Book; Counter-book 2: Frames

A good story is like a good onion. Layers. Lots of layers. So many layers to peel through that take you deeper in, but when you finish you see that the material in the middle is made of the same stuff from the outside, only in a different form. A good story has a tangible change that doesn't merely appear, but grows organically. ("Organic" is a buzz word, over-used by musicians, athletes, and most any artist who wants to say "with an appearance of natural progression," regardless of any necessary artistic contrivance... I say it too. I'm a jerk.) A good story, as you've heard in a Lit class at some point in your life, takes a character through a change. If the character doesn't change, and he's the protagonist, antagonist, or anti-hero, well, then, that story is suspect... Or, very, very meta. More on that later.

A good story, like an onion, may also make you cry. But, what I'm getting at here and now is the layering because this edition of Book; Counter-book address frame narratives... Or, in keeping with the onion simile, "Onion-inside-onion(-inside-onion)" stories. Arguably, the most famous frame narrative is Mary Shelley's classic Gothic horror Frankenstein, wherein the tale is told through letters by seafarer Robert Walton, who is told the tale by Victor Frankenstein, who hears the details of the story from the Monster while seeking refuge in the mountains. All of this is compiled by Shelley, whose story of writing the book as a bet between herself, Lord Byron, and her husband to be Percy lends another layer to the "onion". Shelley's direct part in the frame is disputable, but the format is the key. 1) Shelley 2) Walton 3) Victor 4) Monster. For those of you who are now bored by my unnecessarily academic and pandering description of frame narration; I invite you to say aloud, "Fuck that!" now.

Two excellent, near essential frame narratives of the last 25 years are The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. These are the contenders, the book to each other's counter-book. While both books are alike in their alterations to the traditional frame narrative, they oppose each other in application and in purpose. This isn't going to be a clean fight between them, but if you want pulled punches, go fix a boxing match.

The Blind Assassin takes place in Ontario, Canada, and operates in a three level frame structure. 1) Iris Chase describing her days in older age and recalling her past from youthful debutante to unhappily married wife of a wealthy politico 2) A story of a pair of young lovers' illicit affair written by her sister Laura 3) The story within the story, as told by the male lover, which is a piece of science fiction called "The Blind Assassin". The narrative works as a puzzle, guiding us to the big reveal that Atwood offers at the end. Brilliantly, the reveal you're looking for throughout the frames is not the one that matters most, it doesn't end up being the climax, and that makes the novel especially compelling.

For Atwood, the frame narrative creates an essential distance between us and the inner workings of the Chase and Griffen families. It's a constructive way to make readers feel the distance Iris and Laura felt, while simultaneously preventing us from getting close enough to understand until Atwood wants to show her cards. Atwood offers the most depth and emotion in Iris' day-to-day as an older woman, and in the "The Blind Assassin" story, within the story, within the novel. There we are provided motive and passion, but it's meant to be cursory, and Atwood intends to mislead us through it, while also revealing honesty. The allegory of the young, blind, slave/assassin falling in love with the doomed-to-sacrifice virgin girl is beautiful and says far more about the motivations and thoughts of the Chase's than anything Atwood lets them say directly. The frame in The Blind Assassin is heavy like the weighty expectations put on the characters, and as complex as a Rubik's Cube inside the hedge maze from The Shining.

Murakami, in Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, takes a different approach. The frame is simpler in pieces, but more complex in execution. Depending on your choice of point-of-view, it operates: 1) Real world of a data calculation tech in a pseudo futurist Noir 2) Absurd, fairytale world of a man learning to read memories from animal skulls. Or, 1) Absurd tale of a data-tech evading silent monsters in a subway tunnel, falling in love with a voraciously sexual girl dressed entirely in pink, and losing his mind 2) A classic allegory on love and mythology with a simple, understandable setting and context.

In truth, Murakami's novel is both these of versions and more. It's a frame narrative that exists in split personalities. In a standard frame-fashion, the layers teach us more about each other, but more indirectly than the Frankenstein example, and less structurally clear as The Blind Assassin. The novel switches frames on alternate chapters, but even in the early chapters, there is a light trickle of the two frames into one another. The trickle may only start as a sentence, a fleeting phrase, but it pervades the book, until eventually, Murakami has presented you with a single well, a pool of water, where two currents flow into each other. The words and styles blend together, and the frames melt entirely. The frames are merged, and the structure is destroyed, thereby altering the minds of the the protagonist(s) while also wrecking the frame convention.

Murakami employs the frame only to immediately dash it and wear it down until no structure remains. Atwood took the frame as a way to illustrate the complete puzzle, providing the most detail pieces in unexpected places. Both takes are post-modern... the alteration of convention, the creation of a new design on a standard. The biggest point of contention between these two novels, though, is that while Atwood's frame narrative elucidates the mysteries within, Murakami's mixes ink into an already murky potion and compels the reader to take a sip.
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Red Right Ankle

"This is the story of [my] red right ankle and how it came to meet [my] leg..."

On Sunday I strolled down to the Y at 16th and Lincoln to play pick-up basketball with an old friend and several new ones. In the process of "pushing my limits," "going big or going home," and "crashing the boards" I very really "sacrificed the body" and rolled my ankle something fierce. This blog isn't about my personal shit though, it's about music, books, video, websites, and other sexy feats of human creation. Luckily, the injury gave me an inspiration to listen to, and to write about the Decemberists "Red Right Ankle" from Her Majesty.

Carefully assembled lyrically and musically, the song exists in a near-perfect ethereal state. Colin Meloy's voice is structured, wispier than on the bulk of Decemberist's tracks, and methodically paced. The song begins, as shown in the quote atop this post (with "your" in place of "my") with assembly. Physical assembly. Meloy sings, "And how the muscle, bone, and sinews tangle... And how the skin was softly shed." He constructs a beautiful connection, delicate, intricate. The ankle is a meeting point of seemingly gossamer fibers forging an important joint, a support, a connection, and a means of movement. The ankle is love. The ankle is a relationship, wound of minor experiences into a tapestry that is both ornate and precious. Complicated with detail, but dynamically simple. The ankle is love.

By personifying the ankle, Meloy makes it clear, "And how it whispered, 'Oh, adhere to me for we are bound by symmetry and whatever differences our lives have been we together make a limb'" with a lyric that is poetically complex, aware of time, space, and rhythm, and astutely shows love without blatancy.

Love songs (and specifically the positive ones... not songs of longing, love lost, etc.) are necessarily about completion. They establish the bond as revelatory and sustaining. The metaphor of the ankle, a joining of the leg and foot, is uniquely beautiful. The joint is both intricate and integral. What I've realized over the last couple days is how much my ankle is there, and how important its function is to daily life. A relationship can operate similarly, in the intricacy of emotion and interaction. And the way love is essential to, or at least influential on, happiness.

The song turns for a verse to discuss the paramour's uncle, the connection there, the function of age and imagination and the need to keep secrets. "And remember how you found the key to his hideout in the Pyrenees but you wanted to keep his secret safe so you threw the key away," sung by Meloy demonstrates a kind of innate love, one so unconditional that a secret of great importance goes unexploited. It's a love that trumps curiosity. And it's also a demonstration of the way we must sometimes cast away one love, in this case the key (the secret), for another -- compassion. In life, we must sometimes part with those we love not because they are no longer loved, but because we are meant for another path, we are meant to seek a new mystery.

"Red Right Ankle" then catalogues some of the loves who have come before, loved sweetly, loved harshly, loved lazily, leading on to broken hearts. Broken hearts, summed so ideally, so fucking precisely in another of Meloy's lyrics. "Some, they crawled their way into your heart to rend your ventricles apart." The words here are so accurate, so beautiful, and so real. It's a truly visceral description of the destruction in heartbreak. So brutal, the vulnerability we expose ourselves to by loving, when so often the result is a painful one.

Colin Meloy's lyrics, combined with a solid acoustic line peppered with sweet and bittersweet notes, give "Red Right Ankle" a full body and an unforgettably haunting quality. The melody is soft and I'm having trouble finding the words to describe it... which may well be the point of the song. Love begins in a physical construction. It exists inside emotionality, while simultaneously creating worlds, imaginations, and secrets all its own.

My ankle will heal itself in time, as the heart will when broken. Is this another minutia in Meloy's ultimate intent?
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Brain Lingerie - The Fiery Furnaces

In discussing male-female interaction, re: sports, with a friend this weekend. We stumbled upon a metaphor that works surprisingly well. To the sports-minded fellow, a potential paramour with knowledge of football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, etc., is a woman in possession of "brain lingerie". This does not mean to imply that other aspects of a woman's intellectual capacity are less valuable. I'd ardently argue the opposite. But, there is always something impressive, and appealing about watching football with a lady and having her point out a 4 - 3 defense, read a blitzing safety, or note an offense in trips formation. Understanding a line change in hockey. Picking out a zone in basketball. Not that these are things every man would find attractive. And by no means would I end or begin a relationship based solely on this knowledge. "Brain lingerie" is, however, an interesting concept... and one that applies to subjects of interest beyond sports.

When I've spoken to male friends about lingerie, the most often cited reason for liking it is that it shows something, but not everything... garnering an air of mystery. Mysteries are sexy. Consider Humphrey Bogart, not a traditionally attractive man, especially by today's standards, who was always considered a leading man and a symbol of male-ness. Reason: mystery. You never knew exactly where he stood in his films, he was rugged and un-obvious. "Brain lingerie" does the same thing, piquing the interest, showing a little bit of something that could raise some interest. Perhaps the concept is just a pointless dressing up of the idea that having a wide breadth of knowledge is innately attractive. But it seems to have worked. With a handful of my female friends. Bridging the gender gap.

On a completely unrelated note: The Fiery Furnaces! I've only recently become acquainted with the band, after having heard of them for years. This is an incredibly excellent band, both for its wildly arranged lyrics, and its intentionally dissonant sound. Brother and sister duo, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger write the music, he plays keys, guitar, and she sings. The sound is refreshing, full, but also clattering in the right measures.

Their first, Gallowsbird's Bark is the most consumable. The album holds on to indie conventions and has a clatter that is more of an accent than a dialect. Catchy riffs and solid melodies make it an easy first listen that grows on you with time. Eleanor's speak-singing is especially endearing as it invokes Blondie and other early rap-esque works.

Bitter Tea is from 2006, and is experimental, noisy and uneven. It's a great listen once you've grown accustomed to the style, but initially it is coarse and lacking the easy to enjoy indie rock standards of the earlier album. There is one from 2004, Blueberry Boat, that is held in high critical regard that I have not picked up yet, but I intend to immediately.

Other than a live album in 2008, 2007's Widow City is their most recent release. It's the first one I listened to, and remains my favorite. The album has a lot of the experimentation present on Bitter Tea, but a healthy dose of the riffing that makes Gallowsbird's Bark so listenable. Tracks like "My Egyptian Grammar" and "Ex-Guru" are examples of excellent storytelling as well as songwriting, and the bracing "Clear Signal From Cairo" calls back to The Supremes with a compelling chorus.

What I'm saying here is check out The Fiery Furnaces.
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Inbox: Spam - Grammar? Language!

The email address I have at work, the primary address for the company, overflows with spam. A full displacement, as if a basketball were thrust into a mixing bowl. SPLADOW! Over the time I've maintained the account, I've seen all kinds of Nigerian (among numerous other countries of origin, so I mean not to imply something about Western Africa) money schemes, diet fads, terrorism warnings, medications, and sex drug ads come and go. The sex drug ads inspire the most laughter because they are either prescriptive statements about the value/necessity of sexual virility/voracity, or they are loaded with euphemisms and entendre that did not exist previous to that specific spam email. (Now, yeah, some of them may be current "Wuzzzzzzuuuuuppp?s" and "Your Moms" of the Middle School locker room set...)

It's a barrage of "love sticks" and "rods" and there's marked overuse of the words "supercharge" and "empower". All common enough, right, but this morning when I checked my email, there was a spam that just didn't make any sense:

"Put your doughnut in her oven"

The ad that follows is a basic Viagra .gif link image with a man and woman closely embraced, noses touching, lips pursed, but not yet kissing. Fine, innocuous. But, let's break down the subject line. Put your doughnut in her oven? Really!? Really! Really? What is the doughnut? What is the oven? I mean, are we talking about virility for the sake of making a baby, tracing lines from "bun in the oven"? Is the doughnut a baked good bambino, or are we throwing out the traditional oven implication all together? If we are, "doughnut" is hardly the preferred euphemism for penis. It's inaccurate as a point of comparison. Entirely. Cannoli would be more accurate, but still incredibly stupid.

So, what I wonder is if/when spam messages will alter the nature of language itself? As these subjects and spellings continue to change and redistribute the meanings of words and phrases throughout the virtual world, the physical world remains relatively unscathed. But is it possible that eventually all communication will take this form as a way to avoid the "filters" we will could hypothetically establish in the future? Will phrases like "put your doughnut in her oven" gain use and meaning through saturation... as all words would have to in a fluid, adaptive system of communication? Consider that "I can haz," and grammatical adaptations like adding "-ed" to words normally written differently in past tense (eated, sleeped) happen often on the internet via memes and a variety of fun, cute, websites. They are now acceptable, perhaps no academically, but in common speech. Does it stop? Can it stop? Should it stop? Is there any virtue to being a "linguistic purist"?

I don't have an answer to that. Contractions, like the one used just a sentence ago, are considered inappropriate now according to the APA Style Guide, but few would argue that rule/recommendation as valid or reasonable. Language changes. We accept that.

On a lighter, less "I was an English major," but more "I'm going to be unnecessarily indignant for a paragraph" note: Snuggies. Surely you've seen the ads on television extolling the virtues of these blankets with sleeves. And if not, YouTube it because it's hilarious. The mere idea that a traditional blanket is so cumbersome and restrictive that it constantly prevents you from turning the page in your book, or answering a phone, or hugging your child goodnight (yes, these are actual examples shown in the commercial) leading to you huffing loudly and shaking your head is absurd. Absurdly capitalistic. And sure, maybe I'm jealous that I didn't think of this idea myself. It's simple. It's a sleeved-blanket that you button in the back, and it makes you look like a cross between a Jedi, a Benedictine monk, and a cultist. What's not to love. But really? Do we need to pitch our "classic" blankets when you can get the same effect by putting on a sweatshirt. Or, hell, why not just turn a bathrobe around?

Let's start a buy a Snuggies for the Homeless program to put them to a decent use. Or, let's just donate some blankets. Instead of dropping 20 bucks on a high-concept throw. That would be a more snug way to live.
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Web Comics - Honorable Mentions

Sadly, sometimes I'm "that guy" (or is it "that" guy?) who commits the sin of omission in not mentioning other amazing achievements in the fields of music, books, etc. My dear friend Jared would point out that my Top 5 albums forgot Parts & Labor's Receivers LP of which I have heard bits and loved, but have not listened to at length. It is a good disc, and though not entirely within the parameters of my music taste, I would be a fool not to mention its brilliance. I do, in fact, intend to pick it up (uh oh, I'm getting a little defensive) at some point in the next month to give it a solid listen and perhaps even a full review. Perhaps I will juxtapose it to another experimental/indie/noise outfit like The Fiery Furnaces, whose The Widow City is currently in heavy rotation in my ears. That said, I'm fallible, and so I've had friends and colleagues send me emails and links to comics I forgot in response to yesterday's post. I've read most of these, and feel a fool for forgetting them. Check these out. Laugh. Pray for the strength to go on. And laugh harder.

The Honorable Mentions & Should-have-been-considereds:

1. Nedroid.com

Featuring inspired, original art and writing, Nedroid.com stars a half-bear half-potato named aptly, Beartato, and his bird friend Reginald. Assorted secondary comics fill the site with the same wit and energy. The 200 Bad Comics Challenge features some of the best short, one-off jokes ever... and a lot of groaners too.

2. Perry Bible Fellowship

You've more than likely already seen PBF somewhere on the 'net. It has been featured on College Humor and is thrown about facebook constantly. It's also "cat hanging from a moving ceiling fan" funny! All the strips are short and sweet, usually with a twist ending that's crass, bitter, and never Shyamalan-esque. (That is, lame and expected...)

3. Hark! A Vagrant

It's cute! It's poignant! It's fun! It's Canadian! There's an offbeat disillusionment built into a sometimes childlike frame that makes this comic especially enjoyable. I haven't read enough to be any less Sphinx-like, so umm, we'll just type a bit more to fill some space.

4. The Adventures of Dr. McNinja

The main reason I left this off the list is because it is a serial. You get a page a day, and the stories proceed in traditional comic book fashion, making it a hard strip to just pop in on and have a chuckle. Dr. McNinja combines gags on traditional action comics and films, the cool one-liners spouted by action heroes, and topics like zombies, ninjas, robots, gorillas, dinosaurs, bears with guns attached to them, and a side-kick with an incredible moustache and an itchy trigger finger. If you enjoy any of those things, as well as hilariously contrived action villains, start from the beginning and read through. You will not be disappointed.

If (read: since) I am forgetting other prominent web comics, post a comment with the url in there, and encourage everyone to check it out.

The comic (pictured) accompanying the post is one of mine... *shameless plug-town*
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Web Comics - Best of 2008

Other than chatting online, reading news, sports and music reviews... the best part about the internet is web comics. (You thought I was going to say porn, right? Well, that's a story for another time.) When sneaking a "break" at work, or seeking to fulfill a serial addiction for daily enjoyment with a returning cast of characters, these little digital vignettes can't be beat. Now, so many web-artists have a high-tech stylus rig and the ability to free hand their own genius right into the interweb that it's nearly impossible to choose just a handful to follow regularly (and feel connected to the storyline). Despite a lack of scarcity web comics are intensely artistic and feature a wide breadth of excellent humor. There's so much humor we can add an extra "u." Humour.

I used to read the comics in the newspaper everyday as a boy. Many I'd read out of comfort, rather than satisfaction. Like a bad, but tolerable relationship, classics like Hagar The Horrible, The Family Circus (More like The Family Valium...) and Garfield were never truly loved, but never missed. Rare hits like The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes belie the uninteresting mass of syndicated newspaper "funnies," despite the daily readership. And out of the cultural wasteland a tiny flower did sprout... comics that are actually funny because they aren't regulated by syndicates, and news media corps focused on being only as funny as the most buttoned-down subscribers allow. Yay! Individual media publishing! So now, without further meanderings, my top 5 web comics of 2008:

5. questionable content by jeph jacques

Essentially this is a perpetual dating/relationship comedy-drama, with numerous indie references, pun-tastic jokes, and talking anthropomorphic robots. On a deeper level QC addresses 20-something burnout, and the search for purpose. It's not always perfect, which is why it's number 5. I've read this one everyday for the last 4 years, and I'm attached to the cast in a way that may be mid-90s WB-esque-level cute-disgusting. Guest strips are always pleasant surprises, despite deviation from the usual arc, and Jacques hits incredible crass notes with his other comic, Indietits (about an angry, often screaming, little bird that never moves from his branch).

4. WONDERMARK by David Malki!

The quintessential "Monty Python" of web comics, Wondermark is about excellently crafted jokes, turns of phrase, and plays on pop culture. It is comprised of clip art-style "old timey" images and filled with dialogue written as if spoken by caricatures from the 19th century. Again, there's a pun emphasis here that may be specific to my "sense" of humor, but each strip has an incredible novelty to it. Rarely connecting into a continuing storyline, Malki! is free to be a classic absurdist; something at which he excels! The simple design, and way that the images in the often remain unchanged from panel to panel keep you focused on the words, and often incorporate a greater juxtaposition between serious image and absurd dialogue, or vice verse. And his merch is exceptional too.

3. Penny Arcade by Tycho and Gabe (pseudonyms of excellence)

Video games, one of my guilty hobbies, are the focus of Penny Arcade. But, it doesn't stop there because these two electronically focused misanthropes are also two of the most hilariously crass, self-interested, and delightful characters of all time. 30% shock value, 30% exceptional writing, and 40% excellent, well-styled and unique artwork make up a comic that is continually enjoyable, if sometimes so video game focused that it is difficult to follow without reading the blog aspect of the strips. It's a meta comic in that way, but also one that gives birth to incredible characters like Twisp & Catsby, whose miss-adventures always end in word play, the Fruit Fucker robot-juicer and the Cardboard-tube Samurai. If you can handle being grossed out, confused by gaming references, and a barrage of penis jokes for a juvenile, but often satisfying chuckle you should stop by and peruse the archives.

2. Achewood by Chris Onstad

A fictional, but all too realistic universe of lovable and thoroughly unlovable anthropomorphic animals drops into your lap with each strip. The brilliance of the strip lies in the depth of the writing. It is artistically simple, not overly embellished with details. The individual characters are so well-defined that they feel real, and that's the sign of good writing. There are crass turns featuring womanizing Ray, cute turns with Philippe, and thoughtful ones with the oft-abused Pat. Each character has their own blog, which is an incredible concept in itself. I've only been reading Achewood for about 4 months, but it's made an impression and keeps getting better as I travel the archives. I owe a special shout out to my friend Jared for pointing me to the page in the first place.

1. xkcd by Randall Munroe

Stick figures joke about math, physics, books, et al., and pun the whole way. It touches on pop topics like Rick-Rolling, and surprises with its insight on dating and life. It's all in the jokes, and the perspective, so if you're looking for an overwhelming artistic experience head elsewhere. The writing is detailed and full, often with as many jokes as possible crammed in to each strip. If you want to laugh, again at some terrible puns played perfectly, this is the web comic for you. At the time of posting, xkcd is a hilarious guide to converting to metric. Just to give you an idea. I have many friends to thank for linking me here time and time again based on some joke of context between the two (or more) of us. I rank xkcd at number one because of consistency. I never fail to laugh when I delve in, whether under my own interest or on recommendation.

Check these out. Links are there, so you have no excuse. Click. Read. Repeat.
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Sad Song Sack - Links!

I owe these links to an internet search that you won't find on your Googles and your Yahoos and other such naughty/exclamatory websites. My coworker, and champion of music and hilarity, one J. Curry, sent me a link to iMeem when I started this blog-thing. So, while I work on the next couple of entry ideas and overcome this absurd craving for pistachios (Damnation, Xmas stocking!) you can actually hear the songs from Santa's Sad Song Sack on your very own computers! For free! (!!!)

Sadly, we're missing Cat Power, and The Magnetic Fields tracks. Neither appear to be supported by the jukebox utility, so I offer you a minor penance, linked at the bottom as a super-special "bonus" track.

Happy New Year! And let's get excited about the new Neko Case album "Middle Cyclone."

Here are the tunes:

1. Leslie Anne Levine
3. Black Cab
4. New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down
5. Val Jester
6. Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
7. How To Be A Perfect Man
8. Shoot Doris Day
9. This Boy Is Exhausted
10. Maps
11. Pink Bullets
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