Dell · 1951

I first saw the name Will Cuppy when I read somewhere (I no longer remember where) P. G. Wodehouse waxing rhapsodic about him. The funniest writer alive, I believe he called him, though as I say I can't look it up to verify the quote. Well, that was enough for me. If the funniest writer ever to live called a man funnier than him, I had to know this fellow.

Before we get into the question of funniness, though, I may point out that Wodehouse's aesthetic judgments could often leave something to be desired. I mentioned Edgar Wallace in this space not too long ago. I do not recommend than anyone ever read an Edgar Wallace book. They are terribly written and racist and personality-free and all the same anyway. Wodehouse devoured them by the boatload; couldn't get enough of them. So. Just saying.

This little paperback, which according to the pencil scrawl on the inside front page I paid three dollars for (unless there was a sale), was published two years after Cuppy's death by a fellow name of Fred Feldkamp, who also provides the minimal introduction. It seems that Will Cuppy had been working on this, a humorous almanac, and The Decline And Fall Of Practically Everybody, a comic history of civilization, off and on for ten years or so, but kept getting sidetracked by the need to do research. It was incomplete at his death, and Feldkamp, who gets an "edited by" credit, threw some additional material in to round it out.

So what does the uncut Cuppy look like? Here's the entry for January 28, the first to make me chuckle:
Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, became King of England and Ireland at the age of nine years upon the death of his father on January 28, 1547. He was a frail and rather useless youth, the only uninteresting Tudor in all history. He died in his sixteenth year and was buried in his grandfather's chapel in Westminster Abbey and that was the end of him. There's a gentleman in California who claimed that poor little Edward VI didn't die, but lived on in disguise, possibly under the name of Sir Francis Bacon, and as such wrote Shakespeare's plays. I try to keep an open mind on these things, but I can see two weaknesses in our friend's theory. In the first place, Edward IV did nothing of the sort. Secondly, Shakespeare wrote his own plays. If he didn't it was somebody else of the same name.
And here is September 22, which I am morally certain was the work of Feldkamp and/or his stooges:
"Dear Sir: My boy friend has many good qualities, but he seems to have an ugly temper. What shall I do?"

Take a little dry starch, moisten it with cold water, and apply to the injured part. Do this at once, to prevent the air from touching the area. No discoloration should result.
Some authorities recommend raw beefsteak.
Quite apart from the ha-ha-battered-women-am-I-right attitude (I have no information as to Cuppy's misogyny; his sexual politics throughout are about normal for a self-described hermit in the 40s), it's a crude joke, without the pompous-lecturer-punctured-by-flippancy tone of most of the rest of the book. It's the kind of joke you could find in any stag magazine of the period, masculine and brutish and hollow, and it stained for me what was an otherwise quite enjoyable read.

At his best, Cuppy reminds me of Robert Benchley in his pose as General Essayist, though Cuppy manages to impart a few facts along with the tonal play. (There is a whole continent of literary humor in the early twentieth century which is opaque to the average reader today, relying as it does on familiarity with the literary conventions of dead genres, like the overly cozy magazine essay -- or indeed the general-audience almanac.) Cuppy is gently funny, using the Wodehousian trick of deploying set phrases in unusual patterns to produce a comic imbalance, but he's never more than that. But when he gets on a tear about a pet peeve — like the Bacon-is-Shakespeare canard, or the derivation of the constellation Camelopardis — he's a familiar figure to modern, Internet-bred eyes: the know-it-all crank who never leaves his apartment or any error uncorrected. But, as I say, gently funny.

I've got another Cuppy book or two floating around here somewhere. I'm not in any hurry to get to them, but it's nice to know they're there.


Album Shuffle 010: Esther Phillips, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM

Kudu · 1971

The sly, slinky funk reaches out, curls around your body, and then it has you by the throat and you can't get away no matter how you tussle. And the voice speaks — or no, it chants — with such deep intensity that it stills your muscles but sets your brain afire. "A junkie walking through the twilight..."

It's a Gil Scott-Heron song, it's called "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," and when it lost to Aretha Franklin's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (srsly?) at the 1972 Grammies, the Queen of Soul, never noted for her unwillingness to receive acclaim, said it belonged instead to the woman who once went by Little Esther, two decades and many pop lifetimes ago. Little no more, Esther has grown into her cracked moan of a voice, and sings with an authority she's all too heartbreakingly earned. The slithery twilit funk that backs her strikes a balance between the cinematic strut of Isaac Hayes and the late-night woe of B. B. King; soul-jazz, jazz-blues, and fusion legends sit behind her and noodle seductively away as Esther pours all seduction from her.

Her words are not her own — not only avant-beat poet GSH, but Big Easy funkmaster Allen Toussaint, Marvin em effing Gaye, etc. have scripted these beautiful, anguished poses for her to strike — but her performative power makes them live, and she very nearly approaches the plateau where the most singular vocal genius of the age, Nina Simone, sits lonely and narrow-eyed surveying the world with a warm despair in her throat.

It's too easy to call it a soul record: it's as much jazz, or blues, or funk — and it's none of these things entirely, it finds its own shadowy path through them, hugging the interstices, lost in the stars. Esther Phillips demands rediscovery.


Album Shuffle 009: Mariah Carey, THE EMANCIPATION OF MIMI

Island · 2005

Well, I had five paragraphs ready to go, mostly griping about the length of the album and how few reference points I have for modern R&B, but then I decided to listen again on the way home and most of my complaints melted away. This is a great album. Sure it could stand to trim some fat, but even the dully, gloopy ballads have these amazing little runs where she uses the birdlike high end of her register.

But in the interest of full disclosure and laziness, here's what I had written. Meet you at the end for a wrap-up.
The reason I have this album on my iPod is that it was on Entertainment Weekly's list of the Best Hundred Albums of the last 25 years which they put out a few years ago now, and I downloaded it for my now-defunct blog project of listening to all those albums and passing summary judgment. I never got around to it, but it's held on tenaciously, refusing to be disappear into the ether even when I've had catastrophic data loss on various music hard drives over the years.

So it came up on shuffle the other day, and I nodded my head like yeah. I've become a much bigger fan of Mariah Carey than I was two years ago — she's one of the few artists to make an appearance on both my 90s list and my 2000s list, and I have no regrets — but for all that I've never listened to a full album of hers, turned off by both the marathon running times and the likelihood of gloopy ballad after gloopy ballad: after all, it was the one-two-three punch of "Hero," "Without You," and "One Sweet Day" that made me not-a-fan in the first place, way back in the dim recesses of 1995.

Well, I can't do anything about the running time; although the standard pop practice for the past half-decade has been to trim the fat from albums and pump them out more regularly (Britney with back-to-back records in the space of a year is something of a modern miracle), nobody apparently informed Mariah, and this thing is seventeen tracks long not counting the remix of "We Belong Together" (which I don't), which might be a fine double album but is completely indigestible in one sitting. For me, anyway, and I'm clearly not the ideal pop album consumer; I listen mostly during commutes, and after about six songs by the same person I'm bored and want to start listening to somthing else.

So I can only report on the highlights of this set, as I didn't exactly tune out the boring bits but I only really noticed it when it interested me. The album as a whole was apparently something of a comeback for our girl, though as I wasn't paying much attention between 1995 and 2005 you couldn't have proved it by me, after the famous, fabulous bomb of Glitter. I guess the narrative was something like "Hey world Mariah's back and not even one of the most well-publicized breakdowns in modern pop history following one of the most well-publicized failures in modern pop history can keep her down," but as I say I wasn't paying attention, so all that matters to me is how it holds up five years on.

Well, "We Belong Together" was of course the big hit single, and deservedly so, following in the great tradition of rhythmic Mariah ballads ("Emotions," "Fantasy," "Always Be My Baby") with just a touch of a facelift for the '00s. The Neptunes are all over this thing, and while I'm still a little shaky on what made them so great (like I say I wasn't paying attention, and I'm more of a Timbaland guy anyway), I can certainly appreciate the modernization of Mariah's sound, with stronger, more fluid beats and a choppier, hip-hop-derived rhythmic style. She meets the format brilliantly; she's no Aaliyah or Beyoncé, able to ride a chopped-and-screwed beat with fierce aplomb, but she doesn't need to be: she just floats sweetly above it all like she's always done, and unveils a sexy "head" voice (as opposed to her traditional belting-from-the-diaphragm delivery), where she harmonizes with herself on the stuttering verse lines before the choruses splash out in the kind of overwrought brio that only she can really get away with. (Think of all those poor dumb American Idol kids trying to squeeze their throats together at the beginnings and ends of lines in order to emulate Mariah's sobbing delivery; they always sound stupid and affected, whereas she just sounds whatever emotion she's trying to convey, turned up to eleven.)
Okay, first, the Neptunes had nothing to do with "We Belong Togther," that was all Jermaine Dupri; in fact the Neptunes had a hand in exactly one track: "Say Somethin'," with Snoop Dogg. I hate getting these things wrong. Dupri's not exactly a slouch in the writing/production department, though (I think I've been aurally confusing him with Pharrell for a while now), and the front half of the record is loaded with his jams. The back half bogs down some, but it picks up amazingly with the great gospel song "Fly Like A Bird" and "Don't Forget About Us" — funny how all the songs that jumped out at me were pulled for singles. Almost like they know what they're doing.

What I said about her adaptiveness to postmillennial R&B still stands: she's an object lesson in how a modern pop star can remain relevant past 30.


Book Report 011: Agatha Christie, THE SECRET ADVERSARY

Barnes & Noble · 1922

Try as I might I can't be grumpy about books. Perhaps it's because I have very specific tastes in books and I'm very good at catering to those tastes (so I'm just not having to deal with books I hate here), but I've mostly given raves to everything I've read here, even when I manage to qualify my enthusiasm a little. After comparing this to how I treat music — I don't hesitate to call albums that bored me boring — you might begin to suspect that I've got a bit of an inferiority complex about literature: anything with a spine and a proofreader will (so far) win my admiration.

All that being merely prologue to saying: this is a lovely little book, a profoundly stupid thriller in the best Edgar Wallace style, and the perfect comedown after the modernist fireworks of Manhattan Transfer and the teen angst of By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead.

I don't know if you know Edgar Wallace; he was one of the most prolific crime writers of the twentieth century, and he had about four plots which he trotted out like clockwork twice a year for forty years. Almost none of his books ever made it to a second printing; he was the ultimate hack, and I've read about eight of his books and couldn't tell you a thing about them. Except that they generally featured anonymous young men and women up against a cabal bent on dominating Europe etc., the usual thriller stuff, and typically pretty racist to boot, though not exceptionally so for the era. (Roughly 1900-1930, though he published posthumously through the thirties.)

In contrast, Agatha Christie's young hero and heroine are well-drawn, if ludicrously idealized, portraits, her talent for characterization showing an early flash. This was only her second book, and it's much lighter and sillier than anything I've read by her before. (Which isn't much; as a Dorothy L. Sayers partisan, I've neglected Christie to a shocking degree given my predilection for cozy English murder mysteries.) The hero is called Tommy and the heroine Tuppence, and that gives you an idea of the kind of thing we're dealing with here. Unfortunately the fizzy brio of the early chapters has to give way to workmanlike plotting once the story gets underway, but Tuppence is one of the more charming — and capable — heroines of a by-the-numbers thriller I've come across, pitched at only a slightly higher level of seriousness than the girls in early Wodehouse.

The edition I have is a cheap paperback reprint by the chain bookseller Barnes & Noble: the cover says it's part of their "Library Of Essential Reading," which really just means "this is in the public domain so we make all the profit on it." (1922 is a talismanic year if you're interested in U.S. copyright law; after that point the free ride ends. Thanks, Disney.) I could wish for a grubby first edition, the edges of the pages flaking off my fingertips as I turned them (half the pleasure of reading old books is in the material, sensory qualities involved); but this will do.


Picture Book 005: Al Columbia, PIM & FRANCIE

Fantagraphics · 2009

If it were ten years ago, I'd have been the first in line to buy this the morning it was released. A whole book by Al Columbia? Are you shitting me? After all these years?

But it's not ten years ago, it's now, and I've only checked it out of the library and will be returning it Monday morning. It's not that it's bad, that it's a disappointment, or even that Al Columbia is not still the supreme twisted genius he's always been; I've just reached a critical-mass point in my comics consumption where I can't afford to buy handsome hardcovers I'm not going to be returning to again and again.

And sadly, despite the fucked-up gorgeousness of the images Fanta has scanned, blown up, and lovingly curated in this book, I've read through it once and won't need it again. I'm a narrative guy, and while there are snatches and hints of narrative here, bleeding through the unfinished artwork and close-cropped panels, it's not enough to satisfy me.

But I did enjoy what I got. The title characters are the boy and girl on the cover, and Columbia makes them the Hansel and Gretel of his own private funhouse nightmares, old black-and-white Disney or Fleischer cartoons gone horribly awry. Dismemberment, eyes being gouged out, and the slick slice of razor against flesh are only a few of the repeated horrors committed upon Pim and Francie in varying states of cartooniness, a method which I'm sure a worthwhile critic could work up into a symbolism if they cared to try, but to my jaundiced eye reads more like the plain fact that this material was all drawn over a period of decades and a man's style is bound to change. It hardly matters, anyway: the book follows its own sinister dream logic, bouncing from zombie apocalypses to flesh-eating flowers to multi-limbed serial killers to horrific swing-dancing accidents with the manic glee of a Winsor McCay under psychiatric evaluation.

It wouldn't be an Al Columbia book if it wasn't incredibly frustrating: what's been published is clearly only a fragment of a vast body of material he's been working on off and on for years (the number of repeated images, sometimes only slightly tweaked, reveals the depth of his obssessive perfectionism), and the tantalizing glimpse of further panels just beyond the border of the page makes you wonder what this book might look like if he had followed through on what was clearly at one point a fully-fleshed narrative with its own mythology and characterization.

But on the other hand this nightmare collage may be more effective. Pim and Francie die horribly in many ways throughout the collection, and the reset button at the turn of each page follows the kind of logic that only dreams, of all the major narrative forms, ever achieve. The artwork is stunningly beautiful — his tight, slick brushwork and sense of composition is second to none — and the grisly imagery suitably depraved; I just can't help feeling that it's all going to dissipate inconsequentially the moment I wake up.


Friday Film Festival 005: Sixties Documentaries

I honestly don't remember what impulse suggested that I download a bunch of old documentaries. I think I might have been looking at Wikipedia's list of the films that have been selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. I guess I was still trying to get examples of as many wide-ranging genres as possible, before I started focusing deep on my immediate interests. But I've had these three films grouped together for a while now, and I really wanted to watch the first one, so here goes.

01. Jazz On A Summer's Day
(USA) Aram Avakian & Bert Stern · 1960

It did not disappoint: I spent the entire hour-and-a-half running time with either a big dopey grin or a look of revelatory awe on my face. If you haven't seen this movie, you should. Even if you don't (think you) like jazz, even if documentaries bore you, even if you hate the past and want to think only of the future — you should see this film.

It's not a documentary in the way we usually think of documentaries today: talking heads, arguments being advanced, a narrator with one of those "trustworthy" voices. It's rather an impressionistic concert film (I'll go ahead and say way better than Woodstock, even though I haven't seen Woodstock) showing what it might have been like to attend the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, especially if you wandered into town or down to the shore for much of the afternoon. And it's beautifully, even gorgeously, shot. Bert Sterns, the principal cameraman, was a fashion photographer, and it shows; his eye for composition, light, and color make this an exquisite document of a (somewhat) vanished era. (Mad Men fans, take note. Except also get ready for your fantasy of a past when everyone always looked elegant everywhere to crumble.)

The music is, predictably, awesome. Anita O'Day's performance here was one of the highlights of her career, and of the acts I know well, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong (with Jack Teagarden!) and Mahalia Jackson range from good to breathtaking. (Plus a rock & roll interlude with Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry! I danced in my seat.) But I'm even happier to have been introduced to people I didn't previously know, especially Chico Hamilton's minimalist rhythm piece (with guitar work from John Pisano that invents post-rock forty years early).

In addition to gorging myself on the imagery and delighting in the music, I enjoyed the movie as a sociological document. The cameras take in the audiences nearly as much as at the performers, and we get to people-watch among the crowds who came to Rhode Island to listen to jazz (and blues). The older, whiter audiences that came out for the day fade into a younger, hipper, multiracial audience for the after-sunset crowd, and the way Sterns captures all kinds of moods from boredom to reverence to gotta-dance excitement with his camera made me wish that more documentaries today would just let images of people speak for themselves. It's not Jazz On A Summer's Day isn't manipulative — it's as much a misrepresentation of reality as any concert film (e.g. it pretends everything happened in one day when the footage was shot over a period of weeks), and the emotional crescendo it takes towards the end (particularly if you know your music history) is as artfully edited as anything by Hitchcock or Kubrick.

But if you like movies, if you like music, if you like people, or even if you just like pretty pictures, you should see this film.

02. High School
(USA) Frederick Wiseman · 1968

But it may be that what planted the seeds of interest in old documentaries in my mind was a Battleship Pretension episode on which guest Matt Champagne talked about the films of Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman is (very limitedly) famous as one of the few "pure" documentarians, a man who advances no argument and doesn't even exist as far as the camera is concerned. He simply shoots and edits; no voiceovers, no interviews, no breaking the fourth wall.

This movie was his second full-length documentary (his first examined the workings of a mental institution), and it's immersive as hell. In fact I had a hard time watching it at points: the consistent focus on school staff as conflict managers (few of whom are any good at it) only needed a joke or two to be as uncomfortably hilarious as The Office. But actually, the television show it reminds me of most is Friday Night Lights — the handheld camera work, the fascinating characters, the attention to small gestures and overlooked detail in high school life.

But there's no Coach or Tami Taylor here. The adults are serving time just as much as the kids, and at best are trying to mold their sullen, whining charges into an adulthood thirty years out of date. (There's no Tim Riggins here either; these kids are gawky and underdeveloped and miserably inarticulate, like real high schoolers.) I've read a little bit of what people online have said about this movie, and the unrelieved atmosphere of oppression that they see doesn't match what I saw: the school is as dull and institutional as any school, but the teachers are just as human as the students -- and the worst of the bullying couneslors is shown in a classroom setting to be smart and challenging, even if he doesn't apply the lessons of the labor movement to his charges.

As a snapshot of its time (soundtrack: "On The Dock Of The Bay," "Simon Says," "The Dangling Conversation"), it's less interesting than as a study in the universal boredom, conflict, and fumblings toward adulthood that mark educational institutions everywhere. High schools are terrible, as Wiseman clearly acknowledges — but what's the alternative?

03. Cronique d'un été (Chronicle Of A Summer)
(France) Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch · 1960

An experiment in cinema verité in which the participants sit around discussing philosophies of life, the impossibility of the modern industrial world, and the futility of ideology — could anything be more resoundingly, yawn-inducingly French?

About halfway through, though, two things happen to electrify the languid, pause-filled conversation. First, the introduction of Marilù, an Italian immigrant whose beautiful, expressive face and willingness to get emotional about her interior world makes the film — even in the shitty VHS-to-VHS transfer which was all I could find — spring to life. Then there's the sudden realization that Marceline, the woman whose clumsy man-on-the-street interviews began the whole thing, is both a racist and a Holocaust survivor.

It still never approaches anything like the emotional pornography of modern reality television, but in its willingness to go meta — the second-to-last scene is a discussion among the participants as to how "real" they thought the previous hour of the film was (and the final scene is a conversation between the filmmakers about how well they thought it all worked) — it holds a fascination for anyone interested in process and the way that narratives can be created out of very little substance, not to mention the way that the same "story" can be read in multiple ways by different people.

And the scenes which weren't just people sitting around in apartments talking over omnipresent cigarettes and wine bottles — the long sequence going through factory worker Angelo's day, for example, or the interlude in vacation spot St. Tropez — had the usual verité appeal of allowing a peek into lives not our own. It was a pleasant wind-down from the more immediately engaging American documentaries; I'm not sure that I'd ever want to see it again (at least not in this transfer), but I'd certainly say it deserves to be more widely known by students of film.

Oh, goddamn, am I a student of film now?


Book Report 010: Julie Anne Peters, BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I'LL BE DEAD

Hyperion · 2010

I like to think of myself as a man without a purview, but some things are glaringly outside it. I'm uncomfortable, that is to say, reading a teen novel when my own teenage years are so far behind me that I don't even think of them nostalgically; I barely recognize that dude.

So part of why I'm reading this and talking about it is to interrogate that discomfort. The other part is plain inertia: I have this book because when a fourteen-year-old came up to the desk and asked me if the library had a copy I checked and said no, then looked it up and thought we probably should, so I Suggested A Title For Purchase and was automatically put on hold for it, and in due season the book came in, and I've had it for a week and haven't even looked at it really, and this is weird because I'm not used to being nervous around books.

I think it's the same impulse that has kept me stepping cautiously around teen-pop for most of my adult life: I'm afraid of being mistaken for (or mistakenly becoming) the creepy middle-aged guy who's really really into teenage girl stuff. This is no doubt my own pathology, and has to do with the overt sexualization of teenage girlhood in too much of the discourse I've immersed myself in over the years. Not that teenage girls aren't sexual beings — they're postpubescent mammals after all — but that that, even in aversion, shouldn't be my first thought about them. I feel like a creep even talking about this; and perhaps I should point out that it's all low-level back-of-the-mind stuff, not the kind of foregrounded thoughts which can be laughed at and dismissed.

But there's also the fact that when I was a kid (he said crotchetily) there wasn't any of this Teen Fiction nonsense, there were kids' books and grownup books and once I passed thirteen I read grownup books except for occasional return trips to Narnia or Middle-Earth. I'm just plain not used to the form. (Like, you can say shit as much as you want but fuck is always and forever f*ck? What the fuck kind of style guide is that?) And based on this experiment I doubt I'll be reading much more.

It's not that it was bad. Parts of it were; mostly stylistic issues (for someone who writes so incoherently I have extremely high standards for the kind of prose I'll deign to read) and an ignorance of computers so complete that the suicide-assistant website at the heart of its conceit might as well be coded by magic. Two examples will suffice.

The following sentence appears in the early chapters: "News you can use, Dad: losers aren't cool." The person who thinks it is not immediately engulfed in shame.

And in an important plot point, not only does an off-the-shelf desktop unit apparently enable fingerprint identification through the touchscreen monitor, but a website accessible by people everywhere in the world at all income levels (not that there's ever any sense that anyone in the story is anything but middle-class) requires fingerprint identification for access.

But after I got my grumpy old-man nitpicking out of the way, the emotional contours of the story caught me and rolled me swiftly to the end. It helps, perhaps, that I've had my own struggles with depression, suicidal fantasies, etc. (But my primary way of coping was only obliquely touched on in the book; in fact, the suicidal protagonist scolds at one point, "you don't joke about suicide." Bull and shit.) It also helps that Peters has a good eye for the contours of difficult relationships and the way that adolescent self-dramatization can easily feel suffocating, like there is no reality possible except the one you've willed yourself into believing. I'm not sure I ever entirely believed the motivations of any of the main characters, but I'm an agnostic here; my high school experience was different enough from the U.S. norm that I generally assume that other people's reports are accurate even when they spark no recognition in me.

And then there were things that the book did superbly. One of them was an awesome parody of bodicey romance novels, the kind of deep satire that proves the parodist knows and probably loves what she's mocking. Another was the black humor of the suicide-assistance website's lists of possible suicide options, ranking them by effectiveness, time, availability, and pain, Consumer Reports-style; and in fact our protagonist's slowly dawning realization that the website is populated by the same egotists and morons as the rest of the Internet is one of the truest things in the book. Finally, there was the only (surprisingly touching) healthy relationship in the book, between a (spoilers) cancer-surviving boy and his single mother, who relate to each other in a wholly recognizable combination of sarcasm and sentiment.

Was it a good book? I dunno. I don't know the field well enough to be able to compare it against anything. (The one thing it ain't is, as the inside flap copy claims, edgy. Publisha please. I've written darker shit in my sleep, and I hate dark shit.) I didn't hate it, as I thought I might a few chapters in. And hell if it convinces even one teen reader not to do something stupid before it's too late, it'll have done more good in the world than I ever have. Compared to that what's my aesthetic judgment worth?


Album Shuffle 008: Cabaret Voltaire, THE CRACKDOWN

Some Bizarre · 1983

Well. There's a reason I only knew Cabaret Voltaire's singles.

I'm not going to say this album is bad; I'd need to spend more time with it to do that, and I don't really have the patience for that. I'd rather just listen to the songs that struck me on a loop and see what I get out of them:

"Just Fascination" is my second-favorite CV song (after "Sensoria," natch), and its gloomy, twitchy disco sounds great here as the most alive thing on an album of smeared, stuttering synths and cryptic intonations.

"Animation" features Stephen Mallinder affecting a German accent among the most dancefloor-friendly productions on the album.

"Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)" sounds almost exactly like the Human League before the girls came on, only with a funkier bass.

"Haiti" is a lovely, moody soundscape that I have to imagine has been posted all over the Internet (just not the corners I frequent) over the past several weeks, quite possibly the best thing on the record.

"Diskono" is a pretty good Kraftwerk tribute.

And the rest of the album almost put me to sleep on the freeway before I fished my dinner out of my bag and drank Coke to stay alive. (Repetitive music + not enough sleep + afternoon sun + stop & go traffic = danger, kids.) I hated the last couple of songs on the album, but whether that was because I was in a mood to hate anything or because they were truly unpleasant I haven't had the moral courage to decide by revisiting them.

On the whole, I believe I'll stick with the singles (and "Haiti"). 1983 was too long ago, Cabaret Voltaire's self-importance too impregnable, for me to return often to these slabs of their work for pleasure. In the middle of a mix (especially the kinds of mixes I tend to make) they're fantastically broody, a gothic interlude between splashes of Fun: but run all together like this . . . I know, my real problem is with the album as a format. You don't have to tell me twice.


Album Shuffle 007: The Meters, THE METERS

Josie · 1969

Once upon a time there was a band called Booker T. & The MG's. Then the Meters happened, and Donald Duck Dunn is left swallowing dust. Zigaboo!

Funk before funk, crisp soul exponential. New Orleans was always the mother home to everything good and beautiful and sizzling in American music. Every song sounds the same*. That's the point. Only problem with the record is the spaces in between the songs.

There's really nothing to say about this record, not with words. Hips, feet, shoulders, and every muscle in the body might have a shot, though.

*Not in the back half. "Ann" is going on a mixtape dedicated to the next person I fall in love with.


Book Report 009: John Dos Passos, MANHATTAN TRANSFER

Houghton Mifflin · 1925

Hell it's been a very long time, to quote Rod Stewart at his most sentimental. I haven't read a classic of modernism for pleasure in I don't know how long. Ten years? Fifteen? I've become accustomed to saying that my three favorite Great Books (as distinct from my three favorite books period*) are Howards End, The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, but I haven't reread any of them in at least a decade, and today I'm a very different person from the snobbish, Jesuitical young man who first made that list. For one thing, I've lived a little; and where much of Manhattan Transfer would have been totally opaque to me at the age I decided what my favorite books were, I read it with such complete joy that even though it took me the better part of a week I wanted to stop reading it much more often than I did just so I could savor it longer.

(Is this true to anyone else's experience? The compulsion I mean to pause a great movie or set down a great book and just walk around for a while in the glow of its spell, putting off reaching the end not because you want it to go on forever but because if you plow on you'll miss totally capturing the exultation of the moment? It's why I don't read well in cars; not because I get nauseous, but because I glance out the window and let whatever I was reading transform the landscape, live in the pleasure of the ideas for so long that I forget to return to the text.)

Manhattan Transfer may not be a great book — I'm no judge, I haven't read enough Great Books to say with any authority — but it's a very good book. I mean that in multiple ways. It's good in the sense of being moral — of having a cleareyed, sympathetic but scrupulous vision of humanity, letting no frailty or inconsistency escape its attention but not judging in the least — and it's good in the sense of being extremely well constructed — a work of impressive craftsmanship on every level from sentence to plotting — and it's good in the sense of being an endless font of needle-fine enjoyment. I laughed with sheer delight at Dos Passos' sentences and images and constructions more than I ever remember doing with a book before.

The genre of the book is worth some attention. Casting about for an image of the cover to steal off the web, I came across a short review that dismissed it as a failed attempt at high modernism á là Joyce and Woolf, bereft of the psychological insight that characterized those masters and devolving into sentimental bildungsroman at the end. Which is fair up to a point — except Dos Passos never really attempts psychological insight. His technique, like all the great American modernists (Faulkner perhaps excepted) is cinematic, concerned with the surfaces and poses of American life, and has anyone ever detailed those surfaces more magnificently? His New York (ca. 1895-1925) is so vividly imagined, so concretely sensuous, that I was caught short several times, blinking with surprise at the fact that an eighty-five-year-old novel was able to so minutely describe my own sensory experiences.

There is a sense in which the book is a social novel in the vein of Tarkington or Wharton, with an overlay of playful linguistic pirouetting (thus the inevitable comparisons to Joyce) and a wider scope than the essentially middle-class Tarkington or upper-class Wharton. The book has a tremendous (and very American) energy, and part of that energy is provided by the great galumphing engine of melodrama: convenient fires break out, hearts are tragically sundered, men try to kill and be killed, massive fortunes are lost, and heartstring-tugging children are menaced and left alone. But I can't think of this as a flaw — I like Tarkington and Wharton, and I prefer to read books in which things happen rather then the reverse. And Dos Passos orchestrates these events not naturalistically, but imagistically: the melodrama is not meant to be taken seriously (this is in addition to everything else a very funny book), but to say something important about the shallowness and triteness of American lives: if his characters are supposed to be average people, melodrama is the appropriate lens. (Have you ever met an ordinary person?) But Dos Passos is no Sinclair Lewis: he isn't condemning the American system so much as marveling at its vastness, its energy, and its callousness. It ends with one of the main characters lighting out for the territories like Huck Finn, and Twain (and Melville, and Whitman) are far more important comparisons than overbred, self-obsessed Europeans like Joyce and Woolf.

With all that, I was surprised several times at how modern the book was — not how modernist, but how twenty-first century. It could easily be read as a feminist text, with its evenhanded view on abortion — or a queer one, with its incandescent sympathy for a gay man trying and failing to live straight. If there were literary justice, Dos Passos would be widely recognized as fully the equal, maybe even the superior, of his friends Fitzgerald and Hemingway (the trouble is he lived too long and didn't off himself romantically), and I'm extremely glad I've read this book. I haven't even said half of the things I wanted to say about it yet; but anyway I think I have a new favorite Great Book.

*We'll get to them in time, I'm sure.