Stack Project Update, October, 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

  • Death Cab for Cutie.  I have several albums, mostly early material, which I got from a friend years ago.  I can easily understand how a great Death Cab fan is made — there is a particular sense of style that I could easily imagine latching on to.  However, I don’t particularly latch onto it.  As a result, I find the majority of Death Cab for Cutie to be similar and relatively boring.  Apologies to all the fans out there, but it’s not really for me.
  • Deep Dark Woods.  I have their eponymous album.  In all regards, this is an album I should like more than I do.  It feels like my musical tastes are exactly the target audience of this band and this album.  And I do like the album, just not that much.  It’s enjoyable but forgettable.  
  • Depeche Mode.  I have the album Construction Time Again.  I don’t think I’ve every really listened to it before — it felt like an entirely new experience.  A new and very enjoyable experience.  I really like this album.  I don’t know much about the history of industrial and related movement in electronic music — I understand that there is derision for Depeche Mode in parts of that community.  I’m not sure if they are inovative or derivative, but I like the light electronic/industrial aesthetic.
  • Destroyer.  I’m already a fan, but I recently acquired a copy of City of Daughters, a much older Destroyer album. Listening to it was an adjustment after the very polished Destroyer albums of the last few years — City of Daughters is much more raw, much younger and more quizical.  The poetry is the same in general principle as his later material, but more exposed and even more chaotic.  I don’t like it as much as the later material, but I did enjoy it.  It’s also fun to see where he started and how his ouvre has developed.  
  • The Dukhs.  This is a pop/celtic band which I’ve seen at folk fest once or twice.  We have the album You Daughters & Yous Sons.  For some reason, sometime in the past I wrote them off as boring and derivative celtic-light easy listening music.  I’m glad I went back to this album, since this old mental assessment it quite unfair.  I really liked this album.  It has a neat mix of styles and influences, a great ambience and solid musicianship.  
  • Echo and the Bunnymen.  There has been a series of interesting 80s entries in this project already (Depeche Mode, The Cure), so I guess this is the next.  I listened to the album Ocean Rain.  Even though I was a child in the 80s, I have no personal memories of any of this music.  I’m approaching it all for the first time.  In any case, Ocean Rain is great.  It’s a neat poppy aesthetic with interesting (if sometimes strange or cheesy) lyrical content.  I like it.
  • Elliott Smith.  I have Either/Or, Figure 8 and X/O, the last three of the five albums released during his life.  Of the music on this project, these albums are some of the most familiar to me.  I did listen to them in some depth many years ago.  I put them on the stack, so to speak, since I have few specific memories of the tracks.  Having listened to them again, the reason is obvious: it all blends together smoothly into a single sound and single memory.  I still like it, if I’m in a particular mood, but it is all very similar and uniform.  
  • Elvis Costello.  I listened to his very early album My Aim is True, and really like much of it.  It took a bit to get over the voice: there is a very bright, shrill male pop/rock voice style that I have a hard time with and Elvis comes very close to that voice style.  (Think Van Morrison — I really can’t stand his voice.  I doesn’t make sense, since I like plenty of other strange and somewhat ugly sounding voices, but who can explain aesthetic sense?)  I like the goofiness of the album, and the points in between where it is sincere and moving.   Some of the tracks got old very fast, and I don’t think I’d like the album on repeat for hours, but I’ll fondly remember many of the catchy songs.
  • Eurythmics.  More 80s content, though I didn’t like this as much as much as Echo and the Bunnymen.  (Not that it’s really a reasonable comparison, but whatever).  I listened to Be Yourself Tonight and a Greatests Hits collection and found little that I really enjoyed.  I found it curious, since I quite liked the Ani Lennox solo offering earlier in this project.  Maybe she needed time to mature, maybe the group had other influences, maybe it’s just not my taste.  
  • Feist.  I’m quite familiar with Let It Die and The Reminder.  We purchased Metals when it came out, but I never took to in on first listen and forgot to return to it. Now that I have, I really like the album.  I like how Feist has worked on her particular style — refined and polished it.  I miss the loungy feeling of Let It Die, but the more crisp metallic sounds on the appropriately named Metals is something I could also grow to enjoy.  There’s good stuff here.
  • Franz Ferdinand.  I loved the eponymous album when it first came out a decade or so ago.  Somewhere along the line, I got a copy of You Could Have Had It So Much Better, but (as with other on this list) never gave it much attention at the time.  That’s a shame, since it’s a solid album, nearly on par with their first disc. I really like the two or three quieter tracks and the effect they have on the rocky feeling of most of the music.  For the rest, it’s awesome just like the original Franz Ferdinand album was, for the simply guitar-based catchiness of it all.

Thoughts on Breaking Bad

Warning: spoilers, all through, in all sorts of detail.  I imagine that almost everyone who actually wants to see Breaking Bad has already done so, but if there are any hold-outs out there, consider yourself warned.

I finished watching all of Breaking Bad last month.  While it will never be considered my favourite television show nor will I likely ever re-watch it, I easily understand why it has received such stellar reviews.  For those who can stomach the violence and misery, it is an absolutely amazing work of television.  It deserves its accolades.

I wanted to share a few specific thoughts, realizing I’m a few years late to the conversation.  Maybe this will remind more cultural up-to-date readers of the arguments they may have had about the show some years back.

My first thought, on finishing the show, was this: at what point did Walter Whyte become the villain?  I’m quite convinced that by the end of the show, there is basically nothing even remotely redeeming left about Walt — he’s long past through any pretence of anti-hero and is solidly the evil, villainous antagonist of the show.  I actively hoped for all his schemes to fail for at least the last two seasons (while obviously still hoping for the salvation of those being destroyed by his activities).  But when did this start?

Amazingly, looking at the show in retrospect, I can imagine a very early shift from deeply flawed protagonist to pure antagonist.  I’m rethinking the very first murder, where Walt kills Krazy-8 in Jesse’s basement.  Walter’s capability to carry this out and move on may already be pointing to his fundamentally evil nature.  Certainly Walter’s attitude towards Jessie in the first season (and all subsequent seasons) is depraved: Jessie is a tool for Walter’s ends, to be bullied and manipulated into serving those ends.  I’m unconvinced that Walter show actual selfless care for Jessie more than two or three times throughout the show.

My brother suggested that the point might be the end of season two, where Walter is willing to watch Jane die.  The murder (by omission) of an innocent character and the effect of that loss on Jessie are costs that Walter barely seems to consider at all, which is pretty good evidence of his status as villain.  I was certainly asking myself, after season two, if Jessie will survive Walter’s twisted machinations.

Given what happens to Walter, it is amazing, in contrast, how Jessie remains human throughout the experience.  One of the most amazing parts of the show is this contrast between Walter and Jessie: how Walter very quickly becomes a person who can justify murder without psychological repercussions, but Jessie never reaches that point.  One of the most sympathetic aspects of Jessie’s character (and evidence of his status both as a human being and as the show’s main protagonist) is how he simply can’t emotionally handle killing people, regardless of the justifications giving.  Three examples stick with me: his worry about the actions taken against the child who shot Combo, his desperate need to find any and all distractions after killing Gail, and his insistence that the murder of the child at the train heist could not possibly be justified in any way.  Jessie’s inability to psychologically handle the violence needed to support their drug activities makes him human and made me love the character, even with his many flaws.  The ease with which Walter could justify that violence made me see him as a force of evil and led me to hope for the failure of all his plans for at least half of the show.

The writing of the show has received many accolades, and with good reasons.  Two things about the writing (particularly the dialogue) notably impressed me.  The first was the ability of the writers to write dialogue where one character (usually Walter) was trying to convince another character of something and obviously doing a terrible job.  The show almost perfectly captures the mass of feeble, meager and pathetic excuses that can fill human interaction when we try (and often fail) to positions ourselves in our social settings and relationships.  In the majority of his conversations in the show, Walter is trying to project a false image of himself of his situation (I’m trying to think of scenes where I felt Walter really spoke honestly and I’m coming up with a very short list).  The fact that these efforts are so obviously transparent to the audience, while the words still seem like something a pathetic figure like Walter would attempt, speaks volumes to the quality of the writing.  I would claim, very strongly, that Walter lacks almost all human empathy and is desperately terrible at convincing anyone of anything.  The fact that he succeeds in bending the other characters to his will is, I believe, a function of the psychological brokenness of the other characters.  Even then, he mostly succeeds (particularly with Jessie) by resorting to straight-forward bullying instead of any effective argument.

This brings up another point which confuses me.  I get the sense from reading reviews of the show that many people think Walter is actually a competent master criminal.  I think this is patently nonsense: Walter is terrible at the Heisenberg role he aspires to.  I think this fact is important to the show, because Walter so strongly believes that Heisenberg is an awesome force to be reckoned with.  The audience needs to see through that: to see that the belief in the competence and power of Heisenberg is one of the greatests of Walter’s many flaws and self-delusions.  In his very last discussion with Skyler in the last episode, he breaks through one of these self-delusions in realizing that he cooked meth for himself, not to provide for his family.  However, I don’t think the scene reads as Walter finally coming clean.  Right after admitting his selfish motivation, he claims that he was good at it.  My perspective is that this is demonstrably false, and his statement here is evidence that even if he fixed one of his self-delusions, the others remain perfectly intact.

I mentioned there were two aspects of the writing that particularly impressed me: the second was Walter’s amazingly immense sense of entitlement.  His anger towards the other characters is almost always channeled through a self-narrative of Walter acting intelligently, properly and nobly, while the foolish mistakes and oversights of those around him are getting him into ridiculous situations.  He almost always blames his partners in crime from these situation, particularly Jessie.  The audience, however, can see very clearly that Walter is the ultimate cause of 98% of his problem (excepting cancer, I guess).  This sense of self-righteousness is a common part of the human condition: it is natural to think that we’ve acted intelligently and rationally and our problems are caused by the foolishness or active malice of other agents.  This sense is always at least someone wrong and often entirely ridiculous.  The writers of Breaking Bad almost perfectly capture this righteous indignation in Walter Whyte and Cranston does an almost perfect job of giving it life.  The depth and consistency of Walter’s self-delusion about his own foolishness is most obviously in his self-righteous attitude towards Jessie.  I think the mental image of Walter yelling “Jessie” tersely through clenched teeth will permanently abide in my mind as a symbol of this sense of indignation.

Lastly, I noticed I’ve mostly talked about Walter and Jessie.  Credit needs to be given to the development of the secondary characters.  The character archs for Skyler, Walter Jr., Hank and Marie are all fantastically (and, of course, tragically) constructed.  Gus Fring and Mike are also given much more depth and nuance that would usually be expected for their relatively stock character types.  Everything about the show gives evidence to great care taken in the craft of writing characters and dialogue.  Even a tertiary character like Hector Salamanca, who doesn’t even speak, is given depth (and great casting — I’m always impressed with Mark Margolis.)

The Stack Project – September 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

The Cardigans – I listened to two albums: The First Band on the Moon and Life.  Neither really grabbed me.  There was some nice hooks and pleasant poppy melodic structure, but the lyrics didn’t inspire.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting — I think this band has a curious, quirky lyric style — it’s just that they didn’t draw me into the songs.  In short, I found both albums quite forgettable.

Cat Power – I was very negative on Cat Power after seeing her give a terrible show at the Folk Fest Mainstage some years ago.  I shouldn’t have judged her so harshly.  I listened to The Greatest and You Are Free, and both were excellent.  Marvellous mood, engaging lyrics, insteresting song structures.  I’m all for it.

Cibo Matto – I’ve loved the album Stereo Type A for many years, ever since someone gave me a copy in my late teens or early 20s.  Cibo Matto is excatly the right kind of bizarre and whimsical.  I also have a copy of Viva! La Woman, which I haven’t really listened to until now.  It’s just a strange as expected, being almost entirely composed of songs about food.  I loved it.  White Pepper Ice Cream is the standout track, with bonus points for a mournful and eerie cover The Candy Man Can (a song originally written for the 1971 Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – I knew that their debut eponymous album was a big deal in the indie scene.  Now I understand why.  I’d listened to two tracks previously (Details of the War and Over and Over Again), but never really listened to the whole album.  Now, I think that half of it is on my favourites list.  Really great stuff.   I also listened to their sophomore release Some Loud Thunder.  It has a couple lovely tracks, but doesn’t live up to the debut.  As an aside, the vocalist really does deserve the award for the worst diction in all of popular music.

The Cure – I’ve always known about The Cure without every really knowing their music.  At some point in the past years, I acquired a copy of Disintegration, which was next up for the Stack project.  The album is really great, in a strange synth-driven 80s way.  Even with the 80s snare, which usually drives me crazy, I really liked the sound.  Lyrically, I found it ran the gamut all the way from effortlessly sublime to immaturely saccharine.  More or less what I expected from their reputation.  I should probably listen to some of their other classic albums.

Damien Rice – Ah, Damien Rice.  So ridiculously emotional, overwrought, self-indulgent.  That said, I quite like the album 0, which I’ve listened to frequently in the past.  The pathos is just believable enough to move me, when I’m in a certain mood.  Unfortunately, the album 9 which I listened to for the Stack project was simply terrible.  Just as overdone as 0, but without any of the saving graces.  There is nowhere to hide from the angsty grade-9 lyrics.

Danny Michel – I bought In The Belly of a Whale after seeing Danny Michel at Folk Fest years ago and loved it.  It’s aged a bit poorly, but I still think it’s a good album.  For the Stack project, I listened to a second old acquisition: Tales from the Invisible Man.  It was a lovely listen.  It’s most a pop-rock album, but the songwriting is incredibly solid.  The best track on the first half of the album is the amazing pop anthem We All Fall Down.  I particularly like the voice overdubbing, which strangely works well with his quirky voice.  The second half of the album has a couple nice stylistic variations,  including the amazing use of saxophones on the very traditional miner’s tragedy folk song Thunder in the Mountain.  Good stuff.

Dar Williams – We have a strange non-retail promotional release of a live album version of Out There, which I really love.  I’ve listened to it many times but still tear up every time I hear The Christians and the Pagans.  For the Stack Project, there were two Dar Williams albums previously ignored: My Better Self and The Beauty of the Rain.  The latter I found really quite disappointing, other than the stirring opening track.  My Better Self is much more consistent in quality; I really like the majority of the album.  The opener Teen for God brought back a bunch of my own strange memories of Christian summer camps and managed to capture a great balance of mixed emotions towards the experience.  The cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is also particularly excellent, mostly due to the simplicity of Dar’s treatment of the song.

Dave Matthews Band – I’ve decided that I find DMB boring.  Sorry, all the big DMB fans out there.  Doesn’t do much for me.

David Essig – Somewhere along the way, we acquired the EP titled A Stone in my Pocket.  Other than the track Declaration Day, which I already knew and enjoyed from the album of the same title, there were six new tracks here.  Most were forgettable, but I have to talk about the first track, Walk Back Into Town.  For the first 2.5 minutes of this 4 minute song, you think it’s a simply lovely folk/country love song, giving the account of how a fellow originally bonded with his future wife when their car broke down and they had to walk miles back to town.  However, over halfway through the song, without any warning or change in tone, it suddenly changes into a song about police brutality, where the same character (now a police officer) takes some violent offender to a field out of town and leave him to freeze to death.  (I don’t know if this is mean to be fictional or an account of such incidents which have occurred on the Canadian prairies.)  It’s incredibly dark and depressing.  I feel that David Essig should be fined for abuse of his songwriting privileges; such a setup is simply cruel to the listener.  I was caught totally unaware.  Even now, I believe it is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

Some Brief Thoughts On Grammar and Style.

I recently read Steven Pinker’s book A Sense of Style.  The book is partially a style guide and partially a wandering meditation on grammar, style and language.  It’s a quick, light read (especially by Pinker’s standard) and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject.  That said, Pinker’s book is not my favorite work on the subject.  That commendation is reserved for David Foster Wallace’s Essay `Authority and American Usage’.  Ostensibly a 65 page review of Bryan Garner’s `A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,’ DFW’s essay is the definitive word on what grammatical advice is actually about.  I laughed, I cried.  Read it.

Like many people I know who’ve spent time in various academic settings, I’ve gone through stages in my response to grammar, style and usage.  Despite good grades in middle school English, I felt like a clumsy buffoon trying to put together coherent sentences in my early/middle teens.  The good grades, mostly likely, were only due to a slavish adherence to set forms: introductory sentence, three sentences of evidence, concluding sentence.  Next paragraph, the very same.  My prose was awkward, stilted and boring, but I guess my teachers couldn’t well dock marks when I followed instructions so well.  But it wasn’t quality writing, even adjusting for age.

I don’t remember when someone first gave me a copy of Strunk & Whyte.  I do remember, vividly, the feeling of reading it for the first time.  I felt like I’d achieved enlightenment.  I felt that while I’d previously be building wood furniture with a glue stick and a butter knife, suddenly someone had given me a saw, hammer and nails.  I’m not sure my writing actually improved substantially, but at least I had a direction for such improvement.

For years, I thought that Strunk & Whyte had essentially the correct idea.  They presented a confident vision and reasonable set of rules and intuitions, focused on clarity, brevity and elegance.  There was, somewhere, a correct way to write expository prose.  Then, slowly, over a decade or so, chinks began to appear in the armor of `The Elements of Style’.  Even with their expert guidance, comma usage still baffled me (leading to a long-lasting and still problematic addition to the semi-colon). I became more aware of English as a set of only partially related dialects and jargon.  I read feminist critiques focusing on the classist and racist implication of proscriptive grammar.  I learned that the field of linguistics existed and that linguists were barely more than guessing about how language works.

I became a descriptivist; forgoing my former dedication to the disciples of  Strunk, I was convinced that language was an impenetrable maze of conflicting structures, individual and chaotic as humanity itself.  The fact that anyone manages to communicate at all is a small miracle (and happens less frequently that we might assume).  Dictionaries and usage manuals out to be field research journals, noting the current behaviour and recording it for reference and posterity.

Both DFW’s excellent essay and the pleasant book by Pinker do a good job of finding a middle way.  Both reject two common models for the grammarian: the legislator that decrees what good usage shall be and the researcher that describes accepted usages whatever it might be.  Instead, DFW’s model for the grammarian is a lawyer.  The lawyer hasn’t written the laws and is capable, at some level, of indifference towards their moral value.  The lawyer has, however, studied the laws and how they play out in certain contexts.  The lawyer can advise her client on how to make best use of the law in a particular situation.  Such is the goal of the grammarian: to know, from years of experience, the usage of language in particular context and to give advice to the writer on how to produce a certain effect on a certain audience through prose.

Book Review: Joseph and his Brothers

Everyone time we go on a vacation of more than a week, I take a lengthy book.  On vacation, especially at the pace that Steph and I usually prefer, there are frequent periods of some hours to fill.  I prefer to fill them with reading.  Moreover, I find that the long hours on planes or trains allow me to jump into a long, detailed, thick book (though some selections are much more ambitious than others).  I can still associate books with some vacations from the last few years.

  • 2006 Cycle Tour Vernon – Edmonton: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • 2008 Cycle Tour Nova Scotia: War and Peace by Leo Tolsoy
  • 2009 Cancelled Bicycle Tour due to injury (Stay at home vacation) – Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter
  • 2012 Quebec (including sitting on a train across the country): Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • 2013 Croatia: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 2014 Anne’s Wedding: Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • 2014 Washington State Bicycle Tour: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The summer 2015 monumental book was Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann.  Published in four volumes in the 1930s and 1940s, the book is a 1500 page dramatic retelling of the second half of the book of Genesis, starting with most of the major events of Jacob’s life and finishing with his death.

The book is ambitious.  Among its many goals and accomplishments, I’d like to focus on four aspects that particularly struck me.

First, as you might expect for a book turning a 20 page story into a 1500 page novel, the characters are extensively filled out from their relatively sparse biblical descriptions.  All of the major characters in the original story, as well as some of the minor ones, are given detailed, rich, psychologically complex characterizations and motivations. Perhaps the most notable is the effort and detail given to Eni, Potiphar’s wife.  (Unnamed in the original, Eni is one of several names given to the character in Mann’s novel).  Given only three words in genesis: `Lie with me’, Potiphar’s wife has become a caricature of woman as temptress.  Mann goes to great lengths to redeem her character from that unfair and simplistic description.  Given a full 200 pages, the story of Eni and Joseph is expanded into a deep, complicated three-year tragedy of unrequited love.   The blame for the eventual crisis between Eni, Joseph, Potiphar is shared among all three characters and several other minor figures.  It’s compelling enough that I often found myself hoping for Joseph to give himself up to the affair and I felt heartbroken for both characters by the end.  The novel felt like a real story about mythologically-influenced by psychologically human characters.  This shatters the simplistic distance of the original myth in a marvelous way.

Second, the story is put in a vivid and intricate cultural context.  Extensively researched, the story connects the characters and their settings with the various towns, cities, empires, cultures and religions of the particular historical period that Mann has chosen.  Biblical scenes which give only the most basic details are now full of secondary and tertiary characters.  A good example is Joseph’s time in prison, where we are given great detail on the warden, his living situation, the role and organization of the prison, the location of the prison and its culture and atmosphere.   There is a temptation, probably from deeply buried impressions of childhood Sunday School stories, to see the biblical stories as isolated.  It never occurs to me, even rereading as an adult, to visualize the complicated surrounding world.  Mann does an amazing job giving that world in great detail.

The first two points are perhaps exactly what you would expect for a novelization of myth.  Myth has a sparse, simplistic form; a novel should extend both character and setting in a natural way.  Mann does this well, but I would have expected a similar effort from any talented writer.  The last two observations are much more surprising and particular to the goals of this author.

Third, Mann takes stories and archetypes from throughout both biblical testaments and mixes them into his story.  I noticed dozens of such examples and I’m sure I missed others due to lack of familiarity.  To give a sense, the stories and archetypes of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abram, Sarai, Eliezer, Jonah, Job, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and others are applied to Jacob, Joseph and many other characters.  In particular, Joseph is more strongly set-up as a Christ figure than I have ever seen.  A long, complicated reason is given for treating his mother as a virgin, hence giving him a virgin birth.  Both his experiences in `the pit’ (the literal pit for three days before being sold, and the prison in Egypt) are treated as death and resurrection narratives.

Joseph as a Jesus-figure is an idea I have heard before, but Mann isn’t content with conventional parallels.  One of the more amazing and surprising choices was his mythology of the Pharaoh under which Joseph serves.  Mann has chosen the historical Pharaoh Akhenaten to be Joseph’s Pharaoh.  Akhenaten was historically notable for enacting a temporary shift in focus in the Egyptian pantheon, away from the previous sun-god Amun to a new sun-god Aten.   Aten is a more abstract deity (one of the few Egyptian deities to be represented as an object, in this case the sun, instead of a human or human/animal hybrid) and Mann makes Akhenaten’s story about searching for a universal monotheism.  A great part of the appeal of Joseph to Akhenaten is his monotheism, delivered in mythic stories about Abram turning his back on his Chaldean gods and seeking `the Highest’.  This, in itself, is fascinating, but when Akhenaten starts preaching about Aten, his quasi-monotheistic sun-god, the language Mann has chosen is a exact parallel of the the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Akhenaten himself is cast as the word-made-flesh.  The pharaoh, as mythologically the son of the sun-god,is on earth to show the glory of the One and Only.

Lastly, it’s not only biblical archetypes that Mann incorporates.  The surrounding archetypes of many ancient religions are also included with playful exuberance.  Moreover, they aren’t cleanly separated from the biblical archetypes.  Quite the opposite: the biblical stories are very intentionally presented as re-interpretations and adaptations of the stories of the surrounding religions.  All of the Christ-figure discussion of Joseph is also the story of Osiris and Horus and the death/tomb/rebirth narrative of ancient Egypt.  Likewise, it is also the story of the Cannanite and Babylonian gods, where death and rebirth are frequent themes.  The overwhelming impression given by this mixing is that the stories of Joseph are anything but novel.  Growing up with the Sunday school versions and becoming aware of historical biblical criticism as an adult, I found this impression absolutely fascinating.  One of the greatest things about reading this novel is getting a sense, through fiction, of one way the Hebrew stories might have originated among a rich cultural tradition of myths and archetypes, as opposed to the Deus-Ex-Machina delivery of the bible out of the ether that my childhood self tacitly assumed.  Mann does give the Hebrews some claim to originality when talking about the monotheistic idea of a singular higher power above all the Gods, though even here, he finds that same tendency in the Pharaoh Akhenaten.  The book is full of lovely mythological play between the surrounding culture informing and donating the stories of the bible and the Hebrews re-interpreting this gift in the understanding of Abram’s goal of serving a singular Highest.

The Stack Project, July 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is and update covering the last couple months.

  • Belle & Sebastian: I was already a fan, mostly due to the album `Fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant’ which I borrowed from a friend in 2003 and listened to extensively. My exposure to the rest of the catalogue was limited. I understand this is odd, since most fans look back to `If You’re Feeling Sinister’ as the early masterpiece. I listened to that album, as well as two other early offerings: ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ and ‘Tigermilk’. On each, I adored a number of tracks and found most of the rest to be pleasant filler. I also listened to the (slightly) more recent `Life Pursuit’ and was quite surprised by the change in style. Before looking at the dates, I assume that it was a very early recording and represented a style which the band had abandoned. Instead, it was an experiment with a new sound. All in all, I prefer the older sound. I find that smooth and polished, light vocals and harpsichord, all-things-twee style of Belle & Sebastian adorable.
  • Blue Rodeo: My previous experience with Blue Rodeo is limited to a few popular singles and performances at Folk Fest. The latter was very positive; they are a great live act and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both times I’ve seen them. However, I’ve never really listened to their albums. I started (foolishly perhaps) with a Greatest Hits disc, which was, unsurprisingly, the most familiar. It was alright. I also listed to the classic and popular album `Five Days in July’, which was also alright. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the more recent (still 15 years old, though) `The Days in Between’. There are a number of great songs on this album.
  • The Books: I spent over half of our Europe trip listening to four albums from the strange quasi-electronic band The Books. I am super-impressed. The music is strange, to be sure. Most of the songs are composed of four elements. The first three are relatively conventional: acoustic guitars and other string instruments; softly sung folksy vocals; and acoustic drums (at least they sound acoustic — I have no idea if they are played live or sequenced). The fourth component is samples, mostly of monologue or dialogue from films, speeches, newscasts, and other random old sources. These components are all electronically put together to produce a very unique and enjoyable effect. `The Lemon of Pink’ is the strongest album, followed by ‘Thought for Food’. ‘Music for a French Elevator’ is a truly bizarre collection of short works; in one track, all the samples are off-hand comments from characters in a British mystery/horror film; in another, an old self-help tape is mixed up to comic effect.
  • Bright Eyes: I am very fond of two albums: `I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ and `Lifted’. For the stack project, I went back and listened to the debut album `Letting Off The Happiness’. In short, I feel that he improved greatly by the time he recorded the later albums. I can see the seeds of future brilliance, but `Letting Off The Happiness’ itself is entirely forgettable.
  • Bruce Springsteen: Bruce Springsteen is great. I mean, I don’t always go for the 80s rock-pop anthems, but Dancing in the Dark is amazing. I know this isn’t news to anyone.  However, I’ve always been familiar with Springsteen by his reputation instead of his music. High time I remedied that problem. I listened to a Greatest Hits CD, which was heavy on the 80s content but still excellent. I also listened to and enjoyed the more recent (comparatively) disc `The Rising’.
  • Calexico: I listened to `The Black Light’ and `Convict Pool.’ This is amazing mood music. I’m not particularly fond of any of the tracks as songs in themselves, but the atmosphere of the whole recording is amazing. It feels like background or soundtrack music, but in the best way possible.

Book Review on Vacation

Vacations are for reading.  This trip’s epic undertaking was Thomas Mann’s `Joseph and his Brothers’.  However, I’m only 1000 pages into the 1500 of that novel, so it’s review will have to wait.  (It will come, though — I have many things to say about this novel.)  I did read two other books, about which I’ll share a few comments.

The first of the two was `The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd.  (Spoilers here.)

This is a fairly well known and well received American novel from a decade or so ago.  I also understand it was made into a relatively successful film.  I enjoyed the book well enough, but I have some serious reservation about certain aspects of it.

First the good: the main character was engaging, the prose was functional for the most part and occasionally exquisite, mostly when talking about the bees.  I like bees, honey and beekeeping, mostly due to some very, very early childhood memories about the bees my parents kept.  The title isn’t just a slight reference: there is a great deal of material in the book actually about bees.  Almost of all of the bee-related material was lovely.

The religious content was quite interesting.   The Black Madonna, a religious tradition that I was previously unaware of, plays a central role.  A number of the characters form a home grown Christian-influenced religion based on their experience of a Black Madonna statute.  This religion and its practice heavily inform the arc of trauma and recovery in a way I found fascinating.

Finally, the emotional arc of the novel was compelling as well; the best written scenes drew tears and I cared about the pain of the characters.

However, let’s talk about the pain of the characters.  This is a childhood trauma novel: it’s about a adolescent with a terrifying early childhood experience.  At age five, she accidentally killed her own mother with a pistol.  She spends the next decade repressing the memory and living with a emotionally distant and often abusive father.   The book, essentially, is about her coming to deal with this trauma.  It’s about starting to heal core wounds, in the language my own mother uses.  While a compelling and classic archetypical story, it’s also one that I tend to approach skeptically.  As I said before, the novel is well written enough that I was often caught up in the emotional journey.  At other moments, though, the severity of the situation serve to remove me as a ready.  The trauma is so extreme is it almost ridiculous. Sometime when reading these novels, it feels like there’s some competition between authors to see what’s the worst kind of childhood trauma they can throw their characters into.  Pushed too far, it feels like unintentional satire.

The other main issues with the book are about race.  The book takes place in the 1960 in the southern US, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Violence towards the supporting black characters is frequent and horrendous.  However, it’s still essentially a book about a white child protagonist and the issues (however horrendous) of her white family.  The black characters are all supporting and their struggles and sufferings secondary.   In addition, the protagonist finds her salvation in the support and wisdom of a black community.  This immediately set off alarm bells for me: I’ll let TV Tropes and their Magical Negro article sum up the issue:

This can work somewhat as An Aesop about tolerance and not dismissing individuals from underprivileged groups, and it’s certainly an improvement on earlier tendencies to either never depict minority characters at all or make them all villains. However, ultimately it’s usually a moral and artistic shortcut, replacing a genuine moral message with a well-intentioned but patronizing homage to the special gifts of the meek. Minority characters still all too often aren’t portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, but as helpers of standard white, able-bodied, middle-class heroes, and they aren’t depicted as, you know, actual people with their own desires, flaws and character arcs, but as mystical, Closer to Earth plot devices.

The second book was the short story collection (in translation) entitled `Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ by Haruki Murakami.

I’ll be more succinct about this second book.  Many of the stories were well structured and I appreciated the relaxed, nonchalant style of the writing.  Reminiscent of Douglas Copland, it wasn’t what I expected from a Japanese author.

However, the collection suffered from one very serious flaw, which I feel I can simply label as Male Gaze.  Most of the stories are from male perspective, and in those stories, female characters almost always are presented a available and willing sexual partners.  It felt like every man in the stories was non-descript and every woman was given explicit physical description, (almost always including the shape and prominence of her breasts, sooner or later).  By halfway through the collection, whenever a woman was introduced, I was asking how many paragraph would it take before she and the protagonist were having sex (or at least, she had offered to have sex with him).  Even in the (two or three) stories with female protagonists, the same problems arose.

In general, I’m happy with stories about sex.  Sexual relationships are so strange, rich and complicated that a collection of short stories about people and their sex lives is perfectly natural.  However, they need to be about pairs of real characters, not default men and always-sexually-willing-and-available women.  This collection, at many moments, felt like a sexist muddle of wish-fulfillment stories from the mind of an adolescent (heterosexual) male.

Book List

Books Read Since 2008

The above link leads to a list I’ve kept since 2008 of all the books I’ve read.  Other than a couple which were likely forgotten, the list is the near entirety of what I’ve read in the last seven years.  The only notable items left off the list are mathematical books which I’ve read professionally.

I’ve kept the list for myself, since I find it easy to forget what I’ve read.  So far, I’ve kept it to myself.  It occurred to me to post the list here.  Then it occurred to me to wonder why I should post it publicly.  Two reasons occur immediately.

First, some people just might find it interesting.  I’m curious what my friends are reading.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been serious about asking for recommendations and actually reading most of the recommended books.  I’m lucky enough to know amazing people with a wide variety of opinions on reading; it’s good for me to know what they really enjoy in books.  So, people might want my reading list for a similar reason.  Or for any other reason, even if that reason is simple curiosity.  Being curious about what our friends do is natural, and I’m happy to let people know what I’ve chosen to read.

Second, and more concerning, I might be trying to enforce an impression about my character by my reading list.  It’s pretty easy to judge people on the book they read (or whether they read at all), and that’s a game I’m simply not interested in. If you only read fiction, that doesn’t mean you are shallow on uninformed.  If you only read genre fiction, that doesn’t mean you have poor taste or don’t have the depth to appreciate `real literature’.  If you only read non-fiction, it doesn’t mean you have no imagination or creativity.  Alternatively, if you read serious, depressing and dramatic novels, it doesn’t mean you are deep or emotionally mature or thoughtful.  If you read three nonfiction books every week, it doesn’t mean you are more intelligent that those who don’t. You are not determined by the books you read.  Yet, these tapes play in many people’s heads, both the positive and negative versions.  Psychologically, I have them myself; I can take pride in my love for Russian novels by thinking that reading them makes me come across as intelligent, sophisticated and deep.  This is nonsense, and I need to be in the habit of checking my own ridiculous self-deceptions.  I don’t really want to post the list if self-aggrandizing is the basic purpose behind it.

I think, for the most part, I choose to read books either because they are recommended or because I think I will enjoy reading them.  I often choose lengthy, complicated and emotionally heavy novels because, for some strange reason, I seem to enjoy reading them.  I get ridiculously excited about meta-fictional books.  I seem to enjoy non-linear narratives and books which sacrifice conventional plot for style or character.  Of course, maybe the desire to present a certain character by my reading is subconsciously turned into these simple desires.  I can’t be certain that the second reason isn’t the main subconscious purpose.  I hope it isn’t, and, in the balance, I thought it was worthwhile to post the list.  I hope some people enjoy looking at it.  The link is to a dynamic document, so the list will be regularly updated at that same link.

Stats are kept in four categories: Gender, Fiction/Non-Fiction, Canadian Authors and Books in Translation.  I’m quite content with the mix on the latter three, but the fact that 75% of the books I read are written by men seems problematic.

Music Review: Beat the Champ

Beat the Champ is the latest release (April 2015) by The Mountain Goats.

This one is very biased; I am very fond of the Mountain Goats.  That said, there was perhaps a chance for an unfavourable reception due to the subject material.  This is a concept album about professional wrestling.  My interest in professional wrestling is basically zero; in my childhood, I might have thought that André the Giant was cool, but it was entirely due to his depiction of Fezzig.  I liked Aronofsky’s film ‘The Wrestler’, but that hardly counts.  Could The Mountain Goats write an album which nostalgically celebrates and revels in professional wrestling while still appealing to my musical tastes?

Turns out that John Darnielle is more than up to the challenge.  I loved the album, in spite of the ridiculous pro wrestling content.  Maybe sometimes because of said ridiculous content.  I listened to ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’, a tribute to childhood Darnielle’s favourite wrestler, about ten times on repeat.  As all good poetry does, the lyrics transcend their immediate purpose (here describing wrestling scenes) and move on to sublime and transcendent reflections on the human condition.  Chavo Guerrero isn’t just a childhood hero; he’s the contrast with the horrendous stepfather: “You let me down, but Chavo never once did.”  Amid a injust, ambiguous and complicated childhood, Chavo’s victories are moral hooks on which to hang hope: “I need justice in my life; here it comes” into the chorus of “Look high, it’s my last hope // Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope.”

This effect continues throughout the disc.  ‘Heel Turn 2’ is about losing ethical integrity in the moral vagaries of general existence as much as it is about playing the villain in the ring:  “You found my breaking point: congratulations // Spent too much of my life now trying to play fair // Throw my better self overboard; shoot him when he comes up for air.” The album culminates in two of the three tracks which explicitly get behind the superficials: ‘Hair Match’, which perfectly captures a deep empathy for the defeated; and ‘Unmasked’, which literally get behinds a persona by removing the mask: “Peeking through the eyeholes // Seeing the real you.”

I have no idea what it is about Darnielle’s poetry than I’m so impressed with.  My appreciations of The Mountain Goats is certainly lyrically driven, though the musical aspects of the songwriting are certainly solid.  Consistently through the ten or so albums I’ve listened to, the poetry always finds a sweet spot.  Even here: I didn’t think a bunch of poems about wrestling would speak to me, but these ones certainly do.

Book Review: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a historical survey of religion and violence.  I was drawn to the book when it was announced last year, having previously read Armstrong’s History of God.  I have great respect for Armstrong’s ability to capture the broad currents of religious history, so I was very interested what she would make of the difficult and important topic of how religion relates to violence.  The book did not disappoint: it is an excellent popular treatment of the subject, deep in its investigations and amazingly ambitious in its scope.

Armstrong’s major thesi seems to be this: the relationship between religion and violence is complicated; don’t over simplify.  In particular, she is writing against the popular polemic coming from Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. el, that religion is the primary source of violent behaviour throughout history and violence is reduced by reducing religion.  (This of course is not a new thought; Armstrong mentions version of this polemic as early in the modern period as the modern definition of religion, specifically the secularism of the French revolutionaries.)  Her consistent argument throughout the book is that religion has been invoked both for and against violence as long as religion has existed and that all religion wars and conflicts also have political, social and economic causes.  From my perspective, this is a completely sensible and almost painfully obvious thesis; however, I can appreciate the need for  a popular book to speak against the aforementioned polemic.

Even though I’ve just presented her thesis as `almost painfully obvious’, there are many subtleties explored in the book. Among these is the observation that the machinery of cities/states/nations/empires absolutely requires violence.  This idea is presented in the first part of the book dealing with ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China.  She recognized the non-violent themes in the great sages of the Axial Age: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, the Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew prophets, among others.  Most of these non-violent teachings morphed into official religions of kingdoms and empires, all of which used them to justify their status quo of violence.  Typically, I’ve viewed this as empires co-opting and perverting religion.  Armstrong would mostly agree, but gives some thought to the reasons and mechanisms.  Particularly through the example of Maurya Emperor Ashoka in India, Armstrong makes the observation that the leaders of these empires may have consciously realized that their entire political structure was completely impossible without its systemic violence.  The only alternative they could imagine to the domination of empire was the anarchy of constant fighting between hundreds and thousands of local princes, warlords and thugs.  The choice in early human history (and perhaps in all of human history) may not be violence/non-violence, but which kind of violence.

This part of the book is where Armstrong leans most strongly toward the thoughts of René Girard.  She mentioned Girard explicitly at the very start of the book and end the last paragraph with Girardian language; however, I was hoping for more explicit interaction with Girard throughout the book.  There is a strange and powerful Girardian thesis that the original idea of sacred was violence made holy through a scapegoating processes saving early communities from their own destructive in-fighting.  I was fascinated by this idea when I read Girard last year and  I was hoping Armstrong would deal with it explicitly.  I was mildly disappointed on this score.

Armstrong writes as a very broad generalist, a style which I found somewhat unsettling in this book as in `History of God’.  She covers huge swaths of human history in a 400 page book; by necessity, she summarizes everything.  I’m much more accustomed to reading something in detail on a particular topic; the constant summarizing feels strange and often superficial.  While I’m sure that historians and theologians could argue with the necessarily simplifications of almost every summary, I appreciate the goal of trying to talk about currents and trends throughout many eras and locations of human history.  It seems to fit her goal of writing a holistic and accessible work (though even at that, the focus is almost entirely on Europe, the Middle East, Persian, India and China).  The overall effect of getting small pieces of stories and summaries from thousands of years of human history is a powerful effect.  It’s also has a very useful humbling effect in that it remind me how little I know about all the many details, events and causes of human history.  Impressively, this is accomplished without the tone of the book feeling distant or patronizing; many, many names are mentioned without giving the sense of name-dropping to establish authority.

The later half of the book focuses on modern and contemporary examples, particularly the recent history of Islam, terrorism and jihad.  This isn’t surprising given her goal to address the current of thought which blames the religion of Islam for much of the violence of the modern world.  Armstrong does excellent work giving just a brief introduction to many recent violence histories; enough to remind us that the simplistic narrative of our newswriters and politicians are not necessarily well informed, that much of the violence of the middle east cannot be understood without also considering secular movements, economic exploitation and colonial repression.  Moreover, she reminds us that Islam (like all major world religions) has inspired great peacemakers as well as reprehensible warmongers. Religion and violence: it’s complicated.