Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nobel Season

This is the time of year when baseball fans ready themselves for the World Series (and when my family says “next year” forlornly), when football fans get excited for the coming Sundays and Mondays, and when us book geeks look toward the Nobel Prize for literature with predictions, condemnations, and nominations of our own that will be completely ignored.

Adonis is heavily favored this year, though that rarely means much. I’d love to see Ernesto Cardenal get it, but his odds are not so hot. (Shameless plug: Adonis and Cardenal were both reviewed by lil' ol' me over at Three Percent. Thanks for indulging me.) Haruki Murakami is a favorite of mine, but I don’t think his work is what the Nobel folks favor. Tomas Tranströmer has earned it, if you ask me. Ditto Antonio Lobo Antunes. I’ve long wanted to read Mircea Cărtărescu, so maybe a medal will make me dust off my copy of Nostalgia. I read Amoz Oz for the first time this year and was impressed. I’d not mind him snagging the honor. Oh, I have to put in a bid for Adam Zagajewski, who, though from Poland, is a local, not to mention a fantastic writer. And did I actually see Pelevin’s name on the list? Wow. I’ve read a few of his bizarre stories and would be happy to see him win, though that would be something of an upset.

If Joyce Carol Oates wins, I’d be surprised. I’m not a big Phillip Roth fan, but there are many who are aching for him to win. And dear lord, if Bob Dylan wins I’m going to have to have a word with the Swedes.

Last, I have to say, as I do each year, that Nicanor Parra needs to have his name on the list. I don’t see him on Ladbrokes, which is a giant shame. Perhaps his antipoetry is too conversational and fun for the Nobel judges. (Read these and these for yourself and decide. I assure you you'll have no greater fun with poetry today.) A tragedy, as Parra might not be around much longer and thus would join another South American, Borges, who got snubbed by the Swedes, proving that the whole thing is so relative it matters not a whit.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Some Sung Heroes: Unwound's Leaves Turn Inside You

In my former life I reviewed CDs for a little known website called Night Times. I got this gig by penning slap-dash reviews of books and records on, all of which were so smart-assed I cringe at the thought of them. The editor of Night Times saw one of these reviews and emailed me, inviting me to expand it for her site. The rest is non-history.

One of the first CDs I reviewed for Night Times was Leaves Turn Inside of You, the 2001 masterpiece by Unwound. I was anxious to tell the world about what a great record this was. I wanted to celebrate something this ambitious that managed to not tip too far into that listener alienating style Radiohead was selling as “experimental.” I hoped that everyone would run out and buy the double CD and make the band deservedly famous. Oh how young I was!

Ten years later I am revisiting the record. Guess what? It still sounds amazing. The overdubbed, trebly guitar and whispery, ghostlike vocals of Justin Trosper; the underrated percussion of Sara Lund; the punk bass calmed to prog-rock proportions of Vern Rumsey; the mellotron, the cello, the droning two minute trance that starts the whole thing off! And that’s just the techie stuff. The themes, if any can be found, are eerie, for lack of a better description. Ghosts, demons, October, and December all figure prominently in the lyrics and their shadowy chill infects the whole damn vibe of this thing. The one mention of summer is in the song “Summer Freeze” which pretty much gives you an idea of what’s going on. Everything sunny and warm is rendered frozen and desolate.

But this is not a gloomy record. Sure, some of the songs are downbeat, and I will forever associate this record with 9/11, as I spent much of that Tuesday watching footage of the falling twin towers on a TV with the sound off as Leaves Turn Inside You played on the stereo. The song “Radio Gra” – a lurching instrumental— provided the perfect soundtrack for that inexplicable, surreal day. But there are oddly bright moments peppered throughout the two discs. In fact, the before mentioned demons sing love songs on of the more upbeat tunes. (Well, as upbeat as one might expect from this record.) While some of the lyrics are thankfully obscured (“trouble with the truth is double” is a pretty bad line), there are some fine moments, like when Trosper spits: “It’s every bastard for himself!/ The last century hasn’t ended yet!” It’s apocalyptic without succumbing to cheap, teen-age diary lyricism. I can’t claim to understand everything going on in this song, “Off This Century,” but, like most of the mood of the record, the doom is suggested as much by the minor keys as the odd lyric that bubbles up from the mix. The end result is, as I called it in my initial review, an ideal record for a four day rain storm.

And that is why I am revisiting this record today. Not because it is the ten year anniversary, though that is occasion enough. I am dusting off Leaves Turn Inside You because fall is here and this record feels like fall. It is the record I listen to when the leaves turn, fall, and die. It is not music to listen to while driving with the top down. It is a piece of art that exists in a specific time and place. Fall is my favorite time of the year perhaps because it is so brief, at least here in Chicago. Summer lingers and winter comes too quickly. They are rude guests whereas fall shows up, stays for a bit, and departs before you’d like, leaving you wanting more. Now that it's here, I’m happy for many reasons, high among them being the rekindling of my love for Unwound’s final record, one of the only from the early aughts that still sounds compelling.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bookshop Crusader

Chad Post has good comments on a good article from the New Yorker regarding the decline of indie bookshops and the fight to keep them alive. I will give credit where credit is due: bookstore owners are not always the smartest of businessmen, and they may have played a part in their demise, but unlike the record industry I think book buyers are more loyal to the printed page and less enamored with flickering gadgets. Or maybe I am speaking for myself. Maybe I am naïve in believing that dedicated cadre of booklovers is out there ready to take on the Kindles and Nooks and preserve our beloved indie shops.

Sigh. I am all too aware that I might be a member of a dying breed or, at best, an ineffectual minority. I like books. I like the physical weight of them and I like the stores that pack their strained shelves with them. I can find a lot of books by browsing Amazon and reading online reviews, blog, and journals, but the thrill of happening upon a book in a store—a book for which I was not searching; a book that appeared before me—is not matched by the expanse of the net. This is how I found Bulgakov, Donoso, Calvino, Loy, and countless other favorites.

Here in the Chi we have a few indie shops left worth fight for. The Seminary Co-op is perhaps my favorite, with Powell’s on 57th being a close 2nd. As for price, there’s no beating Chandler’s (aka: Bookman’s Corner), and it has the additional charm of John, the owner. And then there’s Keith’s great Selected Works which has greatly improved since it moved to the Fine Arts Building. I was a bit skeptical of the decision at first, but I must admit I love this shop more than ever since it relocated out of Lakeview. Plus it has Hodge the cat, a friendly albeit intimidating feline known to pounce on customers from time to time. So I do my part and patronize these bookstores with a sense of purpose, knowing that I may be fighting an unwinnable battle. Oh well, we all need a cause, right?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walt Whitman is Good for You

The greatest of American poets and a goddamn life saver.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Name in Lights: "Poem"

Because I could not think of what to title the poem, I called it "Poem." If Frank O'Hara could do it, why can't I? Aside from that influence, I wrote the poem after Andre Breton, who wrote a better poem that inspired mine. Anyway, click here and scroll way down, just past halfway, and you'll find my "Poem."