live, but it seemed important to go see them in person, since their music is the soundtrack for the lives of many Americans. I probably grew up more attuned to Willie's music--certainly his tales of drinking, loving, being on the road, and the whole cowboy milieu were more resonant in the rural south than Dylan's protest/social commentary (of course, I'm generalizing). Dylan's songs are woven so deeply into the musical subconscious, and have been covered so thoroughly, that I'm constantly surprised that something I'm listening to is a "Dylan" song. Then, of course, I feel a start of guilt--or perhaps, embarrassment, that I didn't know that in the first place.

So...I went with realistic expectations, I'll say, of what I would get. I figured Willie for a familiar crowd-pleaser, but Bob, from all accounts, can be a bit idiosyncratic and his crooning is always an adventure. Also, I had read that he has eschewed the guitar for keyboards and harmonica. I had a pretty good spot near the stage, in the center on an absolutely sweltering evening. The Greencards opened energetically and Willie came through with a comfy set of classics. Bob and his band came on and I could actually identify some of the songs--so changed from their "standard" sound that you had to listen to the lyrics very closely: "Just Like a Woman," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "All Along the Watchtower." The band sounded great and Bob seemed to be enjoying himself, though he doesn't engage much with the crowd. Mainly, it made me feel that I had really missed out on something by being too young to have seen Dylan in his heyday--when his songs were timely, direct responses to events; when he was just a young dude with his guitar, doing something special and exciting. It made me wonder who the 20-something is right now, who is kind of filling his role--as he did in the 60s. Maybe that's only something you can see in retrospect?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Oldies but goodies

Two books that I read earlier this spring are some older gems from William Maxwell and Walker Percy. I read Maxwell's The Chateau (1961) which is set in post WWII France. It's a long, graceful novel, very simply about an American couple traveling in France--some of the relationships they make, their observations on the country, and the differences in culture. If you're looking for action or mystery or some other splashy plot point, it isn't really for you. But for beautiful writing and being drawn into a past world, it's wonderful.

The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award, and it is a very engaging story of a young man trying to find meaning in his life. A somewhat scarred young veteran of the Korean War, he finds escape and--sometimes--answers to life's questions at the movies. There's a funny scene of him quietly stalking William Holden in the New Orleans streets. One of the other snarky little bits is his mocking "This I believe," which I had never heard of until reading this novel. Then all of a sudden, NPR is relaunching it. So now, I always think of Binx when I hear it--thankfully erasing all traces of the intended earnestness of the commentaries.

Odd, that I chose these books randomly and they were published in the same year by almost exact contemporaries.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Summer music: White Stripes and The Vanity Project

There's Coldplay too, but I've yet to hear a song that motivates me to go out and buy one of their CDs. Either I've always heard the same song, or all of it sounds alike. I also had the misfortune to catch them in a snippet on SNL recently and thought it sounded like a lonely cat singing on a fence (there's an old cartoon there somewhere). And I don't mean that in a good way. Maybe one day they'll finally click with me...

The new White Stripes, on the other hand, is very addictive. Jack White: the man who makes the marimba sound really, really creepy. I'm a latecomer, I admit. I finally bought Elephant after numerous recommendations from siblings, and it quickly became one of my favorites. I enjoy Jack's playful, subversive, slyly humorous lyrics and just the general weirdness of the White Stripes. I think he and Meg are the louder, less wholesome, post-modern Carpenters (a drumming "sister"...uh-huh). And I do mean that in a good way. (I love the Carpenters, and think Karen has just about the richest, most beautiful voice I've ever heard.) I also get shades of--of all things--The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Forever for her (Is over for me)" reminds me of "Dammit, Janet." Seriously.

I got The Vanity Project on the same day (hence, the combo) -- the new solo album from Steven Page of BNL. The lyrics are always thoughtful and surprising and his voice is gorgeous (the male Karen Carpenter? Yeah!). The whole album hangs together well--sort of brooding, world-weary, someone trying gracefully to say goodbye to youth and heading resignedly into... maturity. I know the feeling. Anyway, there's a line in "Thank you for sharing" that keeps running through my head: "Thank you for scaring the hell out of me." I can think of so very many people/organizations/administrations to whom I could deliver that line with the same degree of desperation. It's like sweet Nellie Mackay's background-snarled, "Die, motherfuckers!" in "Sari." It's very cleansing. Which really brings me back to "Get Behind Me Satan." Once you've brooded, reflected, and chilled with Page, it's time to hear some cathartic wailing and thumping. You should listen to dark, gentle Meg--as one reviewer put it, and I can't improve upon it-- "beating the crap" out of her drums.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Alejandro Escovedo

I was in Birmingham, AL over the weekend and got to see some of the CityStages Music Festival. My husband and I headed downtown to see Alejandro Escovedo and caught the last of Loretta Lynn's show at the same stage. I could barely see her over the crowd from the back. Every now and then, a glowing white dress, a glimpse of her face in the gap between heads. Luckily, I could hear her, and she sounded really strong. We edged our way to the front for Alejandro and found a good spot not far from the stage. He sounded fantastic, particularly on "Rosalie" and "Everybody Loves Me." His band was very good--violin, cello, drums, keyboard, and guitars. It was good to see him live--he looked fit and pretty happy to be there. I didn't even know he was feeling well enough to tour after his bout with Hepatitis C. He said he was working on a new CD--maybe out this fall.
We had to leave before Ryan Adams & the Cardinals on Sunday night, but I'm pretty sure I spotted him at the Galleria, looking very Ryanesque with the bed head, the glasses, and seemingly chattering nonstop on the cell phone. A certain spazzy quality convinced me it was probably him. I like his music--and I liked Whiskeytown a lot. I've heard he's a bit of a brat, but I'm not planning on having a beer with him, so it doesn't really matter to me. At least he hasn't thrown a phone at anyone...yet.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Known World

The Impac Dublin Literary Prize has become one of my favorite literary prizes to watch. I've found some good books through its shortlist and winners. This year, Edwin P. Jones won for The Known World, which I haven't read yet, but I'll put it on my list. Past winners include My Name is Red by Pamuk, No Great Mischief by MacLeod, and Atomised by Houllebeq (I read Elementary Particles).

Monday, June 13, 2005

Coming soon!

Some of my favorite writers have new novels coming out this summer. It's already been a great year for fiction with Ian McEwan's Saturday released in March. I first discovered John Crowley when I read The Translator, a beautiful, layered novel set in the 60's at a midwestern college. I then found out that he had previously written in the speculative/fantasy genre, though he is much more than a genre writer. I'm not sure he can be pinned down very neatly. I then went back a bit and read Little, Big--a sprawling, otherworldly story, sort of an apocalyptic fairytale. I would say his novels defy genre, but his soaring imagination is matched by his writing prowess. In any case, I am very much looking forward to Lord Byon's Novel: The Evening Land, to be published June 14. For more on Crowley, browse the Web site.

In July, Cormac McCarthy is back with a new novel, No Country for Old Men.