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.