Writer’s block, the election, and When the Emperor was Divine.

I’ve got this paper due tomorrow and I’m not sure where to start. As you can see, I’ve got the necessary elements there – coffee (decaf, yes it’s almost 9pm.), computer, dog, book that I’m supposed to review propped up next to me.

Look, I’m even technically writing SOMETHING. I’ve got to buckle down on this thing.

It’s an essay for class comparing Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor was Divine with the current state of affairs. Comparing? That’s not exactly right. It’s about the current election and how Trump was elected president and the xenophobia that he’s been spouting.

Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor was Divine is about the Japanese internment camps during World War II. It’s told from the perspective of the mother, then the daughter, then the son, and finishes with the father who was taken away from his family and returns by the end of the novel. It’s not overtly about the politics behind the interment camps. It doesn’t tell the story from a policy perspective. It’s a small book about small things. That’s not a slam against it. It inhabits a small world about specifics and emotions- how the mother needed to put the dog down and get most of their things out of the house before they left for the camp. It’s about the little rituals and magical thinking that the boy does when he’s in the camp, like keeping his father’s shoes and putting his hands in them to see if he can still smell his father who’s been taken away to another camp. It’s about the normalcy the daughter is looking for. She’ll earn a nickel at bingo just to buy her brother a coke. She’ll make friends and disappear with them for a while to hang out as young kids do and come back to their small barrack.

Because Otsuka’s book is about specifics, in some ways it’s hard to link to the election and present state of politics. Big things are happening, not small things. Donald Trump won the election but lost the popular vote. Was it the electoral college is what allowed him to win, or maybe it was that he appealed to poor white voters who didn’t vote in other elections, or maybe it was because the Democratic party splintered their base by having insider tactics to help ensure Hillary Clinton got the nomination?  We’re still too close to when it all happened. Absentee votes were still being tallied a week after the Tuesday of the main election. And I admit to being out of my depth as far as analyzing how and why an election was won. I’m one of the millions of Americans who clicks on stories they see on Facebook, which inherently skews the bias toward whatever the Facebook algorithm thinks will appeal most to the specific reader. What is actually true?

Otsuka deals with this idea of truth with relation to the camps. The final monolog by the father includes him telling his interrogators what they want to hear. Yes, he’s the enemy, the sniper, the saboteur, the houseboy, the cook, and the gardener. They’re all lies, ultimately. And in this part in particular, Otsuka illustrates the fallacy of extracting truth from torture. It’s not said outright but it’s implied in this chapter.

What Otsuka captures through intimate scenes is absurdity and dread. Conversations between characters feel like something out of a Samuel Beckett play where a question is asked but the answer is slightly askew from any sort of normal response. The daughter throws a lemon out the window of a moving train for no reason. The son puts loose strands of his father’s hair in an envelope and places it under the floor boards, pledging not to look at them because if he doesn’t, then his father will be okay.

This absurdity rings true for our time in light of the election. America elected a president who has had no political experience whatsoever. He’s been bankrupt several times over. He blatantly flaunted to the media that he didn’t pay taxes. He called Mexicans rapists and murderers. In a time when every politicians’ words are scrutinized, he doubled down on making the worst gaffs in history. But at the same time, Trump contradicted himself at every turn. When journalists held his feet to the fire for something he said, Trump just denied it.

There’s the obvious connection between the current Islamophobia and what happened to the Japanese at the internment camps. My Facebook feed is full of headlines stating that Japanese internment is setting the precedent for deporting Muslims and creating a registry. If that happened, Otsuka’s book can give us a perspective on how a Muslim family might feel going through it all.

But there’s a difference between our time and theirs, during World War II. Julie Otsuka said that there was no public or organized protest at the time, at least judging from the research she did while writing this novel. We don’t see much of the neighbor’s response in the book, but we get a glimpse at the tacit approval of what’s happened to the Japanese family. I don’t see how that situation would occur in our current climate. We are all interconnected through social media, television, and radio. Self-publishing thanks to the internet allows word to get out in a way that wasn’t possible during World War II. The fact that our nation has such a loud voice and is so contentious I think, I hope, would prevent the situation from getting anywhere near as bad as it was for the Japanese Americans in Julie’s book.

Hey this accomplished what I wanted it to- I actually got most of my paper written.

Now to shower and maybe drink the rest of this beer. Golden Monkey.

 

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Book Review: Attempting Normal by Marc Maron

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Attempting Normal by Marc Maron (The Audiobook, that is.)

I’m a big fan of Marc Maron’s. Maybe he’s genetically designed to appeal to a neurotic 36 year old white dude who leans far to the left like me. I think the first time I listened to his podcast was about three years ago. I was still living in Florida and working in an office that was open and over-stimulating to me. I was driving a lot to ref for a roller derby team. I didn’t have my dog yet, and I wasn’t living in Minneapolis yet. I was stressed, kinda miserable, and driving a lot.

My friend sent me a link to Marc Maron’s interview with J. Mascis. I’m a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan so this was something designed to get into my head. I was off-put by the intro. “What the fuckers, what the fuck buddies, what the fuck-nicks?” What I now know to be Marc’s sort of blue collar no-nonsense approach came off to me at the time as kinda bro-y and something I wouldn’t like. But I shoved passed that so I could hear J talk about stuff.

That interview was great. J was reticent, but Marc managed to get him talking about Lou and the band and a whole bunch of other things I didn’t even know would be fascinating about him. From that point on, I started listening regularly and went back in his catalog, too. In my life, I’d get into weird fights with the girl I was dating at the time and stew about them. Music didn’t help me get out of this weird post-fight haze I had in my head, but I was stuck driving so it felt inescapable at times. So, instead of listening to music on the long drive down to roller derby practice, I’d listen to Marc’s podcast. “This guy gets me!” I’d think to myself, when he was talking about his cats or his weird anxiety spirals or his fucked up relationships. I was never a drug dude, but I definitely relate to him because he is a straight shooter, has kind of an older musical sensibility, and is pretty self-loathing while still being open emotionally.

So what about this book? Once again, I listened to this on audiobook. I really like reading well crafted novels, but there’s something about nonfiction that I’d rather have it read to me. Especially a funny memoir like this one read by the author. I’d suggest this version over the written version because you can hear Marc’s delivery for the jokes that are in this book. Some of them are brand new and others I’ve heard in his stand up, on his podcast, or have been portrayed in his TV show. There’s a couple of bits in here that are way over the top brutally hilarious that I’d like to see played out on his TV show.

Actually this book helped me appreciate some aspects of Marc’s humor that I hadn’t gotten from any of his other comedic delivery devices. Maybe its’ because he wrote it out, but I definitely felt his love for the beats and Bukowski and (I’m assuming) John Fante stuff. It makes me think that his show should loosen up the formula a bit more and get more existential and weird. Maybe it’d be too close to Louie if he did that? What do I know. There are some bits in here that are gold. The stories about the hooker, and the home visits from his father’s doctor would be so great to see on screen.

There’s a section that I wished I’d had the novel for because it talked about sex and relationships in such a succinct and honest way that I’d never experienced before. Marc successfully captured things I’d thought about sex but never vocalized them. It was brilliant, awkward, dirty, and weird. So damn good. And he also describes himself as a guy who looks for intense emotional connections- challenging the audience and his romantic relationships to like him- goddamn, that hits close to the bone. Like most of his stuff.

Anyway, go check it out and give it a listen. It’s worth it.

 

 

Book Review: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

In the 1980s I wasn’t really able to make my own choices about music. I wasn’t even 10 years old yet, and music was mostly something that wafted in when I was riding in the car or going to the dentist. At those times it was whatever was popular on the radio- The Eagles, Rick Springfield, The Cars, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Wham – those are the bands I remember attaching to when I’d hear them on the radio in my single-digit life years.

At home it was a slightly different experience. My dad had a modest record collection. I’d pull the records out and stare at the covers for a while. The art mattered more than the music to me then. He had a Steppenwolf greatest hits album- or maybe it was a live album? – that had a closeup of a snarling wolf staring right at the camera. I didn’t care about any other song on that album other than Born to Be Wild. I’d drop the needle into the groove where the song was and play it incredibly loud.

I listened to Weird Al on my headphones. I blasted We Built this City. I loved the Rocky III soundtrack. Let me make it clear- I still un-ironicly love a lot of that stuff to this day. Being a nerd means that there’s no such thing as guilty pleasures. You like what you like.

When I got older and could self-select music, I went to Queensryche, Metallica, Aerosmith – rock. Heavy metal. Well, some of it. That was junior high school and I still thought Pour Some Sugar on Me was a kickass metal song. My first concert I elected to go to that my dad brought me to was Damn Yankees. Jackyl opened for them. (Yep, he “played” a chainsaw on stage.) I earnestly explained to my 40 something year old dad during the concert what headbanging was. We stood in our stadium seats and rocked out. Ted Nugent shot a fake plastic deer with a compound crossbow. My dad bought me a Damn Yankees t-shirt. It was way too big on me, and I think I threw it out when I realized how lame the band was. But hey, there was something worthwhile about them at the time. They embodied some sort of male bravado or rock-ness that I was actively trying to conjure up in my self.

Music tastes started to get shaken up when I went into high school.

The first Sonic Youth Album I listened to was Dirty, their 1992 release. My brother’s friend, Tom, would be constantly bringing albums over to share with him. He had some musical tastes in common with my brother – industrial stuff, weird electronica- but he had tastes that skewed more “alternative” (a genre name that made sense back then, but now I don’t think means anything at all) which my brother hated. I think he hated it because he couldn’t get into the ambiguity of it – art students making earnest music that he viewed as too “smarmy”. He’d use that word a lot. He liked things that were more overt than I did. I liked the quieter, more artsy ways of rebellion (at times) and he liked shock rock. He liked gore and horror movies with chainsaws and mutilations. At least that’s how I remember it.

The cover of Dirty made me stare at it like I did the records back in the 80s. I unfolded the CD insert and looked at these very plain and closeup pictures of stuffed animals that were incredibly warn. “This is stupid.” I thought to myself. And then kept looking at it. I couldn’t shake it. The images had grabbed something in my head and kept coming back to me. The plainness and positioning of the animals, the lighting of the shots, and the lack of explanation made my brain stutter out of whatever pattern it was previously in. I felt locked onto them. Later in life, I’d have that experience with certain other artists or at museums. Generally it happened when I encountered something that made my anxiety-addled brain pause for a second and consider something outside of myself.

I don’t remember at first listen what I thought about every song, but I knew I really liked the raw guitars and spoken word vocals. Kim’s voice cutting through Thurston’s guitars – she was the type of dead-pan, smart, intellectual girl that I would be drawn to at various times in my life.

Wow, that’s a hell of an intro for a short review:

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon is great for a fan like me- I’m not saturated enough in Sonic Youth lore to know all the ins and outs about the band. I like Dirty and the albums that came before it, but I’m not one to seek out the bootlegs or cite their entire discography.

This book is coming from a place of trauma for Kim. She and Thurston divorced a few years ago, and in a way this book uses that divorce as a frame. The middle part is filled in with Kim’s life leading up to Sonic Youth and her talking about the art scene in new york.

There were times, especially when talking about Courtney Love, that it felt a little too gossipy-magazine, but for the most part listening to Kim talk about the art scene was really inspiring. (I listened to the audiobook yet again.) Her deadpan delivery and no-nonsense way of writing was really great. There’s sentiment in there but it’s not grandiose or bludgeoning.

It’s a great book, and makes me want to go listen to Murray Street and 1000 Leaves. It also makes me kind of lament not for the state of music now, but that I don’t see many musical artists today that resonate on the same level as that perfect storm of the early 90s- Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets – back then those guys seemed to have this art and rock aesthetic that really appealed to me. I’m not seeing the combination of angsty guitars and earnest statements, but I might just be looking in the wrong place, or maybe I’m just getting too old.

 

 

Book Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

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Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

I’ve been in the dating and online dating worlds for a while. That probably happened to me for various reasons that my therapist could illuminate for us if we had the time. I picked this book up partially because Aziz’s standup is good, and Master of None – his TV show – is actually a really cool and thoughtful program while still being pretty funny. I also like this trend of TV shows using great cameras and artsy cinematography. We probably have Louie to thank for that.

Aziz paired with a sociologist and a bunch of other academics to write this book about dating. It’s a good pairing of a comedian’s take on the situation and actual research into things that I haven’t heard discussed before- the psychology of texting, what to do on a first date, and companionate vs romantic love. His descriptions of the miscommunications during texting are particularly spot-on. The painful mental gymnastics we go through when someone doesn’t text back… He nails it.

Yet again, I listened to the audiobook for this one. Aziz has several funny jabbing asides where he chastises the listener for being lazy and not reading the actual book. His delivery is good. His writing style is okay, but at times he sounded a little overly formal.

This was one of those rare occasions when I actually bought a book for someone. A friend of mine is also in the dating and online dating scene and in the midst of listening to this audiobook she’d text me things like: “THIS BOOK KNOWS ME SO WELL.” Aziz really has a knack, both in his show and in this book, to elicit that response from his audience.

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

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Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt. 

I’m on an audiobook binge lately. There’s more lined up in the cue. After listening to How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, I wanted more movie-type non-fiction. Somehow that led me to checking out Patton’s book.

I’m a fan of his, but not a HUGE fan. I think at times in his standup he gets a little culturally insensitive and it feels like the know-it-all white guy explains it all. When he’s at his best, he’s a damn good wordsmith bringing in tons of cultural references that make his standup delivery hilarious and intelligent at the same time.

This book covers his addiction to film. He’d go to theaters showing runs of old movies and devour them. The book weaves that in with the story of how he got where he is today. It accomplishes this for the most part, but at times I thought I was listening two different books smashed together into one.

 What I took away from the book was that he partially regrets how much of his life he spent in theaters and how he was using it as a crutch for actually living life. Maybe that premise hits a little close to home as I’ve spent my free time lately creating a podcast and little blog posts like this talking about film, books, TV, and comics. There’s a little voice that does scream at me in the middle of the night (or first thing in the morning) that says I need to create something original. What am I using as a crutch? – That’s what I’m getting at.

This book’s worth a listen. I prefer hearing comedians read their books when I can, and like I said – I’ve gotten to be a lazy book reader lately. Patton’s reading is great. Not at all stiff. He’s got some funny asides for the other lazy jerks who listen instead of read. For my money, I’d rather spend actual eyes-on-the-paper reading time on comic books which have a greater return on time investment. That, and audio comic books would be really boring.

Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

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How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

I listened to this Audiobook after starting the written version. I quickly discovered that somewhere along the past few years, I’ve become much more adept at listening to non-fiction than reading it.

I heard about this book after attending an event put on by http://booksandbars.com/  here in Minneapolis. It’s a great organization and lots of fun to go to their events. Go check ’em out.

The book is better than something you might expect, given its title. Yes, it kind of goes into details about the movies that you’d expect- how Carrie Fischer and Harrison Ford were on the set, where the name R2D2 came from, who Lucas’s favorite character is – but the book does a lot more than that. Chris Taylor is a thorough researcher and journalist who works at Mashable.com. He’s not new to this sort of thing.

It does new things that I haven’t seen in nerd non-fiction. For example, the opening chapter finds Taylor looking for someone who has not been affected by Star Wars in a merchandise or film way. He’s not just searching for someone who hasn’t seen the movie, but someone who has no conception of what the film is about. I won’t spoil it for you, but he finds a Codetalker from WW2 on an Indian Reservation.

This book is also about memes and other associated cultural aspects of Star Wars – the 501st Legion, that old Star Wars Kid video, the video “Troops” that was a spoof of Cops. If you’re scratching your head about any of these or why you should care, then this book can fill in the gaps.

One of the best chapters is “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Prequels”. As a person who does NOT love the prequels, this chapter spoke to me. I don’t know if I buy the theory presented here – the prequels are like jazz or poetry riffs on the original – but I will say that the theory made the prequels a little easier to stomach in my mind. (I still haven’t gone back to watch them.)

The book takes the history all the way up until this year and gives perspective on the Disney buy-out and the events leading up to The Force Awakens.

If there’s a negative to this book, it’s that it’s so long. 400+ pages. I can’t remember how long it took me to listen to, but I definitely spent lots of trips walking the dog and commuting to work where this was my soundtrack. Its weakness is also its strength. This is a thorough examination of nerd culture that is getting some serious treatment.

This is a good read if you’re an old or new Star Wars fan. It’s far more intelligent than the usual fan-service things that wouldn’t dare to say tough things about the franchise. Go read it. Or listen to it. Whatever.