Oct. 18th, 2016 08:55 pm
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I am reading the kids The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, because it looked like fun -- the Bland sisters, Kale and Jaundice, are kidnapped by pirates, hijinks ensue. It's the first in a series of middle-grade books clearly modeled on A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, etc. etc. But, you know, free ARC (which means unfinished art, boo), of short length, what the heck.

I didn't anticipate the sneaky humor that I am having to attempt to explain, with extra-entertaining results. Some of it is just dumb, like the fact that the Bland sisters' parents are marooned on Gilly Gun Island. Ho Ho. But some of it is a little more eyebrow-raising. I didn't think much of the pirate ship with an all-woman crew being named the Jolly Regina until they ran into a more traditional, all-male pirate ship called the Testostero. Then I cracked up. "What's so funny, Mama?" I don't think my explanation made any sense to them, but I did my best.
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As I suspected, once we actually got into the minutiae of researching the faint traces of Emmett Miller's life and career and how they connect, weblike, with a bunch of disparate 20th-century music stuff, Where Dead Voices Gather gets much more tolerable. I am glad I stuck with it, even if it's going to be barely relevant to what I'm ostensibly reading it for.
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I picked up Nick Tosches' Where Dead Voices Gather as part of a woolgathering research jaunt I am on for my next project, but I am not sure that I am going to be able to read it all the way through. I'm kind of hoping that the first chapter is just throat-clearing and it will get better, but. Where Dead Voices Gather is about Emmett Miller, and also about Tosches' pursuit of the details of Emmett Miller's biography. Miller was one of the last blackface minstrel singers; he had an odd, high, nasal, yodely voice (you can hear it here, and see some stills of Miller in blackface too), and he was apparently enormously influential on a wide range of white performers, especially but not exclusively early country and western -- and jazz; Miller's 1920s recording backup band The Georgia Crackers included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.

Tosches rightly points out that blackface minstrelry was born and popularized in the North, not the South as we tend to lazily (and all too conveniently) assume, but he also more or less rejects the notion that blackface was any worse than any other form of ethnic caricature. In a similar vein, he makes a lot out of the fact that black performers participated in blackface, too, and that's OK because they got paid and they didn't stay in persona when offstage.

And as he makes his case, he does not neglect to sneer at academics as being all up their own ass, too. All academics, because they're academics. And most other pop commentators on minstrelry, too, because they follow the academics. Only Tosches is going to give you the real lowdown, you know.

And all this before I get to the end of the first chapter. I'm trying to hang in, really. I'm giving it the old college try. (Academics, he sniffs.)
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You can tell that Tiger had all his stories taken away from him because now, in all the stories, Tiger is the villain. Yes, I am still reading Anansi Boys to the kids, but it's not just that. It's everywhere. I still remember an old silent movie I watched, set in the circus, that quite deliberately juxtaposed the fierce but noble lion against the treacherous killer tiger. And that's just an example off the top of my head. There's also the Jungle Book, of course, which is probably to blame for a lot that followed (including Gaiman, who we know is influenced by Kipling). Nonetheless, the game is rigged, and I'm grumpy about it. I want to write a tiger-as-hero story now because I'm contrary that way. We'll see what develops.

Finished We Gon' Be Alright by Jeff Chang. It's brilliant and just what I needed for this election season. Also short (despite how long it took me to read it). It also afforded me the rare phenomenon this week of selling someone a copy of the book I was in the middle of reading myself.

And in the listening department: we're watching Luke Cage, and I am deeply impressed by the soundtrack choices. I'm usually pretty hard to please in this department, so this is a rare pleasure. Fortunately the rest of the Internet is also all agog and is supplying me endless mp3s to listen to and links to explore further. It's kind of a shame I'm not doing my column any more (at the moment, fingers crossed) because there's some seriously rich ground to cover here.
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Thanks to an editorial reorganization, this turns out to be my last Earworm Weekly column.

If I'd known, I would have written one on Earth, Wind and Fire's "September." The 21st of September being the last day the column appeared and all (and the day I learned the news). But so it goes.

This week I am reading "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Representation" by Jeff Chang. It's a hard book to summarize, so go ahead and just read this Kirkus Review (starred!) and that will give you a good sense of it.
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I'm still dithering, reading-wise. I know, I could have read two or three books in this time! My magazine stack is much reduced, though.

We met Daisy in Anansi Boys this week. Daisy comes in, nurses Fat Charlie through his first hangover, and then conveniently vanishes. She is even described as "pixieish." Can't make this shit up, can't roll my eyes any harder. Kids still like it, though. Mostly because in this part of the book, Spider's charm and self-confidence make him fun to read out loud. I should look into volunteering to read at elementary schools again when I'm not taking a serious graded professional certification class for the first time in forever.

Did you see how I buried that lede? I'm starting a TESOL certification program through Berkeley Extension. First class is September 25, same day as my Aqueduct Press reading. Because I am ridiculous this way.

Earworm-wise, this week, like every week, I "Work From Home":
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I stalled out of the book I was reading, which is a fine book, award-winning, even, but apparently just not to my taste at the moment so I will leave it anonymous.

I am saving room in my schedule for tackling Jeff Chang's "We Gon' Be Alright" as soon as it comes in. Meanwhile, I am reading cookbooks.

I did finally finish "The Real Meaning of Smekday" with the kids. It's delightful and makes the movie even more disappointing. I hear good things about the spin-off TV show, though. We'll have to check it out. We have started on "Anansi Boys" b/c, well, Anansi, which is to say that we have exhausted all children's picture books about Anansi, and all the collections of Anansi stories we could find at the library, too, and the kids still love Anansi stories and I happen to have one on my shelf so why not. So far so good. Gaiman's lazy writing tics irritate me here and there but I can keep that to myself.

But the next book I read to them, whatever it is, is going to be *really short*.

And then maybe I will have to chase down more Dickens...

This week's earworm is more or less about the secret history of K-Tel's "40 Funky Hits."

Last week's was wedding-themed:
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Sorry for the delay, got married in the middle there.

I am currently reading Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli, because Mark Binelli is my favorite writer of the moment (although I am about to exhaust his body of work) and because S&VMD is aimed right at my sensibilities. When it begins, Sacco and Vanzetti are not the S&V of our world, but rather a pre-WW2 comedy duo, a la Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, etc. The text consists of narrative descriptions of scenes from their movies as if the scenes had actually happened in real life; critical material about said movies; and other "supplementary material" of various sorts, from interviews to diary pages to footnotes. Then things get weirder and the story of the other S&V, the ones we know, starts to bleed through. In the meantime, lots of stuff touching on knife-sharpening (Binelli's family were knife-sharpeners who emigrated from Italy to Detroit, fwiw), pre-war radical politics, pre-war Hollywood (S&V are pallbearers at Valentino's funeral, for example), pre-war Italy and America, theories of comedy and tragedy, and so on. I love this book so hard. It's Binelli's first novel, pre-dating both the Detroit book and the Screamin' Jay Hawkins book I read earlier this year, but so far it's not showing any signs of first-novel awkwardness. Here's hoping it stays the course.

This week's earworm, and the week before's:

The Girl from Ipanema

The Ghost in You
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I read [ profile] nihilistic_kid's "I am Providence" this week. Speedily, because I am not good at enduring the suspense of whodunits. It was sharply funny, chewier than your usual detective book, and pretty accurate about the seamier side of con culture, indeed.

What's next? No idea!

I watched "Home," the movie based off the book "The True Meaning of Smekday," and was disappointed. Too bad; I'd heard it was possibly an overlooked gem, but in fact it's pretty blah, and (as far as I can tell so far) not very true to the book. Also, please forgive me but I hated the voice work of Jim Parsons.

Earworm Weekly this time around is on Robyn Hitchcock.
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I finally ditched Planet for Rent. The reasons were plentiful: thin characters, too much undifferentiated first-person narration, three chapters with the exact same plot structure of "human interacts with much more powerful alien patron/adversary, realizes their utter puniness in the grand scheme of things, then -- a twist! Usually involving selling out to the aliens for capital gain and further loss of autonomy." Also, he sunk the continent of Africa, an unbearable cliche.

Smekday, on the other hand, remains highly entertaining.

This week's earworm is Seals and Crofts' "Get Closer." Ray Parker Jr. of Ghostbusters fame plays guitar on this track, though it may take multiple listens to notice it beneath the spackle of strings and piano.
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I am back to reading Yoss' "Planet for Rent" and also, for the kids, "The True Meaning of Smekday." Thus it is that I am immersed in anxiety about aliens colonizing the Earth and the effects thereof, which of course is really just thinly-disguised anxiety about either a) what we did to the people we colonized right here historically without leaving the planet, and/or b) what said people we colonized might do to us if the tables were turned. Compare and contrast! I guess the main difference is that Yoss is, so far, filled with sexual obsessions, while "Smekday," being a kids' book, not so much. But actually the sexual fixations get a little old so I'm enjoying "Smekday" a little bit more. It might just be that reading the Boov dialog out loud is awesome, while Yoss' broken English is actually broken Spanish, translated, and may as a result have lost some of its subtle charms.

I wrote about the song "Bad Day" for my column this week.
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I started "Between the World and Me" this week, coincidentally aligning with the Republican National Convention spectacle. It was kind of disturbing, actually, to read Coates' discussion of The [American] Dream and its costs while all that was going on. Exhibit A on display.

I had some drama around my column this week. But it got posted. Tagged and Tweeted and everything too.
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I just started "Planet for Rent" by Yoss, a Cuban science fiction writer who is also in a heavy metal band. (Awesome author photo. Gold star.) This his is older novel; his newer one, just released, is "Super Extra Grande" but I wanted to read this one first. So far, it's interesting in concept and a little clunky in execution, which is about what I expected. I mean, it's no clunkier than a lot of other contemporary SF.

The last two chapters of "Detroit City is the Place to Be" (before the double afterwords) are about "ruin porn" and the high art world's engagement with the Detroit landscape (sometimes versus its people, who are still there, as many people seem to conveniently forget). There is a lot to grapple with, and Binelli does it more justice than I have seen elsewhere. Man, it's some bleak shit in the end, though.

Earworm is here:
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(well, if you take into account the three-hour time shift, anyway.)

Reading and listening are the same this week: I just finished Mark Binelli's second novel, "Screamin' Jay Hawkins' Greatest Hits." As I note in my music column (see below), the title is a joke, since technically Hawkins had zero hits, and only one song he's really known for. But "I Put a Spell On You" is a pretty big signature tune, man.

Binelli, you may notice, is also the author of "Detroit City Is The Place To Be," the book I have been reading up to this point. I was impressed enough by his nonfiction to give his fiction a spin. And I liked this book enough that I am going to check out his first novel, "Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die." Binelli is "experimental" to mainstream reading audiences and only mildly odd to indie readers; sure, "Greatest Hits" is not entirely linear and features a ghost, a theatrical monologue and a re-imagining of "Jailhouse Rock" starring Hawkins instead of Elvis (not all in one scene, though), taking care to note that Hawkins actually went to jail. But the writing itself is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate. It's a surprisingly subtle and thoughtful novel. Don't put too much stock into the cover blurbs about how it's talking about race in surprising new ways, though. All it really means is that Binelli is a white guy who doesn't collapse the complexities of a black man who loved opera, fathered dozens of illegitimate children, performed wearing a bone in his nose, and titled one of his albums "Black Music For White People." Which does make it a cut above the rest, I suppose.

The ending chapter is perfect.

The earworm is here:
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But don't expect it to last, b/c next week I will be in Hawaii (!).

Still reading Detroit City, which is still a fine book. I should be finished with it soon. As far as chapter books with the kids go, I'm currently reading them a charming little YA mystery called Enchantment Lake.: A Northwoods Mystery. ( It's set in a small lakeside community in northern Minnesota, one that can only be reached by boat and only intermittently possesses electricity and is full of aging, eccentric residents. But the demographics are changing, someone's building a road and maybe a golf course, and suddenly a lot of "accidents" are claiming the lives of the older generation. Francie, an aspiring actress who briefly played a teenage detective on TV, comes back to help her elderly aunts discover what's really going on.

Published by University of Minnesota Press, this was written by someone who, you can tell, is intimately familiar with the northern Midwestern landscape. I've never been up to northern Minnesota, but my family used to have a house on a lake in southern Michigan (near Cassopolis). Not a vacation house; my own elderly relations lived there year-round -- the whole Filley family, whom the Selkes intermarried with, had 3-4 houses all next to each other, if I recall correctly, and the local access road is still named after them -- and we'd go to visit on weekends. So all the little details keep making me shiver with delight. (The peat bog! The midnight fishing for walleye, using leeches as bait! Jigsaw puzzles you've done so many times before that you try it without the reference photo to make it more challenging! Birch trees!) I am not entirely sure the kids are as entertained as I am, but they seem to enjoy Francie and her dotty aunts (are they sisters? a couple? does it matter?), and the writing is sprightly enough to keep their attention. It's too bad this book didn't get more attention -- I plucked it from the returns cart at work -- because it's really quite well-crafted and more satisfying than the usual YA mystery fluff. At least so far.

Meanwhile, I wrote about Prince again:
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Detroit City: I had forgotten how colorful Coleman Young was. "Swearing is an art form. You can express yourself much more exactly, much more succinctly, with properly used curse words."



Katy Perry:
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Still reading Detroit City is The Place to Be. It's still great. More soon.
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I grew up in Michigan, about two hours away from Detroit and four hours away from Chicago. My father's family still lived in Chicago, and I didn't drive, so my pull was always toward the other side of Lake Michigan -- unlike much of the rest of my hometown, who would head to Detroit regularly for concerts or other daytrips. Still, like many folks I have a soft spot for Detroit. And also a little better grasp of the city's true history. (But only a little.)

I just started reading Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is The Place To Be and already I am damn impressed. Maybe it's the part where he compares 1920s Detroit to the Bay Area (he says Silicon Valley, but his book is a few years old and the Valley had not completed its takeover of points north and east). He didn't intend that passage to resonate like it does to me, reading now, but he has a very large and sobering point.

But there's lots of other good stuff too, and I look forward to reading it.

Speaking of Detroit, this week's earworm column is on the Spinners (known as the Detroit Spinners in the UK).

P.S. I stumbled across Binelli's book because of his most recent publication, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits, which looks to be a very interesting novel and is on order for me at work. Binelli's first novel, btw, was Sacco and Venzetti Must Die, which also looks interesting and ambitious.
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This week I reveal a possible origin of my music critic so-called career, through the medium of a bus trip to Canada and an earworm of a U2 song.

I took a short break from H is for Hawk to read Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Little Labors is a little book. It is consciously modeled on The Pillow Book by Sei Sh┼Źnagon, and it is about early motherhood, motherhood with a pre-verbal baby. I love everything about it. The discussions of babies in literature and art. The discussions of the absence of women in American literature versus English literature, something I was ranting about just the other day *before* I read that particular passage -- how I cannot remember a single woman author I read in high school American Literature classes, and only a handful from college. Galchen also turns to genre literature -- crime and mysteries -- and specifically mentions contemporary how many contemporary Japanese crime writers are women, both bits of which reminded me of a conversation I had with [identity profile] once. Also a discussion of the trendiness of the color orange, Sei Sh┼Źnagon herself, and loads of other tasty stuff, including pithy one-liners about other people's children, for example. The miscellany form is so ridiculously well-suited to the material of early motherhood that I am mildly appalled that this is more or less the only book I know that uses it, although structure of The Argonauts is similar. Little Labors may be little, but it's making a big argument about motherhood and writing, albeit doing so obliquely, in a very Pillow Book sort of way if you get my drift, a very subtle, clever, pointed but never full-frontal way.


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