The Year In Books (Part 1)

For the past several years, I’ve read a lot fewer books than I used to. Most people blame this on a lack of time, but my undoing was comic books. Comics come out on a weekly schedule, each one updating something from the last month. The system is set up to make sure that you keep up on them, while it’s easy to put off a novel for a while, since it will still be on the shelves months, if not years, later.

I realized how bad this had gotten a year ago, when my birthday and Christmas presents included almost 20 books, but I’d only read about 5 all year. I decided to make more of an effort on novels for the year.

In the end, I read 19 books in 2010. It’s not an incredible number, especially since several of them were novellas or children’s books. Considering that I did it without dropping back on my comics reading, though, I’m happy. This year I’m planning on 25-30.

Rather than going back and doing full articles on things I read in the past, here are capsule reviews. It’s still pretty long, so I’ve split it into two parts. The books I read in the first half of the year are below, and I’ll follow up with part two in a couple days. Continue reading

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Censoring Huckleberry Finn

A couple of news items have caught the attention of my book-reading friends, so I thought I would deviate from the review format of this blog to discuss them.

The big news, of course, is that a publisher called NewSouth Books is making an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the “obscene” parts removed. This is, depending on who you ask, either laughable or horrible. Mark Twain was fully aware of the evils of the world, and wrote his books to attack those problems. By removing the objectionable content, these misguided people are ignoring, rather than addressing, the point of the book! Do they realize that by making this classic safe to read, they’re weakening the very things that make it a classic?

Continue reading

Grinderman 2 (Music Review)

Album cover: Grinderman 2 by Grinderman

Grinderman - Grinderman 2

When Nick Cave released 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig! under his own name only a few months after debuting the Grinderman side project, it was easy to wonder if there was a difference between his two bands. While Grinderman sounded distinct from the albums previously released as “Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds”, most of the new sound showed up again on Lazarus. Was Grinderman a separate band in its own right, or just a byproduct of Nick Cave’s evolution?

Now that Grinderman 2 has been released, it’s easier to see what makes this band distinct. While this may be a fairly straightforward refinement of the debut album’s sound, I would argue that this is the first true Grinderman album.

Grinderman is at its heart a low-budget garage band. Its angry, sludgy rock is a sharp contrast to the self-aware 1970’s and 1980’s retreads that dominate modern rock. Interestingly, the music frequently even threatens to overwhelm the vocals. In fact, on my first listen, I found myself wondering whether someone else would actually be a better singer for this album.  A thought like that would be heretical on a Nick Cave album, where every song feels intensely personal, and The Bad Seeds exist solely to emphasize the vision of the lyrics. Nick Cave may take on unique personas in different songs, but it’s obvious that there is a consistent person behind them all, using songwriting as a way to examine and then exorcise his personal demons.

With Grinderman, it seems almost as if Cave has created a separate persona to act as the song-writer. Song after song clearly comes from a bitter, directionless man whose mid-life crisis has gone unresolved and metastasized. With no way to deal with this angst, he just rails about the state of the world and demands that women sleep with him. The cover image, a snarling wolf stalking through a clean suburban home, is an unsubtle metaphor for the narrator’s self-image. However, it may be even more apt than the narrator intends: Just as the wolf is going to be limited by its lack of intelligence and opposable thumbs, so this unnamed “grinderman” is blinded by his anger and selfishness. Consider these lyrics from “Kitchenette”:

What’s this husband of yours ever given to you?
Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen
And a brood of jug-eared buck-toothed imbeciles
The ugliest fucking kids I’ve ever seen!
Oh baby, I want you.

Whether or not this is an accurate criticism of modern life, it’s about the worst pick-up line imaginable. Yet it’s positively subtle after the previous song, “Evil”, in which the singer tells a woman to leave her children to be discarded and pay attention to him, while deranged back-up singers repeatedly shout the song title.

But as ridiculous as this protagonist may be, he can write excellent songs. Growling guitars and a primal drum beat drive the listener through every track, inescapably building to some promised climax. Whether it’s the calm threat of apocalypse on “Heathen Child” or the screamed ending of the title track (so strange and cathartic that it justifies the name “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”), that climax turns out to be less of a release than a prelude to another mesmerizing build-up. Where The Bad Seeds drew their songs’ power from Nick Cave’s demons, Grinderman finds just as much potential in rock music itself.

At least, all of this is true for the first 7 songs on this 9-track album. Possibly hedging its bets, Grinderman 2 closed with a return to the feel of a typical Nick Cave album. “Palaces of Montezuma” is a crooning ballad, in which Cave promises extravagant gifts and undying love to his woman, with a tenderness that would be foreign in the other Grinderman songs. Even the lyrical structure, listing items that range from the mundane to the fantastical, is a familiar tool of Cave’s. The final song, “Bellringer Blues”, could arguably fit with either Grinderman or The Bad Seeds. The wave of noise is comfortable in this album, but the way that it elevates Cave’s voice to the forefront of our attention is reminiscent of The Bad Seeds. I would argue that the lyrics (which seem to be rejecting the Bible as a comforting but ultimately damaging choice) fit in better with the conscience that Nick Cave displays under his own name – but since the first Grinderman album ended on the same theme, time could prove me wrong on this.

Regardless, those last two songs are both excellent (especially “Palaces of Montezuma”), and they do add variety to the album. I hope to see future Grinderman albums take the final steps to establish this band as separate from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, but there’s no denying that this is an outstanding album on its own. If this exercise helps to focus Cave on making great, distinct music with two separate bands, then that’s just an added bonus.

Grade: A

It’s A New Review Blog!

Hi there, and thank you for checking out the latest blog to clutter up the Internet.  After meaning to start one for years, but always changing my mind about what to write about, or delaying until I could find the time to plan it out perfectly, I’ve realized that I just need to start writing.  I’m going to post about various things that I’m interested in (usually in review form), and if it works out, I’ll worry about making it perfect later.

Probably the first thing to fix in the near future is the generic look of the blog, but the wide range of topics needs to be addressed soon afterwards.  I doubt there are many people out there who want to read reviews of punk CDs interspersed with board games, and those few who like that mix are probably going to be bored by the comic book stuff.  It would be nice if I could make convenient micro-sites for single-interest people, or even separate RSS feeds.  But again, start writing first, and make it perfect later.  There (hopefully) will be things you like mixed into this blog, and if there aren’t, then I shouldn’t worry about you reading this anyway.

So, about the name.  “Cult of the new” is a phrase that turns up from time to time, mostly in the board game community.  It refers to those people who will buy a $50 game knowing that even if they like it, they’ll probably only play it 3 or 4 times before they put it aside to focus on the next new thing.  While I will return to things I enjoy, this definitely describes me well.  I’m 32 years old, and it’s been almost a decade since I noticed that most people my age were starting to complain that new music wasn’t as good as it was when they were teenagers, all the movies that came out in the past year sucked, and really, they just didn’t have the time to look for new books.  Personally, I think that we’re in a golden age for music, literature, and pretty much any other interest you can think of.  The Internet makes your interests accessible no matter how small the niche, and gives potential creators the information and support community that they need to get started.

Admittedly, a lot of my articles will return to authors and artists that I already like.  Also, I expect that I’ll often be reviewing things that are years old, just because they’re new to me.  This is the point where I find myself stopping and wondering if “Cult of the New” is the right name for this blog or not.  But I have to remember:  Just start writing.  Make it perfect later.