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A Few of My Favorite Things, 2015 Edition

I’ll start with a downer: 2015 was an awful, miserable beast of a year, and bidding it good riddance and wishing for a better 2016 kind of strikes me as perverse magical thinking. Bad luck, human caprice, and institutional corruption and racism don’t really obey the artificial thresholds of calendar years.

But nonetheless the end of a year provides a time for reflection. There were good and beautiful things too. But some of these bright spots in a dark year are below.

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books music

An Act of Literary Vandalism.

My mother, a librarian and English lit major, loved books so much she couldn’t sell or give them away. So I grew up in a house surrounded by books, and learned early on about the joys of reading and — as you can imagine from having a librarian for a mother — how to properly take care of a book. Always use a bookmark; don’t bend the cover; always remember who you lend a book to, and don’t forget to ask for it back.

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Ten Weekend Reads; Also, How I Dedicated My Life to Satan

1. Sometime when I was 13 or so, I dedicated my life to Satan.

I’m sure someone dared me to do it, but I don’t remember. Which means I had a witness — my brother, or my cousin — other than smiling or frowning deities, but I can’t recall for sure.

I do remember thinking about my poor parents if the whole infernal plan backfired: how they would have to find an exorcist in case I started levitating from my bed. Or have to clean up the thick green soup I’d spew onto the walls.

I declared my service to the Dark Lord in my bedroom. No upside-down crosses or burning candles or “Hotel California” played backwards accompanied my declaration of faith. I didn’t write any renunciations, or recite blasphemous revisions of the Apostle’s Creed. I simply took a deep breath and said something uninspired, like “I give my life to Satan.”

Silence. Nothing happened.

I was still there. I was still breathing. My head neither sprouted horns, nor was zapped by a bolt of punitive lightning. I had not been bestowed with powers of clairvoyance or the ability to hurl small objects across the room with my mind. My life of evil, ending before it even began.

My bedroom was still there, and it looked the same. My bed, my brother’s bed, our Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet posters on the wall. That one, with Tony Hadley facing the other direction as the rest of the band.

Years later I dedicated myself to Christ — a long story I shall not go into here — and was confirmed and baptized by immersion in holy water. That moment was accompanied by all the appurtenances of ritual designed to heighten the experience: the robes, the prayers, the congregation.

Nothing happened then either.

I was waiting to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Would it feel like a tingle in my spine? A sudden lightness in the soles of my feet? The clouds didn’t part, no dove descended from the sky, and no angelic choirs sang.

Looking back, I figure Satan just didn’t have any wonderful plans for my life. He simply had no use for a young uncorrupted Spandau Ballet fan, momentarily acting out in pimply teenage malaise, with no experience in the pleasures of the flesh. I wanted Satan in my life, but the old guy, ever the practical schemer, didn’t want me back.

Which leads me to more demons, circa 1775, via The Paris Review.

2. Leslie Jamison, “Catechism for the End of the World,” an introduction to Ryan Spencer’s “Such Mean Estate” (The New Yorker).

3. Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” (New York Times Sunday Magazine).

4 and 5. Alexander Chee on James Salter, from 2011. Then follow it up with an excerpt from A Sport and a Pastime, from 1966 (The Paris Review).

6. Columbia House was integral to the beginning of my musical education, via my mother when she ordered Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits as part of a 10-cassette package when we lived in California. (I think it was the only one of them that survived the Philippines; The Carpenters’ Greatest Hits and Frank Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back was viciously attacked by mold, even as we attempted to replicate the slightly cooler temperature of Central California by placing the tapes in the freezer. That didn’t work either.) Anyhow, Annie Zaleski has a roundtable discussion / interview with former Columbia House employees, including Sasha Frere-Jones, as they “explain the shady math behind ‘8 CDs for a penny‘” (The A.V. Club)

7. Mark Thompson is the deceptively affable fellow behind the monstrosity-filled Monstark Studios. I picked up his books at a local art fair recently and his books — especially Lepustrosities: Experiments Successful and Bugmen who Bear My Nose — are eloquent and horrid, suggesting a bestiary written by Lovecraft and Ligotti.

8. Issue 3 of The Austin Review was excellent; highlights were Jason Hill’s “Alex Gehry Changed His Status to Single” and Stephen Parrish’s “Metronome.”

9. The great Ian Penman has a wonderful article on Sinatra — his prose can be a little showy, but it’s gorgeous and well-crafted and the article is well worth reading even if you don’t care much about Sinatra. (I do.) Hard to pick which passages are my favorites, but I’ll settle for this, about the Sinatra / Jobim album:

Ten songs, 28’05”, voice never raised above a murmur: utter perfection. A music barely there, like pollen on a summer breeze, the drowsy strings not slathered all over everything, but coming and going like midnight optimism. Sinatra sings lines like ‘tall and tan and young and lovely’ – all these clicky, tricky consonants like soldiers on guard duty – and yet when you recall his voice it’s a soft, uncurling wave.

From “Swoonatra” (The London Review of Books)

10. “Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry?” Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman talk about “genre” (The New Statesman).

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books music Pinoy

Weekend Reads: The Morning After a Couple of Guys Apparently Danced Around Each Other for a Lot of Money

The April 20 issue of The New Yorker was a bumper crop of gripping, if depressing, reading:

  • Sarah Stillman’s previous New Yorker article on the police’s reliance on drug confiscations to fund their departments — and we know now that it was standard operating procedure in Ferguson as well — is followed up by an equally exhaustively researched article on child kidnappings for ransom by the U.S.-Mexico border — and the DHS nightmare they’re plunged in after rescue. “Where Are The Children?” (The New Yorker)
  • Oliver Sacks, on the late Spalding Gray: “The Catastrophe” (The New Yorker)
  • Luke Mogelson has a really funny piece of fiction, “Peacetime;” how is it possible that he can put on a reporter’s hat and write in-depth articles about ebola in Liberia and executions in Aleppo as well? (The New Yorker)
  • Ah, those were the days. Not really: I do look back at those early days after I ditched dial-up — and I gave full rein to my acquisitive, obsessive impulses with an almost-total disregard for creative labor — I hang my head in shame, and am disgusted at the time I wasted. And money: we’re talking spindles and spindles of CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. Stephen Witt, “The Man Who Broke the Music Business” (The New Yorker)

 

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Weekend Reads, Plus Some Thoughts on E-Books and MFAs.

  • Barbara Jane Reyes on teaching America Is In The Heart and Dogeaters (barbarajanereyes.com)
  • Marathons, not binge-watching. Rex Sorgatz on “How Netflix Broke the Unbreakable Spoiler Alert” (The Message)
  • “‘Is the Philippines trying to kill me?’ I ask.” Laurel Fantauzzo, in “The Animals in My Home” (The Rumpus)
  • Wattpad infographics, an essay by Laura Miller, Steven Soderbergh’s edits, One Direction, and where the Philippines ranks in all of this: a guide to fan fiction (Vulture)
  • “I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn’t see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing.” Karl Ove Knaussgard’s “My Saga, Part 2” (The Sunday New York Times Magazine). This is huge mainstream exposure for Knaussgard, though I doubt it’s going to inspire the casual reader to pick up My Struggle because of it.
  • So that rather mean-spirited Ryan Boudinot essay has had an unexpectedly protracted shelf life, and I think it partly comes from the cyclical nature of the debate, if it can be called such, on the utility of a Creative Writing MFA. I seem to recall a similar brouhaha a few years ago, and another before that. Some (okay, maybe two) of Boudinot’s observations do seem spot-on, like what he says about shelving early work, though I’m not sure how one actually learns to write if said early work remained in the stale air of the lonely garret in which it was composed. And what he writes about woefully unprepared graduate students can be extended to that whole extended playing-out of neuroses that is called graduate school life; there are “good” grad students, and “bad” grad students, who have different levels of commitment to doing the work, and I’m sure I was a mix of both when I was a young pup in grad school. Anyway, there are a couple of good pieces in Electric Literature, one by Adrian Van Young, and another written anonymously; the latter’s title is “How the MFA Glut Is a Disservice to Students, Teachers, and Writers,” which goes a long way to explain the writer’s refusal to be identified. I actually had no idea that there were programs out there with “nearly 100% admittance rates.” I’ve been following all this with interest because I occasionally wonder — ok, I confess the correct term is “fantasize” — about an MFA. Whether I can even get in, what I can do with the degree, how I would spend those two glorious years doing nothing but writing and reading. In practical terms anyway, the prospect of debt terrifies me, so going back to school is really off the table. (I was told by a writer who I hold with the highest esteem that I didn’t need an MFA, and she told me why. To this day I still count it as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me; it’s one of the things that keeps my butt in this chair every day.)
  • Rick Moody and Scott Timberg have a fascinating and digressive conversation — actually, Timberg’s phrase is “a lively and grimly enjoyable conversation” — on Dylan, Sinatra, Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan), James (Richard D., not Henry), and the paradox of aesthetic relativism and its coexistence with some Platonic ideal of quality (The Rumpus)
  • Colson Whitehead on how the filmic vocabulary of the reality show “has become a limber metaphor for exploring our own real-world failures,” in “The ‘Loser Edit’ That Awaits Us All” (The New York Times). There’s a hazy bit of grad school theory that this reminds me of — Paul Ricoeur? Hayden White? something about “narrativity” and “emplotment” — but that was too long ago for me.
  • And finally, Robin Reader, “So What’s Up (and Down) with Ebooks?” (Dear Author). I link to this latter piece with some misgivings because my reaction to it has swung from “appalled because writers need to be paid, dammit” to “of course I wait for everything to go on sale” to recognizing my complicity in a $9.99 price point (and lower) for an e-book because I’ve been conditioned by all-you-can-eat forms of consumption (Netflix, Spotify, your local Sizzler — though I haven’t been inside one since maybe 1996). The article also recycles that old debate about the price of print books is justified because of the physicalness of it, its resale value, the fact that you can lend it, etc. — a perfectly legitimate reasoning — versus e-books are just electrons and bits that cost nothing to store or ship and they should by nature be cheaper. I totally get that, because the very bookness of the book — the smell, the tactility of the pages, and don’t get me started about how much I love deckle-edged pages, my god — is something you pay for too. But I’d like to think that the value of a book inheres less in its resellability or the physical space it occupies on a bookshelf, but more in the book’s content regardless of how it’s delivered to the reader. Surely buying an e-book for a few dollars more — or a print book for full price at my local indie bookstore — constitutes some form of support that returns to the author at some point. (The fuzziness of “at some point” is another problem altogether.) Odd though how some of the readers’ umbrage — $12.99 makes the blog entry writer “feel so disrespected and exploited” — is more likely to provoke a response like “Fine I won’t buy your book you greedy publisher / author you” versus “Guess that means I’ll just buy the paperback then.” That doesn’t really make sense to me.