1.31.2010

Saturday Night Live - Jon Hamm (And, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros)



I was going to write a blog about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose debut album I just picked up yesterday, and currently has me quite aurally satisfied despite a litany of lukewarm reviews around the internet. It's a fun, '60s/'70s-influenced album that is not nearly as forgettable some have called it. In fact, Up From Below is just the kind of throwback, big-group album that balances out all of the colder, electronic-infused music I've listened to in greater quantities over the last two years. Certainly just acting as an opposing musical force does a not great album make, but there are few songs like "Home," which creates a near perfect folk-rock, Cash/Carter-like duet. The song is enjoyable and beyond even that, rousing, and motivating. Then, there's "Desert Song" nearly matching the complexity and dynamic of the '60s second-most-interesting supergroup Blind Faith. You could swear in listening to that track that a young Steve Winwood is on the mic. These songs are ultimately all heavily influenced, and lacking a lot of total originality, but that doesn't make them bad. The lyrics, unlike musical-abortion Owl City, are great, poet and down-home. And the music itself is enjoyable. "Black Water" sounds like David Bowie singing the blues. And because Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros excels at emulation, they are better than a band that cranks out shit calling it original. I'd never call it the best thing ever, but it's not a low F, or a 3 out of 5. It's a solid 4, a B- at least, and it's fucking fun. I realize that qualifying this post with a claim that I wasn't going to write about what I just spent a long paragraph on is a bit discrepant. I'm vast. I contain multitudes. Sue me.

This post is about last night's SNL hosted by Jon Hamm. Saturday Night Live falls under as much constant scrutiny as the late-seasons of The Simpsons. All that, "it used to be better" and "that show is shit" talk haunts every episode of every season. In retrospect, they become classic, but our expectations are so high that we aren't blown away anymore. We are predisposed to disappointment. Will Ferrell had plenty of unfunny shows on SNL. There have been gems scattered throughout the show's history, so it's unfair to say that it's mojo is permanently lost despite several mediocre episodes this year. But, last night, Jon Hamm hosted his second time and it was maybe the most absolutely hilarious episode of SNL that I've ever seen. I'd nearly call it transcendent. When James Franco hosted earlier this season it was funny, but some sketches were flat, or pointlessly drawn out. Not so for the Hamm episode. It opened strong and only got better, until a final sketch that was not only funny, but also divinely self-aware and meta. SNL deserves congrats for putting together an episode that tied together, and not only because the same guy was the host all night, but because there was a bit of a narrative there.

First, the monologue introduced a comfortable and charismatic Hamm discussing his previous acting roles in three short filmed sketches, culminating in a perfectly delivered Def Jam joke that literally had me laughing out loud before the first commercial break. Then there was a 1920s sketch, where the likable and very talented Kristin Wiig played an irritating spotlight thief to Hamm's pianist. The dancing cats were the saving grace. That and Will Forte's disgusted expressions. The sketch wasn't great. Wiig can do better, and has. Then came a Digital Short crafted after the Stephen King novel Thinner where Andy Samberg is cursed to have every gust of wind bring an oiled up, shirtless, sax playing Hamm to interrupt his life. Two things: Hamm's arrival via exploding psychiatrist Jason Sudeikis and the amazing ending made this sketch not just a repetitive set of "oh, he's doing something funny" jokes, but a long setup for a massive payoff. They wrote a good show here. Hamm playing new senator Scott Brown was fantastic. Laugh out loud again. And high marks for the Sports Show sketch that gave Kenan a chance to shine while Bill Hader made absurd alien noises and converted former-quarterback Frank Reich. The key part of last night's episode for me, though, was the exceptional Hamm & Buble commercial (pictured). Jon Hamm comes across as charming and secretly, but completely, insane. And Michael Buble, who was awesome as a musical guest, is also one fucking excellent actor. His look of fear and worry as he sings sweetly throughout the sketch is fantastic. Not everything there was a winner, but the Closet Organizer sketch, that mocked the As Seen On TV formula wonderfully (while giving Forte another great chance at physical comedy) was perfectly rounded up in the final bar sketch. SNL referenced itself, within one show, without all the undue winking and mugging. It came off as an honest sketch, that somehow populated the same world that the commercial came from. Just excellent. Update was okay. More Jersey Shore stuff, and good work by Seth Meyers as usual. But. But! SNL is still good. This shows how it can still be a riveting hour of television. It won't be so every night, but it's still possible. Watch Jon Hamm's episode on Hulu, here.
Read more ...

1.22.2010

The Postal Service v. Owl City



Recently, on the radio, I heard Owl City's single "Fireflies" and instantly rejoiced at the existence of a new track from The Postal Service. My friend, driving at the time, even told me flat out, "This is Owl City, they're new." and then we got sidetracked in conversation and my brain focused back on how great it was to hear Ben Gibbard's synthpop project coming back to life. It was a sweet moment. Followed by a sincere disappointment. Owl City is doing The Postal Service thing 7 years after Give Up graced our ears and senses, completely shamelessly. Desecration like this can only be likened to the Jake Gyllenhaal/Tobey McGuire drama Brothers. We, the music-loving public are Natalie Portman. The Postal Service is Tobey McGuire, off to war, out of the scene and presumed dead. And Owl City is McGuire's well-intentioned slacker brother (Gyllenhaal) who slides into our bed (radio) when we think the real thing is gone for good. Sure, a substitution can be strong and endearing, but it's not the same, and it doesn't make our complacency with a hackneyed copy more virtuous.

The Postal Service has been on infinite hiatus and we crave more synthpop indie music, but Owl City essentially sucks. Adam Young's lyrics are an empty, near-mindless assemblage of pseudo-witticisms and dreamy, faux-metaphorical takes on love and loneliness. So as to defend this vitriolic initial assessment, a sampling of his words is below from the hit single "Fireflies":

I'd like to make myself believe
That planet Earth turns slowly
It's hard to say that I'd rather stay
Awake when I'm asleep
'Cause everything is never as it seems

'Cause I'd get a thousand hugs
From ten thousand lightning bugs
As they tried to teach me how to dance

A foxtrot above my head
A sock hop beneath my bed
A disco ball is just hanging by a thread


The first stanza says nothing. NOTHING. The Earth, for note, rotates at the Equator at about 1000 mph. Fairly fast, but what does the speed of the Earth's rotation have to do with a mass of bugs hugging and teaching dances? It seems, with all the barely linked "high-concept" lyrics, that we're supposed to have some philosophical "whoa" moment, but these words beg for their listener to be uneducated, prone and high as fucking hell. I took several poetry workshops during my college days, and the least inspired works were indicated by this type of aimless, imagery rambling. To say the least, the critical bastard in me feels compelled to describe these lyrics with the overused Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, "...full of sound and fury; signifying nothing." These words are cute, nearly comical. A person suffering from an actual existential crisis, or crisis love isn't likely thinking about learning steps from flying insects.

Contrast that putrid, feculent pile of lyrics with "Such Great Heights" or "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and it's unarguably obvious that Gibbard is more talented lyrically and musically than Young. Give Up comes from a place of vulnerable honesty, real self-doubt and self-deprecation, and unadulterated passion. Each track on that album is unassuming, but says everything it needs to say without weighing stuff down in pointless wordplay and knotted rhymes. And, while no band comes about completely without influence and free of comparison, there are very few bands whose key single immediately makes you think of someone else. Imagine kissing someone in a pitch black room, immediately assuming it was your ex so-and-so, only to find out when the lights came up that it was your current paramour. Who's more upset? You for getting duped? Or that paramour for bringing your flame to mind?

But, I digress. No one will ever touch The Postal Service, and Owl City claims not to be cloning intentionally, so perhaps the legacy will fall as one like that of The Beatles v. The Monkees. We can only hope.
Read more ...

1.17.2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra


Vampire Weekend's newest feels like an all-star stylistic reunion between '80s Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Sting during The Police years. While listening to the album the first time in the car (strangely, one of the few times I've listened to a CD in a car in the last two years), we came to the conclusion that Vampire Weekend could just as easily be billed as Officer Simon Gabriel and that we wouldn't be surprised to hear a little "In Your Eyes" or "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" mixed in with the new material. Specifically, an opening track like "Horchata" with it's hand-drummed, pseudo-African/Reggae vibe (really, a Vampire Weekend staple) feels like the infusion-heavy mid-80s music. Knowing that the album was inspired by and composed in reverential contrast to The Clash's Sandinistas seems only to prove that Contra is built as an '80s- pop-punk-funk statement of artistic purpose. It's an art rock revolution of sorts, but where some bands choose to alienate all audiences but those stalwart fans with obscure sound and dissonance, Vampire Weekend welcomes everyone into the gallery.

Knowing and appreciating the art-pop of the 1980s is not a requisite to appreciate Vampire Weekend, but it adds layers to their composition that deepen the solid, bombastic style illustrated so well on their self-titled first album and now on Contra. As a sophomore album, Contra functions both as a dose of proven formula that made Vampire Weekend an instant success in 2008, and as a taste of their advancing, maturing sound. Rather than attempting to crank out songs with the same bounce and hook as the first release, we see the some of the social commentary and darkness from "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" coming through with greater emphasis now. There's a lot more electronic tempo stuff happening here too, making the melodies complex as they climb up and down the register. This is incredibly evident on the clearly Clash-esque "White Sky" that alternates between a chorus of barking wails and verses that function as straightforward pop pieces. And then, again a clear Clash influence comes on track 3 "Holiday". Ultimately, Contra sounds quintessentially Vampire Weekend without feeling stale or too comfortable. This is the exact opposite of a sophomore slump.

What really impresses me, in light of my last post about God Help The Girl, and then previously about The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love is that these conceptual, heady, project albums keep on coming. The 21st Century may mark the beginning, and hopefully not the apex, of a music reawakening. Songs are no longer just about individuals presenting their personal poetry to music (I'm looking at you Jewel...), they are now about reflecting the genres that came before and testing how stylistic stretches and the bending/mixing of those genres can open up an entirely new field of music. Where in the '80s the forefront seemed to be electronic future-rock, and the '90s brought the roots of hard rock and punk back, these 2000s and '10s seem intent on mixing it all together in a giant pot, throwing in a bit of classical, jazz, blues, et al., and letting it simmer into a stew. (I might be hungry for stew later.) In any case, Contra is exceptional, honesty, artistically complex and experimental, but all imminently accessible. I'd give it a 9 or 4.923 stars if I had established those scales previously. But really: believe the hype. Vampire Weekend is really something special.
Read more ...

1.12.2010

God Help The Girl


For those Belle & Sebastian faithful who've loved the band's many hats and faces; from the minimalist early work to the '70s power pop stylings of Dear Catastrophe Waitress to The Life Pursuit's more direct indie twee, God Help The Girl (Stuart Murdoch's brainchild album to accompany the upcoming 2010 film release) will feel like a sort of homecoming. Not in the sense that it rehashes anything that's already been perfected, but more like returning to your childhood home after college: much is just like you remembered, but so many things are different too. The album establishes the plot and characters for the film, intended to be a musical of sorts, by following a girl's departure to college, her interest in music, discovery of new love, and loss of herself into depression during that time in life where we all tend to define and redefine ourselves continuously.

Beautifully, the music syncs to the wistful, energized and sometimes utterly devastating path of growing up. Songs like "Pretty Eve in the Tub" present us with classic Stuart Murdoch vocals and the trademark acoustic guitar that first made Belle & Sebastian appealing, but these simple moments are few and function to strong effect. Quiet acoustic bits are nestled within some brilliant, broad orchestration filled with strings, keys and horns. But, the greatest treat are the vocal performances turned in by Catherine Ireton (as the lead, Eve), Brittany Stallings, Celia Garcia and Dina Bankole. A collection of soulful voices like these coming together to build a musical out of sincere indie rock writing is a little like stumbling upon a swimming pool full of gorgeous women on a sweltering day. We first hear Ireton on "Act of the Apostle" where she croons sweetly about the genius inside her that is hidden by her sadness. It's a poignant, solemn start to an album that bounds toward personal discovery. Stallings shines brightest with the almost-unrequited love anthem "Funny Little Frog" that melds funky guitar with soul-rock melody. It's my favorite song on the album, as well as a pseudo-bright spot that still tells the story of a woman distances from what she loves. Then, a song like "Perfection as a Hipster" comes along and the about perfectly fits the mold of a Broadway musical, with call and response and melodramatic lyrics. And Asya's turn in "I Just Want Your Jeans" may be one of the best empowerment/concession songs in the last year.

It's impossible not to praise Murdoch for undertaking such a huge project. Much as Colin Meloy's work with The Hazards of Love that I lauded heavily last year, God Help The Girl (released last year as well) fights to blend genres and show the multi-dimensional qualities of indie music and its songwriters. These are "rock stars" who are also well-studied intellectuals, and these sorts of crossover projects, however difficult to embrace at first are elements of a musical renaissance. Acknowledging the ways music can effect its audience, either to inspire dance or introspection, or to convey a complex narrative, shows that Murdoch has only continued to build from the iterations we've heard from Belle & Sebastian. Now, since it is 2010, I am most intrigued to see how the film is executed and if, like reading a book before seeing the movie, hearing this story through my speakers can be adequately captured on screen.
Read more ...

1.10.2010

Words On Film: Up in the Air


In Up in the Air, what begins as a treatise on staunch individualism and the minimalism turns to ruminations on love, family and the people who motivate us to live and learn and work. George Clooney portrays professional down-sizer, self-proclaimed shark, but extremely lovable Ryan Bingham. While spending 80 percent (or more) of the year "on the road" flying from firing location to firing location, Ryan is concerned with travel status and having as little of the those things that weigh you down individual (family, home, possessions) as possible. The film quickly turns as Ryan meets Vera Farmiga's beguiling Alex, and his new coworker Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick. Director Jason Reitman does an exceptional job blending the more touching true moments with comedic parody, including a scene in which Ryan goes through airport security with the same whooshing, quick, tight-angle sequence that is more commonly associated to the "suit up" scenes in the early Batman film. No plastic nipples, though.

Beautifully, the film acts both comically and sincerely, but never seems weighed down or out of control. The characters are all believable and strongly portrayed and the corporate downsizing scenes are so honest as to be tragic and gut-wrenching. As Clooney floats through life, living with nothing and no one, perfectly happy to be a traveling island of a man it is clear that something must change his ideal (but socially unrealistic) lifestyle. But, the greatest success in the film is that none of these changes happen in the "sunshine and birdsong" way of recent romantic comedies. Instead, change comes with consequences, fear and heavy revelations. All perfectly sized for the roles and the story. The only downside is how the pace slows in the second half, and we lose track of Kendrick's Natalie (who was both a driving comedic force and a sort of spiritual touchstone). Essentially, Up in the Air steps down from innovation for the last 45 minutes, and goes an emotional, more straightforward route.

The philosophy of the film is most interesting (as well as the twist ending, and the social implications) because Clooney's pseudo-minimalism is seen by most in the film who hear him speak about it as a great lightening of the load of life, but the film wants us to believe that there's something inherently sad in lacking connections. It's unclear that Clooney's Ryan would be anything but utterly and completely happy his whole life without the connections he gains throughout the film, but his "redemption" is thrust upon him by characters harboring the popular ideals. What happens if he doesn't ever make an effort? Do we dislike him, do we find him callous? Yes, his disconnections from family and love make him isolated, but the examples the film provides of family and connection at work all seem tenuous, troubled, or secretly failing. It's a bit split in tone, claiming that the happy man who has everything he needs is somehow flawed, when marriages and couples are failing left and right. Ryan's decision to jump into the fray of normal life is built on idealism, the very kind he attempted to avoid through staunch individualism. And his results, while growth-providing, are questionably valuable. What's the lesson here?

Ultimately, Up in the Air provides another strong, honest and likable role for Clooney (who at times seems like he's reprising a less over-the-top version of his Intolerable Cruelty character) and some exceptional chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga. We learn a lot through subtlety, rather than big gestures, and we find out that people need personal success only insofar as they can reflect it in their life's loves. We also have to learn who to trust, and when to engage. And at times, disengage. I'd wholeheartedly recommend Up in the Air, if you haven't already seen it.
Read more ...

1.03.2010

The Decade in Books (La D├ęcennie dans les Livres)













I've been fielding requests for how to fill this space lately. First came the request that I run down the decade in music, rather than just a year-end list. Then, upon completion of Part III of that personal history, my coworker requested that I do something similar for the decade's load of books. Here's the tough thing: most of the books I've read over the last ten years were published long before the 21st century. The assignment of finding those books that came out from 2000 - 2009, books that I read, that weren't reissues or reprints of books I purchased during the decade posed a complex little challenge. So, instead of attempting to rank these for quality, I'm going to throw the list out there first and then talk about the books, some at length, some not, in hopes that we can all share in the literary genius that continues even as we advance ceaselessly toward a digital, sound-bite, commercial break-filled age. Good writing never stopped with the "Classics" and has only grown stronger, more honest, more challenging, and impressive over time. Now, the list:


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition by James Howard Kunstler (2001)
Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
after the quake by Haruki Murakami (2002)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
JPod by Douglas Copeland (2006)
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006)
Adverbs by Daniel Handler (2006)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007)
The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons (2009)


Let's get this out of the way; I didn't read most of these during the year they were released, a couple I don't intend to (or haven't yet) finish(ed) and I am brimming with bias. I don't plan on being impartial where these books are concerned. I picked them because I've enjoyed each of them immensely, some have impacted my mind, philosophy and spirit, and some where just fun to read. None are snacks, though, they're all involved texts that demand affection as much as attention.

I read Dave Eggers' frenetic memoir during the summer, somewhere between 2006 and 2007, usually in the cafe at the Borders on Pearl Street (now long gone). I can remember the glare of sunlight blazing through the storefront window as I sipped coffee from one of those WAY oversize mugs that resembles the child of a gravy boat/mixing bowl marriage. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is just what the title promises (though I'd not necessarily call its genius "staggering"). It's a story about growing up too fast through circumstance, taking responsibility and sacrificing options. At its soul the book seeks to show how far we can travel even while carrying an incredible burden, but Eggers refuses to limit his work to a simple memoir. Through self-aware, meta narration, the reader sees Eggers confront himself, questioning the way he remembers certain facts and details and how he (necessarily to advance the story) blends people and memories. So, while it is a book about personal sacrifice, it's also deeply concerned with the function of the mind, memory and how we construct our histories to save people, fix mistakes, and re-envision ourselves.

What can I say about The Blind Assassin that I haven't already in this space? Beyond the deep, thick and puzzling frame-narrative design, is about just the kinds of sacrifice and questions that Eggers' book also explores. Centering on the eldest of two sisters, born to a wealthy manufacturing family in Canada, whose wants are incredibly disparate to what they are allowed (both by circumstance and by society) the story explores the great questions about what love is, should be, can be, and what our requirements are as people in a world that holds expectations of each of us. Margaret Atwood's writing is a showcase of incredible metaphor, imagery and character. She is as much a sociologist as she is an author, delving deep into the ways people behave and think and come to take on burdens. She address how we are sometimes trapped by love, both because we feel it intensely and because we do not, but novel is so much deeper than that simple assessment. It's the kind of book that promotes an author's entire catalog, and when I selected this for our Book Club in 2008 it was met with wholly positive reviews and discussion.

Life of Pi came to me via my girlfriend-at-the-time. Initially I didn't think much of it. The book opens very slowly, following the life of young Pi Patel as the son of a family of traveling circus owners in India. When they set out to sea with all their animals and a terrible storm hits, the exposition ends and the story takes full-direction. Author Yann Martel focuses the final two sections of the book on the disparity between fantasy and reality and how we deal with trauma. Characters and animals interweave to the extent that nothing remains clear, but everything remains visceral and emotionally powerful. The Eggers concept returns such that, as readers we are left with a question about what story of events we choose to believe, and the power of selective, manipulative memory. People are, to Life of Pi, capable of completely altering our universe just through the power of imagination, whether that is to benefit our sanity or to just keep us distracted from the devastation around us to survive.

I only read The City in Mind this last year, but it completely altered the way I look at cities, buildings, networks and communities. I wrote a substantial amount, though largely summary, in this space. The way we live, and the way our neighborhoods are constructed effect not only our productivity, but also our happiness. Imagine not driving anywhere. Having the opportunity, instead, to fulfill all of your needs within 10 blocks of you, and failing that, having the intricate public transportation available to make longer distances enjoyable. Kunstler spends a lot of time railing against the ills of highways and suburbs, both requiring cars as a ticket for entry, rather than enabling humans to use motor vehicles as a luxury. Now, we are stuck with cars and a world built for them, and not for people. This book, both historically compelling and philosophically challenging, asks us to consider what kind of world we prefer. And attempts to put society back in the hands of the individual human beings that populate it, instead of the hulking machines to which our lifestyles are essentially yoked.

Atonement is nothing short of devastating. If you don't, at very least, nearly cry when reading its final pages, I'm comfortable considering you an inhuman monster. Ian McEwan establishes an idyllic family and a pair of young lovers. And then, through a volley of misunderstandings and awful historical circumstances, tears them apart. The language is beautiful and deliberate, and McEwan excels with stream-of-consciousness writing that jumps from character to character in a way reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The 2007 film is a very good adaptation, but just doesn't do complete justice to the delicacy and subtle destruction built throughout the novel. Another book about responsibility, burden, and attempts to make things right in a complex and embattled world, but an impressively graceful take on those concepts that is a must-read for any one who fancies literature.

Haruki Murakami is one of the greatest writers of the 20th/21st century, hands down. I first read his heartbreaking Norwegian Wood during 2005, and then last year his inventive, psychological fairy-tale, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami can engage a reader in just about any situation, no matter how outlandish, and his tendency toward the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and others) imbues his writing with tenderness and honesty, even when attempting to explain memory as a mathematical/mental switch, or a locked-down town full of glowing skulls and mythic beasts. In after the quake, Murakami presents a set of short stories written just after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that respond to the disaster with loss, hopelessness, passion and redemption. These stories lack the supernatural quality found in some of his other works, but each is honest, solemn and bewildering. It's a quick, and fulfilling read, and each story leaves you with questions about the lessons you were meant to learn, and what may ultimately happen to the protagonists. In that way, it's like a disaster, when viewed from a medium-distance. We only know so much about people, we don't know how they'll end up, and we wonder what we're to learn from devastation.

As the first of two books by David Mitchell to make this list, Cloud Atlas is both the most complex and most impacting (at least upon me), but also the most unconventional. The story takes place over thousands of years, through several short stories, broken at each one's middle. So, the first half of the book episodically presents only the first halves of each story, then at the center, comes the only complete, single-piece narrative, and then the end halves of each tale. Beyond this structural excellence, Mitchell creates a story about the evil of man, the decay of civilization and the taxing fallout of colonialism and technological advance, and the slow devaluation of humanity that could take place over time. And Mitchell links each story together, plausibly and satisfyingly to show the continuation of time within the book's space. Cloud Atlas presents so many tales of confusion, fulfillment lost, heartbreak, pain, suffering and connivance, but remains fun, and at times hilarious, to read. A true page-turner of a story, it goes by much faster than its 544 pages and odds are high that you'll read it again, and again.

Douglas Copeland's satirical office-dramedy JPod is essentially a pleasure read. There's nothing too challenging or even deep about the story, but it is a string of laughs. Copeland also effectively inserts himself, as a dark, dangerous figure, into the story for a sort of self-deprecating effect. I wouldn't say that this book changed my life, but I remember it well, and would recommend it. It's like The Office on acid.

The second David Mitchell work on this list, Black Swan Green, is an unpretentious account of a boy growing up, gathering himself, accepting his weaknesses and grabbing hold of his strengths. Taking place over the course of one year, it ties in the surreal stories of imagination that children experience with the difficulties of divorce and finding one's place within the community. It is heartfelt and direct, and captures being a 12 - 13 year-old boy as well as any story I've ever read. Everything seems so important and infinite during childhood, and we don't have the foresight to understand how small those things we experience are until adulthood. And yet, those are the moments that form us and design our worldview. It's a simple story, but an enjoyable one, that presents youth realistically and without any empty metaphor or hollow cuteness.

Daniel Handler, known commonly to the younger set as "Lemony Snicket," gave us Adverbs in 2006. It is a book about love, and the way we love. As the title implies, "love" is the verb, and each story is a lucid dream of an adverb for that verb. Whether we love fiercely or obligatorily, or completely, Handler deals out a series of short stories, linked tenuously with same-named characters who are not always exactly the same from tale to tale. While this isn't the most cohesive or easy to read book; Handler's prose occasionally diverts to places so fantastic that it is difficult to keep track of real and unreal, it's incredibly rewarding and paints an honest, full image of what love is and can be. As both a philosophical exploration, and a joyful narrative, Adverbs will tug at your heart and put you in numerous situations that are universal. And, for some reason it's lack of popularity means you can still get it on the cheap. And you should because Handler needs to write another adult text.

Every one knows that Cormac McCarthy's tale of post-apocalyptic devastation, horror, cannibalism, sacrifice and love is excellent. The Road is oppressively dark and disordered, as McCarthy's tone never lightens up and even his format (lacking quotation marks and some regular paragraph breaks) leaves the reader disoriented. Each page fills you with an undeniable dread, but also just enough of a tinge of hope to keep plodding along (just like the protagonists). It is an allegory for suffering, and a demonstration of the destructive evil of the human species when pushed to its survivalist limits. I would never say this book was fun, but it's incredibly valuable and easily the most complete study/mood/genre fiction of 2006. Reading this in the dark, alone, during the winter intensifies the already dominating tone, and I'd recommend being prepared to cry and ask yourself questions about how you'd handle such times.

I explored God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything within this space in a Book: Counter-book feature in March of 2008. Christopher Hitchens, though quite pretentious in his arguments and writing style is also a purveyor of important points about the way religion impacts and destroys the equality and peace in our world. Just today, the New York Times reported an article about American evangelicals' influencing the Ugandan government to compose a bill requiring the execution of homosexuals. It's impossible to argue that America's freedoms of sexuality, religion, speech (the very things the country was established upon) would not promote the execution of anyone based solely on who they are. Religion, as Hitchens show through an example of the Pope telling African believers that condoms cause AIDS, strikes again by taking advantage of people in the worst of positions. The book is well-written and makes compelling points, and while parts are unsettling, it is something that anyone with an interest in religious-philosophy should check out. Knowledge is power, so why limit oneself?

On a light note, to finish [or for the win (FTW)] is Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. There is no more complete compendium of basketball anecdotes, stories about the beginning of the league and where it has gone wrong (and right). Simmons' methodically constructs his reasons why we cannot judge players on their statistics alone in a sport where individual success is predicated on those stats. It's a book that argues for the power of teamwork and individual contribution to mutual success. I haven't finished it yet, but at only 150 pages into this 700+ page monster of sports knowledge, I have barely found time to put it down to eat. Given that basketball is one of my favorite sports, I can recommend The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy to any other steadfast fans, but it's also just an enjoyable comedic read loaded with apt/hilarious footnotes.

So, there's a decade of books (that I've read). I hope to have new concerts and music to discuss soon. Feel free to comment on any of these texts, or any of the other recent year-end/decade-end columns.
Read more ...