Archive for the ‘E.L. Doctorow’ Category

[READ: March 10, 2021] Things Are Against Us

I loved Ellmann’s book Ducks, Newburyport so much that I had intended to read all of her books.

So I’ve gone back and read some of her previous novels.  Which I found to be…okay.  They were mildly amusing with some very personal diatribes thrown in to put some passion into these otherwise comic novels.

Then I saw that she had a recent collection of essays, which I thought might be really interesting.

I agree about 95% with everything Ellmann says in this book.  And yet I hated this book more than almost anything I’ve read recently.  And I think I’m not going to bother reading the other novels that I haven’t read yet, since the other two weren’t that great anyhow.

Ellmann’s style in these essays is so unpleasant, so superior and self-righteous, so… (and I hate to use this word because of the anti-feminist implications of it but it is definitionally accurate) strident, that I almost didn’t finish most of the essays (I forced my way through to the end of all of them).  Strident, btw: “presenting a point of view, especially a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.  I mean, that is this book to a T.”

In the past, strident women have been very important to many movements.  But hen your arguments are so scattershot, it’s hard for your stridency to be a positive force.

“Things Are Against Us”
In this essay Ellmann all caps the word THINGS every time she writes it.  On the first page (which is half a page not including the title), THINGS appears over 30 times.  The tone is kind of amusing–about how things get in our way and cause us trouble: Things slip out of your hand; things trip you, things break.  Then each following paragraph gets more specific.  Clothes tear, socks don’t stay up.  Matches won’t light, water bottles spill. Then she gets into the body.  In her novel Doctors & Nurses she lists 12 pages of bodily ailments.  So there’s not much new here.  And there’s no real point.  It doesn’t end with any grand idea.  It just stops. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TY DOLLA $IGN: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #104 (October 28, 2020).

I didn’t know much about Ty until his previous Tiny Desk Concert, which I kind of liked.

When I saw this one, I still thought he was a rapper.  But he is a full on crooner in this concert.

I was fascinated to see that he was manipulating all of his effects himself–autotune and whatnot-on the box in front of him, which he kept walking around with.  But perhaps the most fascinating thing about this was that Skrillex was there playing with him (they are mates, I gather) and that Skrillex was playing the guitar for the first track.

This is one of those “six songs in 15 minutes” sets.  Each song is more or less a verse and a chorus.  And in between there’s a kind of fun jam.

“Temptations” features Skrillex on guitar.  It’s pretty short and soon enough Skrillex puts down the guitar and they are playing that interim music and starting “Something New.”  This song features a groovy bass line from Joe Cleveland.  I don’t quite know what the lyrics are but they are remarkably vulgar.

“Or Nah” opens with a cool spiky guitar riff from Brandon Chapman who Ty calls “my twin, Baby Dolla $ign).    Up next is “Paranoid” which is without question the worst song I have ever heard.

The lyrics are bad enough

I seen two of my bitches in the club / I know they know about each other / I think these bitches trying to set me up.

What the hell?  And worse than the lyrics is that he does that awful love song crooning, but it’s about he’s crooning about his bitches setting him up.  Oh god, its dreadful.  Although I was amused at the amusign way he introduces his keyboardist.  I gather he changes the lyric to “your bitch smells like Camper” [point to keyboardist].

After the excerpt the band jams out and it’s really good.  The band is tight and really rocks.  There’s some great drumming from Mike Moore and some more wild soloing from Chapman.  This was my favorite part of the set.

Although the sinister bass riff that opens “Ego Death” is pretty cool.  Again the jamming in the middle of the song is great (and the samples that Ty triggers are really fun).

The set ends with “Your Turn.”  Ty picks up the guitar but mostly plays occasional chords.  The song is all guitar and vocals to start with.  Then backing singer Ant Clemons sings a call and response.  By the end of the song he is singing “yee yee yee yee” for some reason.  I was really happy when this set was over.

[READ: November 25, 2020] “A House on the Plains”

I tend to think of E.L. Doctorow as writing kind of formal books.  That’s not based on anything except that he’s been writing for a long time and that some of his books have been turned into movies (and musicals).

So I was surprised at the tone of this story.   And then even more surprised as the plot started to reveal itself.  The story was wonderfully written.  There’s the story that’s not being revealed as well as the part that is.  And both are really engaging.

The story begins in Chicago.  The narrator says that his mama tells him that he has to start calling her Aunt Dora.  Why?  Because when they move, she can’t have other people believing she has a child his age.

The boy, Earle, (who is at least a teenager because he is having sex with a local girl, Winifred) is not happy about leaving Chicago.  Both because of the girl and because Chicago is a cool city and they are planning to move to the middle of nowhere. (more…)

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manner SOUNDTRACK: BEN GIBBARD-Tiny Desk Concert #251 (November 19, 2012).

benBen Gibbard is the voice of Death Cab for Cutie.  His voice is instantly recognizable and his melodies are surprisingly catchy.

This Tiny Desk Concert (they say it’s number 250, but I count 251) is just him and his acoustic guitar.  I didn’t know he did solo work, but apparently he does (in addition to being in The Postal Service and All-Time Quarterback).

Gibbard just released a solo album, Former Lives, which he’s said is a repository for material that didn’t work as Death Cab for Cutie songs; from that record, only “Teardrop Windows” pops up in his Tiny Desk Concert. For the rest, he draws from Death Cab’s most recent album (“St. Peter’s Cathedral,” from Codes and Keys) and, of all places, last year’s Arthur soundtrack (“When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street”).

As mentioned he plays three songs and his voice is so warm and familiar I felt like I knew these songs even if I didn’t.

I knew “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It is a lovely song with very little in the way of chord changes.  But the melody is gentle and pretty.  And the song appears to be entirely about this church.  Which is interesting because the second song is also about a building in Seattle.  “Teardrop Windows” is a surprisingly sad song about an inanimate object.  It’s written from the building’s point of view as he mourns that no one uses him anymore.  And such beautiful lyrics too:

Once built in boast as the tallest on the coast he was once the city’s only toast / In old postcards was positioned as the star, he was looked up to with fond regard / But in 1962 the Needle made its big debut and everybody forgot what it outgrew

The final song “When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street” was indeed for the Russel Brand movie Arthur.  Somehow I can’t picture those two together.  It’s a lovely song, too.

I prefer Gibbard’s more upbeat and fleshed out music, but it’s great to hear him stripped down as well.

[READ: January 2017] “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” “The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow,” “Remembering Updike,” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” 

I had been planning to have my entire month of February dedicated to children’s books.  I have a whole bunch that I read last year and never had an opportunity to post them.  So I thought why not make February all about children’s books.  But there is just too much bullshit going on in our country right now–so much hatred and ugliness–that I felt like I had to get this post full of good vibes out there before I fall completely into bad feelings myself. It;s important to show that adults can be kind and loving, despite what our leaders demonstrate.  Fortunately most children’s books are all about that too, so the them holds for February.

George Saunders is a wonderful writer, but he is also a very kind human being.  Despite his oftentimes funny, sarcastic humor, he is a great humanitarian and is always very generous with praise where it is warranted.

The other day I mentioned an interview with Saunders at the New York Times.  Amid a lot of talk with and about Saunders, there is this gem:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

These first three pieces are all examples of his love and respect for other writers–both for their skill and for their generosity.

“My Writing Education: A Time Line”

“My Writing Education” comes from a book called A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors.  Saunders’ mentor was Tobias Wolff.  And for this essay, his admiration takes the form of a diary.  (more…)

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1.14.2008 SOUNDTRACK: IRON & WINE-Tiny Desk Concert #105 (January 21, 2011).

irionwineI have enjoyed Iron & Wine, but not extensively.  I knew that it was more or less a Sam Beam project (until recently, as the band has since grown in size).  And I knew that he sang beautiful folk songs. I did not know that he was such an amiable and sweet fellow.

For this Tiny Desk, Beam plays four songs.  Three are from his then new album, Kiss Each Other Clean, and they are great.  Beam’s voice sounds fantastic and his playing is excellent too.

After the first song, “Half Moon,” Bob Boilen asks him when he has time to write songs and Beam replies that he has less and less time.  He has to get up early to take the kids to school, so he works like a day job for song writing.

For the second song, “Big Burned Hand” he begins with the capo on fret five and then switches it to fret four apologizing that it’s early.  It’s another beautiful song.  At the end he apologizes for the word “fucking” in the final line (“the lion and the lamb are fucking in the back row”) but says that no other word would have had the same impact.  He doesn’t use words like that lightly in his songs.

He says that “Tree By The River” is a song he had been writing for ten years.  He was afraid it was always turning out saccharine, but thinks he finally got it.

Before playing the final song, Robin Hilton requests an old song (I can’t hear it) which Beam says he will butcher.  Robin says he will die happy if Beam plays it, but Beam says he’ll die unhappy if he plays it badly.  So instead, the final song is an older one, “Naked As We Came,” which has become a set-ender for the band.   Stephen Thompson says it’s great to hear this in this stripped down acoustic format instead of the full band version that has been common now.

And speaking of the full band, when Kiss Each Other Clean came out, the full band of Iron & Wine performed it live on WNYC (you can hear all four of these songs with the full band). And NPR has archived that performance, which you can download here.

[READ: January 7, 2015] “Wakefield”

I have always intended to read more from Doctorow, but he always seems to fall off my radar.  So I don’t know how this compares to his other works.  I really enjoyed it even if I felt like I had to suspend my disbelief a number of times in what was otherwise a somewhat realistic story.

Realistic or not, I really loved the conceit behind it.  The narrator and his wife of many years have had a fight about something stupid.  He went off to work as usual, but on the way home strange things happened.  First there is a problem with is train and he winds up arriving home much later than usual.  And then he finds there’s a power failure (it was interesting to read this right after Updike’s power failure story last week).

He gets out of his car and sees that there are raccoons behind the garage so he chases them away.  When he goes upstairs in the garage he sees that there are baby raccoons there too.  He chases them away and, since the power is still out and he is mentally taxed, he sits in a tattered rocking chair.

He only wakes up the next morning.  And he knows that his wife will never believe the truth. (more…)

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After the rocking brilliance of OK Computer, Radiohead released Kid A.  And the world hushed.  The opening song “Everything in Its Right Place” begins with keyboard notes and what-the-hell vocals by Thom Yorke.  Once the song proper starts, though, it turns into a cool, electronically detached Radiohead song.  And even though it never lifts beyond that state, the melody is captivating.  Next, the title track is downright bizarre, a quiet electronic ticking and bleeping song with distorted vocals and, eventually, electronic drums.  It’s a statement of purpose if nothing else and shows that you’ll not be hearing any guitar anthems here.

And then comes “The National Anthem,” one of my favorite Radiohead songs ever.  It reasserts them as songwriters (even if its a really weird song).  It features a great bass line and then–about 3 minutes in–it devolves into a noisy skronky horn filled mess.

After the moody near-instrumental “How to Disappear Completely” and the mellow actual- instrumental “Trefingers”, “Optimistic” comes back with some wonderfully clear moments amidst the beautiful murk of the song.  It is followed by “Idioteque,” which is probably the perfect encapsulation of the new Radiohead: full of disorienting electronic distorted noises and yet utterly catchy and captivating.  “Morning Bell” the next track is equally stunning.

It’s odd of course that the disc ends with two minutes of silence, but that’s surely not the oddest thing on this disc.  And yet for all my seeming criticism, the disc is genre-breaking and mind-bending.  It’s an extraordinary piece of music.   And it virtually smashed all communication with their earlier selves.

Oh, and I even managed to score the limited edition disc with the booklet behind the tray!

[READ: December 31, 2010] “Assimilation”

Although I have met E.L. Doctorow (and he signed his then latest book–which I have yet to read), I have not read a lot by him.  I’m not sure why exactly, as I regard him highly, he’s just another writer who has slipped through my fingers.

As such, I have no idea if this story is in any way representative of his work.

It is a fairly straightforward story.  A hispanic man, Ramon, who is an American citizen and has gone to college, finds himself busing tables in a restaurant owned by a Russian immigrant.

One day the boss asks him, basically, if he would marry a Russian woman so as to get her legally into America.  He agrees.  They do.  And she treats him like dirt, because really, she has no reason to be nice to him.

She is such an unlikable (almost unbelievably so) character that I considered not finishing the story.  I also felt that Ramon may have been to gullible.  And yet, Doctorow writes so wonderfully, that I kept reading even though I didn’t really care about them. (more…)

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Although I don’t think I remember exactly when this disc came out, I was pretty big into heavy metal (the heavier the better) back in 1983.  I can remember this was my freshman year of high school, and I’m fairly certain I bought this LP pretty soon after it came out (thanks to the awesome radio show mu-mu-mu-mu-mu-metal shop).

Kill ‘Em All has always been a touchstone for thrash metal.  And listening to it now, it’s hard to believe that the Metallica of 2010 is the same band.  Or, more to the point that this bunch of kids would have grown into this same bunch of adults.

Kill ‘Em All is raw. Really raw.  And yet it sounds (even at this stage) well mixed and very professional (no mean feat given the rather silly cover art).  The guitars, even though the distortion is cranked up, do not sound muddy.   The vocals are mixed perfectly so you can actually understand (most of) the growly lyrics (this is before James Hetfield learned how to sing).  The drums are really fast (possibly one of the fastest bpm at the time).  And of course, Cliff Burton kept wonderful rhythm while Kirk Hammett was soloing all over the place.  And while “Anesthesia–Pulling Teeth” is kind of a silly addition on a thrash album, it does showcase Cliff’s bass work.

The amazing thing is that this twenty-seven year old album still sounds relevant in the metal world.  And no doubt it will continue to influence young metal bands in the future.  And for a fantastic review of this disc (and an awesome selection of best-of-1983 releases), check out wallnernotweller.  This is what my site would look like if it were only about music.

[READ: April 22, 2010] “Edgemont Drive”

I haven’t read much E.L. Doctorow, but I’ve liked what I read.  And it was nice to read someone who writes so differently from the kind of things I’ve been reading lately (Bolaño etc).  It was especially nice because I was fairly certain where I the story was going to go and it didn’t go anywhere near where I expected. (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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