Friday, July 20, 2007


Things have been dead around here for a while, and will for another while, because I'm packing up to move the family to Oklahoma in a week. Will resume blogging soon after.

Friday, July 13, 2007

I Just Want Your Half

Nice review from Rob Mitchum at Pitchfork, of the new They Might Be Giants album, Else:

...[E]arly singles "Don't Let's Start" and "Ana Ng" could almost pass for the twitchy, catchy work of crit-faves like the dB's or the Feelies, bands too high on dork factor to have fit into the more fashionable environs of post-punk's cool cousin new-wave. No, really, listen to them again.

Fortunately, as Johns Linnell and Flansburgh go somewhat gracefully into their middle ages, they seem to be recalling some of those tighter, tauter early days, when they were closer to Devo than Elmo. The creepy Marcel Dzama art of The Else would suggest so, as would the wonderfully stiff beat of "I'm Impressed", an anthem for beta-males with music as nervous as its message, not jokingly wrapped in big rock production like so much latter-day TMBG....

Perhaps TMBG are just happier making kid's music-- even when they try to grapple with adult situations on "Upside Down Frown" or "Climbing Up the Walls" it still comes out G-rated. Or maybe they just like being in a child's ideal of a rock band, with their addictions to needless guitar solos and brass parts, long overdue for an intervention. But if they could just concentrate on what it was like to be young, but not that young, for longer than the 2:39 of "I'm Impressed", they could remind people that they were once more than just licensing geniuses and rugrat headliners, they were nervy, high-strung, geek-rock kings. I don't want the world, I just want that half.

This is a band that could have had a piece of my heart forever, but they broke that piece long, long ago. Long story short: they were goofing off, got careless, and splat!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Decline of New Orleans

Apparently New Orleans was falling apart long before it was flooded--or so Pia Ehrhardt attests, in fictional form, with her new story collection Famous Fathers & Other Stories, which just garnered a largely glowing review in the New York Times. Here's an excerpt from the review:

Her stories are heavily populated with characters engaging in empty, adulterous affairs that largely lead nowhere. The implicit sadness of these broken relationships resonates further with Ms. Ehrhardt’s choice of setting: New Orleans, before the city itself became broken. The reader follows Ms. Ehrhardt’s dispirited characters through the lively streets of the French Quarter. The scalloped rooftop of the Superdome perforates the horizon. Sisters jog along the scenic trails of the Tammany Trace....

The collection’s most successful story, “The Longest Part of the Day,” moves between the point of view of 15-year-old Jilly, who goes missing when she takes a ride with Jimmy, the grocery bagger from Piggly Wiggly, and her mother, who is having an affair with her ex-husband’s brother. Ms. Ehrhardt deftly captures the repercussions of a narcissistic mother caught in the undertow of her own desires, and the unexpected tenderness that surfaces between Jimmy and Jilly. It’s quite amazing what Ms. Ehrhardt accomplishes in a mere 24 pages. It is, in short, a great story.

Readers familiar with The God Particle may recall Ehrhardt’s brief, keenly felt memoir, "A World of Paper."

As an aside, have you found goodreads yet? Careful. It's addictive.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

"The world has become absurd."

More good reviews for Ron Currie Jr.'s God Is Dead (mentioned here yesterday):

Tod Goldberg of the L.A. Times says, "Currie's strength rests in his ability to focus humanity's conundrums on the smallest physical particles.... The impression may be that Currie handles these issues with a light touch, but the truth he presents is that the world has become absurd; he is merely delivering a steady-cam view."

Also, Entertainment Weekly (which, I'm told, is stingy with high grades) gives God Is Dead a B+, but calls the book "a downer." I couldn't disagree more. Great art, even at it's most grim, is much more than a downer--and Currie's book explores a world more emphatically absurd than grim. When George Saunders conjures a world filled with absurdly themed amusement parks and capitalism run amok, or when Vonnegut yanks the reader back and forth through time to (in part) show the madness and silliness of the lives we lead, is that "a downer"? This book puts Currie squarely in the league of those two giants of satirical fiction. Sure, he's a rookie--but this home-run of a book shows he's playing with the same ball and in the same parks as those guys.

I interviewed Currie recently (and I'm trying to make time to shop this interview around, but teaching and the move have utterly dominated my schedule), and here's what he had to say when I asked him whther the book's characters have anything to live for in a world without God:

I don't think [they] have any less to live for than they did before. I think they may feel that way, but that doesn’t make it so. Because really, once the initial madness following God’s death dies down, nothing has changed in any fundamental way. People still need to figure out how to get out of bed every morning. There is drudge work to do, mortgages to pay and funerals to attend. Parents and children still eyeball one another across great chasms. People still engage in wholesale slaughter over dubious ideologies. I guess what I’m saying is that, God or no, we most often have to find our own motivation for getting on with it every day, even in the face of intense pain, or sadness, or boredom. Most of the time we succeed. Occasionally, we do not, and we’re never heard from again.

Is that a downer? I find the outlook liberating. Refreshing. Honest.

It's a great book, one which strikes a teetering balance between stark realism, rich satire, and a playful sense of the absurd. Don't miss it.

UPDATE: God Is Dead passes the Page 69 Test.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never met in person nor spoken on the phone with Ron Currie, Jr. I have known him for about five years, though, via an online ficiton workshop at, and I nearly published an excerpt from his second novel in my online journal, The God Particle. I consider him a friend, which is precisely why I've refrained from writing and attempting to publish a review of the novel. Though you may want to weigh this if you're considering buying the book on my word alone, I feel confident that the book is truly excellent. I wouldn't stick my neck out like this if I felt otherwise. Friends read this blog now and again, occasionally students and colleagues--people I have a vested interest in steering right. And I place great value on critical honesty. Besides, as reviews roll in, the evidence will mount: God Is Dead is great.

Mexico City

I dreamt last night that Mexico City collapsed into the empty subterranean lake bed beneath it, killing millions.

And I didn't dream it just once, but several times, and from several perspectives. In the final istance, I was hovering over the city in a helicopter, watching it crumble into itself, watching the dust rise.

In another, I was a woman who had jumped from a building, only to watch the ground fall away from me as I fell toward it.

In another, I was swallowed by dust almost instantly.

Friday, July 6, 2007

God Is Dead is Great

Ron Currie Jr.'s God is Dead hits bookstore shelves this week. Don't miss it. I'd call it the best book of short stories that I've read since Jesus' Son, but (like Jesus' Son) it's more accurate to call it a novel. Whatever we call it, God Is Dead is great. If you buy it, it will very likely be the best book you buy this year.

But don't take my word for it:

"A bleak dystopian future is tempered with moments of possibility in story writer Currie's debut novel, in which a sick and wounded Dinka woman arrives at a refugee camp in Darfur, searching for her lost brother. The woman is God, come to Earth in human form to make apologies to the Sudanese, over whose fate He is, 'due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, completely powerless.' When God is gunned down, news of His death spreads quickly around the globe and provides the jumping-off point for the subsequent short story — like chapters that reveal what happens in a post-God world: suicide rates skyrocket (especially among clergy members), riots and mass looting erupt and the pack of feral dogs that feasted on God's corpse begin 'speaking a mishmash of Greek and Hebrew' and inspiring worship among Africans. (Meanwhile, in America, the masses, seeking a deity to fill the void, begin worshipping children.) Looking at humanity through a warped lens allows the various narrators unusual insight; while sometimes overwrought, these observations are often striking, as when an enlightened dog describes the strange new experience of emotion. This novel-in-stories is unsettling and strange, but still easily accessible; despite the ways in which his world has changed, Currie's altered humanity has one foot in ours. (July)" Publishers Weekly

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Tornado Warning

In the last twenty minutes, the sky went from sunny and blue (with a few clouds) to dark and imposing. The tornado sirens blared. The TV told us there was a 100+ mph tornado ten miles northeast of town, heading this way.

Then it petered out, and all is well.

But the sky? It still looks like it wants us all dead.

Happy Independence Day

Today, right now, somewhere in the U.S.--maybe several places--there are two officers in dress uniform pulling up to someone's house, knocking on a door, telling a family that their husband or father or son or brother or sister or wife or mother was killed in Iraq. Maybe it was a roadside bomb. Maybe a sniper. Maybe friendly fire, though those officers aren't authorized to say so and probably don't even know. And for every set of officers doing this horrible duty, there are two or three dozen dead Iraqis whose families never receive such a courtesy.

All of this, we're told, is to protect us. We're spreading democracy. We're making the world a safer place.

Do you feel safer?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Compare and Contrast

What do George W. Bush and his hero, Winston Churchill, have in common? Not so much, according to British historian Lynne Olson. In her view, Bush has much more in common with Churchill's incompetent predecessor, Neville Chamberlain.

Olson compares and contrasts the three, and comes to this conclusion:

Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise....

Unlike Bush and Chamberlain, Churchill was never in favor of his country going it alone. Throughout the 1930s, while urging Britain to rearm, he also strongly supported using the newborn League of Nations -- the forerunner to today's United Nations -- to provide one-for-all-and-all-for-one security to smaller countries. After the League failed to stop fascism's march, Churchill was adamant that, to beat Hitler, Britain must form a true partnership with France and even reach agreement with the despised Soviet Union, neither of which Chamberlain was willing to do.

Like Bush, Chamberlain also laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances that are supposed to constrain the office of prime minister. He scorned dissenting views, both inside and outside government. When Chamberlain arranged his face-to-face meetings with Hitler in 1938 that ended in the catastrophic Munich conference, he did so without consulting his cabinet, which, under the British system, is responsible for making policy. He also bypassed the House of Commons, leading Harold Macmillan, a future Tory prime minister who was then an anti-appeasement MP, to complain that Chamberlain was treating Parliament "like a Reichstag, to meet only to hear the orations and to register the decrees of the government of the day."

As was true of Bush and the Republicans before the 2006 midterm elections, Chamberlain and his Tories had a large majority in the Commons, and, as Macmillan noted, the prime minister tended to treat Parliament like a lapdog legislature, existing only to do his bidding.

The whole piece is worth reading.