Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

My New Year's resolution was to complete every book I started for an entire year. I have always been in a bad habit of only reading half of a title. I read for the way a novel is written and less for plot. From time to time I would complete a book. But, the past 3 years were pretty pathetic in terms of reading. So I set a goal for 2010. This blog exists in part to keep me on track of completing what I start.

I have followed through with 18 titles so far this year. Some of them short, some long, and a couple collections of poetry. Then, I came across Cutting for Stone. A novel for my online book club for April. I am through 200 pages of a 540 page book. Over a third of the way. Does not finishing it count against me less since it was a book club suggested book? Does it count against me less because I have read over 1/3? No, I guess not. I have broken my New Year's Resolution.

The prose is beautiful. Such clarity in some of the lines. But, not in a creative way, per say. The prose is written in a beautiful way which somehow still manages to stay a little flat. The characters never really rise from the pages. Their struggles of no special interest to me. I know where the story heads, so I find so much of the lead up to be a bit unnecessary and a waste of time.

I have not found a single review which complained about this novel. Nothing but positive words. And, I don't disagree with what is being said. But, I don't think we should just praise every novel that manages to rise up, a little, out of the ash of the average crap found on the bestsellers list.

I have spent 4 weeks reading this book on and off. As of now, I have decided it is time to close the book and send it back to where it came from. I will leave it behind me in the month of April. I will hold my head up high with 18 completed books under my belt.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Matisse: Radical Invention/ Chicago Art Institue, March 20 - June 20

I think many just shrug their shoulders at the name Matisse. Assume he's overrated, basic, and a bit like everybody else. There was a time when I may have agreed. But, a little over a year ago I came across his painting 'The Piano Lesson' (1916) and fell in love with the work (this marked a second painting I loved by Matisse. 'The Red Room' being the first). Of course, sometimes you can love the art and not the artist. But, this sudden burst of admiration for this piece led me to flip through art books of Matisse. I found myself interested. Then, I was able to see the Matisse: Radical Invention exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, twice, and I am officially a fan.

The first set of pieces to make me pause are called 'Jeanette I - IV.' They are a series of four busts. The first bust is a classical style bust. Very detailed, flattering, and grand. As the busts progress they begin to grow abstract. Almost grotesque. But, not in a hideous way. In a way showing exploration at play. This was the first time I realized Matisse wasn't an artist with a single talent. He started out with artistic tradition.

What proves his talent in the traditional is his painting 'La desserte' (1893). This piece is so perfectly confined in the definition of classical still life painting. It is bland in comparison to many still life paintings. But, only because it manages to be exactly what a still life painting is meant to be. In this painting we see Matisse's ability as an artist working within the confines of "expectation."

A few other favorite pieces from the exhibit... 'The Blue Window' (1913) and 'Portrait of Olga Merson' (such incredible movement in the brush strokes).

It is easy to see the inspiration Matisse had on others. Matisse's painting 'The Studio, Quai Saint-Michel' must have been inspiration for Edward Hopper's works of lounging and longing. Matisse's 'Jeanette' busts must have been what caused de Kooning to create 'Head #3.'


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

High Violet, The National

BEST OF 2010

It was odd of me to expect The National could create an album better than Boxer. But, the preview reviews for High Violet all called it grander and more beautiful. I was willing to believe these idealized statements of an album that had probably only been listened to a couple times before a review was set down to paper.

High Violet rests between Boxer and Alligator. The music seems closer to Alligator, but the lyrics closer to Boxer. I feel Boxer may have been more about relationships as they take place. High Violet seems to be about the aftermath of relationships. There is a great deal of sadness, loss, and pain to the lyrics and music. Lead singer, Matt Berninger, has a voice that really stabs. I feel it wouldn't matter what he was singing about with a voice like his.

In the case of The National, I don't have to worry about just loving the voice and the sound scape. The lyrics are strong. In "Afraid of Everyone," they sing 'i don't have the drugs to sort it out.' This is seconds after talking about walking around with his kid on his shoulder. It is easy to assume he means recreational drugs, but I think he is speaking about the way so many people rely on prescription drugs to cope with life. It isn't a judgement, just an observation. Comical and sad.

"Conversation 16" is the one song I love the most. It reminds me so much of Boxer. As if it is a B-side from that album. And when they sing 'i'm afraid i'd eat your brains because i'm evil' I feel as though they are responding to a Lady Gaga song. The way Gaga sings about men eating her heart and their wolf like evil eyes. This group is admitting their ability to destroy. Clever.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Antwerp, Roberto Bolano

BEST OF 2010

It is always nice to the progress of an artist. Even more interesting to witness the progress in reverse. Antwerp contains much of what Bolano would later write about at length- crime, fiction, whores, drugs, detectives, poetry, etc. In this "novel" we see the birth. His progress from writing poetry to a prose fiction. What would later turn into complete novelizations.

Antwerp is brief. Less than 100 pages. Containing about 50 different sections. Each section less than a page. The sections could be viewed as short stories. Prose poems. But, as you read further into the novel, you find characters being mentioned again and again. Images reappearing. Ideas emerging. I never fully grasp the entirety of the plot at play. But, does one need to in order to enjoy the work as fiction?

Bolano refers to this as his favorite novel. He wrote it for himself. Out of a need to write without the boundary of writing a novel. And, he succeded. The piece if like experimental fiction. Like performance art. I would best compare the novel to that of Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Each page a photograph. A new glipse. A different perspective of inspiration.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Synecdoche, New York

"Synecdoche" means to refer to a part of something, either the smaller part of a whole or the whole part of something small. Even within the definition of the word there is a felling of a Russian nesting doll. This labyrinthine world of order, or disorder. In fact, this is the world of Kaufman's film.

Is the artist a creator of art? Or, does art create the artist? Is this a film about art? Or, a film about the struggles to be an artist? Is the film, simply, a surreal escape into a world of madness? I'd like to suggest Kaufman is talented enough to have a handle on the meaning of this film. That Kaufman has purpose. And, I'd like to suggest, Kaufman is showing us the struggle for an artist to have complete control. The artist creates a world (through music, film, literature, painting, etc). This is a small part of control. How does the artist cope with being unable to control the day to day? Does he decide to reinvent?

The film is open to many interpretations. I'd like to imagine the film is a second chance imagined. A world where the artist is creator and destroyer. The artist is god. We see the main charter, Caden, imagine himself in many worlds... cartoons, anti-depressant commercials, dreams, etc. Also, we see Caden deciding the day to day path of individual persons from his past. Is he dead? Is he sleeping? Or, does he really have this much control?

To say the film is so specifically focused on the issues I have mentioned would be a complete misread of the film. There are many issues at play: loneliness, religion, divorce, love, war, etc. But, isn't all great art about everything?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Chicago Art Institute - The Modern Wing

I have always been a fan of the Chicago Art Institute. Over the past few years, my visits to the museum have been disappointing. An entire wing was being remodeled, created, built. Most of the art was placed in storage or lent out to other museums. The Joseph Cornell's, the Rothko, the Magritte's, the Dali's, the Ernst's, etc. All these pieces of art I associated with the museum were no longer around.

On Sunday, I was finally able to walk through the completed modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. I was not disappointed. An entire glass wall sits in a dimly lit room. Behind the glass, all the Cornell boxes. A dream come true. My eyes and nose pressed to the glass. The little shadow boxes hiding in the shadows themselves. A whole new level of darkness.

The topping on the cake, the piece by Barnett Newman. I may never be able to explain my love for his work. But, for years, his theory on the 'zip' has hypnotized me. His pieces at the MoMA have overwhelmed me. But, none of them ever moved me in the way Untitled #3 did. My eyes turned wet and I had a few tear drops. A single sliver of canvas. Two colors. Framed in. The frame created by Jackson Pollack. But, here is everything Newman has created. The zip as a single piece. Nothing more than the zip. As if the zip no longer is just on his paintings, but it has stepped into the work of every piece in the shared space.

I had many moving moments on Sunday. My face a permanent smile. Well worth the wait.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Leave Your Sleep, Natalie Merchant

It is the same complaint I have with many artists as they mature. Once they have a child, the music starts to change. Dar Williams, Ben Folds, Ani Difranco, etc. And, now, Natalie Merchant. She has created an album of poems turned to songs. The concept is interesting. But, it smells a bit of adult contemporary. Merchant created this album after she found herself reading/singing poems to her daughter.

Most of Merchant's music has crossed the lines of pop/folk/world music. So, it seems odd to make a complaint of her doing the exact same thing here. But, this time, something is missing. It is the lyrics? She has collected a great selection of poems. My complaint is not in the lyrics. Other than they aren't her lyrics. It has been 9 years since Merchant last released an album of her own music, 2001's fantastic Motherland. I miss that Natalie Merchant.

Her last two releases have basically been cover albums. The House Carpenter's Daughter and Leave Your Sleep are all about the past. And, I think it is good for an artist to explore their roots and their influences. But, when it starts to consume the entirety of your releases, something is amiss. Perhaps, Merchant is a bit dried up. Perhaps, writer's block has started to consume her. If this is true, I just need this to be stated. I respect an artist who just finds themselves stuck for a bit. I struggle respecting an artist who just ignores their own ability.

The greatest aspect of the album is Merchant's ability to make a few of these poems sound so much like her own songs (ee cummings 'maggie and milly and molly and may' and Robert Graves 'Vain and Careless'). This speaks to her ability to make something her own, but also her strength in some writing in the past.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Up in the Air

When I asked people if they enjoyed the film, I usually get a response of ‘it was good’ or ‘George Clooney was being George Clooney.’ Since I would never call myself a fan of Clooney’s I don’t really know what this response means. Positive or negative? Or, why it has any effect on the film. After watching the film, I still don’t know what the response means, but I remember my fondness for George Clooney the actor.

Up in the Air isn’t a simple film. There are many elements at play. Family dynamic is far in the background. Economic hard times is pretty relevant. Technology as a tool for tearing people apart is bigger than it may be intended. And, of course, the way we can try to build walls and run away. Always ending up running into someone or some other situation.

Some people feel this is a comedy. If anything, a dark comedy. But, mostly, a drama. A film about escape and discovery. Technology as a tool for advancement and a weapon of mass destruction. The way we learn to distance ourselves from people in our lives while appearing fully engaged.

Well acted, well plotted, and well told. When the character of Ryan states ‘I’m lonely’ as Alex walks away it was exactly what needed to be said. The way we mean the things we laugh about.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Voluspa, The Golden Filter

My attention was brought to this band via the iamamiwhoami viral videos on YouTube. For a period of time, I really wanted those videos to be connected to this band. The lead singers look, the bands sound, the upcoming release of the album... but, in time it was revealed The Golden Filter were not a part of the mystery.

Instead, I found a lovely new band. The Golden Filter don't really stand out as an incredibly diverse band with something new to offer. But, they have a lot of what I like. Beautiful vocals, mellow sounds, and intriguing lyrics. Anyone willing to reference Bataille's The Story of the Eye gets a big thumbs up in my nerd literary opinion.

There is a lot of Goldfrapp going on throughout the album. Not so much that you feel as though they've ripped the band off, but enough to make you feel comfortable with the similarities. I will go so far as to say Voluspa achieves what most Goldfrapp albums don't... it is consistently good. Whereas I find myself bored with a few Goldfrapp songs per each album, The Golden Filter remain wonderful throughout each track.

This is a step beneath pop music. There is a purpose beyond ear candy. This is a step above lounge music. There is more intention in each lyric. This is a band interested in a few styles and willing to try them all out during each song. A very impressive first album.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Museum of Accidents, Rachel Zucker

In honor of National Poetry Month I ordered a few random collections of poetry through the library. I thought I might discover a new poet. A fresh voice. Mostly, I found poets that seemed too familiar and not quite original enough.

Except for Rachel Zucker. Yes, her style is similar to D.A. Powell. Yes, she seems to write in the voice of Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. Yes, she is inspired by a bit of Ginsberg. Alright, so maybe 'original' isn't the best word for Zucker. But, there is something exciting within the text.

My favorite poem from the collection, 'What Dark Thing,' contains some of the most wonderful lines of poetry I've read in awhile... People have believed in God so long it must truly be/ epidemic, this loneliness and she asks What dark thing, love, have you done to me?

The collection is filled with thoughts about motherhood. A topic I wouldn't normally be interested by or even enjoy. But, Zucker writes about children and motherhood from a distanced view. Almost as if she is just taking part in something that happened... babies aren't for company/ only make you a mother.

There is a lot of humor throughout the poetry. Typically, humor does not draw my attention. But, this is smart humor ("Nice Arse Poetic").


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Swim, Caribou

This album is unexpected. I am only familiar with Caribou's previous album, Andorra. I enjoyed Andorra, but it didn't require a whole lot of repeat listening. On Caribou's new album they have changed their style. The new album is a mix of mellow trance pop sounds. The type of album MGMT should have put out this year (instead of the shit they did put out).

My favorite song on the album is "Bowls." The song sounds like a remixed version of an Alice Coltrane song (some amazing harp playing mixed with a nice beat).

The entire album is perfect for toes curled into the grass on a warm spring or summer day/night. Also, perfect for background music. The lyrics may not be the most amazing... in fact, the album could live without the lyrics. But, the sound is lovely. A very welcomed surprise.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Silence

It is easy to see why Bergman may be considered one of the greatest directors to have ever lived. The Silence is a brilliant film of symbolism and suggestion. The dialogue is minimal, at best. The characters speak through body language mostly. They travel through life trying to understand themselves as seen through the eyes of another.

The Silence most likely inspired three great filmmakers and their films. First, Stanley Kubrick. The way the hotel is filmed in this film mirrors that of Kubrick's The Shining. Secondly, David Lynch. The way Bergman blends sexuality and surrealism easily played a role in Eraserhead and/or Mulholland Drive. Finally, Robert Altman. Altman's 3 Women is based on a dream as is Bergman's The Silence.

The answers to this film aren't easy to find. If they even exist at all. It has been argued the film is not meant to having meaning. But, as viewers we seek to force meaning into film as we do with life. The film focuses on the absence of a god, of spirituality, etc. The world run by our own morals.

The film is beautifully shot. Each scene glows with so much color despite being strictly black and white. The acting is superb. It can't be easy to pull off so much emotion and pain with so few words. Bergman's greatest film experience.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich

I have read two of Erdrich's earlier novels. I never found myself interested in anything she wrote. The subject matter, the characters, the theme, etc. I found the novels always grasping for meaning in a way they could never actually be. I place Erdrich's work in the same category I place Barbara Kingsolver. Too much wanting to be something great. Never able.

In Erdrich's latest novel, I thought I would finally discover some of the reasons her novel's are always praised. A dark plot (wife creates a false diary for her husband to read in hopes he'll leave her), tragic events (Erdrich's real life marriage involved physical and sexual abuse against her children, and the husband killed himself before their divorce was finalized), and a new path for the author. Instead, a novel with no desire to be anything beyond hateful and unapologetic.

As you read about the husband being pushed further and further to insanity, he becomes more violent towards the children. The wife just attempts to protect her children. At this point, she is just as much to blame for the abuse. She has caused her husband so much pent up rage for no reason. By the novel's end, Erdrich still refuses to explain the behavior of these two characters. She attempts to blame alcohol. And, maybe, in typical Erdrich fashion, she is trying to show the results of Native American depression.

As usual, a huge disappointment. A novel without any focus. A writer without any control of the craft.