"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, December 29, 2011

13 Reasons Why It's Your Fault

I feel bad about this. I really do. How can I be so negative about a book that helps teens get through tough periods in their lives? A book that even saves lives? My wife says it's because I just don't like people. I'll concede that.

But I still don't like this book. Published four years ago, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is the kind of book that gains traction with teens, then their parents read it, and suddenly it's a thing. This year the EW published an article about how it's affecting readers. And now a website asks teenagers to write their responses to the book where they can benefit from each other's stories. So I ask again, how can I hate on a book that's practically its own "It Gets Better" movement?

The story is that a boy named Clay gets a package containing seven audio cassettes. When he listens to the first one, he's shocked to hear the voice of Hannah Baker, the girl at school who recently committed suicide. She pronounces that these tapes are her suicide note, and she's going to reveal the thirteen people that caused her suicide. The details of who did what to whom aren't important. Suffice it to say that she was harassed and ignored and she witnessed something horrible and did nothing to stop it. That's reason enough to kill yourself, right?

The whole cassette tape thing is a gimmick that doesn't work for me. In terms of story-telling, that is. Asher alternates between the voice of Hannah on the tapes and Clay's thoughts while he runs around town with headphones on, listening to these tapes like he's on a celebrity murder tour. The interruption of Hannah's narration so that we can feel bad for Clay is distracting. I don't care about Clay, especially since he's one of the people who Hannah talks about on the tapes. Why should I invest time in a guy who did something bad enough to cause a girl to commit suicide? And the reveal of what Clay did to be on the tapes is rather lame. It makes me wonder what the point was, which only reveals the story-telling gimmick for what it is.

The bigger problem with this book involves something I've already said at least twice.From the beginning of the book, Hannah blames these 13 people for her demise. And even there, right there, five words back, I used a euphemism to say that she took her own life. From the beginning of the book, Hannah, Clay, Asher, each of them are tiptoeing around the fact that Hannah chose to do this. It becomes very difficult to like her. You're supposed to feel sorry for her--I think. But I didn't. By the end you do see that she is suffering some kind of depression, but she clearly knows exactly what she's doing. She's making these others feel bad because they made her feel bad. Some of them are bad people and certainly deserve some retribution, but that's, like, three out of the thirteen. One guy is on the tapes because he has the audacity to ask her out in the hopes that they might actually hook up. Isn't he an awful person? The rest become victims just like she is a victim in her own mind, enough to drive her to suicide.

As you can see, I have little sympathy for someone who takes her own life. I understand the point of the book: actions have consequences, and if you're mean or outright evil, karma will come back to you in the form of someone's suicide note. No one wants to be in someone's suicide note, of course, but what point does a sermon in novel-form serve?

ALERT: Now, if I haven't completely spoiled the story for you yet, and you think you would like to check out the book without knowing the last chapter, skip the next paragraph. The snarkiness continues down there.

As a teacher, what sticks in my craw the most is the last bit where Hannah comes right out and blames her English teacher/counselor for her ultimate decision. She records a conversation she has with him where she hints at her thoughts about ending her life. The teacher tries to get her to talk, to come out and tell him what she is feeling and why, but she refuses. She walks away, and then she accuses the teacher of putting the final nail in her coffin because he doesn't chase after her. How unfair is that? She walks away, so he fails the test he didn't know he was taking. I'm already blamed for all kinds of things as a teacher, and now if a student refuses to open up to me, even when, especially when, I've tried, I'm supposed to take the blame for her choices? I don't think so.

I admit it's provocative. As I read the book, I felt things, and if that's what a book is supposed to do, even if you hate the things you feel, I have to say Asher is successful. And I can totally see how this kind of story can help: everyone needs a good dose of responsibility for others. But the ultimate lesson here is one of victimhood. Victims can do whatever they want; they have little responsibility for themselves. And I don't buy it.

What are your thoughts? Have you read this book? Am I totally off-base?

I understand if you're repulsed by my dislike for this book. The book that helped me through high school was Catcher in the Rye, and I can't stand anyone who doesn't like that book. Bunch of phonies, they are.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Music 2011: The Sticktoitiveness Awards

This particular list began over the summer when I realized how much I was enjoying the new Duran Duran album. I really haven't listened to any new Duran Duran since "Ordinary World" in 1993. But All You Need Is Now sounded to me like the album that should have followed Seven and the Ragged Tiger.

After the pleasant Duran Duran surprise, over the next few months these albums dropped from other 80's alumni. None of them are recreating any hit sounds of the past, and they're not breaking much new ground here, either. They are not regaining a once-held popularity, or you all would have heard of them by now. However, they all deserve some accolade for persevering through the years and still creating some great, memorable music.

Without further ado, The Sticktoitiveness Awards go to:

Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now

If you don't know who these guys are, then never mind. You can go back to your Drake and Rhianna.

Erasure, Tomorrow's World

Erasure has been releasing music consistently for nearly 30 years. This is their eleventh or twelfth album, depending on how you count. None has deviated much from their hit formula perfected on 1988's The Innocents: dance pop hooks, synthy keyboards, and melody, melody, melody.

Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow

I'd say she's kind of the the original indie queen, having made quirky-cool music since the seventies. She's basically only released two records in the last twenty years, but this was worth a long wait. Mostly piano ballads about snow and cold and winter, it even contains a lovely duet with Elton John. Pretty, quiet tunes for a deep December day.

Peter Murphy, Ninth

Once the front man for another classic goth band, Bauhaus, the quality of his solo work has suffered at times. This album is less goth and more blues, full of heavy rock riffs, like old Iggy Pop.

Skinny Puppy, Handover

I just recently bought this album, so I have yet to digest it, but from the first listen, it's better than their last two albums that are sort of considered the second incarnation of SP. This is quieter, more melodic and atmospheric, a little less screechy industrial. Still, Skinny Puppy will never be considered mellow.

Thanks for joining me on my musical tour through 2011. It's been fun for me. Maybe next year I can get a few others to join up.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Drunk Walk

Giving toddlers a reason to
walk since 1990.  
Xander took his first step two days before his first birthday. I was holding a Seinfeld DVD that he wanted (such good taste already, right?), and he forgot to hold onto the bed as he reached for it.

It's a little over a month later and we've had to reconfigure the house. We have many surfaces in our small dwelling, the better to stack books and soda cans and iPods. He can now get to the lower level surfaces: coffee tables, end tables, corner cabinets and shelves. One shelf is restocked at least five times a day with his Boynton board books that end up on the hallway floor every couple hours. He also ends up in the kitchen cupboards. Our Tupperware cabinet has never seen such disarray.

Well, are you?
So we've had to move things around. Hide our books. Block access to the Christmas tree. We bought a fancy "look ma, no hands" gate for the basement staircase. (We could have just put the actual door back on the hinges at the top of the stairs, but it's just fine out in the garage behind stacks of boxes.)

Clearly, he's learned that there's a whole new world up there just above his head. Crawling is so passe, so...demeaning. He'll do it, but that's only because he's still in the drunk walk stage. His walk is so tentative, so awkward that he looks like he's two steps from a face plant. And that's not much of an exaggeration. He really does that. Face plant. And often.

He'll trip over the odd book or block, but he'll also lose his balance stepping onto the rug or smooshing the goldfish cracker he dropped from his high chair or, really, over nothing. Sometimes he'll use that whiny moan while pulling at my legs whether I'm sitting or standing then get tripped up on my toe or shoelace and be suddenly head over heels. What's amazing is that the drunk walk doesn't end in more tears. He's learned to catch himself so he'll just sit with a hard bump onto the wood or tile floor, or if he's falling forward he puts his arms out in time. Unless he slips. Then there's a definite skull crack. And most often, he turns over and gets back up and moves on with his life. The drunk walk is relatively painless.

Now consider this: He stands up like a big kid. Most toddlers get on their hands and knees, and with the butt up in the air, they stand by pushing off their two hands. They know the perfect Downward Dog. Not Xander. He kneels, then pulls one knee up with the foot on the floor. With the strength of that one foot, he stands. How does he have such balance that he can stand from one leg, but he stumbles around the house like he's had too much spiked egg nog?

Back in the day, they wore
revealing shorts to show off
their muscled thighs.
His physical therapist (remember he was a little preemie not so long ago) says that she's only seen a one-year-old stand up like that twice in her career. He's not supposed to do that until he's three. He's going to have Maradona thighs, I just know it. (That's Diego Maradona, not Madonna, in case you misread that.)

This week he's taken to pulling on his mother's hand and walking her into his bedroom where we've put an old TV with a built-in VCR. We ended up with some Baby Einstein videos, among others that I won't watch, but Xander loves them. (Too bad we don't have Seinfeld on VHS, right?) He doesn't really need his mom with him, but it's a hoot to watch him turn the TV on and put a video in. Good thing it starts the video automatically. He doesn't know Play from Rewind, but he will soon enough. He won't need us at all.

And yes, there's a TV in his bedroom. You got something to say about that?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best Music 2011 (part three of four)

Each week, follow through on this becomes more difficult. I would never survive some kind of NaNo or ABC challenge certain bloggers can't get enough of. But it's done. Here's some more of the best music from this year.

Ladytron, Gravity the Seducer

After four or five albums of icy dance tunes, Ladytron put out their most sophisticated album. Still icy, still dancey, but they've added layers and atmospherics that kind of make them sound all grown up.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong 

Their first album showed that these guys were the rightful successors of shoegaze goodness that hit a high 20 years ago with My Bloody Valentine and oozed around the nineties until The Jesus and Mary Chain were done. With their second album, they continue in the tradition of hooky melodies buried under fuzzy bass and guitar feedback. Must listen to loudly and repeatedly.

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

St. Vincent is Annie Clark, and (forgive the obscurity of the reference) she really could be the kid sister of chanteuse Anne Clark, who had a modicum of success in the 80's with odd, angular synthpop songs with poems for lyrics. St Vincent uses an array of song styles, which makes her brand of indie pop anything but readily accessible. But oh, how cool.

Washed Out, Within and Without

Dreamy electropop. It makes me woozy just to try to describe it. Just listen to "Eyes Be Closed." (I don't know if the motorcycle video helps or detracts.) Tell me you're not moved.

Today's runners-up:

The Ladybug Transistor, Clutching Stems 

I wish I'd known this band has been around for fifteen years. I've been missing out. Super great jangle pop.

Little Dragon, Ritual Union

More indie pop from Sweden. What's in the water over there that results in such interesting music?

The Sounds, Something to Die For

If I had more time, this album would probably be up top. I've only had it for a couple of weeks, but I feel like it's been a part of my playlist for years. The Sounds's first records were okay, but this one kicks their up-tempo neo-new-wavey sound into synthy heaven. Not as pure awesome as last year's Head First by Goldfrapp, but it's close. And they're also Swedish.

Vanessa Carlton, Rabbits on the Run

This album sounds so much more like Feist or St Vincent than her initial piano pop hit from ten years ago, "A Thousand Miles." She's come a long way, and it sounds like she's just making interesting music now instead of trying to recapture that lightning. This is so much better.

Tune in once more next Monday to get a load of what some some finely aged performers released this year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Best Music of 2011 (part two of four)

I'm a day late and way more than a dollar short, but I'll continue with my December recounting of music from 2011 blogfest or whatever, whether you like it or not. I'll try to keep it short. (Remember, I'm not in it for the videos. Ignore them. Just click play and turn up the volume.)

Destroyer, Kaputt

Super smooth production for another throwback sound. This time it's the seventies, mixing horns aplenty with a contemporary electropop sound. If that doesn't make any sense, just give the meandering "Bay of Pigs" a listen for 11 minutes of bliss.

Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials

Some people say Adele is the voice of the century. I say it's Florence Welch. Each song builds to a worthy climax of a crashing sounds and her perfect, brawny voice.

Friendly Fires, Pala

I liked their first album, but there was something too forced about the efforts. Pala, however, sounds so easy, so fluid. Friendly, frothy synths and singable, memorable hooks. That's all you need.

The Go! Team, Rolling Blackouts

I love this band so much I can even abide the short bursts of rap. Heady layers of indie rock, hip hop beats, and, yes, cheers and chants make up The Go! Team's signature sound. Frolicking fun.

Runners up: No accompaniment here. Check them out if you can.

Feist, Metals

Feist's first album is pure, gooey ear candy. Her second made her famous, but the music wasn't as awesome. This third album follows with her distinctive voice leading the way through not the most memorable songs. But as Homer says about the flying pig: It's still good. It's still good.

Generationals, Actor-Castor

Another retro 60's guitar group sound mashed up with modern indie pop. Jangly stuff.

The Hampdens, The Last Party

More pleasant indie pop. With a cool cover of The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Tonight."

That's it for today. I'll try to be on time next Monday.

Best Music of 2011 (part one of four)

So begins my own blogfest of one. Wherein each Monday in December I present some of the best albums of the year in alphabetical order.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

A couple of years ago, Bon Iver's album For Emma, Forever Ago was widely hailed as a neo-folk masterpiece. It was nice, but this self-titled album from 2011 is better. Building off of the stripped-down sound of For Emma, Bon Iver includes layers of horns and keyboards over an ambient sound that's highlighted by Justin Vernon's illustrious vocals. The whole thing has definite retro vibe to it, which is a commonality among many of my favorites this year. The last song, called Beth/Rest, is a shameless, unironic take on 80's pop, complete with Casio keyboards and sax solos. I would have hated this had I heard it in the 80's. Now I love it.

Apparently, on the "Delux" version of the album, each song comes with video accompaniment, and each is a visual treat complementing the music beautifully. You should be able to see them all on YouTube if you want. But here's "Beth/Rest."

Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years

I discovered Cold Cave this year with their first album from 2009, Love Comes Close. Just a few weeks later, they released Cherish the Light Years, and like with Bon Iver, there's no sophomore slump here. A couple of tracks are pretty aggressive, employing near-industrial beats. The first song, "The Great Pan is Dead," drives out of the gates and doesn't let up. Other tracks are produced with a slick synth sound that wouldn't be out of place at the dance club I pranced around at in 1988.

Cults, Cults

Here's how pretentious I am: I first heard this band on NPR's "All Things Considered" one afternoon on my way home from work. Once home, I immediately logged on to Pandora and heard a few complete songs, then went and bought the album on Amazon.

Cults epitomizes this recent sub-trend in indie music where 60's girl-group melodies are nearly washed out with shoegaze fuzz. It's as if the offspring of the Shangri-Las and My Bloody Valentine came of age in the two-thousand-and-teens to sing syrupy-sweet ditties about Jim Jones (see "Go Outside").

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, Rome

I could take or leave (mostly leave) Gnarls Barkley, but Broken Bells sold me on Danger Mouse's brilliance. When my wife bought me this collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, I proudly professed it to be the best birthday CD ever.

Kind of a tribute to the music of spaghetti westerns and the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, it creates an atmosphere that's wholly modern and could easily be part of a Tarantino film. Nora Jones and Jack White (as in The White Stripes) contribute vocals to a few tunes. Nora Jones's vocals would probably complement any music, and Jack White has a vocal sound that completely works here. I'm consistently taken with this album and now look forward to Danger Mouse's next cool project.

I've said before that I don't go around buying sucky music, so choosing the best ain't easy. Here's some others from this part of the alphabet. Consider them the runners-up:

Active Child, You are All That I See

Cool, atmospheric electronics, accompanied by a falsetto from singer Pat Grossi that hearkens back to the great a-Ha (as in "Take On Me").

Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See

The Arctic Monkeys's first couple of albums were decent offerings of hip, angular guitar, but were not any better than the dozens of other post-punk, neo-new wave bands of the two-thousand-and-naughties. However, this album comes after the cool experimentation that was frontman Alex Turner's side project The Last Shadow Puppets, and Suck it and See retains some of that Burt Bacharach-on-steroids sound.

Cut Copy, Zonoscope

A couple of years ago, I couldn't stop playing Cut Copy's album In Ghost Colours. Zonoscope is essentially the same clever, hooky electropop. It might not be as immediately great as the previous album, but it's still good, peppy fun.

Tune in next Monday for part two of my list. Please feel free to join in the fun. Since I have little clue and don't know how to set up a proper blogfest, if you'll be making your own post of your favorite music from 2011, drop your blog name and address in the comments below and I'll add them in next week so others can stop by your site.