Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress #26: Didn't We Deserve a Look at You the Way You Really Are?



For decades, you paraded around like a crazy bitch
Wretchedness, your lucky charm
Hung on a bracelet displayed on your arm

All we saw is not how you are

Caught a glimpse of you
In an unselfconscious smile
Revealing yourself
Didn't we deserve a look at you the way you really are?
-Shellac


Don't judge me for posting Shellac lyrics again.  They were appropriate for #24 and they are appropriate for #26.  There are three interpretations to make of this reference: (1) we deserve a look at the way law schools (and legal jobs) really are; (2) you deserve a look at the way I really am; (3) we deserve a look at the way all the anonymous scam-bloggers really are.
Not for decades, but for nearly a decade, we have all paraded around like crazy bitches, trumpeting inflated employment statistics, selling our desperate souls for a pittance, blacklisting alternative voices.  The time has come to take off the mask.

I have never worn a mask.  But I have taken off my make-up.  Let's see if you can take off yours.

***


BLS was #67 on The List when I accepted.  Now they are #78 (and list their tuition as $1,795 per credit).  This isn't that egregious of a decline, but I've seen a graphic that the median LSAT of incoming students has, in fact, egregiously declined.  I read once that top 50 schools were first tier, schools 50-100 were second tier, and everything after 100 was third tier.  I disagree and think most people know the top 14 schools are first tier, 15-50 are second tier, and everything after 50 is third tier.  But then I have heard the whole tier system has been purged.  Regardless, I like referring to BLS as TT.  So that is the working title for my fourth book.

The book will mostly be about social life, but it is certainly aimed squarely at my debt and the need to relieve myself of it.  So I will not comment on that here, except to say that Pepperdine struck me as being like a high school, when I overheard or observed the students interacting.  I did not want that.  BLS ended up being its own version of high school.  Regardless, while I regret basically everything that happened in my life between the years of 2010 and 2013, I do not regret, for one second, any of my interpersonal relationships from that period.  Ironically I have about two friends in Chicago, so a whole lot of good my BLS friends have done me, updating their status, allowing me to compare myself unfavorably.  I am happy that I will not run into certain classmates in court, but I miss most of them very, very much.  They were all intelligent, open-minded, curious, and inspiring.  I could tell them everything and never feel ashamed.  I feel the need to write TT to honor my love for them and the memories we shared, before any more of us are lost in unfortunate accidents.

Nothing more about BLS, except that their employment statistics are grossly inflated.  I believe they have changed their disclosure: their website now links to an ABA-stamped employment summary.  However, only 44 out of 478 defined themselves as unemployed.  So when they said 91% employment before, it wasn't untrue.  But it was probably highly misleading.  Supposedly, there were only 33 law school funded positions.  All I know is, I filled out that employment survey, and my CTA post-graduate fellowship counted as "employed."  But if you knew what my life was like from November 2013 through May of 2014, you would not feel "employed." (I do have to say though, that these numbers do not look that bad, and that maybe I am unnaturally disappointed because BLS has zero pull in Chicago.)

***

I never had BLS on my radar until they solicited an application from me with the fee-waived.  This was warning sign #1.  Plenty of schools do this, but it is nefarious.  
Oh, you haven't heard of our school?  It's free to apply!  What is it going to hurt?
Inevitably, these schools end up offering tempting scholarship packages.  

I picked BLS over Loyola Law School.  I've written about this before, and I'll be writing about it again.  Neither BLS or LLS would have been a smart decision.  LLS gave me slightly more money, subject to finishing in the top 33% of the 1L class.  BLS gave maybe $6,000 less, but only subject to a top 40% finish.  BLS also coordinated student housing, and this ultimately won the day for them.  LLS has a beautiful campus with beautiful architecture, though it is not in the best neighborhood.  BLS must have one of the ugliest law school buildings in the country, but it is in the fanciest neighborhood in the hippest borough.  I couldn't pay too much attention to the quality of the faculty, but for what it's worth BLS did have a more impressive "sample class" than Pepperdine, DePaul or LLS (though LLS was definitely #2).  If it's not already clear to you, I regret going to BLS.  Given that I live in Chicago, I wish I had gone to DePaul or Loyola University.  I also wish I had gone to LLS, but there it was more apparent to me that I was making a huge financial gamble - I'd have enough to afford first and last month's rent, and a security deposit, but not 12 months of rent, and I was not going to have a job.  A loan, untied to the school's bursar, frightened me.  Of course in retrospect, I would much rather have given government-borrowed money to a landlord than an institution [at least partly] responsible for my demise.

I think that's all we need to say about that.

***

You deserve to know that I work for a wage--not a salary--but if you attend work perfectly, logging the maximum 37.5 hours per week, staying late Tuesday through Friday to make up for the 7.5 hours you can't work on the dozen or so holidays throughout the year, perhaps using your accrued vacation days (1 per month), billing 52 weeks, it would work out to $26,949.  

I'm wary about spilling too many details about my job, except to say I am a crime-fighter and building-doctor.  I do not practice criminal law, but I am put into a position where I have to request that criminal offenders be banned from their place of abode.  It can be pretty unsavory at times, and I'm not really sure it's providing any transferable experience.  What I do is very niche, and the only option might be to "go to the dark side"--i.e. the solo practitioners or bank-funded midsize firms we meet in court and AH.  I could say a lot more about this, but again, do not want to call undue attention to what I do.  Even with all of my frustrations about my job, I mentioned in the previous post that this year felt better than last probably because of my professional situation.  You probably deserve to know how that has changed, too.  But before I get there, let me just say, while I may hate a lot of things about my job, I do not hate my job.  It's a tremendously depressing experience, but it has lent me a certain stability.

I nearly had a job, and I'm not sure I've ever written about this here.  But, to cut to the chase, I pretty much decided to move back to Chicago after spending my 2L summer here in 2012.  Still, I interned at Legal Aid when I got back to Brooklyn that fall, and apparently got my "guaranteed" interview.  Just about two years ago, I went up to the Bronx and delivered a summation in defense of a woman who had been caught shoplifting from a Target, to two attorneys.  It went well, I suppose, because I received an invitation to interview a second time, in lower Manhattan on Water St., across the street from a building I lived in for the first half of the summer, 11 years earlier.  Interviews never go well for me, so this was something.  

The second interview didn't allow me to show off the more dramatic side of myself, and I guess I came across as a dullard.  No offer came.  At that point, I decided to withdraw from the NY Bar Exam.  I was fully refunded, which I will never forget.  Illinois, however, charged me $1,550 to register ($1,450 for "really late" registration, and $100 for the computer fee) at that late date, and I guess that's when I really started feeling the sting for how outrageously Illinois will gouge you on everything, particularly if it has to do with practicing law.  Just curious, but how much is it to renew your bar license in NY?  $395?  Higher?  And now there is all sorts of talk about slapping a sales tax onto legal services, as if the poor people and generally poor attorneys (unless of course there is no exemption for large firms, which would be surprising) that will bear the brunt of this revenue boosting measure can afford that little extra ding.

I put out all the feelers I could when I moved back into my parents' house in August of 2013.  I would only live there a couple months before it would be foreclosed upon and short-sold. Miraculously, the moment I found an apartment, I got offered a short term document review job.  It only lasted six days, but I made over $1000 on it after taxes, and that would cover the rent for the next month and most living expenses.  I would also be starting my post-graduate fellowship at CTA, which would pay $1000 per month for 20 hours per week.  

I do not want to say too much about CTA except that it was a mistake to do the fellowship there.  About a year ago, I interviewed with the Cook County Public Defender.  If I had tried to do my fellowship there, I would still have been an "employee" at the time of that interview, and might have been a more impressive candidate.  I wrote about this when I reviewed Defending the Damned (which technically was before last year's 6th anniversary post, but should now be mentioned as a notable read), but here I wanted to make that clear.  I wanted to do my post-graduate fellowship with an organization that could build on my past experience.  I had worked for New York City Transit Authority as my first internship after my 1L year.  It had been a very positive experience for me, and at one point I was falsely led into the anticipation of a job after law school with them.  They gave me free rides.  I never used them, because the building was three blocks from my apartment, but I could go anywhere that summer for free.  I also got paid $5,000 for three months.  

Compare that to $4,500 for 5 months at CTA.   And despite the fact that law school interns were not only paid directly by CTA, but also given the benefit of free rides, I was not given any such special treatment as a "volunteer attorney."  I asked my fellowship coordinator if she could argue my case to the General Counsel, in light of this disparate treatment.  She said she did, but the decision remained the same.  I still wonder how hard she had advocated for me.  Might it have been better just to knock on the GC's door myself?  

So I was working for a pittance with an end date in sight.  An Assistant FOIA Officer position became available, and I applied immediately and got the interview.  It would have paid $50,000.  I interviewed over the phone on a conference call with a woman who worked on the same floor as me.  Clearly I could have come down in person, but they needed to keep it depersonalized, I guess not to show any favored treatment.  I didn't get it.  Another girl, who had a very similar resume to mine, but had done FOIA work for the Law Dept., got it.  I applied later to be a representative for the labor division, working with grievances from the union, but did not get an interview.  Nor did I get one for the associate attorney position in the torts division.

I started doing part-time work.  One day I worked for a solo attorney in Schaumburg.  She paid me $20 per hour to do minor paralegal type work for 6 hours.  I was in at 9, out by 3, and had a check for $120.  Moreover, she had been cool.  She had given all kinds of insight into what it was like to be a solo attorney, and how some months were good and others were not.  I remember one case she was trying to get a settlement from an insurance company for a client who had broken their tooth on a rock in a yogurt cup.  It was freezing cold that day but I remember driving back the long way from Schaumburg, east through Oak Park into the city, down North Ave, going to the Aldi on Milwaukee Ave. and then to the Citibank there to deposit the check, then going home and having a drink and being very happy.

I also covered cases for a foreclosure defense firm.  They paid $20 per hour too, I think.  Maybe $25.  I had to drive out to Kane County a couple times for that, covered another couple cases at the Daley Center.  I stopped doing it after too long, because my current position prohibits outside representation.  And also ironically because it was only the cases in Kane County that were worth it, since you could bill for commuting time and get $0.50 per mile in gas reimbursement.  100 miles round trip, plus a 15 minute appearance signing, might net $150 or $175.

I also got a job at a small firm, which gave me a place to go when my fellowship ended in late April or early May.  They paid $15 per hour.  I worked there for about a month, and the work environment was less than ideal.  All of my co-workers were very nice, but it was a very disorganized place.  I took a doc review project (I had worked another one, also, from February through April, taking a leave of absence from CTA so I could make the hours) and made decent money, maybe about $6,000 in six weeks.  But it was during that doc review job that I got offered a start date at my current job.  I took it, and was sad I was taking an almost 50% cut from my doc review wage.  But, this job offered health insurance, and paid nominally less than $15 per hour, so I talked with the partner at the small firm, and he agreed it seemed like the best move for me.  I have since seen him in court and prosecuted a case against him.  He's one of my very few "connections" to the legal community of this city, and I will always be grateful that he kept me from fearing homelessness.

There's not much else to say except that I am happy to live in and work for this city.  It's a really terrible place, but it's my really terrible place, and no matter how fucking frustrating it gets, I am going to try to make things better.

My loans are up around $98,000 right now and I have paid $0 back.  I will be renewing PAYE next week with an AGI around $25,500.  I think some people pay about $30 per month on our salary, and it just sucks because you are not even covering the interest at that level.  That's only $360 a year, so it's amazing.  But my interest is going to climb at like $7,000 per year.  So it's just going to escalate, and the only way out is through forgiveness.  If I stay on track, and if Congress doesn't try to fuck even further with our economic "promised-land," I will be debt-free in about 9 years.  I will consider these 9 years to be better than those spent in a prison, but I am not going to stay in my position forever.

Some of my colleagues have stayed more than two years without having a conversation about their future there.  I will go ballistic if I hit that point and the powers that be still feel it's reasonable to ask me to live on this salary.

I have heard one of my colleagues turn down a job offer of $40,000 per year (it may have even been $45,000 per year), because it would change the loan treatment.  I agree that the value of public service, over a long term of loan repayment, is high, but it's difficult to measure.  You have an extra 10 years of payment on the expanded form of PAYE now, and the dreaded "tax bomb."  Still, I would probably go for $40,000.  I can understand not wanting to leave, though, because our positions are relatively more stable and less stressful than those of young associates at small firms.  An extra $1,000 per month in pay would be nice, though.

And I think that's all we need to say about that.

***

We deserve a look at the anonymous bloggers and commentators who have told me to swallow a shotgun, who have called me ugly, who have kicked me while I was down.  I have zero problem with them calling out law school as a ruinous life choice, but when someone personally attacks you for making such a stupid fucking awful decision, it hurts,

In case it is not already crystal-clear, I hereby disavow any pollyannish statements previously made about BLS or other law schools generally.  They are overpriced, and their outcomes are not good.

In the event that you hope to have a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress against the institution that harmed you, you must prove that you have done everything in your power to achieve a good result.

Did you pass, or even take, the bar exam?
How high was your GPA and class rank?
Did you work for a journal, or moot court?
Did you do internships or externships or clinics (or whatever you want to call them) every semester?

Other questions might be pertinent (i.e. foreign language fluency, previous law firm experience), but there is no talisman for success.  I have known people that were spectacular students at BLS and could not get a job, and people who were mediocre students and still managed to get a decent public interest job.  While I understand that the risk/reward is rarely justifiable, it is not fair to lump everyone else together with you when you just suck, or give up without really trying.

I sucked.  I had a 3.28 and finished in the bottom half (top 65%), no journals, no moot court.  I did do do internships every semester, but after 1L year I had a 3.14, and my Property professor [strongly] suggested that I take a year off and work on my writing, since I said that was what I really wanted to do.  My Constitutional Law professor, by contrast, said he didn't mean to be pollyannish, but he had a student that didn't do so well her first year, and came back and finished near the top of her class (though nothing about her getting a great job).  I remember another reception, early in my 3L year, when our Dean highlighted one particular student from the class of 2012 that finished at the very top--maybe 2nd or 3rd--but still had no job.  It was an alumni reception and he exhorted everyone there to give the student a job, plugging some cute acronym initiative.

So maybe my fate isn't all that unusual.

In summation, while the lawsuit naming BLS claiming negligent misrepresentation was dismissed, and while my claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress may not prevail, this is not a clear case of contributory negligence or culpable conduct.  Numerous bad actors have unwittingly collaborated on my demise.  Blame BLS.  Blame the U.S. government.  Blame my friend who went to Cardozo and planted the seed.  Blame my dad for wanting to tell people his son was an attorney.  Blame Bush and/or Obama and/or greedy Wall St. bankers for the recession.  Blame the ABA for failure to warn.  Blame baby boomers for saying that all you need to do is get your foot in the door.  Blame as many parties as you can name.  But do not blame yourself.

Unless, of course, you suck.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Happy 7th Birthday


Another gloriously unproductive year on Flying Houses, but for some reason, it felt better than the last one.  There were only 21 posts, compared to last year's 25.  We currently sit at 77,318 page views, when we had 59,169 last year, and just over 30,000 the year before.  Thus, our growth has slowed, and that makes me sad.  It makes me feel like I am dying.

Of course, everyone who reads this blog knows two things: (1) blogs about books are not all that popular; (2) I don't market the hell out of it, and apparently update it less than twice per month.

But still, this year feels better than last year, and I have to attribute that to my professional situation.  Those of you who have been with us all the way from beginning (brave souls!) know that it was started at 11100 Santa Monica Blvd.  I forget which floor.  Though that job sucked, and though I have posted highly-sensitive details about my exit and distaste for the temporary help industry, I have very fond memories of those days.  However, it was an unsustainable and ultimately sad life that I lived in L.A.  Certain days (this morning included) I wish I had tried harder there, not given up, not gone home, not bought an LSAT book.  I suppose most of us have to learn the hard way; sometimes things do not have a way of working themselves out.

I digress!  I would not have started this blog if I had not been at Jefferies & Co. at that specific time in history and I thank them for that inspiration.  (I'd also like to thank Rahm Emanuel for causing the recession.)

We did not hit 300 posts this year.  We are 4 short.  I am not going to quit, however.  I may quit one day, but that may be when I know the end is near, or the day the printed word becomes obsolete.  There is still work to be done.

The most notable achievement from the last year was certainly the posting of Think and Grow Poor, which now sits above Daylight Savings Time on this blog's homepage.  I am seriously depressed that I'm not making money off of this writing, but I have avoided posting S/M for a long time now.  I may release that as an e-book.

Speaking of money, this blog has earned $29.21 in seven years.  It must be the most unprofitable venture of all time.

That said, I am reasonably sure that AdSense has systematically raised the minimum payment amount several times to avoid any remuneration to me.  I'm pretty sure it used to be $10, then it was $25, and now it is $100.  So it will take me a long time to get paid.  I read about a class action lawsuit that was going to be filed against them.  I hope to be included, but I'm afraid my claim is not substantially similar.

I realize it was about 15 years ago that people used to tell their friends, "Click on an ad!" but I will just ask once.  About a year ago I was working at CTA, and we had a plaintiff come in for a deposition.  She said she fell down on a bus that slammed on its brakes.  Somehow it got brought out that she ran a blog--a fashion blog--where she took pictures of herself in various plus-size outfits.  She said she made about $300 a month on the advertising.  I was like, holy shit.  This girl could teach me something.

So don't be surprised if I start putting myself out there.

Speaking of putting myself out there, I am afraid to Google myself.  I know what used to show up, at least, and it makes me want to either kill myself or fly into a murderous rage.  Neither would be conducive towards a happy future.  At this time, I am concerned that it has turned me into a joke of a person that no one would ever want to hire.  Now I may be a joke of a person, but I want to be my joke of a person--not anybody else's.  Fuck people who presume to know the details.

Having said that, there is a request for a new NIED piece.  It would appear that all of my columns have been archived at BLS Advocate, However, #25 was chopped in two, and I think it seriously lost its power by being cut down into manageable bite-size portions, one with convenient advice for passing the bar exam.  The original text of #25 is lost, so it must remain in its expurgated form on BLS Advocate.  #26, however, will be coming soon...

Generally, this was a good year in terms of maintaining a readership and eliciting fascinating and helpful comments.  I received an offer for a review copy of a book by a Turkish feminist about the 16th century Ottoman Empire.  I said I would be delighted to receive a copy and review it, though none has arrived.  It is unfortunate that neither the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, nor any other publication has reached out to me regarding a part-time position for once weekly or monthly book reviews, but perhaps, if forced to work within the confines of an editorial staff, the substance of my criticism would be sapped.  For there is little substance.  It is all reader-response here.  I do not deign to posit a formula for a great book other than being moved by my past tangible experience.

Stay tuned for NIED #26, which could be a doozy, and a double (possibly triple) review of The Pale King.  Be patient for the latter.








Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (2001)


Oeuvre rule: I have only previously read How to be Alone, which came out a year after this.  I enjoyed it very much, while I thought Franzen sometimes went on too long and sounded a bit pretentious and cranky.  Some of the material intimates Franzen's raison d'etre in The Corrections--i.e. "this is what I was trying to do" or "this is what I was going for..."  I would like to revisit it in light of those comments, because I'm going to agree with the rest of the world and slap huge compliments on this novel.  Oprah, I'm not going to read everything in your book club, but you got it right with this one.  (No comment on Franzen's disavowal of that institution--except my belief that he regrets that in retrospect.) I don't have a book club, but I do name those I consider the best books reviewed on Flying Houses, and this one makes the list.

Recently, this novel was named the #5 novel of the 21st century so far, and overall it is a very fine piece of literature indeed.  I have minor complaints: the unfortunate media-driven obsession with sex in American society is transplanted into these pages, and Franzen occasionally goes off on a super-long tangent.  The second complaint is also a compliment, however, and I realize it is hard to produce an item designed for entertaining the masses without appealing to baser instincts.

The most notable thing about this book are the extremely long chapters.  There are only a few: "St. Jude" (9 pages), "The Failure" (120 pages), "The More He Thought About It, the Angrier He Got" (99 pages), "At Sea" (97 pages), "The Generator" (117 pages), "One Last Christmas" (99 pages), and "The Corrections" (5 pages).  7 chapters in 570 pages seems unwieldy, but this is not a criticism.  It serves to break the book up into recognizable sections.  "St. Jude" and "The Corrections" are short introductions and conclusions to the novel.  "The Failure" is about Chip.  "The More He Thought About It..." is about Gary.  "At Sea" is about the cruise that Enid and Alfred take.  "The Generator" is about Denise.  And "One Last Christmas" is about the family together for that event.  I found much to enjoy about each of them.  The book is a consistently pleasurable read.

The plot?  The major device is Alfred's failing health--he has dementia and Parkinson's disease, sprinkled together with Alzheimer's.  He is in his late 70's or early 80's.  He worked as a railroad engineer his whole life and raised his family as pitch-perfect members of the middle class.  He is married to Enid, who is constantly trying to put on a happy face and make everyone around her believe that her family is perfect.  Their oldest son, Gary, is a successful bank executive in his early 40's, married to an attorney who has gone into public interest work because they don't need the money, with three kids.  The middle child, Chip, is an anti-establishment English PhD pushing 40 who has recently fallen on hard times after a good teaching job, and is trying to finish a screenplay.  Denise is a chef, but really "culinary master" seems more accurate, 32 and divorced, going through a transitional period.  Enid and Alfred come to visit Chip in New York City before embarking on a cruise along the Canadian coast.  Denise comes to visit from Philadelphia the same day, and End pushes the idea of bringing everyone back to the family house for "one last Christmas," because Alfred is losing his lucidity.

The first aforementioned "long tangent" occurs during these preliminary introductions.  Out of nowhere, seemingly, Franzen stops the narrative and tells the entire story of Chip's rise and fall as a college professor.  It was just as engaging, so I didn't mind, but it challenged my expectations.  One other thing I wanted to mention about Chip is that he is the most overused character in all of modern literature: the struggling male writer in his 30's.  I felt like I was reading about Nate or Guert (in his younger days) or even Nick (obviously to a lesser extent)--but while I am sure there are many more examples to be had of this "type," Franzen paints him as more of an unpredictable "bad boy" such that he feels more real, behaving impulsively and making bad decisions.

While Franzen's prose is remarkably pristine, I did come across one passage that made me believe he was not godlike, and could have put in a couple more minutes of research:

"The clerk laughed in a way that was the more insulting for being good-humored.  But then, Chip had reason to be sensitive.  Since D---- College had fired him, the market capitalization of publicly traded U.S. companies had increased by thirty-five percent.  In these same twenty-two months, Chip had liquidated a retirement fund, sold a good car, worked half-time at an eightieth-percentile wage, and still ended up on the brink of Chapter 11.  These were years in America when it was nearly impossible not to make money, years when receptionists wrote MasterCard checks to their brokers at 13.9% APR and still cleared a profit, years of Buy, years of Call, and Chip had missed the boat.  In his bones he knew that if he ever did sell 'The Academy Purple,' the markets would all have peaked the week before and any money he invested he would lose." (103)

Now it is technically allowed for an individual to file Chapter 11 (see Sheldon Toibb, proper citation way too fucking lazy to track down), but that is rare.  It would be most proper to write Chapter 7 here, as Chip would not be a good candidate for Chapter 13 at this moment.  Perhaps Franzen meant to characterize Chip as a business, but I highly doubt it and digress.

From there, the book shifts its focus to Gary.  Gary is somewhat mysterious throughout the beginning of the book, referenced by all the characters but silent, so his prominence in the chapter is noteworthy.  The idea of what the novel will be about is completed here, basically.  Gary is shown working in a darkroom, developing photographs of his family for an epic album that he will give everyone for Christmas, while his youngest son Jonah enthuses about The Chronicles of Narnia.  His two older boys play outside with his wife, Caroline, and seem to like her more.  Gary resents this, and calls her out for lying about a minor injury that she suffers while playing with them.  This happens when Enid calls him and asks if they will all come for Christmas.  Caroline refuses to visit his parents, and Alfred does not feel comfortable staying at their house for more than 48 hours.  She pretty much comes off as a huge bitch when she explains why:

"'The truth, Caroline said, 'is that forty-eight hours sounds just about right to me.  I don't want my children looking back on Christmas as the time when everybody screamed at each other.  Which basically seems to be unavoidable now.  Your mother walks in the door with three hundred sixty days' worth of Christmas mania, she's been obsessing since the previous January, and then, of course, Where's that Austrian reindeer figurine--don't you like it?  Don't you use it?  Where is it?  Where is it?  Where is the Austrian reindeer figurine?  She's got her food obsessions, her money obsessions, her clothes obsessions, she's got the whole ten-piece set of baggage which my husband used to agree is kind of a problem, but now suddenly, out of the blue, he's taking her side.  We're going to turn the house inside out looking for a piece of thirteen-dollar gift-store kitsch because it has sentimental value to your mother---'" (185)

I have to say that Caroline is probably the least sympathetic character in the book.  In one sense she may be rational.  Her husband's family is crazy, and she wants her family to be healthy and emotionally stable.  But the reader feels very bad for Gary, when she seems to think that this fight over Christmas is going to lead to their divorce.  Unfortunately, this is not a very charitable depiction of an attorney.

Much of this chapter is about Gary's fear of anhedonia--basically, depression.  Lack of interest in things.  But then, the end is this long shareholder's meeting of the Axon Corporation, which has offered Alfred $5,000 for his patent on a process for developing pharmaceutical anti-depressants, and which is coming out with a drug called Corecktall.  Later on, Denise and Enid try to get Alfred on a regimen, because it may be able to cure his condition.  While I would never suggest this chapter is "bad," I must admit that while I found certain parts of it highly enjoyable and stimulating, on the whole it was the least memorable section of the book.

"At Sea" details the cruise that Enid and Alfred take, and is fantastic from start to finish.  It reaches its pinnacle in the conversation between Enid and Sylvia, a woman she meets while sharing a dinner table on the cruise, whom she intuits will either be an arch-nemesis or a friend.  The two women spill out all their feelings as they continue to have "just one more."  I do not want to spoil it.

Later, Enid is offered a drug called Aslan by a rogue doctor (who shares his name with a Simpsons character, albeit with different spelling) on board, and I feared that the book was turning into a rip-off of White Noise, which is now turning thirty years old and remains an absolute classic of the late 20th century.  Thankfully, Franzen seems to recognize this (indeed Don DeLillo even offers a blurb in praise on the back cover), so this scene ends up being a mere homage to White Noise.  Maybe it's not and I'm crazy but if you've read that book, you must admit that Aslan and Dylar are essentially identical plot devices:

"'We think of a classic CNS depressant such as alcohol as suppressing "shame" or "inhibitions."  But the "shameful" admission that a person spills under the influence of three martinis doesn't lose its shamefulness in the spilling; witness the deep remorse that follows when the martinis have worn off.  What's happening on the molecular level, Edna, when you drink those martinis, is that the ethanol interferes with the reception of excess Factor 28A, i.e., the "deep" or "morbid" shame factor.  But the 28A is not metabolized or properly reabsorbed at the receptor site.  It's kept in temporary unstable storage at the transmitter site.  So when the ethanol wears off, the receptor is flooded with 28A.  Fear of humiliation and the craving for humiliation are closely linked: psychologists know it, Russian novelists know it.  And this turns out to be not only "true" but really true.  True at the molecular level.  Anyway, Aslan's effect on the chemistry of shame is entirely different from a martini's.  We're talking complete annihilation of the 28A molecules.  Aslan's a fierce predator."  (318)

"The Generator" comes next, and for me it was the strongest section of the book overall, from start to finish (thus, "At Sea" combined with "The Generator" is certainly the strongest stretch of the book).  It is Denise's chapter, and she is probably better developed than any other character.  She spends her last summer before college working at Alfred's railroad company, goes to Swarthmore, and drops out not long after, discovering a love for culinary art.  She marries a man much older than her while serving as his sous-chef.  They get divorced not long after, and the major plot of the section is set into motion.  Paid a generous salary by a benefactor, she travels through Europe to sample the cuisine, and returns to open her own restaurant in a massive building previously owned and utilized by the Philadelphia Electric Company.

Later this same benefactor (Brian) gets involved with a film project, and Stephen Malkmus is name-dropped as a person who would eat dinner with him at fancy New York restaurants, seemingly as a technical adviser.  This really came out of nowhere, and it's particularly ironic because the previous book I reviewed here thanked "Steven Malkamus" in the acknowledgements section.  I really wanted to point that out previously (was it just sloppy editing or some kind of weird SM Jenkins joke?).  There is also this reference, which was prescient in 2001:

"Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn't imagine that style had anything to do with happiness.  Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp." (349)

Prescient because, Mission of Burma was primed to come back about a year after this novel was published, and because the Flaming Lips were about to "peak."

The last  large section of the book, "One Last Christmas," wraps up the story in relatively satisfying fashion.  There is one particular sentence that almost made me want to cry--when Enid says, "This is the best Christmas present I've ever had!" There are a few strange moments at the end, though, and Franzen definitely does not arrange a conventional denouement.  There is one seriously WTF moment (I will just say the word "enema" and anyone who has read it will know what I mean) that I don't understand, unless it's just supposed to be sort of icky and disturbing and nothing more.

The closing eponymous chapter reminded me of the ending to Buddenbrooks, which is also referenced on back cover in a blurb by Michael Cunningham (in the same breath as White Noise)--that is, it feels oddly unceremonious, but appropriate.  There is a short dialogue about whether being gay is a choice and a reference to Six Days, Seven Nights.  And then there is a type of "where are they now?" conclusion.

I've failed when it comes to highlighting the craft of Franzen's prose.  I've picked out really random passages that I found notable for idiosyncratic and insignificant reasons, and I've avoided certain passages to preserve the pleasure of their discovery.  Rest assured this entire novel is well-written.  There are probably 10-15 pages of sentences included throughout the book that annoyed me for some reason, but they do not detract enough to remove it from its rightful place as one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses.  I just hope this review has done it justice.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Girl in a Band - Kim Gordon (2015)


At my 30th birthday party, now nearly two years ago, a friend gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble for $20.  I visited the store a few different times recently, but there was nothing I really wanted.  Of course there were books I wanted to read, but I could usually stand to wait for them to be held on reserve for me at the library.  I don't like buying books at sticker price, especially hardcovers.  But when I tried to reserve Kim Gordon's new memoir, and realized I would need to wait a couple months, I found my occasion to redeem the gift.

It didn't work at first.  I went to the location on Jackson Blvd. in the Loop on the day it was released - February 24, 2015 - and looked in the music section.  Nothing.  I went to the information desk and asked if they could look up a book on their system.  The girl at the desk asked which book, prepared to type, and I said it was Kim Gor----"We've been getting a lot of calls for that - it's all sold out, but we can order you a copy."  I gave them my number, and one week later, on March 1st, I got my copy.  It was just over $30, so I had to pay $10 extra.  I put down The Corrections (which I fully expect to review in the next two weeks), and started.  I finished it on Saturday, March 7th.  Now, I must delve into reviewing it, which I feel more equipped to handle than nearly any other post in the history of Flying Houses.

For those that don't know me personally, it is worth explaining that Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands of all time.  I was first exposed to them in the Fall of 2001, by the same friend that I have probably written about more than once here, but most prominently regarding Cap'n Jazz.  He lent me Sister and Daydream Nation.  I didn't really get them at the time, but I remember liking Sister slightly more, probably because it was shorter and more digestible.  At the time though, I experienced what most people probably do upon first listening to them: confusion.  Yes, it was rock music, but it seemed like they were purposefully trying to be a difficult listen.  A year later I went to NYU and a friend showed me The Year Punk Broke, and my interest was renewed.  By the time Murray Street came out in 2002, I had burnt CDs of several of their albums and picked it up on or around its release date.  At the time, I thought they were old, and were losing their edge.  I hadn't even really listened to A Thousand Leaves yet, so I guess Washing Machine was my most recent point of reference.  Except for "Plastic Sun," it seemed kind of mellow and boring to me.  I got into basically all of their other albums after that, and when Sonic Nurse came out in 2004, I proclaimed to everyone that it was their best since Washing Machine.  I would say the same thing after Rather Ripped in 2006 and The Eternal in 2009.  I also saw them play live about five different times, the last of which was performing Daydream Nation at the Pitchfork Festival in 2007, a really fond memory of mine.  

Then there was also the time I met Kim and Thurston.  It was at the Tonic lounge in the Fall of 2002. Thurston was playing a weird, free jazz noise concert with the drummer Chris Corsano and another guy I forget, and I approached Kim.  I totally forgot what I said to her, but I think I asked her if she could give a zine I had just printed to Thurston.  I said, "Kim," and she turned around and said something to me in German, I think.  Later I would talk to Thurston after the show and get his autograph in my journal and find out from him that the band would next be playing at Irving Plaza, a show that wasn't announced yet.  I think I saw them both at one other show, about a year later--Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Warsaw in Brooklyn.  

Girl in a Band got a lot of advance press, primarily from the salacious excerpts that were unveiled in a couple different reviews about the breakdown of their marriage.  There were also extremely pointed comments on Courtney Love, Billy Corgan and Lana Del Rey.  I read them in awe, and could not wait to read the book.  It seemed like Kim was about to absolutely destroy all the posers and bust out with pure, unadulterated truth.  While this book is extremely powerful, and made me super nostalgic and happy, reigniting my desire to make art and challenge expectations, I must report that those looking for similar cutting remarks will not find many more.  They will probably be most enthralled by the last thirty pages or so--but nobody should be disappointed by this book.  I only don't name it one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses because it sometimes feel clipped--many of the first chapters are only a few pages long, giving the appearance that they were each written as one day's work--and some details or impressions are repeated, as if the reader will not remember the first mention.  Regardless, I loved it.

It begins with an account of Sonic Youth's final show in Brazil, and after finishing the book last Saturday, I watched it on YouTube.  The sound leaves something to be desired, and it takes them a while to gain momentum, but it is a fitting end to their epic career.  It's a good place to start the book, because it sucks the reader into what unfortunately must be the main gossipy reason for its allure: telling the story of how the marriage failed.  After watching the show I had to conclude that Kim was either really good at faking the appearance of having a good time, or genuinely savoring the catharsis.

From there, the book goes into a narrative of her family history and early life.  It is tempered with just the right amount of detail--not an exhaustive genealogical report, but a collection of highlights one might tell a close friend.  This one reads like an extrapolation of the meaning behind the song "Brave Men Run," which is later referenced around the middle of the book:

"In my family, history showed up in casual remarks.  I was in my senior year of high school when my aunt told me that my mother's family, the Swalls, was one of California's original families.  Pioneers.  Settlers.  The story went that along with some Japanese business partners, my great-great-grandparents ran a chili pepper farm in Garden Grove, in Orange County.  The Swalls even had a ranch in West Hollywood, at Doheny Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard, on land that's today all car washes and strip malls and bad stucco.  At some point the railroad laid down tracks, slicing the street into Big and Little Santa Monica Boulevards.  The ranches are all gone today, of course, but Swall Drive is still there, swishing north and south, a fossil of ancestral DNA.
I've always felt there's something genetically instilled and inbred in Californians--that California is a place of death, a place people are drawn to because they don't realize deep down they're actually afraid of what they want.  It's new, and they're escaping their histories while at the same time moving headlong toward their own extinctions.  Desire and death are all mixed up with the thrill of and the risk of of the unknown.  It's a variation of what Freud called the 'death instinct.'  In that respect the Swalls were probably no different from any other early California family, staking out a new place, lured there by the gold rush and hitting an ocean wall." (15-16)

She writes about her father, and how he conducted the first sociological study on categorical high school cliques, for UCLA while in Hong Kong.  She compares him to William S. Burroughs, whom she visited with Thurston, their daughter Coco, and Michael Stipe in 1994.  She writes about idyllic fishing trips with her parents and their friends in Northern California.  She writes about her mother, who was somewhat mysterious to her.  And she writes about her brother, who may have affected her personality more than anyone else:

"His ridiculing and button-pushing went beyond the typical sibling ragging.  At dinner, I'd let drop some trendy word or expression and Keller would jump on it, and on me, for my faddishness, my ordinariness, my lack of originality.  When a scene in a movie or a Disney special made me laugh or cry, he'd make fun of me for laughing and make fun of me for crying and make fun of me when I didn't say anything at all.  He always knew he could get a response from me, which provoked him to do it even more.
At some point I turned off entirely.  Knowing I'd get mocked or teased, I would do anything not to cry, or laugh, or show any emotion at all.  The biggest challenge as I saw it was to pretend I had some superhuman ability to withstand pain.  Add that to the pressure girls feel anyway to please other people, to be good, and well mannered, and orderly--and I backslid even more into a world where nothing could upset or hurt me." (40)

From there she goes on to talk about her high school days, and college at three different schools.  There are fascinating stories about her early brushes with art-punk and encounters with semi-obscure celebrities.  The book seems to hit its sweet spot when she writes of first moving to New York and ruminates on the artistic motivations of her colleagues and the burgeoning No-Wave scene.  Such nostalgia trips become all the more poignant when situated against the present:

"These days, when I'm in New York, I wonder, What's this place all about, really? The answer is consumption and moneymaking.  Wall Street drives the whole country, with the fashion industry as the icing.  Everything people call fabulous or amazing lasts for about ten minutes before the culture moves onto the next thing.  Creative ideas and personal ambition are no longer mutually exclusive.  A friend recently described the work of an artist we both know as 'corporate,' and it wasn't a compliment.  The Museum of Modern Art is like a giant midtown gift store." (85)

Passages like these make me glad that I am no longer there (though obviously my present abode has its own depressing defining qualities).  But they also make me miss, terribly, the years between 2001 and 2004.  Kim probably would say that things have not really changed that much since then, though.

The section of the book about Sonic Youth feels somewhat touch-and-go.  There are 53 chapters, and several "movements," but the majority of the material on the band comes in the context of specific songs she highlights (though again, these chapters also feel loose--the chapter on "Death Valley '69" is pretty much about Bad Moon Rising, etc.).  I particularly appreciate her discussions on women in the music and art worlds.  Of course there is the regrettable (and revised) comment on Lana Del Rey's version of feminism--which felt very badass at first and now feels watered-down, but was the right thing to do (I won't reprint it here, you can find it on plenty of other sites).  Feminism is a super-hot topic right now and younger voices should take heed: Kim is a perfect example of a pioneer that can equivocate calmly and speak with maturity and wisdom:

"I also felt limited as a singer.  When the band first started, I went for a vocal approach that was rhythmic and spoken, but sometimes unleashed, because of all the different guitar tunings we used.  When you listen to old R&B records, the women on them sang in a really fierce, kick-ass way.  In general, though, women aren't really allowed to be kick-ass.  It's like the famous distinction between art and craft: Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing.  Craft, and control, and polish, is for women.  Culturally, we don't allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening.  We either shun those women or deem them crazy.  Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long.  They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday.  But being that woman who pushes the boundaries means you also bring in less desirable aspects of yourself.  At the end of the day, women are expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it.  That's why Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill is so great.  The term girl power was coined by the Riot Grrl movement that Kathleen Hanna spearheaded in the 1990s.  Girl power: a phrase that would later be co-opted by the Spice Girls, a group put together by men, each Spice Girl branded with a different personality, polished and stylized to be made marketable as a faux female type.  Coco was one of the few girls on the playground who had never heard of them, and that's its own form of girl power, saying no to female marketing!" (127)

As she approaches the end of the "songbook" section of the book, Kim describes the events of 9/11, which rendered the band's recording studio on Murray Street inoperable.  As a person that witnessed the events, from about ten blocks further north, I found the description spot-on:

"The next morning Daisy called me and told me to turn on the TV because a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center.  Daisy's husband, Rob, worked in a building across from the Towers but hadn't left for the office yet.  I called Jim [O'Rourke] and told him to leave the studio, and then I called Thurston.  Jim knew nothing but told me that dust was starting to gather through the open windows.  It was difficult for me--for everybody--to make any sense of what was happening.  I had no TV or radio, but the phone worked, at least first.  By the time the second plane hit, phone service was crackling away to nothing, and when I called Thurston a second time, I couldn't reach him, but I finally convinced Jim to come to our apartment.  As Jim was leaving Murray Street, the second tower was collapsing and people were jumping out of windows.  Lee, his wife Leah, and their kids, who lived downtown, showed up at our apartment, too.  Below us, literally right outside our door, Houston Street and Lafayette were barricaded, and police weren't letting anyone go south of Houston without ID and proof of residence.
It was a surreal, terrifying day.  People--stranded models, people who'd come to town for Fashion Week--were wandering around Nolita and Soho in a daze.  Jim arrived finally, completely traumatized.  We all slept there that night." (216)

The ending may be the strongest part of the book, just because throughout the entire story Kim has portrayed herself as an emotionally-distanced person, in line with the impressions of her personality in the popular culture (though this phrase sounds super-awkward because if you randomly asked 100 people on the street--outside of Greenwich Village, etc--if they know who Kim Gordon is, maybe 10 might say yes).  She finally drops her cool exterior and divulges nearly as heartbreaking an account of a relationship's end as I've ever read.  It is raw, and feels more like the work of a seasoned fiction writer than a primarily musical and secondarily visual artist.  Thurston does not come off very well, but it is especially touching when they attempt to work through their difficulties.  Kim does not write bitter, hateful prose--it is more along the lines of intense disappointment.

This is probably a really inappropriate place to mention the song "Kim Gordon's Panties" by Steve Albini's post Big-Black project Rapeman, but it's too bad Kim never mentions anything about that song.  The song feels like a pseudo-parody of "Teenage Riot" and "Schizophrenia," the opening guitar part and lyrics directly referential.  It feels particularly ironic in that it seems predictive of events that would take place 23 years later.  "I went up to Milwaukee to see an old friend of mine/then Thurston came over/he was out of his mind."  And later: "If I had that to come home to/I'd never leave again."  Gordon did write an essay that is excerpted here, and also in Our Band Could Be Your Life, where she drops the line, "How many boys want to get whipped by Steve Albini's guitar?" but there are no other references.  I've always been a bit confused by the weird rivalry between Albini and the band, and I am curious whether she found it offensive or amusing.  Some mysteries must remain....

I am not going to spoil the sequence of events at the end, but there is one detail that I found scathing, humorous, and incredibly sad:

"Thurston's solo record, Demolished Thoughts, was like a collection of sophomoric, self-obsessed, mostly acoustic mini suicide notes.  When I first encouraged him to record it, I hadn't given any thought to what the lyrics might be about, but hearing pieces of one or two songs, I realized I could never listen to it again.  'I think the lyrics are probably about both of you,' Julie said helpfully, but to me, the lyrics, and the songs, were, and always will be, about her." (256)
 
She also mentions performing "Aneurysm" with the surviving members of Nirvana at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  A friend tells her that it was the most punk thing that will ever be done at the show, and it is definitely worth a view.  In a similar way, this book is worth a read.  I've read a few memoirs by musicians, but none have been as punk (they've lacked the raw honesty exhibited here).  There is an artistic rendering of the word "DARKNESS" on the inside covers, and the implication is both ominous and profound.  It is up to us to make something beautiful or true in this window between two periods of nothingness.  Kim has done that in her life, as well as these pages, and we are all the more fortunate for it.   

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach (2011)


I decided to read The Art of Fielding after it was recommended to me by the same anonymous poster that suggested The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  The comments are worth reading, but I will not re-post them in the body of this review.

Did I find this book truly amazing?  It may not surprise you, but, as is often the case: yes and no.  During the first 150-200 pages, I was flirting with adding it to the "best books" list (which can be found on my profile on the right) at the time, but then I foolishly checked what Entertainment Weekly had to say with its nifty letter grade.  They gave it a B+.  They said it was great, totally great--but the characters were a bit undeveloped.  I totally agree--but I would personally give it an A- because it is close to being a great book.

I am wary of spoiling this book by providing deeper detail to my criticisms, but I feel that I must.  Do not read below the asterisks if you don't like spoilers (I do know at least one person that actively seeks out spoilers).

This book is about a lot of things, but it's mainly about baseball.  It's the quintessential campus novel.  There are probably tons of references to Moby Dick, but I can't really be sure since I haven't read it yet.  The different themes in the novel work very well together, and nothing exactly feels out of place.  But after a couple hundred pages it's almost as if Harbach is content to finish the book on auto-pilot.  There are still wonderful, beautifully written passages, and some truly off the wall happenings, but the characters oddly seem less believable at the end than they do at the beginning.  It's almost as if their decisions are random, that Harbach outlined the plot of the novel and forced the characters to do things that feel unnatural.  Again this will be gotten into beneath the asterisks.

It's pretty easy to describe the plot.  Henry Skrimshander is an antisocial baseball nut who has obsessively read The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, a former shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals who took a very philosophical approach to his profession and nearly became the President of Venezuela.  Henry is "discovered" by Mike Schwartz, who is one year older than him, and catches for the Westish Harpooners.  Mike recruits Henry for the college, and a "beautiful friendship" develops.

Westish is a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin not far off the shores of Lake Michigan.  At first I thought it was going to be a stand-in for Northwestern, but it's probably closer to Beloit College (though that is further from the lake).  The novel contains a series of unlikely events, and it starts with the school: the recruiting for the baseball team is all over the place.  They do find Henry, and a couple other players destined for big league franchises (*cough*cubsandcardinals*cough*), but then they have a bunch of random players that just seem to be on the team because they feel like it.

Obviously this is where I need to start in on Owen, who casually owns a copy of Henry's favorite niche-specific book and doesn't seem to care at all about the coincidence.

But quickly: the novel is not about Henry.  This is one of the more pleasant surprises of The Art of Fielding: it's not content to just sit with one or two characters, and sports a more classic approach to the novel.  There are five main characters, and their stories dovetail with one another up until the final scene.  They are Henry, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight (the 60-year-old college president) and Pella Affenlight (his 23-year-old soon-to-be-divorced daughter).  Now I have said above that this is a great book, and that it should make the list of best books reviewed on Flying Houses, but really considering these characters I have to say that only the Affenlights are well-developed characters--and Pella should be qualified by a "barely."

Before we get to the spoilers (and my specific criticisms), I want to reiterate that I do recommend this book and cannot recall reading a better book about baseball.  It appears popular for authors to blurb that, while they don't love baseball, Harbach got them into it.  Baseball is an endlessly mythological game that has unfortunately been overshadowed by flashier athletic competitions in recent years, along with frequently being derided as "boring."  Personally, I have been watching and following baseball since roughly 1991, and I love the recent history that has defined the last couple generations.  Unfortunately again, today the words "baseball" and "steroids" will almost always be found together, and some of the more outlandish accomplishments (*cough*barrybondsrogerclemens*cough*) can't be celebrated like the 1998 home run race.  This is significant for Harbach's focus.  The star player of the Harpooners is not a power hitter, but an Ozzie Smith-esque shortstop whose landmark accomplishment is consecutive error-less games.

Another thing: why isn't Aparicio Rodriguez just called Ozzie Smith instead of being some pretend amalgam of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith?  I understand if Smith hasn't written a book like Aparicio's Art of Fielding, but he played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for his entire career, bolstered by flawless fielding--and I even think there is a reference somewhere to Aparicio performing a full flip on the field, as Smith once famously did.  Then again, there are bigger problems with the book than this.

***

The Art of Fielding has a terrific opening, and is relatively engrossing.  However, it becomes a "novel" when Affenlight betrays his inappropriate gay crush on Owen--and this is not very deep into it, maybe fifty pages or sixty pages.  It really comes out of nowhere and catches the reader off-guard (unless they like spoilers).  And to me, a reader that has gushed about Death in Venice, the references to that work are either eerily coincidental, or intentional.  I prefer to think they are intentional, the most obvious of which is Guert Affenlight's initials mirroring those of Gustav Aschenbach, not to mention their literary pedigrees, deceased wives, and middled-ages.  Even more noteworthy is the way Harbach describes the "silent crush"--until the novel makes its first of several missteps.

I understand, okay.  Unless Affenlight and Owen become an "item," the book lacks a certain profluence.  I don't think that's a problem, though, because there are three other characters that are pushing the action forward.  And I don't think I'm wrong, either, that this relationship is the most engrossing aspect of the novel.  Anyone that wants can come pick on me and say, oh, of course you would think that, but I truly believe that is the case for everyone.  The rest of the characters are pretty ordinary, but these two characters break out of the comfort zone of collective consciousness.

So when they kissed, I was like, okay, this is one-upping Thomas Mann, but it felt like a cop-out.  I personally think this novel would have been way more interesting if no consummation had ever happened.  And if at one moment it seems as if the book will also take a Lolita-like turn, then it is all the more impressive for awakening such references.  This is of course, the scene with Genevieve, Owen's mother, who seems to be overtly flirting with Affenlight, who even suggests that Owen might get turned straight by Pella, who also joins them for an informal dinner party.  This was one of the most memorable scenes in the novel for me, and made me think this could actually make a really entertaining, humorous film, but then again maybe not.

There are nice moments though that I think would be stronger if Affenlight kept constantly trying to think of ways to get Owen's attention, which maybe might not work until page 500 rather than page 200.  I would have liked that ending better than the actual one.  Some nice details emerge before both characters know exactly what is what:

"'Oh, I'm sure you do,' Owen said coyly.  'He was much better-looking than I am  He might even have been better-looking than you.' Owen scratched his chin, his tone evaluative and probably slightly teasing.  Affenlight blanched.  If Owen though Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better-looking than Owen.  Which was a compliment.  But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight.  But the conditional had been used: might even have been.  It was like an SAT for gay flirting.  Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting.  But if it didn't differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it? Genevieve had returned and was perusing Affenlight's bookshelves, her back turned, sipping her wine." (185)

I'm trying to find "beautiful" passages, but I can't seem to find them from pure memory.  They're all over the place, though I seem to remember at least a couple taking place during a game.  The sports sequences are well-written, as is the entire novel.  I've already expressed my displeasure to the "consummation" of the relationship above, but it's not that bad of a miscue compared to the relationship between Pella and Mike, then between Pella and Henry.  It feels cliched that Henry would hook up with his teammate/mentor/best friend's girlfriend, as it does when there is much commotion about it in the locker room.  Given the way the novel ends, I think it's unnecessary, except to show Pella as a "nurturer," which I don't really believe anyways.

Pella was married to David who was like ten years older than her and he comes back to visit at one part of the novel that was memorable but seemed sort of anticlimactic in relation to its build-up.  I found Pella the least interesting of the characters--though probably more interesting than Mike.  Mike's story is only notable in that he only applies to six law schools and gets rejected by them all.  It arouses suspicion that he didn't apply to any more realistic options, but I think his thought process is right on the money.  It feels unintentional, but this novel also offers helpful guidance on whether to attend law school.

Eventually, Henry develops an anxiety about throwing the ball:

"'Do you know who Steve Blass is?' Sarah asked.
'Never heard of him,' Henry lied.  Steve Blass was an all-star pitcher on the Pirates in the early 70's.  In the spring of 1973 he suddenly, inexplicably, became unable to throw the ball over the plate.  He struggled for two years to regain his control and then, defeated, retired.
'What about Mackey Sasser?'
'Never heard of him.' Sasser was a catcher for the Mets who'd developed a paralyzing fear of tossing the ball back to the pitcher.  He would double-, triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-pump, unable to believe it was okay to let go.  Opposing fans would loudly, gleefully count the number of pumps.  Opposing players would run around the bases.  Total humiliation.  When it happened to Sasser, they said he had Steve Blass disease.
'Steve Sax?  Chuck Knoblauch?  Mark Wohlers?  Rick Ankiel?'
If Sarah X. Pessel hadn't been a girl, Henry might have socked her in the face.  Her middle name probably didn't even start with X; she probably just liked the way it looked in her byline.  'None of those guys were shortstops,' he said." (215)

I remember Mark Wohlers being one of the great closers of his day, one of the guys who could throw really hard, like high 90's.  Then I remember him pitching against the Cubs one day after being injured for a while and how he could not throw a strike to save his life, and everyone knew it, and the Cubs just stood in the batter's box and waited to get walked.  Two or three runs were walked in before the manager pulled him.  He retired not long after.  I didn't know about the other guys, though.

I think the amount that Henry works out is unrealistic, as is his scene of jumping into Lake Michigan.  It just seems kind of counter-productive--when you work out as hard as he does, I think you enter territory where toning it down yields the same gains.  And then there is the matter of the ending.  I think it's a pretty cliched ending, the way Henry gets to go to the game, and join the team.  The manner in which he helps the team is not cliched in itself, however, so the last scene is good.  It's everything that comes after that stinks.  I mean, part of me is angry that, when asked to interpret a poem ("The Relic") by John Donne, for a British Literature I final exam, I wrote that Donne wanted the reader to go physically dig up his grave to see if he had really been buried in the same coffin as his wife.  I received an F.  So it seems incredible that at least this famous figure might have known where I was coming from:

"'I can't believe Affenlight's your dad,' he mused.  'That guy gives a hell of a speech.'
'I know.'
'He's the reason I came to school here.  Not that I had a lot of options.  But I drove up here for prefrosh weekend, and he gave a speech I'll never forget.  About Emerson.'
Pella nodded.  She knew the Emerson riff by heart, but Mike clearly wanted to tell it, and if that would cheer him up she was willing to listen.
'His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of this woman he loved.  Can you imagine?  It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death.  To make death real.  Your dad said that the need to see for yourself, even  in the most difficult circumstances, was what educa--'
'Ellen was nineteen,' Pella interruped to say.  She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.  'One of the cures the doctors prescribed for tuberculosis back then was 'jolting.' Which meant going for high-speed carriage rides on deeply rutted roads.  Months, weeks before she died.  Coughing up blood all the way.'" (118)

This probably isn't everything I wanted to say about this book, but I think I've written enough.  You should know by now whether you want to check it out or not.  Just don't blame me if I spoiled it for you.  I warned you!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Shellac - Dude Incredible (2014)

I just noticed that there were about 7 posts in May of 2010 devoted to albums released around that time (some of them are still memorable and classic--i.e. This is Happening and Sisterworld) so I should remind everyone that Flying Houses is not just a book and occasional movie blog, but a blog about the arts.  Dude Incredible came out in September of 2014, so this review is way, way late, but I have been listening to this album and other Shellac albums constantly since then, and I think any band that keeps you listening over, and over, and over, should be written about (even if they aren't that great--though Shellac is great), because it says something about your personality.  Something about that music touches you.

So what is it about Shellac that I find "touching?"  Their viscosity.  Their viciousness.

I started listening to Dude Incredible on YouTube but quickly downloaded it.  I didn't buy it.  Steve Albini has full permission to call me a douchebag, but I justify it.  I justify it because I bought 1000 Hurts and Excellent Italian Greyhound from Reckless Records back in 2006 and 2007.  The weird thing was, I never really listened closely to Shellac until now.  Let's just cut to the chase and point out that I discovered "Wingwalker" at the same time as this album, and it changed my life. (Rediscovering "Watch Song" was also notable, but not as revelatory.)

"Wingwalker" was released in 1994 as a B-side on the single "Doris."  This was shortly before their debut album At Action Park was released.  "Doris" is not a bad song at all, but it is only slightly awesome when compared to "Wingwalker."

Now I had heard 1000 Hurts as early as 2003, from a friend at NYU.  I later bought it, and Excellent Italian Greyhound when it came out in the summer of 2007.  I guess I didn't see what all the fuss was about, and never looked into their first two albums.

Mistake!

I got At Action Park through a friend in Austin, TX that let me import a few gigabytes of music off his iTunes.  I listened to it a bit, but never obsessively.  Now I realize that the run of songs between "The Admiral" and "A Minute" is almost perfection.

I didn't listen to Terraform until after my obsession took root.  Maybe I became so obsessed because Terraform was basically new to me, and it was like hearing two new albums at the same time.

But "Wingwalker."  "Wingwalker" was mentioned in a Pitchfork review or two and I absently clicked on it on YouTube after listening to a couple tracks from Dude Incredible.  It was almost as if, during the first listen, I had found my favorite song of all time.

How had no one ever played this for me before?
Did all of my musician friends just pretend they liked indie punk rock, and never really listen to it?

I don't really know what "Wingwalker" is about, but it seems to be about an aeronautic engineer that has sacrificed everything else in his life in the name of building a perfect plane.  It could be the theme song for The Wind Rises except that the tone of the song is a thousand times more menacing than that film.  It has an extremely dark, foreboding rumbling bass line, and a textbook loud-quiet-loud guitar part.  Except the entire song is loud.  There is also a breakdown in the middle of the song where Albini delivers a monologue about how the plane has become a metaphor for his life.  I have probably listened to the song hundreds of times (I listen to it about 1-3 times per day) and have not gotten bored.

Enter Dude Incredible.  After thoroughly ingesting all of the Shellac albums, I have to say this one is about as strong as all of their other albums, minus Excellent Italian Greyhound.  I would never say Excellent Italian Greyhound is a bad album by any stretch--I just get bored with more than half the songs on it.  Not the case for any other Shellac album.  Dude Incredible is short.  It's barely over 30 minutes and there are 9 tracks.  The opening track, the title track, is the best song on the album.  "All the Surveyors" and "Surveyor" are nearly as good.  The rest of the songs are pretty awesome, and I rarely skip them except "Gary" and "Mayor/Surveyor."  Probably the best parts of the album are the very beginning and the very end: the lyrics to both songs ("Dude Incredible" and "Surveyor") are awesome, but they are the best parts because there is so much to look forward to, and because ending the album with a quote by George Washington is pretty badass.

Enter Terraform.  Terraform is technically their second album, and I will not comment on The Futurist here except to say it is definitely their weakest album, but still, could not be called "bad."  The song most people mention when talking about this album is "Didn't We Deserve a Look at the Way You Really Are?" and they usually don't have kind things to say about it.  The song runs for 12 minutes and is basically a two-note bass line with a couple crazy moments of guitar crash and typical Shellac lyrical poignancy (Caught a glimpse of you in an unselfconscious smile/reveal yourself/didn't we deserve a look at the way you really are?).  I personally love this song because "This is a Picture" follows it, and "This is a Picture" is definitely on my top 5 Shellac songs list [(1) "Wingwalker"; (2) "Watch Song"; (3) "This is a Picture"; (4) "Dude Incredible"; (5) "Surveyor"].  It also has my favorite line: "You know where there'd be angels?/Heaven that's where/..../I can't wait to die/I can find me some/That's where I'll find my wife/When I'm through with my present one."

Every song on Terraform is pretty good once you get past the first track, but I like the way the first track just goes on forever and how the rest of the album flies by (except "House Full of Garbage," which is not the best song but also means a lot to me personally for reasons I will not discuss here).  "Disgrace," "Mouthpiece," and "Rush Job" each have really cool parts.  Some people think "Mouthpiece" is boring but I think the bass line in it is one of the hottest things they have done.

That is pretty much all I wanted to say.  Yes, I didn't pay for this album.  Yes, I missed the July concert at Lincoln Hall, and yes, I will pay $20 or $30 to see them live next time they play in Chicago.  And I will gladly play my top 5 songs by them for anyone with an open mind.  I liked a lot of albums in 2014 (the new St. Vincent, the Ex Hex album, Owls II...) but listened to this more than anything else--so, my favorite.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Interview - Dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (2014)

Yesterday, I received this review from my counterpart and collaborator.  Some of the same points were brought up in my review, but the fact that two of us independently came to the same conclusions renders the additional opinion valuable.  Plus, Jay's classic bombast is always worth a few minutes of your time.


               Riddle me this ladies and gentlemen, how does one make a simple silly stoner movie into the biggest hit of the holiday season? The answer: quite simply, Honey-dick the whole world into an international incident.  The beauty and genius of The Interview is that the people behind it have, with the utmost cleverness, produced a meta-opus of life imitating art imitating life, and have done it with textbook perfect writing and structure, along with a delightful cast.
                First off let’s address this controversy. Rogen had to know from the beginning that any film he made vaguely involving the DPRK was sure to draw the ire of Kim Jong Un, (hereafter referred to as #KJU) So while it may seem unlikely, all the heinous things from the movie—the starvation, the not having a butthole, all the other odd facts that seemed crazy—are completely true. North Korea is a fucked up place, and the truth is always far stranger than fiction. To be completely honest I don’t know at all really what #KJU was upset about. The movie is extremely generous with the character of #KJU. He’s quite likeable, seems almost misunderstood, and at one point, Franco’s character even refuses to kill him. To this extent I feel Rogen’s last line in the film is almost a wink at how fucked up a situation this was. One of the greatest aspects of this whole movie was the fact that Rogen honey-dicked #KJU into giving this movie press that money couldn’t buy. (For an explanation of what honey-dicking is, one should view the movie.)
                Putting controversy aside and viewing this movie for what it is, it even gets better. First off let’s address the other elephant in the room. This is a movie, not a film, don’t make the mistake for a fleeting second that a FRANCO/ROGEN joint was going to be a high art film bound for black tie screenings and touching emotional reviews. This is a MOVIE, a classic Hollywood good time, there are tanks and helicopters and tigers and good laughs, and SPOILER ALERT, the Bad Guy loses.  But beyond that, the writing was excellent: everything is foreshadowed, everything—to the point of brilliance. The special effects weren’t out of control, but they were Michael Bay quality, and the sound direction was exquisite.
                The acting wasn’t bad, either. Rogen and Franco are both very believable in their albeit highly silly roles, and their on screen chemistry gets better with every movie. Randall Park who plays #KJU is great; he’s funny, likeable, and the perfect foil to Franco. The big surprise to me is that the sexy CIA agent Lacey WASN’T Zooey Deschanel. Now I understand that Zooey Deschanel has become a “look,” but the gorgeous Lizzy Caplan could be her twin. Everyone’s acting was as stellar as possible for a slapstick dick joke stoner comedy, it was honestly everything that a red-blooded, white, popcorn- eating, blue-Icee-drinking, American movie going public wants.

                Controversy or not THE INTERVIEW delivers. It’s well written, completely tactless and rude, but will leave you laughing.  It does run a bit long at 112 minutes, but you don’t feel like it needs to end just because you’re afraid you might lose your bladder if there is one more really funny joke. Franco and Rogen make a very specific type of film for a very specific type of audience, as long as you don’t go in expecting the next Schindler’s List you’ll have a great time. And don’t ask me about the puppy, but I give him a thumbs up too.