Archive for the ‘Deb Olin Unferth’ Category

2016-12-05-21-06-09SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-Tiny Desk Concert #204 (March 28, 2012).

I’d published these posts without Soundtracks while I was reading the calendars.  But I decided to add Tiny Desk Concerts to them when I realized that I’d love to post about all of the remaining 100 or shows and this was a good way to knock out 25 of them.

firstThis Tiny Desk Concert is what first introduced me to First Aid Kit.  It was “The Lion’s Roar” that really sold me on this exotic duo with the beautiful harmonies (they are sisters from Sweden–that’s Johanna Söderberg with the lighter hair and Klara Söderberg with darker hair singing lead).

For the first song, “New Year’s Eve,” Johanna plays the autoharp as Klara sings lead.  They both do the lovely harmony chorus.

For “The Lion’s Roar” Klara plays guitar.  And while she sings a lovely lead, it’s Johanna’s haunting low harmonies that really make the song amazing.  The album version has keys but they are not missed in this beautiful rendition.

I also fell in love with “Emmylou,” a song about Emmylou Harris Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash and June Carter.  Klara’s lead is beautiful, but when both sisters sing lead in the second verse it’s stunning.

I have listened to the audio of this many times but haven’t actually watched it for a while.  This looks like it was filmed after hours at the NPR offices.  It is very dark with just one light shining on them.  It’s a shame as it would be fun to see them a little better.  But it also gives the whole recording a kind of subversive feel.

What a great introduction to a great band.

[READ: December 5, 2016] “Pet”

Near the end of November, I found out about The Short Story Advent Calendar.  Which is what exactly?  Well…

The Short Story Advent Calendar returns, not a moment too soon, to spice up your holidays with another collection of 24 stories that readers open one by one on the mornings leading up to Christmas.  This year’s stories once again come from some of your favourite writers across the continent—plus a couple of new crushes you haven’t met yet. Most of the stories have never appeared in a book before. Some have never been published, period.

I already had plans for what to post about in December, but since this arrived (a few days late for advent, but that was my fault for ordering so late) I’ve decided to post about every story on each day.

This is the first story I read in this calendar (I received it on the 5th).  I wasn’t sure if the stories would be thematic or if they would avoid dark subjects (it being advent after all), or if they would just be a box of good stories.

I was pleased that the first story was by Unferth, whom I really like.

This story is told in a very interesting way–a strange sense of removal that comes with the first line: “Somehow they have wound up with these two turtles.”

The “they” are a mother and her teenaged son.  The mother rescued these turtles from her sister.  She was house sitting and saw the turtles down there–pathetic, one rock between them in a dark basement.  And she felt compelled to take them home.  Her sister is all too happy to get rid of them.

Her son is dismissive.  Of the turtles and of her in general.

And the story telling also seems to be dismissive of her, in a way.  The story is not told from her point of view and yet it seems to take on her voice for this paragraph, but it seems to slowly morph into her son’s:

Besides, the turtles aren’t much work.  She has to feed them and check their water temperature and turn the light on and off.  She has to clean the tank each week.  She has to take the tank’s water out, cup by cup, pour it into a bowl, then carry the bowl to the tub, walk through two rooms to do it (drops of dirty water falling on he floor).  She has to empty bowl after bowl….

One of the turtles is sick and she takes it to the vet.   But the vet only deals with mammals and has no advice (and charges her $40).  Then she is stuck carrying the turtle with her everywhere else that day–even to her AA meeting, where they all insist she leave with the smelly thing.

She gets some medical advice from a friend and the turtle gets better.  But then it starts fighting with the smaller turtle.

Her son tells her to just leave them in the road and let them get run over.

The story seems to loom as a story of helplessness, but then she sees a ray of hope.  A man from her AA meetings asks her to dinner.  Her son, of course, is dismissive of him as well.  But he is willing to come over and help with the turtles.

And I love that he gives her an answer she was completely unaware of.

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aug2013SOUNDTRACK: GREEN DAY-¡Tre! (2012).

treThe third and final album of the trilogy is called ¡Tre! (and yes I enjoyed that they named this one ¡Tre! as opposed to ¡Tre! and put Tre Cool on the cover—not exactly the most clever thing around, but it made me smile and makes me think that they only did three albums so they could have this title/cover combo).  And, yes, this is my least favorite of the three discs.  It feels like a bonus disc—songs that don’t really belong anywhere else. It’s kind of an album full of ballads (but that would suck) so they made it mostly ballads with other things too.

Like “Brutal Love”  a slow ballad (complete with horns) that builds into a standard rocker (it’s got a very “rock and roll” vibe).  Many punk songs are really just rock and roll played fast and this is certainly one of those songs.  (I don’t care for that kind of punk so much).  “Missing You” is a another mid-tempo rocker–the kind they do very well.

“8th Avenue Serenade” has another cool sound (as in different from the rest of the album).  “Drama Queen” is an acoustic guitar ballad with creepy creepy lyrics. It’s probably my least favorite Green Day song ever.  “X-Kid”seems even more simple than other Green Day songs (does Billie Joe throw anything away?)  It sounds like a classic rock song form the mid 80s.  “Sex, Drugs & Violence” brings the disc back some with a fun poppy rocker.  “A Little Boy Named Train” sounds a lot like “Carpe Diem” from ¡UnoI (same chords, just played slower—although the verses do change it a bit.

“Amanda” a mid tempo rocker and “Walk Away” is another slow song that sounds like classic rock.  “Dirty Rotten Bastards” clocks in at over 6 minutes!  It’s got several short sections in it though (which makes it more fun). The first part is the melody of The Marines Song.  “99 Revolutions” is so catchy it even has a chorus with only drums (that lowest common denominator of songs that is guaranteed to get the crowd to sing along).

So yes, there are a few good songs in this collection, but they could have easily scraped out the good ones and dumped them on the first two discs and just put Tre’s picture on the back of both of them.

[READ: September 6, 2013] “Neighbors”

Unferth, like Julavits, writes a kind of narrative piece about sleeplessness.  It’s hard to imagine her living the way she does, but if you’ve read her memoir, she has certainly slept in worse places than a Chicago slum.  It turns out that her downstairs neighbor, Maximilian, would turn on his TV late at night and leave it on all night. The odd thing was that he had no electricity in his apartment—he ran an extension cord to the light in the foyer.  When Unferth would get fed up with the noise, she would go downstairs and unplug the cord.

But then Maximilian’s girlfriend Dorothy moved back in.  The two of them fought nightly—loud screaming fights that were worse than the TV noise (when Unferth unplugged the TV, Dorothy found an electricity source elsewhere, although Unferth couldn’t figure out where).

She makes a very interesting distinction about the type of noise that might wake you up as compared to visceral fighting of your neighbors.  From things like jets and trains (or a fire engine, like at my house): “You may lose sleep over them, but you won’t lose sleep over them.”  Whereas hearing your neighbors screaming at each other is far more disturbing. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SWANS-Live at All Tomorrow’s Parties, October 2, 2011 (2011).

swansatpBefore Swans released this year’s amazing The Seer, they toured supporting their previous album (with a number of songs from The Seer included). This set has two songs from The Seer, “The Apostate” and “The Seer, Pt 1” together they comprise 50 minutes of the nearly two hour show.  The set also includes “No Words No Thoughts” (24 minutes) and “Jim” (a teeny 6 minutes) from 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.  The final track is an eleven minute version of “I Crawled” which goes all the way back to 1984’s Young God EP.

I would never have thought of Swans as a jam band, and yet here they are, with 5 songs in 2 hours.  Although unlike jam bands, they aren’t showing off their musical chops or noodling solos, they are created expressive and moody soundscapes–not as scary as in days of old, but very intense nonetheless.

The set sounds great, although I imagine this would be more enjoyable to watch than to listen to (there a great swaths of music where there’ s not a lot happening).  I wonder what Gira is doing during these stretches.  My friend Phil (or Phillipe Puleo as Gira calls him here) plays drums on the album and on this tour, and I have to say he must be exhausted–man he hits the drums hard.

I listened to this show before I heard The Seer, but it didn’t prepare me for what the album would contain.  Now having heard that album, I appreciate this live show even more–they really master these long songs.  I am going to have to try to see them the next time they swing by.  I admit I used to be afraid at the thought of seeing them because their early music was so intense, but this seems to be a different Swans now, one that an old man like myself could even handle.

The set is no longer available on NPR.

[READ: December 10, 2012] McSweeney’s #41

The cover of this issue has a series of overlapping photographs of lightning.  I didn’t really look at it that closely at first and thought it was an interesting collage.  Indeed, Sarah said it looked like a science textbook of some kind.  But when I read the colophon, I learned that Cassandra C. Jones finds photographs of lightning and (without manipulating them digitally) places them together so that the lightning bolts create shapes.  And indeed, that is what is going on.  And it’s amazing!

The cover’s pictures create a greyhound running (front and back covers show different stages of the run).  There’s also circles and a rabbit running.  It’s incredibly creative and very cool.  You can see some of her work at her site.

The feature of this issue is that there are four stories from Australian Aboriginal Writers, a group that I can honestly say I have never read anything from before.  There’s also beautiful art work accompanying most of the longer stories, three gritty non-fiction pieces and some letters, most of which aren’t very silly at all.

LETTERS (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JENS LEKMAN-Tiny Desk Concert #173 (November 7, 2011).

I have enjoyed Jens’ skewed take on pop folk for some time. He plays great folk music and there’s wonderful backing vocals by Addison Rogers.  What’s funny about this Tiny Desk concert is that he talks a lot about the song before singing it.  But he pretty much gives away everything in the song (especially if there is a punch line).  For the first song, “I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots,” the explanation is pretty good, he says that if you have the same dream for two years you may want a new one…with cowboy boots.  The song explains that the boots will help him walk back to the girl of his dreams.  Sweet.

What’s cool about the second song, “The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love”  (in addition to the song) is that you can hear a car driving away before it starts, just showing how intimate the Tiny Desk shows are.

But it’s the final song in which Jens gives away so much about the origin of the story that the song itself is almost redundant (although it’s still great).  When you finally get to the punchline of “Waiting For Kirsten,” you’re charmed and smiling.  Jens explains that Kirsten Dunst once said that she likes his music.  So when she was filming with Lars von Trier in Scotland, he couldn’t help but stalk her day and night.

He’s a charming guy.  You can check it out here.

[READ: November 7, 2012] Revolution

Deb Olin Unferth has now published three books and I’ve read them all, even though I’m not a huge huge fan.  I enjoyed her novel Vacation, which was delightfully peculiar.  Her other book was a collection of flash fiction, a genre I’m really on the fence about, although Unferth’s is really quite good.

This book is a memoir.  And, as the subtitle indicates, it’s about the year that Unferth spent looking for a revolution in Central America.  The book proves to be about much more than Central America and revolutions–she talks about religion, family, morality, relationships, youth, idealism and reality.  Not bad for 200 pages.

It’s also about the man she fell in love with, George, who encouraged them to go to Central America and vive the revolution.  George is a Christian, Deb was an atheist Jew.  But she falls for him and his Christian ways and “converts” (much to the detriment of her younger sibling who had the family’s faux Jewishness now thrust upon her to avoid a similar thing happening.  (Poor Deb’s younger sister really is the victim in this saga).  George and Deb flee the comforts of home and all 80s capitalism and head to Central America.

As with Unferth’s short stories, these chapters are almost all very short.  And they often feel as unfinished as some of her flash fiction.  They are also mostly jumbled up in an utterly non-narrative way.  It’s entirely possible that you could shuffle some of these chapters and it wouldn’t matter at all (that’s not entirely true, as some do flow one in to the other, but many are jarringly out of sequence). (more…)

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[WATCHED: March 15, 2012] The Wolf Knife

Ever since the advent of Wholphin, McSweeney’s short film DVD series, The Believer’s annual Film Issue has included films that do not belong on Wholphin–typically longer films, which is a cool way to see things you normally wouldn’t.   This year’s issue includes a feature-length film by Laurel Nakadate, The Wolf Knife.

Readers of this blog know that I love the McSweeney’s empire.  I read McSweeeney’s and The Believer, Grantland and Lucky Peach.  They’ve gotten me to enjoy things I never thought I would.  I also really love Wholphin–the films are weird and cool and unexpected.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was to be so disappointed by The Wolf Knife.  The introduction to the film in the magazine is by Deb Olin Unferth.  She made it sound amazing (even though she admits that people did walk out during the first fifteen minutes in some screenings).  And yet, after going through what some critics have said she concludes: “to some [seeing the film] might sound like the best possible use of ninety minutes of their lives.”

Oh how wrong this was. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LUDICRA-“A Larger Silence” (2010).

Ludicra’s The Tenant came in at #9 on Viking’s Top Ten.  Ludicra was the first band they played in the (downloadable) show and I knew that this was going to be a different Top Ten list as soon as it started.  Ludicra plays pounding black metal but they have a real difference: both of their singers are women.  True, they use the same growling screaming vocals (and I first thought it was a guy with a higher pitched voice) until the two-minute mark hits and both women harmonize beautifully.  Suddenly the song jumps several notches ahead of its peers.

It’s quite disconcerting to hear thudding double-bass drums and pounding snares behind two women who are harmonizing (a little creepily) over extended notes.  At the end of the track (about 5 minutes in) the song shifts gears into an acoustic guitar and drum thumping near-folk song.  It doesn’t last long, but the respite prepares you for the wailing end which features a really catchy guitar solo.

This is band I’d like to watch a live video of to see how they do their singing and harmonizing (oh, here ya go–wow, the singer looks inSANE!).  Man, I’d be afraid to see them live.

[READ: January 5, 2011] “Radical Will”

I’ve enjoyed Unferth’s fiction quite a bit.  And fortunately, this memoir uses her distinct writing style to huge advantage.  At age 18 (in 1987), Unferth ran away from college and traveled to Central America with her boyfriend to be in a revolutionary movement.

In this excerpt, Unferth and “George” travel to San Salvador.  Unlike other stories where the young, innocent Americans are stopped at gunpoint and left to endure excruciating torments, for the most part these two seem to be ignored.  By almost everyone. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DO MAKE SAY THINK-Other Truths [CST062] (2009).

I’ve always enjoyed Do Make Say Think’s CDs.  They play instrumentals that are always intriguing and which never get dull.

But this CD far exceeds anything they have done so far (and  they’ve done some great work).   There are only four tracks, and they range from 8 to 12 minutes long.  Each track is named for a word in the band’s name: Do, Make, Say, Think.  And each one is a fully realized mini epic.

“Do” sounds like a gorgeous Mogwai track.  While “Make” has wonderfully diverse elements: a cool percussion midsection and a horn-fueled end section that works perfectly with the maniacal drumming.  “Say” is another Mogwai-like exploration, although it is nicely complemented by horns.  It also ends with a slow jazzy section that works in context but is somewhat unexpected. Finally, “Think” closes the disc with a delightful denouement.  It’s the slowest (and shortest) track, and it shows that even slowing down their instrumentals doesn’t make them dull.

It’s a fantastic record from start to finish.  This is hands down my favorite Constellation release in quite some time.

[READ: December 2009 – January 13, 2010] McSweeney’s #33.

The ever-evolving McSweeney’s has set out to do the unlikely: they printed Issue #33 as a Sunday Newspaper.  It is called The San Francisco Panorama and, indeed, it is just like a huge Sunday newspaper. It has real news in (it is meant to be current as of December 7, 2009).  As well as a Sports section, a magazine section and even comics!

[DIGRESSION] I stopped reading newspapers quite some time ago.  I worked for one in college and have long been aware that the news is just something to fill the space between ads.  I do like newspapers in theory, and certainly hope they don’t all go away but print issues are a dying breed.  When I think about the waste that accompanies a newspaper, I’m horrified.  Sarah and I even did a Sunday New York Times subscription for a while, but there were half a dozen sections that we would simply discard unopened.  And, realistically that’s understandable.  Given how long it took me  to read all of the Panorama, if you actually tried to read the whole Sunday paper, you’d be finished the following Sunday (or even two Sundays later).

Their lofty goal here was to show what print journalism can still do. And with that I concur heartily.  Even if I don’t read the newspaper, the newspapers as entities are worth saving.  Because it is pretty much only print journalism that finds real, honest to God, worthy news stories.  TV news is a joke.  There is virtually nothing of value on network TV.  Fox News is beyond a joke.  CNBC is sad (although Rachel Maddow is awesome!) and even CNN, the originator of all of this 24 hour news nonsense still can’t fill their airtime with non-sensationalized news.

Obviously, there are some decent internet sites, but for the most part they don’t have the budget to support real news investigation.  You either get sensationalized crap like Drudge or rebroadcasts of real news.

So, print is the last bastion of news.  And you can see that in journalistic pieces in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Walrus, Prospect and, yes, in newspapers.

But enough.  What about THIS newspaper?  Oh and unlike other McSweeney’s reviews I’ve done, there is NO WAY that I am writing a thorough comment on everything in here.  There’s just way too much.  Plus, there are many sections that are just news blurbs.  Larger articles and familiar authors will be addressed, however.  [UPDATE: January 18]: If, however, like Alia Malek below, you bring it to my attention that I’ve left you out (or gotten something wrong!) drop me a line, and I’ll correct things.

There is in fact a Panorama Information Pamphlet which answers a lot of basic questions, like why, how and how often (just this once, they promise!). There’s also a Numbers section which details the size, scope and cost of making this (it shows that with an initial start up, anyone could make a newspaper if they talked enough about what the readers were interested in). (more…)

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ny1It took me going to Seattle to learn about The New Yorker magazine.  I was visiting my friend Rob and he was really surprised that I didn’t read the magazine all the time (my reading always seems to surprise people, see The Believer.)

Upon my first read of the magazine, I was surprised to see that the first twenty pages or so are taken up with upcoming shows: films, concerts, sports, everything.  I actually wondered how much content would be left after all that small print.

Since then I have learned that Sasha Frere-Jones writes columns in here quite ofuiten.  For reasons known only to my head, I was convinced that Sasha was a black woman.  Little did I realize that he is not.  And that he was in a band that I have a CD of called Ui.  He is an excellent resource for all things music, whether I like the artist he’s talking about or not.  Some entries are here.  This audio entry about Auto-Tune is simply fantastic.

But of course, there’s a lot of content.  And the first thing you get are letters.  I don’t think I have EVER looked at the letters section. (more…)

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harperSOUNDTRACK: MOXY FRÜVOUS-the C album (2000).

cMoxy Früvous broke up (or went on indefinite hiatus) almost ten years ago.  But they released this final compilation, basically for fans only.  I’m not sure if it’s even available anywhere anymore.

And, hey, what happened to the Früvous website???

C is not quite as fun as b.  Although it is definitely a fun, silly collection.  Highlights include “Pisco Bandito” (the bandit fish!) and “The Goal Judge” (without him there would be no hockey game).

Some other fun tracks include “Video Disco Bargainville” a wild disco-fueled version of “Bargainville.”  “The Norbals” is another faux TV show theme.  And “Beware the Killer Tents” is an inside joke, but a good one.  It’s about a folk festival and name checks a number of artists who appeared with MF.

This seems like a good end of career recap for fans who missed the humor that the band was so good at.

[READ: June 25, 2009] “Wait Till You See Me Dance”

DIGRESSION: I had a dream last night and Deb Olin Unferth was in it.  It was one of those dreams where I was standing next to a woman on line for something or other and after twenty minutes or so dream-time I realized it was her.  I have no idea if she looks even remotely like the woman in the dream.  Great story huh?

Deb Olin Unferth must have grown up in a world that is very different from mine.  In the few things I’ve read by her, her characters seem to act in ways or experience things that are simply not what I’ve known people to experience.

In this story, the narrator is able to look at people and see how long they have left to live.  So, this is going to b a weird sci-fi story?  No.  Not at all.  For even though that characteristic is very important to the story, it has very little to do with the plot.  In fact, I was a little put-off at how the story started like that.  It didn’t seem like it would be very interesting.  And yet as soon as the rest of the story kicked it I was hooked.  And that aspect of the narrator turned out to be very cool.

So, the narrator is an adjunct who works at a college.  She teaches the 99 class (ie, they’re not yet eligible for 101 classes, and if they fail, they will not be admitted into the school).  She is accosted by one of the assistant admins who invites her to go to an Indian dance (the admin is not Indian).  No, not that kind of Indian, Native American Indian (the admin is not that kind of Indian either).

But the narrator doesn’t really like the admin.  The admin has convinced everyone to call her Mary because she is like the woman from that film, you know with George and the angel who shows him the future. [Yes, I know what the film is].  The narrator doesn’t like this, because in addition to it not being her name, she also realizes that Mary is really quite insignificant in the movie.

But the dance isn’t the main focus either.  For Mary finally has a vested interest in whether one of her students passes the 99 class.  She has no say in whether they pass or fail as the final tests are graded by someone else.  In this particular semester an Iraqi violin piano prodigy is admitted to her school two weeks into the semester. She finds his music so haunting that she will do whatever she can to make sure he passes the class.  (he has no hope of passing the class).

And that means buttering up the admin, and maybe even going to this weird dance.

The things that happen in the story are bizarre and unexpected. And yet despite all of that, it offers some real truths and insights about humanity.

How does she do that?

For ease of searching I include: Moxy Fruvous.

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3000030,000 views may not be a milestone for many blogs. But, for a blog like this which was intended mostly as a record of what I’ve read, the fact that I’ve had 30,000 views is pretty exciting. And it seems appropriate to let you, the readers know what you the other readers have been reading here. So, here is the top ten most read posts on I Just Read About That… with a director’s commentary tacked on.

1. 819 views
Gordon Korman–Son of the Mob (2002)
I’m pretty much 100% certain that Gordon Lightfoot is NOT the attraction that made this post my highest one. Son of the Mob is usually a summer reading book. However, I get hits on this throughout the year.  I’m guessing it’s just a popular book.


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