2011 in Review: Books I Read

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For 2011, I decided that after a prolonged period of paging through books mostly written before my lifetime, I decided that I would only read books which were written, revised, or completed after 1984.  It was an exercise I would recommend: shake up your reading! Dive into a period or a genre you’re not familiar with or found reason to dislike in the past.  What you find may surprise you.
These books constituted the best of the best of my reading list this year.  All come with a sterling seal of approval.  Some of them were highly informative.  Some made me cry.  All of them, actually, made me laugh at one point or another, and the world needs to laugh.  Maybe that’s why I feel they’re important.
Some of these books I previously wrote about on the blog, and I’ve included the appropriate links.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
An intelligent, poetic, rip-roaringly funny novel which evolves chapter by chapter into an intelligent, poetic, devastating, cathartic novel.  I afterwards read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel which gave more of the same, was intermittently effective, and sadly was intermittently too precious and showy for its own good.  This does not diminish the power of Safran Foer’s debut in the slightest.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
A masturbatory explosion of violence and evil for an endless nightmare of pages, written as if Homer and Virgil had come back from the grave into nineteenth-century Texas.  One of the most powerful and important American novels ever written. Cannot really be talked about unless with someone who’s read it.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
This is the book I dream of writing.  It ranks with Blankets and Fun Home in the running for the greatest graphic novel ever written, and may be my favorite example of what the medium is capable of producing.  A complex, stirring story of romance, revelation, and philosophical insight, the book goes beyond any level you expect as Mazzucchelli changes his lines, panels, coloring, everything page by page in perfect combination with the tone and voice of each separate scene. It is impossible to ask for more from any book…here is a writer and artist giving everything he has to give.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
The sadly late Carol Shields is one of my favorite Chicago-born writers because of one book.  In 1993, she won the Pulitzer Prize for an extraordinary novel of which the New York Times wrote, “this is a reminder of why literature matters.”
As a literary scholar, I believe that narrative penetrates the entire spectrum of human existence, and The Stone Diaries not only explores that idea to the fullest extent but also combines in in a perfect alchemy with the strongest feminist storytelling I’ve ever read which didn’t come from Doris Lessing.
The Stone Diaries is a fictionalized biography/autobiography of Daisy Goodwill, whose long life as a girl, wife, mother, writer, and finally feisty retiree is merely ordinary, but when laid out from birth to death is also laden with meaning and aftereffects: I have read many tales which describe the chains of love, influence, and inspiration handed down between generations, but rarely have they been so powerful and interesting.  Shields uses a multitude of narrative voices: her own, that of Daisy herself describing her own birth and many other things, Daisy’s family and friends, and archival newspaper articles and correspondence (also fictional). The final result is that Daisy’s story is full of thought-provoking detail, but it pushes your brain even further because the multitude of voices imply even more layers to the story. It’s a book you read, then read again a year later, and probably again after that…
Moreover, Shields is a master builder of characters.  Like Trollope, she writes about very decent people, flawed but basically good at heart, and minces nothing about their virtues and vices.  In the above two works, wonderful as they are, part of their effectiveness comes from the exaggerated and poetic qualities of the characters.  Shields’s world is painstakingly real.
The Stone Daries was 360 pages in the original hardcover.  The Penguin modern classic paperback I have is even shorter.  But the story is nearly as sweeping as Anna Karenina. It is a must-read.
The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike
I read seven John Updike novels this year, more than any other writer on the list, but before I break into this exploration I want to say something about Alfred Hitchcock which I found useful in reacting to Updike.
Hitchcock’s two favorite leading men, whom he worked with four times apiece between 1941 and 1959, were two actors of iconic status equal to his own: Cary Grant and James Stewart. And one critic or biographer I read once, whose name escapes me now, wrote that Hitchcock cast Grant as the man he dreamed of being, the suave, action-ready romantic hero of Notorious and North by Northwest, while he cast Stewart as the man he really was, the smart, more nervous, obsessive, and secretly passionate man at the center of those psychological twisters Rear Window and ‘Vertigo.’
John Updike already had a clear alter ego in the famous (and still unread by me but that will change) Maples short stories, but in his two longest-running recurrent characters, I think he was working with a principle similar to Hitchcock’s.  Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the ex-basketball star turned prosperous car salesman with a mildly adulterous streak and a penchant for surprisingly effective turns of phrase, was such a fully-realized character that I had to imagine he WAS Updike in a way, Updike if he had never been a writer. And Henry Bech, New York-born, secular Jewish, amazingly influential but way too unproductive, and entranced all too often by the opposite sex, was Updike’s comic vision of himself as the great American writer.
Reading seven books of his, my readers, you can imagine I fell in love with Updike, how he told delightful stories and let his characters grow, but that growth also explains why one sequence stood out more for me than the other.  Rabbit, Run is a quintessential wunderkind book, bursting with nonconformity and postmodernity and early hints of how the 1960s became the 1960s and a deliberately ambiguous conclusion.  Admittedly, I probably should judge the novel in accordance with its time, but doing that doesn’t explain how Rabbit Redux was such a long slog stuck in the same not quite mature pattern.  It was the last two novels, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, both Pulitzer honorees, which had me drinking up Updike’s language, style, careful construction, emotional touches.  Those books are must-reads, MUST-READS which made me care deeply and empathize through the characters’ darkest moments and worst decisions, and the final chapters of the fourth book, which mirror the opening of the first, constitute one of the most poignant and moving sequences in American literature.  But those first two books…
And I can’t excuse Updike because he was writing the Henry Bech story concurrently, he hit the right tone and style from the beginning, and developed it appropriately over 36 years of magic.  Written as a series of short stories and novellas collected in three volumes, Bech’s life switches back and forth between America, where he forms tricky emotional entanglements, reacts to everything with cynical humor, and tries to write, and the rest of the world, an unsettling locale where he keeps getting sent as a cultural representative, finds himself feeling bemused or sad or both at once, can’t get anything started with the women he meets who become his saving grace, and never has the opportunity to write.
There are so many ways to absorb the Bech stories.  As masterpieces of humor, certainly.  But they also function in more emotional ways, for instance, as a contemporary version of the Wandering Jew mythos.  Bech’s constant traveling always has him longing for America and New York, and even in America his excursions into suburbia leave him miserable, but he never seems at home in New York either, letting the evolving city feed his insecurities, and on top of that he always walks a thin line between embracing and sublimating his cultural identity.  This variation has actually taken on greater weight, in my eyes, in the globalization age, as America loses dominance in all but cultural imperialism.
But on a personal level, I responded to Henry Bech, under the hilarity, as a moving portrait of the creative mind in any age.  Updike captures the mix of beautiful inspiration and necessary, sometimes plodding craftsmanship which art demands, the intense romantic passions which make the art possible and carry over into life (it doesn’t matter that Bech is a straight man…I believe Updike could have written about a man or woman, straight, gay, or bi, and produced the same emotional effect in any case), and the constant recognition of growth and change, wanted and unwanted, both personally and in the world surrounding you.
As short pieces, picking out highlights is both easy and a little necessary.  The best parts of Bech: A Book (the 1960s) are his trips to Russia, London, and Bulgaria (the latter, a bittersweet tale, marked his first appearance) and his experience with marijuana.  Bech is Back (the 1970s) is dominated by the magnificent description of Bech becoming a husband, stepfather, and unexpected number-one best-seller and predictably not dealing well at all.  And Bech at Bay takes our hero up to 2000 and beyond, ending in two stories which allow Updike to cross into near-fantasy, except that Bech is still so Bechian that we accept everything as real, crack up without pausing to breathe in between the laughter, then let our hearts flutter at a very appropriate ending.
Possession by A. S. Byatt
This is sort of a judgment call. One of the most fantastic ideas for a story I’ve ever come across, actually two stories in one.  Half of the book is excellent.  The other half…the execution is botched.
Here’s the idea: two Ph. D.s in 1990 London discover that the two Victorian writers they specialize in may have had an intense, physical love affair.  Byatt crosscuts between Randolph and Christabel falling in love back then, in a highly moral and restricted world, and Roland and Maud searching for the evidence of their subjects’ romance and, despite an overintellectualized academic training which makes them interpret and distrust anything emotional, fall in love themselves.  Byatt then tells the story through poems, letters, and journals which are dead on pastiches of the Victorian era, along with lectures and articles and language which perfectly capture modern academia.  And there’s footnotes galore!
Here’s the problem: in the modern section, Byatt is great at describing the highs and lows of the scholarly, intellectual life and the peculiarly temperamented individuals who live this life, but she can’t wrap a convincing plot around them.  I felt like I was reading a film treatment which had all the rough edges and intricacies filtered out.  The characters, including the supposed antagonist, are all likable except for the one obvious jerk, and the complications and problems get way too easily resolved. The final resolution is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s a manipulative one as well…I didn’t feel it had been entirely earned.
On the other hand, the Victorian section is like the novel I always dreamed Borges would have written, a Romantic cornucopia of apocrypha, of things which don’t exist but really feel like they did…only Byatt’s protagonists are living, breathing, troubled souls who seem to be looking straight into your own spirit through their poems and fairy tales and tortured letters.  It’s a world you want to get lost in, and it’s truly worth rolling through the weaker chapters to luxuriate in the stronger ones.
(Though to reiterate, the weaker chapters are worth it for the detailed touches. Mortimer Cropper is a heck of a good character, and the small part near the end with Roland alone in the cellar apartment resonates just right with its description of the creative spark.)


Cultural Amnesia by Clive James
One of the best books I have ever and will ever read.  In fact, I just re-read it and discovered even more vital insight.  This is the grandest defense of humanities, liberal democracy, and the need for the creative spirit.  Everyone on the planet should read this book.
The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn
Non-fiction that reads like the most glorious poetry. A tale of history, family, and the place of religion in people’s lives, of what gives us meaning. I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, but this one cuts to what I can assume was the emotional truth of the situation.
Postwar by Tony Judt
I’ve had enough of left-wing and right-wing news and history. Part of what made Clive James such a spirit-lifting read was his condemnation of both sides. But what if you don’t care about Benjamin and Vargas Llosa, or have no interest in learning who Lichtenberg and Polgar were? Tony Judt’s history of Europe after World War II is a factual argument for the same moderate principle. His look at how social democracy and economics turned the continent into a unique power all its own is history which reads like a great suspense novel, full of thrilling action and dramatic decision-making all subject to Judt’s penetrating, occasionally wry analysis.  And in a book written just before the EU meltdown, Judt’s commitment to square, even-handed appraisal of how ideas succeeded and failed, how they were strong or weak, pointed the way to how such a turn of affairs was going to be possible.  As we enter an age which looks more and more to be centered on the USA, China, and India, it’s important to remember that even with a reduced role Europe is not going away and still influences.  Judt’s history is an entertaining and ultra-informative reminder of that fact.  Like Shields, I wish I had discovered him before he died…any historian who can write with such skill and authority AND reference Sir Cliff Richard is a top figure in my book.
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
Another history of ideas, not political this time but scientific.  Today technological advances and new discoveries are taken for granted…our new Apple products and medicines roll down the line and we don’t blink an eye.  But Holmes, who wrote classic biographies of Shelley, Byron, and Richard Savage, brings to life the Romantic era in England and the ways science captured people’s imaginations and integrated with popular society.  Holmes’s canvas spans the entire gamut of the period, from obscure professors to the aforementioned poets, plus Mary Shelley’s invention of sci-fi.  But he concentrates on three disparate figures: naturalist explorer turned eminence grise Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel, and chemist Humphry Davy, all of whom found their passions getting firmly fixed in the public eye with varying results.  Holmes has a plain, welcoming style, and, more importantly, a contagious delight in his material.  There’s a mammoth list of people who would be interested in this book: any history or science or biography lover, steampunk aficionados, feminists (for his remarkable characterization of Caroline Herschel, William’s sister and assistant), and many more…though as now more of a geek than ever, I think of this book as a nerdy paradise.
Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley
I read a lot of outstanding biographies this year: Sir Michael Holroyd on Augustus John, Roy Jenkins’s epic life of William E. Gladstone, D.J. Taylor’s diving into the psyche of William Makepeace Thackeray, and Claire Tomalin going beyond the diary to depict Samuel Pepys and his tumultuous times.  But Robin Kelley, professor of History and American Studies at USC, wrote about Thelonious Monk with an unflinching need to accumulate every bit of information possible and an exuberant amount of love.  Monk is not just one of the greatest American composers and musicians of all time.  He was one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century, and this biography is worthy of such a man.  My earlier statement was no overstatement: Kelley conducted a multitude of interviews, dug up every article and piece of correspondence, walked every street, and most of all listened to every song.  But he is never dragged down by the data.  Instead he synthesizes it all to try to understand who Monk was, his motivations and inspirations, how he worked, and above all why people incorrectly thought he was a little insane.  Music writing is often entertaining but rarely great prose.  Kelley gives us great prose.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
A most unusual biography, the story of cancer and how we as humans have tried to combat it, written with flair and verve and presenting a startling conclusion.  The 21st century is witnessing us as a species confronting our limitations and testing our capabilities not only socially but biologically, and Dr. Mukherjee, who writes like a great novelist, pays fitting tribute to our creativity and persistence in trying to save the lives of others while writing of out frailties with care and respect. A read which is not intimidating for the non-scientific and worth pondering by anyone.


A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I could not in good conscience put these on the list because I’m really not finished.  I’ve read only the first two volumes of Martin (though I own all five now) and Rothfuss’s book is the first of a trilogy, and like most fantasy novels in series they don’t really have rounded-off endings.  So I want to wait.  But I will say that my earlier judgment of A Game of Thrones applies equally to A Clash of Kings, with Martin introducing even more characters but keeping up the epic storytelling with no slouching and no weak spots, and adding heavier doses of magic.  And The Name of the Wind has a decent plot, albeit one which comes to a close far too abruptly for my tastes, but this is not a book you read for the story. You read it for the atmosphere and meticulous detail with which Rothfuss builds an entire world and narrates in a way which makes you think, this is how the medieval bards told stories for hours on long winter nights. You won’t put it down.
The Archaia Entertainment Catalog
Yes! I’m biased! But I can’t help it if Archaia puts out so many amazing titles for all ages and audiences and keeps setting a standard for quality which no one else can match.
And let me add: I was shocked when USA Today named An Elegy for Amelia Johnson one of their best comics of 2011. It deserved a place for Dave Valeza and Kate Kasenow’s art alone…but what stunned me was that no other Archaia books made the list.  Again, I’m biased because I know these people and have drunk and laughed and lived in tight quarters with them, but honestly you could have picked any book Archaia put out this year for this list and gotten no argument. I am humbled to be in such creative company.
The books: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read them all, but these were my favorites.  I’ve rhapsodized enough over Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, but this year also saw Royden Lepp’s Rust: Visitor in the Field, a tale of childhood, Americana, and jet packs and robots with a remarkable style.  And the new anthologies of Fraggle Rock and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, with editors Tim Beedle and Nate Cosby marshaling so many forces into perfectly compact artwork and writing.  And the note-perfect noir homage from Victor Quinaz and Brent Schoonover, Mr. Murder is Dead. And Josh Hechinger and Marvin Mann’s action-packed, witty, fantasy-filled homage to Leone and Ford The Grave Doug Freshly. And Chandra Free’s hallucinatory The God Machine. And Drew Gaska’s precedent-setting prose tale Conspiracy on the Planet of the Apes. AND Giannis Milongiannis’s elaborate cop thriller Old City Blues which is kind of but not really like Michael McMillian and Anna Wiesczyk’s impressionistic supernatural cop thriller Lucid. AND Brandon Thomas’s twist on classic superheroes, Miranda Mercury. AND Swifty Lang, Michael Lapinski, and Chris Mangun’s mix of werewolf thriller and political commentary, Feeding Ground. AND Jean-Pierre Pecau’s elaborate alternative spin on human existence as an epic power struggle, the lavish The Secret History. AND Marjane Satrapi’s fairy tale The Sigh. I didn’t even get to Ramon Perez and his glorious interpretation of Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand yet because I still don’t have a copy! But these books and all our others will, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “stuff your eyes with wonder.”
Go online, to your comic store, and read them today.  And trust me, 2012 and 2013 will be even better.

(Arachaia also publishes David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, but did I have to say that? You should know already!)


2011 in Review: The Great Songs

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This year, women sang way better than men. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

So I caught The Descendants last week, and how I do wish Alexander Payne made more movies.  This is a worthy successor to Sideways, which similarly was an intense character study of two interlocked people learning about life in an unusual landscape.  Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it makes you want to cry, and all the rhythms of behavior and lines of dialogue are perfectly natural.  George Clooney has never been better…his presence and silences speak louder than anything in this film.  Shailene Woodley is magnificent in the smaller role of his teenage daughter.  And the whole ensemble fits together like a family gathering around a Christmas table. (Clooney even reminded me of my dad and uncles a lot.)

I say all this because I wanted to wrap up 2011 by looking back at just how much culture I experienced, only that’s almost impossible.  The Descendants was one of four movies I saw in theaters this year, and my television watching dropped to Modern Family and Doctor Who (and don’t worry, there’s a giant essay in the works on the adventures of this most benevolent physician). But I can write about a few other avenues which I explored…and decided to write two medium-sized essays instead of a really long one.  Books will be coming up in Part II, but Part I will focus on my great love, music.

This year was full of music, standing by me in times of happiness and sadness alike.  It was full of LIVE music: I saw Iron & Wine perform a roaring electric folk romp of a show at Millennium Park…where I also reached a new level of transcendence witnessing the finest contemporary classical musicians in Chicago perform the works of Steve Reich.  The Jazz Festival was an amazing weekend: Randy Weston still going strong, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and Ravi Coltrane interpreting the Meditations of Ravi’s dad, and David Sanchez and Roy Hargrove laying down two and a half hours of Blue Note and Impulse-style music the way it was meant to be.

Most of all, I finally got to see the Dave Matthews Band after a decade of enjoyment.  Amos Lee, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Ray LaMontagne were great openers, but Matthews, backed by two horns and extra guitar, delivered the kind of concert we all hope to see, picking songs which spanned his whole career and never letting up on the jamming. Three highlights: the solo piano “Out of My Hands,” the closing twenty-minute explosion of “Jimi Thing,” and an opening set in which he strung together “Big-Eyed Fish,” “Don’t Drink the Water” better than I’d ever heard it, and “Rapunzel,” the song that made me a DMB fan and is still one of the trickiest numbers I’ve ever listened to.

And when not getting up close and personal, there was the radio, and iTunes, and Spotify…my new favorite toy apart from the iPone it works so well on. Between them, I heard a lot of wonderful pop-rock in 2011, all from a variety of sub-genres.

My parents love pop-rock, and I have become a discriminating listener and undiscriminating lover.  It doesn’t matter to me if you’re pushing boundaries for a meager but loyal audience or crafting a record designed to assail the Billboard Hot 100. If it sounds great, hits that combination of melody, lyrics, arrangement, and voice, I’m going to love it.

And this year, there was a lot of good music like that emerging…and I got to hear all but a few of these on actual radio.  These songs made me smile, made me shake with emotion, and, even the ones not exactly suitable for male vocals, made me want to stand up and sing along, and sometimes do just that.

So here’s my top fifteen…no my very sweet sixteen…songs of 2011. And a DISCLAIMER: this includes three songs which came out at the tail end of 2010 but I bought and listened to in this year of Our Lord.

“Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele

One of two songs on the list my erstwhile partner Kate Kasenow is responsible for my listening to. Adele’s domination of the airwaves this year was glorious to behold, but as great as “Rolling in the Deep” (which I stopped listening to for a while when it got so overplayed but now badly want to hear again) and “Someone Like You” are, I want “Set Fire to the Rain” to be released as a single…the melody is as strong as those aforementioned two cuts, if not stronger, and the lyrical imagery perfectly matches the passionate mood.  What sealed this for me was the clip of Adele singing it at the Royal Albert Hall, her beautifully curvy body shaking, lips quivering, eyes blasting ferocity into the souls of all who watched her, never being overwhelmed by strings and singers, at ONE with the music.  If this song does that to her, imagine what it could do to you.


“Don’t Carry It All” by The Decemberists

Let’s face it…with Occupy on one side and the Tea Party on the other, the threat of shutdown, the emergence of the NDAA and SOPA, I don’t know where this beautiful country of mine is heading, but both the above groups have shown that power can truly lie in the hands of the populace as long as we raise our voices and take action.  The Decemberists have written a perfect anthem for this historical moment, a song of holding on to hope in dark times through the strength of friendship and community.  Colin Meloy’s twang, the acoustic strings, the banging drums, and the massed chorus channel the glory days of Pete Seeger, and the song itself bursts with sincerity from every chord.


“Video Games” by Lana Del Rey

As a writer about art on this thing called the Internet, it seems I’m contractually obligated to give an opinion on the matter at present.  So in three parts…

First, it seems Lizzy Grant tried to be a pop star, failed, then changed her name and image and found a way she could get people’s attention.  David Bowie did the same thing.  So did John Mellencamp (albeit he eventually switched to his real name after fifteen years of stretches). Art is by nature about projecting something that isn’t precisely real.  That’s why it’s art. And let me tell you as a literary scholar, what a person actually holds as integral to them is deuces difficult to figure out. I give the benefit of the doubt here.

Second, I’ll admit this act might grow tiresome. I watched the new video where she’s sitting on a bishop’s chair in a cathedral flanked by tigers.  By the end, I was aghast, thinking, what the heck was that and what was the point?

But third, the reason I watched the new video was because before I even saw Miss Del Rey, I heard her (shocked?) on Jill Pantozzi’s tumbler, and she’s on this list because I heard far more substance than style in her breakout salvo. The music is sinister and seductive, the lyrics switch from cynical to plaintively heartfelt and it doesn’t feel forced, Del Rey’s voice, which sounds like the young Randy Newman if he’d had a sex-change operation, draws you in (along with Justin Vernon, she has the most distinctive vocal style on the list), and the arrangement for piano, harp, drums, and strings recalls Gordon Jenkins at his best.

Obligation fulfilled.  Now I’m shutting up.


“Moneygrabber” by Fitz and the Tantrums

Here’s another act which came out of nowhere.  I remember hearing this for the first time on 93.1 and thinking that this had to be some chestnut from the 1960s on Atlantic or Stax they dug up, but no…Michael Fitzpatrick has a killer soul voice, doesn’t let a guitar get near the Tantrums, and recorded the song in his unsoundproofed living room.  The final product is an old-school kick-ass jam which packs as many horns, keyboards, and soaring back-up vocals from Noelle Scaggs as it can in three minutes.  I have no idea what half the lyrics mean, but I bang my head every time I hear that piano riff ring out.  Every time.


“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

I’ve rarely heard a band keep their essence intact while making all the little tweaks to turn the good thing they had going into a great thing the way Fleet Foxes did this year.  Their debut album in 2008 was lovely, but every song sounded like they picked one instrument and layered their harmonies over it…the mix was bizarrely schizophrenic.  Helplessness Blues was a different story.  The arrangements were fleshed out, the music was even stronger, the lyrics retained their rich opaque quality, and the harmonies, with Robin Pecknold leading the way, are the most beautiful harmonies I’ve heard in years.  No one comes close…this sounds like the second coming of Simon & Garfunkel or the Association.  The title track, above all, recaptures the 1960s vibe with its acoustic guitars, gentle mood of Romantic idealism, and heavenly final structural shift.  As my friend Alex Bean remarked when he introduced me to this album, the song carries none of what the title suggests.  But trust me, the whole record sounds just like this…this song is singled out because it sets the tone for all fifty minutes better than the other cuts.


“Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine

Kate listens to Florence Welch and her massive-sounding machine while she draws, and I gave them a spin for that reason.  Lungs is one of the great albums of the decade, a string of already fine songs pushed to pantheonic heights by Florence’s singing-to-the-end-of-the-world-vocals. “Cosmic Love,” “Heavy in Your Arms,” “Drumming Song,” “Dog Days Are Over,” “You’ve Got the Love…” After that experience, I couldn’t wait to hear Ceremonials, but ended up disappointed…every song went on too long, the arrangements grew monotonous, and Florence was doing her absolute best to overcome the structural flaws but couldn’t make it happen.  EXCEPT on “Shake It Out,” a melody of affirmation in the wake of a break-up, a loss, any personal tragedy.  Florence builds the whole song in a crescendo of repeated exhortations, her voice shifting, echoing, layering on top of itself, and ending in the most positive of codas.


“Born This Way” and “The Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga

She gets two songs because I couldn’t pick between them.  I’ve already written about Her Ladyship at length, so to summarize, “Born This Way” is her most consummate track to date, a flawless pop song which you cannot resist dancing to and which carries not a single hint of negativity, and “The Edge of Glory” confirmed why she is a star: a rather ordinary number growing in infinitely exponential magnitude through sheer will on her part, as if she was directing the other instruments with her vocal.  Plus, it was Clarence Clemons’s last hurrah.

Let me add that the Thanksgiving special confirmed everything I had been sure was true about Lady Gaga’s abilities and gifts…that she could be riveting with just a grand piano and her laughing but surprisingly elegant voice.  After this year, she can do whatever she wants.  Go acoustic.  Tackle the Great American Songbook.  Front Queen’s next reunion tour (as was rumored a couple months ago).  Just make another electronic dance-pop album. It doesn’t matter, because I’m certain the next we hear from her will be superb.



“The Best Part of the Day” by Elton John and Leon Russell

The nicest surprise of the end of ’10-’11 period for pop music, in my opinion, was The Union reaching number three on the Billboard charts: an album in which Elton John and Leon Russell merged their styles together (not too hard since John counts Russell as a huge influence) and teamed with Bernie Taupin to produce suitable material for such a collaboration.  The best numbers are the actual duets, and the best of the best coincidentally has “the best” in the title.  A gorgeous song about everyday life and sharing it with someone you care about, Elton and Leon sound old and wise as their pianos wind around each other and T-Bone Burnett mixes in some organs, drums, back-up singers just the way they should be mixed.


“Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO

Sometimes I want to hear music which makes me feel.  Sometimes, I just want to dance, or hear something which makes me push my body a little harder in the gym.  There’s a thankfully long tradition of pop music for the latter purpose—“Shout,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Night Fever”—and LMFAO’s contribution boasts some of the most incessant hooks of the year, maybe THE most incessant, and good, dumb lyrics perfect for singing along to.  This song also inspired “Every day I’m Snufflin’.”  How can I not love it? A deserved number one.


“The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars

At first, I was not a Bruno Mars fan.  When I heard “Just the Way You Are,” I thought, okay, he took the title and thematic from Billy Joel did and made an embarrassment a thousand times worse than the Piano Man’s outstanding 1977 track.  Amazingly (at least in my opinion, and that’s what this essay is about, isn’t it?) everything he put out after that, I would automatically stop the dial and give it a listen.  How could I not?  Mars has a fun voice, writes strong melodies, and as long as he isn’t writing about being happily in love, his lyrics aren’t half-bad, and he packs a good deal of emotion into every verse and chorus…unlike someone like Will.I.Am who sounds exactly the same no matter what he’s singing about.

This was a tough call, because “Grenade” and “It Will Rain”* are damn good tracks, but there’s something about “The Lazy Song.” Similarly to watching Love Actually or reading James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, I am happy for a longer period of time than it took to experience the cultural object.  One of my guiding rules in pop and rock is that while heart and meaning are crucial, the best musicians should be able to have fun and/or not take themselves seriously all the time. (U2 are HORRIBLE at this, while Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Jethro Tull, even Yes could play goofy songs and riff-rockers on occasion.)  “The Lazy Song” is unpretentious with just the right amount of swagger, features a cool guitar lick and whistle all the way through, and had two great music videos.  Not that the latter should be a factor, but one had monkeys and the other had Leonard Nimoy. How can you not enjoy the song a little more knowing that?

*I want to point out that besides excelling as unintentional comedies, the Twilight Saga also has a propensity for picking decent-at-the-minimum songs for the soundtracks and engaging the best composers in Hollywood for the scores.  I would actually buy a box set of all the Twilight music.  Feel free to call me whatever you want.


“God Gave Me You” by Blake Shelton

I’ve been listening to country radio pretty regularly since I was nineteen, but although this period coincides with Blake Shelton’s deserved rise to stardom, I did not become a fan through hearing his music on the radio. Rather, it was the winter of ’09 and me, my dad, and my dad’s twin brother Uncle Richard were jamming up in Uncle Richard’s office with a few other friends of theirs from back in high school, running through Men at Work* and Donovan and Traveling Wilburys and Arlo Guthrie and everything under the sun…and then we took on Shelton’s “Austin.” Halfway through, I thought, “this is a great song, and I need to hear more.”  Shelton has not disappointed me since.  He squarely falls into the 21st-century country rubric, mixing uptempo songs about drinking beer and goofy takes on ideal lifestyles with romantic ballads, but his songwriting is always engaging, never histrionic and always relatable. (“The More I Drink,” for instance…I think every guy has lived this at least once.) “God Gave Me You” has a really good melody, but what I like more about are the lyrics: a statement of thanks to have love in your life which strikes exactly the right tone, awed but not overwhelmingly falling down on your knees…and works in words like “tethered” and “conspiracy” which never pop up in any songs.

*”Overkill” sounds fantastic on nothing but guitars.


“Miracle Worker” by Superheavy

WHY was this song not a hit? Mick Jagger, Damian Marley, and Joss Stone trade off vocals, Dave Stewart wails on guitar, and A. R. Rahman sets up a richly textured backdrop of sounds from around the world.  Once heard, it’s impossible to forget.  I can’t really say any more than that.


“Back to December” by Taylor Swift

On the other hand, I wrote a heck of a lot on this song a couple months ago.  Here’s the short version: Taylor Swift is a songwriter with a fantastic, natural gift for melody, but until now I was always just a bit embarrassed to listen to her because her lyrics have been aimed right at teenage girls.  “Back to December” was what I’d been waiting for from her: a mature, emotional song which anyone who’s ever loved and faded or lost could relate to.  And just to make it better, as if she knew she’d reached a new high, Swift brought in Paul Buckmaster to give the song exactly what it needed in the studio.  Her voice, fragile but full of conviction, is framed by his lush, propulsive orchestral arrangement which wouldn’t have sounded too out of place with Buckmaster’s work on Madman Across the Water.


“Gorgeous” by Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the great albums of my lifetime: inventive, revealing, and loaded with songs which either were hits or could have been hits.  But if you were to ask me what my favorite song on it was…it’s hard to pick one.  At different times I’ve had in constant rotation “Monster” (with its fantastic appearance by Nicki Minaj), “Hell of a Life” (one of the most deliriously obscene but fun songs I’ve ever heard), “Runaway” (which is only let down by the intro and outro going on a little long…7 ½ minutes would have been perfect), and “So Appalled” (every verse is great, and the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band sample gives it loads of momentum).  But in the end, “Gorgeous” wins out.  It’s not exactly better than any of the aforementioned songs, but there’s all these little touches which draw me in.  Kid Cudi’s chorus singing along with the Byrds’ guitar riff from “You Showed Me,” Kanye name-checking Alec Baldwin, the combination of braggadocio, rage, and vulnerability (the line about his balls is at one end, and the feeling throughout that Kanye is assuming the entire struggle of black America and is desperately trying not to let them down is at the other), the dig against American Apparel, and Raekwon’s optimistic closing verse.


“Holocene” by Bon Iver

My favorite song of 2011.

Music has always been there for me through every rise and fall of the runaway mine train which is my life.  2011 brought me a change of career (for the better) and artistic success beyond my wildest imaginings, and I kept this blog up pretty much the whole way through.  On the other hand, my first real love ended in an unexpected disintegration in September.  I remember putting on Blood on the Tracks and weeping for half an hour that night…because music and HER were wrapped together.  She had a beautiful voice, and by the summer half the songs I heard reminded me of her.

“Holocene” is mentally, emotionally, and (in my own unique case) geographically an extraordinary picture of what you feel after something so unexpectedly integral to you ends.  Justin Vernon’s imagery of a desolate but grand wintry landscape, the rising and falling melody, the intermingling of memory and in-the-moment sensation, the drums and the sudden appearance of saxaphone…all of it is here and all of it works.  But I do not find the song depressing.  Especially in the chorus, it sits on the border between resigned and accepting, of knowing your limitations and being ready to move on, even of knowing that your life and the people in it stretch out beyond that other haunting you.  The music and arrangement themselves take away from the gloom.  Vernon’s multi-tracked voice is warm, inviting, like a bard telling a tragic medieval romance with a valuable, holy point to it in the end, and the continuous guitar, its rhythm strong and volume steady even as the intensity rises, adds to a timeless feel.  This has happened before, it will happen again, and so many others have gone it through it with you…you are not alone.

And right now, I like feeling that I am not alone much more than I like feeling magnificent.


His Lisbon, however, is not mine.

Holroyd in Miniature

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The most shocking thing I saw in Vanity Fair this year was the appearance in their eminent portraiture collection of Sir Michael Holroyd.  Because most people don’t pay attention to Sir Michael Holroyd.  In America, at least, his books which are still in print sit quietly on the shelves of stores, and he’s not sought out for interviews or comments.  Even in that photograph, he’s quietly almost in the background, as the focus and the entire caption are both devoted to his wife Dame Margaret Drabble.  In short, he’s not a famous author the way Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCulloch are, let alone Rowling and Meyer.  His writing alone serves to give him public standing.


But the people who do pay attention to him–history buffs, fans (of which I am a big one), and the arts and culture press–know that he’s one of our greatest living writers. And more than that, he writes biographies, a field which is wide open to ultra-commercialism, poor research, and shoddy craftsmanship; the number of hastily-written life stories which were published based on fascination with the subject matter alone is a number too depressing to calculate.  (Just think of how many books are rushed out when a celebrity dies, and quickly end up in the bargain section.) Holroyd’s biographies are exhaustively researched and structured, then written in a style which isn’t quite plain, for it is centered in a command of the English language which any author would envy.  Sentences are always the right lengths, words precisely chosen, and simile, metaphor, comparison pop up at just the right moments.  Only a great writer could write so well so consistently.  However, what makes Holroyd a great writer is that he knows when to be quiet.  He never lets his art get in the way of the subject’s story, and he uses quotations, letters, and diary entries to maximum effect both in storytelling and character depiction.  His subjects become the dominant narrative voice, and Holroyd, despite the style which keeps the pages turning, slips out of the picture.  He wants the reader to be as fascinated by the people he’s writing about the way he’s fascinated by them…and it always works.


This pattern is part of why Holroyd’s sixth biography, A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, is so surprising.  In this late work, he breaks firmly away with the established structures and characteristics of his earlier books.  A clue to how anomalous A Book of Secrets is can be found in the length alone.  Following his short early biography of Hugh Kingsmill, his masterpieces, the authoritative lives of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, stretched to two and four volumes respectively.  The tantalizing and maddening biography of Augustus John was another two-volume set.  And his most recent text, the universally-acclaimed A Strange Eventful History, was a large single volume of almost 600 pages.  A Book of Secrets, a miniature hardcover of a size with The Last Lecture and other “ornate advice for crucial life moments” books, finishes at 258 pages.  And that INCLUDES the bibliography, family trees, and index.  For Holroyd, this is a short story.


Then he takes an even further leap off the Ravello hills which provide the book’s main setting.  There was only one thing ordinary about his magnificent Strachey, Shaw, and John biographies: as we traditionally expect, they focused on a single human being and narrated the life chronologically from cradle to the grave.  A Strange Eventful History expanded its focus, compressing the stories of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Terry’s children Gordon and Edy Craig into its shorter frame—but Holroyd still kept to strict chronology, and part of the reason why the book is as great as it turned out to be is that having more protagonists and less space lent an even sharper, crystallized focus to his writing.  A Strange Eventful History is a book which, though Holroyd as per usual never makes his presence overtly felt, powerfully reminds the reader from time to time that a covert hand is firmly in control.


A Book of Secrets, which again is not even half as long as History, covers the lives of two entire families, then adds two contemporary women who have special links to those families, and THEN has Holroyd as a figure in the narrative, interacting with the people in the present while searching for documentation of the people in the past.  Holroyd has written two autobiographical volumes (which I sadly have not read), but this is the first time he has mingled his own life with the lives of others.  And one of the ensuing results is that chronology moves into the wibbly-wibbly-timey-wimey realm of things.  Chapter Three alone is a nightmare of ranging, sometimes undated events, and the present-day intrusions appear at no predictable interval and vanish again.


What Holroyd is attempting to do, I believe, is something similar to what Strachey so brilliantly accomplished with Eminent Victorians: to produce a life in which the ideas behind and meanings of events do not share parity with the cause-and-effect classical storytelling, but break free to dominate the narrative.  Secrets becomes a sort of meditation on why the biographer writes the biography, what about a person’s life drives them to research and interview and go through so many drafts.  Hence, Holroyd has to be a character, because despite not being an absent father with an illegitimate daughter, this is his story as much as anyone’s, the story of his almost five decades of venturing into the past.


What is the story?  Holroyd centers his tale on two images: a bust by Rodin which he became fascinated with while writing at the British Museum in the 1970s, and the Villa Cimbrone, which he gushingly describes as an idyllic, almost unreal sanctuary in the hills above Ravello, Italy.  Holroyd makes two journeys to the villa, each one in connection with one of its past tenants.   Part One is about Eve Fairfax, the model for the Rodin bust, and her lover, the onetime Cimbrone owner Ernest Beckett, a master of bad political timing and fortune squandering…while a century later, Holroyd visits Ravello with Beckett’s illegitimate granddaughter Catherine Till to help her find proof of her ancestry.  Holroyd’s visit prompts an invitation to return seven years later by Tiziana Massucci, an Italian scholar who has an obsession with the people whose lives dominate Part Two.  Namely, Vita Sackville-West, her husband Harold Nicolson, her novelist lover Violet Trefusis, and Violet’s husband Denys: all Bloomsbury members, all of whom passed through Ravello.  If you’re guessing a great deal of rather English lovemaking and desire and “scenes” are going to occur within these pages, you’re absolutely right.


My criticism of the book as a totalized aesthetic object is that Holroyd’s abandonment of structure in favor of the circular, sense-memory quality does him no favors.  Rodin happened to sculpt Vita’s mother Victoria, the two groups of characters had acquaintances in common, and Holroyd discovers more about the groups in Cimbrone.  These are tenuous connections, and because Holroyd’s modern-day passages are minimal compared to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century stories, there is never a feeling of coherence, and a reader is left wondering why he slapped these two halves together and called it a whole.  Then, in the epilogue, Holroyd states “This book has no settled agenda” apart from depicting “the intense involvement with absent figures from the past that prompts biographers to write.” Okay, that’s admirable, but it’s also taking the postmodern extreme a little too far for my taste.  If Holroyd had wanted to write a book about these figures circling around Cimbrone, that would have been…well, still flawed, unless he had dug up concrete connections and expanded the palette, which would not have been impossible.  But even a flawed version would have been better.  And an essay or fuller, career-spanning autobiographical volume on the nature of this pursuit, similar to Nigel Hamilton’s excellent How to Do Biography, would have been smashing.  But when Holroyd crushes it all together in minimal space, and hoists this reasoning on us at the end, it fails to work for me.


And yet, I cannot put down A Book of Secrets in this little piece any more than I could put it down when I was reading it.  Holroyd’s writing style has, almost 45 years after the Strachey biography, remained elegant and inviting, and his talent at character depiction and psychological insight is stronger than ever.  In this tiny space, he brings the central figures of his panorama to breathing, waking life, and for the first time, I felt a strong empathy with those figures.  Paradoxically, leaving behind any idea of an agenda allows Holroyd to focus more on the emotional details in relatable ways.  As humans, we want our lives to have some meaning and value, and the long vignette in Chapter Three of an abandoned, poverty-stricken Eve collecting signatures and poems from the renowned of Britain in her “Book of Secrets” as a means of validating her life is not only blackly comic but all too resonant.  And for those of us who have loved and gone on loving under dire circumstances, the tangled love rectangle between the Trefusises and the Nicolsons is, if more dramatic than ours, no less applicable to the moments when we do and say what we conceived in hasty passion and could not take back afterwards.


Finally, Holroyd, while being a little too quick to pass unsupported judgments on his acquaintances, writes about his present-tense life with frankness, honesty, and humor.  I always imagine that my favorite writers are people I’d enjoy knowing in reality.  Holroyd fits into that category…all it took was one good description of a harrowing journey by car through Italy.


In the same Epilogue, Holroyd calls A Book of Secrets “my last book.”  I pray it is not.  Yes, he is 76, but if he has the energy, he could unearth a last set of secrets, tell one more story, and end his career with a final masterpiece.


Martin Scorsese Gets Personal

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Looking at the past two weeks’ chatter on my friends’ Facebook and Twitter accounts, here’s a bit of a surprise.  Martin Scorsese, one of our grand masters, has released two major, year-in-the-making motion pictures in the past two months, and there’s been remarkably little chatter.  It’s understandable.  One’s an HBO documentary, and unless you have HBO or really care about the subject matter, those can get overlooked.   The other’s a nine-figure budget movie which hit theaters on the same timetable as Breaking Dawn: Part One and The Muppets.  Now, I’m not saying the attention those films are getting is undeserved.  My secular side worships at Jim Henson’s altar, and the Twilight Saga (pretentiously labeled so after everything was done, by the way), possesses sterling entertainment value in different ways for different people.  I’m also not saying Scorsese’s being unfairly ignored or even ignored at all.  There’s been some wonderful press, especially from Roger Ebert and Manhola Dargis.  But of the two movies, one is very, very good, and the other is, if not great, close enough, and I want to talk about why people should seek them out over the Christmas break and such.  Because you should.


Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning children’s story The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is being hailed by many as both one of Scorsese’s best achievements and arguably his most personal film.  I want to address the latter claim first by turning to my favorite scene in the picture, which gives nothing away.  In fact, consider this whole piece SPOILER-FREE.


Hugo Cabret takes his friend Isabelle to the great clock of the Montparnasse train station and shows her Paris stretched out under them.  Isabelle, in the profound way we have when we’re twelve, has been fretting that she doesn’t think her life has a purpose.  Hugo passes on some wisdom bestowed from his late father: that a machine is designed to never have extra parts.  Every part has a role to play.  When Hugo looks out at Paris, he sees it moving beautifully like the best machine, and extrapolates this to mean “the whole world is one big machine”…every person has a purpose to fulfill.


For those of you who don’t know much about Martin Scorsese’s personal life—something I know only because I sat through his outstanding documentary on the Golden Ages of Hollywood—he grew up in a loving, devout Italian Catholic family, and in his formative years, because of childhood illnesses, went to movies all the time as the one fun thing which didn’t involve physical exertion, and fell in love with them.  He would switch his ambition from being a priest to being a filmmaker.  Scorsese thus came of age in an environment of deep meaning given to lives and events, a sense of larger-than-life and dramatic possibility, and most of all, tight and visible connections between individuals.  These conceptions have run like the tightest threads through his oeuvre.  His most memorable films, Goodfellas and Mean Streets standing out, may have singular figures at their centers, but take pains to place those individuals as members of group.  Moreover, the individual identity is given weight and power from being part of a social unit, be it the Mafia or one of the warring organizations in Gangs of New York.  (I believe the tragic, dramatic power of Taxi Driver and The Departed lies in how the protagonists either cut themselves off from their identity (Travis Bickle) or are forced to lose their identities (William Costigan and Colin Sullivan).  Without being able to form bonds with others from an honest foundation, the characters suffer.)


Scorsese also has been attracted to characters who are shaped by their personal pasts and the social history of their environment, whose lives are filled with events given extra layers of meaning by belief and context.  It may be hard at first to compare Jake LaMotta to Jesus Christ, but in Scorsese’s vision both are men who are aware of their life and the significance of every moment…Jake using it as the basis for both self-realization and a bid for final commercial success, Jesus using it as a means for both torture and acceptance of His destiny.  Finally, Scorsese’s career has also seen his films grow more epic in scope, his work of the last decade reaching almost operatic sensibility in its storytelling and visual splendor.


Hugo is a film which reflects the mind of a quiet young man believing in some cosmic scales and higher purpose, believing that our histories intertwine and a past we sometimes struggle to understand is guiding us.  We are all connected in Scorsese’s imagination…it makes for a life worth living and for grand cinematic drama.  Hugo is the ultimate expression of this worldview.


The two main characters are Hugo and Papa Georges, the aging owner of the Montparnasse toy shop and Isabelle’s godfather.  The child and the man are both geniuses, mechanically inclined, full of deep emotions…but Papa Georges is also a cynical man who has lost his belief in his purpose.  Hugo holds to the unshakeable faith he shares with Isabelle that his life has significance in some way, and further believes that he knows how to find that significance.


For Hugo lives by himself in the train station, and has tended the clocks which guarantee the trains run on time since his uncle disappeared in an alcoholic haze.  How did Hugo end up with such a man?  His mother died when he was small, and his loving father was killed in a museum fire, leaving his son an automaton—a mechanical man, which when working properly will write on a piece of paper.  Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the automaton, a final message from his father will come.  But to fix it, he is ultimately forced to leave his shadowy home…which he does with the help of Isabelle.  And together they learn how Hugo and Papa Georges have a very special bond…


Now, in some reviews of Hugo, the critics describe what happens next in detail without giving away the final ending.  Others leave it alone.  I choose to leave it alone…I went in knowing what the second half of the film would focus on, and still had a moving and wonderful time, but if you, my reader, do not know, I would like to leave you to watch the story unfold as it beautifully does.


So enough of the plot, excellently adapted, by the way, by the always reliable John Logan.  Let’s get back to the movie as a movie, and the reaction that it is a high point for Marty.  I don’t think it’s as good as Raging Bull or The Departed, but that’s like saying–and I’ve used this analogy before but damnit, I still love it–that Rubber Soul isn’t as good as Revolver and Abbey Road.  Hugo is a beautiful movie, and it might rank high on his final list…I think the novelty of Scorsese shooting in 3-D and making a CHILDREN’S MOVIE has prompted the current reaction, and posterity will redefine the parameters of its outstanding quality.  This being said, his direction is assured, and from the opening sequence, a sort of overture which introduces the world of Montparnasse in long, vivid takes, his usage of 3-D is very well done.  Scorsese approaches 3-D as James Cameron did in Avatar, not necessarily to provide oomph to effects but to create an immersive environment full of rich detail.  He is helped by Robert Richardson’s fluid cinematography, Howard Shore’s delightful score inspired by the works of Django Reinhardt (who is also a character!), and Dante Ferretti’s production design, a world of ticking gears, glass houses, mammoth clocks, and great winding libraries and bookstores and trains…with even MORE gears, and wheels, and steam popping out…it may be set in the 1930s, but Scorsese and Feretti have created a steampunk fan’s happiest dream.


So the film is technically superb already, but now Scorsese blows past Avatar by combining the visuals with an equally superb cast of actors.  Four of them are billed above the title, and all four are excellent, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz most of all.  Butterfield looks like a young Paul McCartney, lean, earnest, and cute, soulful, and uncompromising all at the same time, and his performance as Hugo is similarly endearing.  At least, after the beginning…Hugo’s refusal to reveal the secret of the automaton is a little grating and sort of unnecessary, the one storytelling misstep…but afterwards, once Hugo actually starts interacting with the other characters, Butterfield brings out an essence of goodness and light, as well as a capacity for worthwhile risk and daring which makes the climax work even more.  Butterfield’s versatility makes me believe he’ll have a good long career.  So will Moretz.  This is the first time I’ve gotten to see her act, and her Isabelle is…there’s no other word for it…alluring.  She’s a 12 year-old version of the dream geek girl.  Pretty, distinctive (Isabelle is never without a beret), outsized personality (Isabelle reads all the time, has a Romantic personality in extremis, and insists on using multi-syllable words even when they’re not necessary), always up for fun and adventure, and a loyal friend.  Isabelle could have been a standard free-spirit who warms up the hero, but her profundity, as mentioned, has a serious and reflective side, and Moretz is even better in those scenes.


Sir Ben Kingsely plays Papa Georges, and this is the Kingsley of Gandhi and Schindler’s List—quiet but forceful, full of turmoil but also dignity and grace.  His character undergoes a great transformation, and Sir Ben handles it with understated mastery.


But delightful surprise #1 is Sacha Baron Cohen as Gustav, the station inspector.  I have been a fan of Cohen’s for years, but I was always nervous about how his career would go once he retired Ali G, Borat, and company…and with them his unique methodology for humor.  Hugo obliterates all my fears.  Playing a relentless detective with a painful past, a loyal dog, and a serious attraction for the woman who sells flowers (a winsome Emily Mortimer), Cohen emotionally channels Charlie Chaplin, physically recalls Buster Keaton in the way he moves and interacts with the machinery around him, and speaks as if all six Pythons were talking at once…in the scene where he interrogates Hugo and Isabelle, I swore I could hear Cleese, Idle, and Palin in different inflections by the second.  And despite all of this, he is in the end recognizably Cohen, with his word choices, pauses, expressions…and he’s great.


Scorsese fills the rest of the cast with more terrific actors.  Jude Law (who reminded me even more than usual of Michael Caine) has a fine cameo as Mr. Cabret, with Ray Winstone popping up as his brother-in-law.  Helen McCrory, so radiant and mysterious that I can see how she played Anna Karenina on the BBC, is as good as Kingsley in the role of his wife, Mama Jeanne.  Richard Griffiths romances Frances de la Tour as comic relief, Christopher Lee plays the bookstore owner we wish all bookstore owners could be, and…in delightful surprise #2…Michael Stuhlbarg is as endearing as Butterfield, playing a college professor very, very different from the one he excelled as in A Serious Man.  In fact, new rule, if Michael Stuhlbarg is playing a college professor, this film will be terrific.  Hollywood, remember that!

Scorsese himself is in the film for two seconds, as a man behind a camera.  A man observing what will turn out to be the birth of something, which in this film is the most appropriate role for him to play.  He is describing his rebirth, the rebirth which happens to everyone who has an artistic dream in their childhood and fulfills that dream as an adult.  In a world which seems increasingly dark, this maker of some of the most intense and thought-provoking films ever now gives us sweetness and light, something realistic and optimistic.  As long as there are spirits like Hugo Cabret and Papa Georges in the world, the collective human spirit, functioning like a machine, will endure.


The spirit…if Hugo is about the action of an existence, then George Harrison: Living in the Material World is about this most hard-to-understand but essential facet of existence.  Like Scorsese, George Harrison was a lapsed Catholic, only the “Quiet Beatle” found that his soul was desperate for faith, and his life became an example of living in faith.

Living in the Material World is a standard-issue documentary, mixing new interviews with archival performances and great photography.  Where Scorsese diverges from your standard rock-doc is that he says little about Harrison’s musical career.  The emphasis in every section of the long (3 ½ hours) but never boring film is Harrison’s life in relation to the spiritual powers he believed in and to other people, the transformative effect he had on others.  In fact, if George Harrison was a fictional character, he’d have a lot in common with Hugo Cabret.  That he really existed makes the film so affecting and effective: Scorsese talks to Paul and Ringo, Harrison’s family, his friends, and there are no stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess, nothing out-of-the-ordinary…except Harrison’s dedication to a life beyond this one and the sometimes witty, sometimes intense, always heartfelt way he shared this unique worldview with others, and changed them.  It is a film which makes you think, what effect do I have on others?  How do I share my life and my convictions with them?  How do we all fit together?  And I can’t help thinking about the world in 2012 again and believing that these are questions we need to ask to find the common ground a global society needs.


But the documentary is also an entertaining portrait.  In the interviews, Scorsese goes beyond the usual suspects and seeks out Klaus Voorman, Astrid Kirchherr (neither of whom I’d seen interviewed anywhere), Derek Taylor’s widow, Jim Keltner, all the people on the fascinating borderlands of the Beatles saga.  Members of Monty Python, Jackie Stewart, Tom Petty, and more are along for the ride.  The longest interviews are with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Harrison’s widow Olivia Arias, who are all insightful and honest but also reverential…the biggest revelation in the film is that Harrison had a larger libido than we might have thought before, and it’s entertaining watching Paul and Olivia try to say this without saying it.  Indeed, Paul’s defense of George, which consists of a very obtuse definition of being a guy, is one of many scenes in which Sir Paul comes across as a bit doltish.  (Take this with a grain of salt, however, for this is from the same director who, inadvertently or not, gave Robbie Robertson a horrid reputation after the excessive fawning in The Last Waltz…a film which my friend Ashley Locke says makes Robertson now look like rock’s great supervillain.)


In the end, Living in the Material World works in a way Scorsese may not have anticipated.  Jesus in the Bible speaks of needing to have the wisdom of an adult and the heart of a child to live the ideal faith, and in a revealing interview, Terry Gilliam describes himself, the Pythons, and George as people “pretending to be grownups.”  George Harrison kept a sense of wonder and a belief in something greater in him through his life, even through divorces, near-fatal assaults, and a fatal illness…Olivia’s description of his last moments is tear-jerking in the best way.  But George held true to what was important to him.  So did Hugo Cabret, and so, I think, does Martin Scorsese.  And these are stories with happy endings.

On Two Number-One Albums from the 1970s

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The more I listen to today’s popular music, the more I believe we’ve entered a new Renaissance, or at least an Enlightenment.  Adele, Arcade Fire, Florence + The Machine, Mumford and Sons, Kanye West…five artists out of many more who are not only putting out magnificent records, but also locking down top-ten at least positions on the Billboard charts.  When I was coming of age in Boardman, all the songs dominating the landscape sounded commercial, predictable.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We all need a good melody of the high sentimental or get up and dance variety now and then!  But for a while, having been raised on my parents’ coming of age music, the Beatles, Dylan, Carole King, etc., a negative possibility came into my mind that the music industry might forget that adventurous and ambitious are not the opposite of commercially lucrative.  The past few years have witnessed a great rediscovery of that fact.

In thinking about this matter, there are two chart-topping albums from the mid-1970s which come to mind as test cases, forerunners of how to be pursue an idiosyncratic vision and find mass appeal all at once.

Trivia question: today, it is commonplace for albums to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 200.  But this was very, very uncommon until the SoundScan era began.  Who did it first?  The answer is Elton John, in 1975, with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

If that title made you go “What?” you’re not alone.  My father was a big Elton John fan growing up and he made me an Elton John fan; he even got to see Elton on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour at the height of the costumed extravagance era.  But he stopped listening to Elton John regularly after Captain Fantastic.  Before I even listened to the album, he described it as a terrible record with one great song, the single “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

As you might imagine, readers, I disagree.  Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is one of Elton John’s greatest albums, but how it achieved that immortality-guaranteeing feat…and I have a theory which I’m saving for the end here…is a mystery at first glance, because it’s also the most idiosyncratic album of his career.  This was not a record made for casual listeners.  I don’t think John or Bernie Taupin were even considering an audience when they put this together.  This was the one album they were doing for themselves.

It’s a concept album.  John and Taupin had done a concept album before: their arguable masterpiece, Tumbleweed Connection, a suite of songs about the American South and West in the Civil War era.  Unlike the earlier work, this time they had a story, but the story was…about their moving to London as very young men, meeting up, becoming friends and writing partners, and struggling to find success.  There’s a happy ending, as if you read the liner notes, the story concludes with them writing “Your Song,” but that doesn’t change how they were asking us to listen to the future Sir Elton singing about himself for 47 minutes.

So why did people care?  Here’s the first possible answer.  I wouldn’t make too direct a comparison to Quadrophenia or Nevermind, but the emotional core of the record mines similar territory.  These are songs about being young, feeling different from the rest of the world, railing a little against the power structure, and trying to find success.  But…the difference is that it’s coming from a very specific point of view, that of the artist(s) trying to fulfill a creative vision, not the all-encompassing disaffection which Pete Townshend and Kurt Cobain offered their listeners.  If you’re a dedicated creative type, you get what Taupin is conveying, but if you’re not, it’s a little hard to do.

And they don’t make it easier, because, being conscientious songwriters, John and Taupin knew they could too easily sound full of themselves on the record.  Taupin’s solution was to crouch most of the tracks in metaphor, abstraction, and layers of poetic imagery, staying away from real details as much as possible.  The title track for instance.  “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” despite the first adjective, doesn’t sound self-aggrandizing.  It sounds like a silly cartoon.  And this trend continues on songs like “Tower of Babel,” “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows,” and “Better Off Dead.” Then there’s an EXTRA wrinkle for American audiences, in that other lyrics are full of concepts which would make sense for a British listener (“Bitter Fingers” is one of the most thoroughly British songs they ever wrote) but don’t make as much sense to us across the pond with only a casual knowledge of John’s career.

But if the lyrics were impenetrable, the music was the opposite.  Elton John wrote some of the greatest melodies of his career.  Of the ten songs, nine are clever, flowing, and easy to remember in a getting-stuck-in-your-head way, and the one exception, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” kind of doesn’t count because it’s actually part of a medley with the majestic finale “Curtains.” Moreover, John pulls out every variation he can do: he writes swooping emotional ballads, driving riff rockers, goofy music hall-style pop, soul, and quiet singer-songwriter introspection, and does it all well.  And unlike earlier albums, the sound is stripped down…two tracks have synthesizers and one features a full string section, all of which add just the right touches, but the majority is just Elton John and his seasoned band…Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson, and Ray Cooper, all of them sounding at the top of their game, with guitar licks, bass lines, drum rhythms, all coming in clear with the sonorous piano.  And it’s just as well that the whole album sounded so great, because the work was so fully integrated that there were no obvious singles.

Wait, didn’t I say earlier that the one song my dad liked was a single?  Yes, and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is one of Elton John’s best songs ever, has the strongest melody and the most impassioned vocal performance on the album, and became a deserved top-ten hit.  But consider this:
1) It’s the longest song on the album at six and a half minutes.
2) You can’t dance to it.
3) It has the most inscrutable lyrics in an already inscrutable series of songs, two verses of dense similes and a chorus which is addressed to someone named “Sugarbear” who probably is not a cereal spokesanimal .
4) Poke through the literary devices and the song is about Elton John breaking off his engagement to a pickle heiress because Bernie Taupin and Elton’s other best friends encouraged him once he’d made the decision, as they all knew by then that deep down, even though he hadn’t said it yet, Elton was gay.  And destined to be a figurehead for the LGBT community.  (Maybe not that last point, but come on, someone as outspoken and cool as him?)

Now, would you put money and resources into this song and release it as a single in 1975?  Would you release it as a single today?  MCA needed a single, and this was improbably the most logical choice.  Thus they ran with it.

So there was no reason on the planet that Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, as great as it was and is, should have been such a gigantic hit.  Except one: Elton John was one of the most famous people in the world in 1975.  People recognized his songs after two or three bars, and no one could mistake his public image.  Now here was an album with great songs and a ready-made promotional campaign where Elton just had to BE Elton.  This was more than a “can’t miss” proposition.  He had so many fans by now that the overwhelming response, as unexpected as it was, could have almost been a given.

How can I be sure of this?  Because it wasn’t just that Elton John recorded the first album ever to debut at number one in America.  He recorded the first TWO albums to ever debut at number one in America, and released both of them in 1975!  This is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Ted Williams reaching base in sixteen consecutive plate appearances.  It was impossible until somebody did it.

And people clearly wanted to snap up Elton John’s music, because that second album, Rock of the Westies…my father’s description of Captain Fantastic really applies to is follow-up.  The stupid title should have been a giveaway, but more importantly, the melodies are hit and miss, John had fired half the band and the new one sounds thin on more tracks than anyone would like them to, and Taupin’s lyrics are not only lousy and juvenile but borderline offensive…I feel embarrassed every time I hear “Island Girl,” which OF COURSE hit number one on the singles charts, it being a shorter, unambiguous song you could dance to as well as one of the more cringe-worthy tunes of the decade.  The one great song is their chronicle of a complex breakup, “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford),” a near-forgotten work of beauty.  But that song stands out for the worst reasons on this album, and Elton John would not get to number one again for almost two decades…

While some contemporaries of his were still in the middle of a long run of their own.  And I want to dwell on their work before briefly turning to the album in question because the more I thought about them, the more interesting they became…and they serve as an example to emulate and avoid for those artists I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.  Because…when people think about the most successful pop and rock artists in our country’s history, I’d wager the first names which come to mind are Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, the Motown stable.  There’s one band who would probably be further down the list, if they got thought of at all.  But their achievements were pretty darn extraordinary: their first number-one record came in 1972, their last in 1989…and that one turned out to be the biggest-selling single of the year.

The band was Chicago, and they have been a presence in American music for almost 45 years.  Their heart and soul, what has always made them so distinctive, has been the horn section. Walter Parazaider on sax and flute, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and James Pankow handling the trombone: three consummate musicians who knew almost everything you could do with the instruments.  Then, in the classic line-up, Robert Lamm sang with a soulful baritone and directed the mood for most of the pieces from his piano and keyboards.  Danny Seraphine understood rhythm and dynamics better than so many other drummers.  Terry Kath was an extraordinary guitarist, maybe the most talented member of the group, who could switch from crunchy riffs to the most introspective and unique arrangements.  And Peter Cetera was a good bass player who was blessed and cursed with a pitch-perfect and VERY distinctive tenor voice.

They were smart guys who all met while going to various Chicago colleges.  They all could write songs.  They loved to play, and their manager James William Guercio helped them sound fantastic both in the studio and on the stage.  This should have been a winning formula.  But…and this is coming from someone who’s been a fan his whole life…it never fully worked out, and their unique artistic career prompted me to ask the following questions:

Is it better to be an ambitious failure or a boring success?  Are either of those desirable at all?  And is it possible, if your strengths and weaknesses combine to pull you in either direction at any given time, to find a medium of aesthetic excellence?

From their very first album, Chicago’s aforementioned strengths kept crashing into their weaknesses like two intergalactic jet fighters in a sci-fi movie.  Chicago Transit Authority, released on Columbia in 1969 (that had been their original name….by the time the album was released, they had shortened it to simply Chicago after Daley threatened to unleash the full power of Daley on them), was an attempt to make not just a top shelf collection of music but a serious artistic statement, a two-record set designed to run the gamut of style and subject matter.  And most of it worked.  But the failures were glaring,

First, Chicago’s musical reach frequently exceeded their grasp.  The band was at their best performing melodically complex, tightly-written and arranged songs.  Whenever I hear a well-thought out Chicago song, I wish it would go on longer than it does because the sound is so perfect.  But they insisted, this being the era when so many acts were hungering for a snobbish artistic credibility, that a certain level of unstructured, heavily-improvised music had to be part of the equation.  (See Clive James’s essay on Duke Ellington for why this is a fallacy.) Chicago’s situation was, in a convoluted analogy that I still like, they had people who were the equivalent of the finest classical musicians I’m the world but who insisted they were the second coming of John Coltrane and Bill Evans.  WRONG.

Second, while their skills as composers were stunningly good, their lyrics were an unknown quantity.  When Chicago was writing little slice-of-life philosophical observation s, they were damn good, and when they were writing love songs, at their peak they were among the best of the best.  But when they were writing about weighty concepts and political themes, their lyrics ranged from mediocre to embarrassingly, I don’t want to hear this bad.  And unless you’re Cole Porter or Bob Dylan, there’s only so many ways to write a love song until you’ve exhausted your well of inspiration, so you have to pray you’ve got a deep well.  Chicago’s was fairly deep, but these implications would be felt in their final, deadly stretch of success.  However, let’s leave that as a blogger’s version of Hitchcockian foreshadowing and get back to how these qualities came into play on Chicago Transit Authority.

On the one hand, there were some truly fantastic songs on that debut: “Introduction,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “Poem 58,” the killer cover of “I’m a Man,” and “Beginnings,” which was everything great about Chicago in a seven-minute stretch.  On the other hand…”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is the mediocre Chicago, lyrics which try to be profound and end up inoffensively pointless.  “Someday” is horrid Chicago, beginning with samples from from the Grant Park riots and never losing it’s vibe of self-importance. That track leads into the closing “Liberation,” a pointless jam that goes on for SIXTEEN MINUTES from guys who, again, were not John Coltrane no matter how much they wanted to be him.  And I don’t care if you’re Terry Kath, you record something called “Free Form Guitar” and I run beyond the hills.

I can excuse Chicago Transit Authority‘s missteps due to the historical context…here were young, hungry artists making a unique album in a city which had just lived through one of the most horrific moments in American history.  They were trying to fuse beauty with chaos.  It’s admirable.  But that didn’t mean they had to do it again…they had the chance to tweak the formula and play to their strengths.  Instead, Chicago was another double album, which had some terrific numbers (the gorgeous side-long “Ballet” suite and “25 or 6 to 4,” goofy but so much fun) but even more mediocrities and again, a fourth side of annoying political posturing.  Then Chicago III was ANOTHER double album which copied the formula again, barely filled up the four sides, and didn’t have a single good song.  Then they took the logical step after three double albums: a QUADRUPLE ALBUM!  Okay, it was live, but Chicago IV was a document of a tour to promote a waste of musical space, was recorded at Carnegie Hall, a venue where electric instruments have never sounded good, and was produced by a man who had no idea how to record a concert.  Lester Bangs wrote possibly the greatest putdown of his career in his review of Chicago IV, and I highly suggest people look it up.

But after this debacle, the band not only regrouped but redefined themselves.  They started writing shorter, more tightly arranged songs which still gave the spotlight to every instrument, quit making double albums in favor of tight single discs, and dropped the interminable jams and the emphasis on political material.  It was less ambitious, but it also meant Chicago was doing what they did best.  Chicago V kicked off a run of five straight number one albums, and it featured both their one good political song, “Dialogue,” and the perennial “Saturday in the Park.” Chicago VI was even better, with two great singles written by Pankow and sung by Cetera, “Just You ‘n’ Me” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.” Then came Chicago VII, the 1974 album which inspired this post.  If their entire output had sounded like Chicago VII, I believe Chicago would be mentioned far more often among the American rock pantheon.

Chicago VII is a work of diversity and supreme musicianship, with the band’s composition skills at their apex.  The seed of the record had been planted by “Just You ‘n’ Me,” which featured a stunningly good solo break in the middle.  Inspired, the band began stretching out a little more on their tour and debuted some new lengthy instrumental pieces.  But unlike the aimless, free-floating jams of the first albums, the instrumentals here were as controlled as they were creative, with strong melodic lines and intelligent interplay, like great chamber music.  The solos become logical outgrowths of the material and never run on longer than they should.  This is not uncompromising jazz of the Blue Note and Impulse! variety, it has to be said, but it is exciting music with plenty of interesting things going on in every measure.  The opening “Aire” with its percussion-laden “Prelude,” “Devil’s Sweet,” and the ultra-energetic “Mongonucleosis” are all little gems.

Chicago VII did not neglect the group’s new approach either, and featured enough pop-rock songs with vocals to make what would become their last double album.  Oddly, the three singles, two of which hit the top ten with one just missing it, were a mixed bag which again served to foreshadow Chicago’s future.  All of them had lead vocals by Cetera, though each had a different writer.  Cetera’s “Wishing You Were Here” has a strong middle eight but is otherwise a formless, gloppy mess.  Loughnane’s “Call On Me” features a dynamite melody and arrangement but gets brought down by cliched, forgettable lyrics.  In contrast, Pankow’s “Searchin’ So Long” is a triumph.  Their first song with orchestration, the additional structure does not preclude great horns, vocals, and incredibly strong music and lyrics alike.

The other vocal tracks are up to the latter’s standard.  Four particular highlights: Cetera has a lovely low-key ballad in “Happy Man,” Kath’s “Byblos” is an intricate piece of atmospheric storytelling, and Lamm delivers two barn burners.  “Life Saver,” a joyous rhythmic workout, kicks off the vocal part of the album, while “Skinny Boy,” with the horns at their most brassy and great back-up from The Pointer Sisters, ends Chicago VII on a deliriously happy note.

Chicago VII is a terrific example of how to make an adventurous and accessible pop record, but they never hit its heights again.  The dedication they put into the album and tour meant that the following year’s Chicago VIII was rushed into production and sounded as such.  A greatest hits album was a smash, and the band was delighted with the follow-up new material on Chicago X.  But there were no tracks over four minutes, and one of those songs was a Cetera tune which Chicago loved but felt didn’t fit in with the rest of the album…or anything else from their entire career.  Guercio insisted it be on the album and be released as a single to boot.

“If You Leave Me Now” went to number one in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Europe, and suddenly the world saw Chicago not as a rock powerhouse with seven excellent musicians but a romantic ballad machine built around Cetera.  The group tried to counter this image by firing Guercio, but then Terry Kath died in the stupidest accidental death in rock ‘n’ roll history (he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger to show everyone at a party how it wasn’t loaded…only it was) and Chicago lost their spirit.  They notched up seven top five singles in the 1980s, including two more chart-toppers, but those singles and the songs from the accompanying albums, even after Cetera quit for a solo career, were all mushy love songs with lyrics only slightly better than those of “Call On Me.” They recorded with outside writers.  The horns increasingly dropped out of the studio sound, and there were no more lengthy excursions similar to the Chicago VII material.  They turned into a boring, predictable band, who experimented to find what they did well, but focused on one small element of success at the expense of all others.  Let this be a cautionary tale.

Great Expectations: Malick/Murakami/Paterno

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Unless we achieve a state of complete disinterest, it is impossible to approach a work of art without expectations, and some media prompt us to keep revising our expectations in the course of the experience itself.  This is most common to narrative: very few of us, paid Hollywood readers and adrenaline-fueled graduate students being two main exceptions, will get through a book in a day, and in the pauses between picking it up again, we continually redefine what we feel will happen next, should happen next, and how the author is succeeding at what we deduce was their purpose.  Even if we’re tackling a story in one sitting, or watching a movie or play, our brains will make, at the least, general predictions based on what we’ve just read or seen and reconfigure any prior expectations in light of this new information.  The adjustment of expectations right up to the end of a story is sometimes maddening but never unproductive, especially in the cases in which we have no idea what to expect.

Two stories I recently encountered, one a novel, the other a film, both emanating from men long considered masters of their craft, had little in common except how much they toyed with my expectations.

Many critics have already drawn the obvious parallel.  Terrence Malick’s new picture and fifth film in a forty-year career, The Tree of Life, begins with a quote from the Book of Job and has a central figure named Jack O’Brien…appropriate initials, eh?
That is the first and last time I shall make light if the movie, which won the Palme d’Or and should be a major Oscar contender and subject for much future study and loving admiration.  I entered the film knowing of a long, laborious production but having little expectations…not of the quality, but the content.  I had no idea what this film would be about, how it would progress, how it would look.  140 minutes later, I had a slightly better idea.
The Tree of Life is, if I must reduce it to a sentence, one of the most beautiful and powerful works of art on the subject of faith I have ever had the good fortune to experience.
I want to get the summary out of the way first, because the plot will help explain my reaction and interpretation.  Jack is a middle-aged, wealthy architect who feels discontented and lost in the America of the 2010s, a world where every building…even the skyscrapers we crush together…looks beautiful but anonymous, lifeless, and the people we see every day barely register either.  One day, thinking about his alienation in a world so different from where he grew up, Jack asks himself the big questions of life. Who am I?  Where did I come from?  Why do I believe what I believe?  To answer, he dives back into the past, memories he did experience and memories he can only imagine.
Malick’s controlling idea is a theme which I believe he developed and carefully thought about for a long time in creating The Tree of Life, and which, satisfied, he boiled down to it’s essence for the final picture.  The idea, presented in the film’s first moments in a voice-over (more on THAT later), is that humans have two potential lives within them: the life of nature, and the life of grace.  The latter is classically Biblical and is centered on an unfailing trust in God and desire to live according to His principles.  The former does not deny the existence of God, but prioritizes this life over the next.  It is evolutionary, stating that humans get one time on Earth and must develop and use any advantage they can to become what they want to be, not trusting to God for everything.
Jack’s questions tie in with this idea and lead to the big question: Are we meant to live a life of nature? A life of grace? Or, possibly, a middle way between the two?
Malick’s strength as a storyteller, separate from his marvelous strength as a filmmaker, is to not produce a didactic and dialectic narrative but to let his audience decide once they grasp the core idea.  The one sequence of The Tree of Life which many people knew about before they knew the rest of the film was the “Creation of the Universe” sequence, in which Malick depicts the Big Bang and solar system formation, the rise of the dinosaurs, and the comet which hit Earth.  On the one hand, it is nature in action, culminating in the rise of enduring lifeforms, but on the other hand, the light and shape of the celestial bodies, the elegance of their organization, even the exponential flight and spreading of the comet, suggest a higher power in control, a power which moves the universe with the ease of a ballet, with grace.
The bulk of the movie, however, is the story of Jack from his birth to puberty.  The oldest of three brothers growing up in a small town in Texas, Jack’s life becomes a testing ground for the nature-grace dichotomy.  The ethereally beautiful, childlike Mrs. O’Brien is a firm believer in grace, a committed Christian somewhat ignorant of the world.  Her concept of a fulfilling life is one of devotion and harmony with others.  Mr. O’Brien, while fearing God in the classic literary sense, is a believer in nature.  An ambitious inventor and factory foreman, he equates a fulfilling life with financial success and social esteem, and imparts this by demanding a great deal of Jack and his brothers, though not as much as he demands from himself.
With this as the backdrop, Jack is seen growing and changing as children grow and change.  He learns to accept the presence of his siblings and others.  He makes studying and doing chores an equal part of his life with playing outside.  He has brushes with puppy love, the mystery of sex, death itself.  He argues with his parents, learns how he loves them, and tries to reach his own conclusion about the confusing God his mother and father impart to him.
It is a simple story, but oh so beautifully told.  Malick understands the natural rhythms of childhood, the joys of running around a neighborhood until sunset and jumping on a bed and playing tag in the woods.  The feeling you get when you’re mesmerized by the girl in the next row and don’t quite know why.  The strong words and shaking body parts when you’re mad at your parents.  The newness of anything outside your everyday world.  And then he understands the everyday world of weddings, births, deaths, places where nothing special happens but that alone makes them special in our memories, especially after we find ourselves in bustling megalopolises where everything happens at once.  The Tree of Life is a collection of moments, memories with a sharp focus mainly because those memories happened to us.  Jack Fisk’s production design sets the scenes for these moments in great fashion, recreating the Waco of the 1950s, and an architecture of tradition and comfort, a sort of Platonic ideal.
It is a complex story.  Malick never loses sight of how he is dealing with questions too difficult to answer in one go, and recognizes that a mind grappling with these questions, Jack’s mind, is in a state of kinetic activity.  To parallel this in the film, every shot is full of movement, something or someone in the throes of activity, be it leisurely or hyper.  The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, draws further attention by keeping his camera moving.  Apart from the “Universe” sequence, I would be hard-pressed to recall a single static shot.  In this way, Malick keeps us immersed in the sprawling, unstoppable life, the sensation of it.  Further, while the film has dialogue, Malick also knows we don’t realistically speak every thought we have on a profound subject, and, especially if we’re alone and meditating, who would we speak to?  Thus half the dialogue takes place in voice-overs by young and older Jack and his parents, short, poetic fragments, recognizably in the same voices of the people carrying on everyday conversation, but with an extra hint of depth and uncertainty, grappling with more than the mundane.
If this sounds like a unique, challenging film…brace yourselves, because the closest movie I would compare The Tree of Life to is 2001: A Space Odyssey.  And I NEVER thought any film could match Kubrick’s not-really-a-movie.  But they have a lot in common.  The deep spirituality at their core, the unconventional narrative, the visual effects which add to the sense of otherworldliness (designed in both films by Douglas Trumbull), the cryptic, unfinished-seeming dialogue, and the ever-present classical music.  In Malick’s film, Mr. O’Brien is a devotee who plays the organ and gives his hi-fi a workout, both enough for them to dominate Jack’s memory.  A few original themes from the great Alexandre Desplat mix with organ solos and vintage symphonic recordings…I went nuts at one point recognizing Mahler’s First.  But unlike 2001, although the themes and ambitions are equally outsized, The Tree of Life has a far more relatable, literally down-to-earth story, and the actors speak more, with far more emotion.
On that note, since I have praised everything in the film so far, does this praise extend to the actors?  Yes, with one small exception.  The senior O’Briens are played by Brad Pitt, one of the most famous actors in the world, and Jessica Chastain, who should hold similar stature in the next few years.  I have long been of the opinion that Pitt is a magnificent character actor close to Hackman or Hoffman, who had the somewhat bad luck of being born into one of the most handsome bodies on the planet.  In this film, Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien as a man with a sharp mind, a sometimes charming authority, and an ass of red iron.  He’s single-minded, strictly moral, and rigidly domineering.  Not likable.  But then Pitt will let his muscles relax in prayer, or a hopelessness while standing on a runway, or in his last big scene, a slow-turning realization, and he creates empathy from nowhere…plus, he has that Brad Pitt smile.
Jessica Chastain, who went from almost nowhere in 2010 to playing major roles in six films in 2011, should be a perennial Oscar nominee if she rides this momentum.  She is unbelievably beautiful in a way few Hollywood types are, reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite model, not a supermodel.  Her voice is light as the air but carries a tough undercurrent.  And she never overacts….she knows how to strike exactly the right notes for every scene.  In this film, she needs to be naive and innocent, yet strong enough to not be dominated by Pitt, and her Mrs. O’Brien succeeds as a woman who is, at the least, secure in the convictions she draws her power from.
I mentioned earlier that much of the movie’s greatness comes from how real the actions and emotions of childhood are depicted, and much of that is due to the performances of Hunter McCracken (Jack), Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan (his brothers), all of whom, McCracken especially, are at ease with a camera and very moving.  McCracken and Pitt’s final scene together is particularly effective.
The one weak link is Sean Penn as the adult Jack.  This is not Penn’s fault, and indeed his narrative voice is suitably weary and searching.  But in the scant screen time he has compared to the rest of the cast, all Penn does is wander through various environments looking lost.  It’s a role, really, anyone could have played.  However, I am always aware that I am watching a two-time Oscar winner, one of the best actors of my generation, playing an Everyman figure instead of being aware I am watching Everyman.  I have the strong suspicion that if Malick had cast a more unknown actor, similar to what the Coens did in A Serious Man, an already terrific film would have been pushed to the stratosphere.
But isn’t that such a tiny complaint that one actor only half works in the film?  The Tree of Life is a movie which delivers.  It offers no easy answers…by the picture’s end, the husband and wife are no longer quite as dichotomous as we assumed…and it does not proselytize.  While I saw it as a moving statement of faith, a dear friend who is a firm atheist immediately put it into his all-time top five.  We obviously did not draw the same conclusions, but that’s the way it should be.  Terrence Malick has made a movie which offers ideas and possibilities, but leaves to us his audience the matter of how to respond.  Just like faith should be.  Just like life should be.

Since the Barnes & Noble era of my life, I have encountered many people who love Haruki Murakami, but I never actually read his work until my cohabiter and most excellent friend Matt devoured a trove of Murakami, whom he had already read much by, as a prelude to getting 1Q84.  As is often the case, seeing a familiar but unread name so much prompted a “let’s see what all the fuss is about” reaction.  Matt recommended I start with Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart, but I already had The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on my shelf. “The deep end,” he smiled.
As with The Tree of Life, I had almost no expectations for the book, minus a one-paragraph summary on the back cover, which seemed happily inadequate for a 570-page novel, and Murakami’s reputation as a literary eccentric.  What instantly surprised me was that Murakami’s oddness does not manifest in his structure and style.  His prose, admittedly read in translation, is clear, flowing, and beautiful, full of well-chosen detail, rich paragraphs of action and setting (any time he describes a location, I feel like I can move around the location perfectly…Nabokov would have loved him), and crisp dialogue with recognizable and consistent voices for every character.  Structurally, Murakami works like a high Victorian.  From a commonplace beginning, he creates an intricate universe in which every vignettes bears some weight on what is to come, and the connections he builds between stories taking place in the 1980s and the 1940s, between the hero’s journey, events described in newspapers, and tales told in letters from other characters, all builds up in an increasingly coherent picture.
Murakami’s oddness comes in his plot.  The nominal hero, Toru Okada, an unemployed paralegal in 1984 Tokyo, starts the novel looking for his missing cat.  Then his wife, Kumiko, unexpectedly leaves him, and he can find no way to get in touch with her.  Over the course of this now dual search, Toru meets a lot of interesting people with even more interesting biographies, inherits an empty box, spends a few days living in a dried-out well in the backyard of the cursed house down the street (I did not make that up), and discovers he has an unusual mental prowess relating to a blue-black mark which shows up on his cheek, a prowess which possibly attracted his wife to him and now puts him in a high-stakes struggle with her brother, Noboru Wataya, a heartless academic-turned-political icon.  Noboru Wataya is also the name of the cat.
That was an even more confusing summary than the one on the back cover, and I left out the dream sequences, the mega-powerful computer, the constant soundtrack of jazz and easy-listening music, and the way Toru starts making a fortune.  From the opening shred of normalcy, everything that comes after is positively bizarre, but what happens…and I leave it to the readers to be surprised…is believable for two reasons.  First, Murakami’s matter of fact style equals that of Borges and Gaiman in making the improbable easy to believe.  There is no sci-fi or fantasy overtone.  As a reader, I felt like I was drinking a beer with a very sober Toru Okada as he told me this unusual story.
Second, the character of Toru is an easily empathetic one.  Until the climax, he takes very little initiative and spends most of he book cooking, walking around having odd conversations, or taking orders from people he sometimes has only just met, while showing no initiative to make dramatic change to this situation.  But, writing in 1997, Murakami caught a vibe of people being caught in a world larger than themselves who are just trying to get by.  We see that Toru doesn’t want to make waves, and we understand because of the detailed psychological portrait of the man.  Behind the passive body is a witty, romantic, earnest mind figuring out which principles mean the most.  In out most reflective states, Toru is himself reflected, which makes the surge of action at the novel’s end more exciting.  Then, Toru is surrounded by strong women who push him into exertion with various degrees of deliberateness.  His enigmatic magazine publisher wife, the Kano sisters–Malta, a spiritualist who studies the effect of water on people, and Creta, who has sex with others in their minds–the teenage May, whose good humor and  light-hearted meditations on death mask a turmoiled spirit, and Nutmeg, the millionaire fashion designer with a mute, genius son and an offer Toru can’t refuse.  With every encounter amidst this refreshingly ultra-active female company, Toru gets a step closer to his goal…
Wait, how does one man interacting with women with more capabilities and agency than him make him sympathetic?  This is a matter of personal prejudice, brought about by my contemporary project of 2011.  So many of the novels I read this year, works by Eggers, McCarthy, Safran Foer, even Gaiman, marginalize the women in their stories.  As strongly written as the female characters are, they are almost always subversive the men.  Reading a novel in which a male hero only achieves his unique form of closure through interacting with and learning from women was very refreshing.  Why can’t more male authors write highly literate books with women in the driver’s seats?  Or where’s Jane Austen when we need her?
The story’s interesting men pop up in the flashbacks, tales of World War II in China and Russia, mostly told to Toru by the haunted Lieutenant Mamiya, one of the more impressive wise mentor figures of recent history.  These vignettes of secret missions with psychic soldiers, a brutal Soviet prison camp, and a darkly comic attack on a zoo (not to be read by animal lovers) showcase Murakami at his best: not a word wasted, writing simply and starkly like Hemingway about the puffs of cigarettes, the report of a gun, the knife cutting the skin.  If the flashbacks feel like they could be short stories themselves, two of them were published as such before Chronicle debuted in America, but through deft construction Murakami integrates them into his plot at particular moments where darkness must be introduced, eccentricity heightened, redemption hinted at.
My praise of Murakami and his novel only reaches a point, and the failings of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle stem from how successful it is.  The gears within gears of plot, subplot, and character turn so smoothly that I reached the final chapters with my heart racing, prepared for a grand climax and final denouement.  SPOILER ALERT
The climax came, as dark and intense as I expected…but the denouement left at least half of the mysteries Murakami had introduced unanswered.  Specificities of action, the final whereabouts of characters, the identities of some characters, all hanging.  For such a surrealist work, this shouldn’t have been surprising, but up to the closing even the most outlandish elements had fit together so well that I was unconvinced a novelist working with so tight a structure would fail to round things off in a logical finish.
All this being said, I’m sticking with Murakami, going to the earlier works which Matt assures me are shorter and have more tighter wrap-ups.  I already love his style, and his shorter, if no less ambitious, work may provide more of a key to understanding its development into the newer material.

I wanted to switch gears in the end of this post to talk about Joe Paterno.
I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and it’s surrounding, more middle-class communities during the Jim Tressel era, which meant as much to us as the Ohio State Jim Tressel era did to our whole state.  By the time the decade was over, my father, a man who holds as strong a set of moral opinions as Mr. O’Brien, had a solid one about college coaches and athletic directors.  The short version is that they’re lousy human beings, phonies who talk about character and education while being devoted to success and lucrative finances.
Taylor Branch’s recent article in the Atlantic on college sports gave me plenty to think about.  And what I think is that it’s time to admit that major college athletics are not as much about an ideal of a student-athlete as they are about generating revenue.  The point of college is to prepare you for a future, and for a certain population, athletics is that future.  There needs to be a way for colleges to pay players and set up a system which establishes athletics as more of a for-profit concern, because, if we face reality, things have gone too far to sincerely emulate the student-athlete principle, and nobody is interested in such a principle anyway.  If the NCAA and the conferences were open and honest about this matter, a system might have a chance to develop in which a more overtly financial angle could be introduced and schools could profit more.  The corollaries would be one, athletes must be trained for work beyond the playing fields and courts, and two, the financial gains must be pumped into the academic side.  How this would specifically work, I don’t know, as I am not an administrator nor an economist.  But Bill James, in his magnificent Historical Baseball Abstract, states that problems get solved more often than not because “nature discovers the obvious solution.” Someone who actually knows about these matters will think up the solution sooner or later.
Why did I just write all that?  Because the colleges are still pushing the student-athlete model and all that goes with it, including the idea of the benevolent, Knute Rockne coach with the players’ best interests at heart.  Joe Paterno, who had coached the Nittany Lions for over forty years, was our epitome, a man who could be your grandfather.  I remember in middle school reading the book Six Days to Saturday about a typical week in Paterno’s life during the season, and and this image was reinforced to a tee.  When the truth of the matter, the truth they don’t want to admit and we don’t care enough to probe, overcomes the image we choose to accept, we lash out at the breaker of the image.  This is why, I think, the Paterno story is on the same level as the Catholic Church scandals.
And make no mistake, it deserves to be.  This is a reprehensible act, a tragedy for a huge group of people and a school which has given so many an excellent education.    What I want to point out is that we have an even more intensified vilification of Paterno and the program because of the image the NCAA and the college sports world gave us of him and his colleagues.  An image we EXPECTED them to live up to.  Figures of respect.  Figures of morality.  And if you want to claim that for yourself, fine.  But be prepared to back it up and accept the full consequences when you let morality, respect for others, justice, every basic level of human decency, slide in pursuit of a goal which has little to do with any of those traits.

“I didn’t think anyone would anticipate this move, because it was so clearly insane,” or, “Do not mess with the Endorians!”

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When I was in preschool, my parents got an Apple IIgs computer; it had word processing, early print software, and all sorts of fun and (importantly) educational games such as The Oregon Trail.  I also had my own Atari 2600 with all the classic arcade games from the late seventies and early eighties on it…including the infamous E.T.  Twenty years later, these machines are mere relics, but at the time they filled me with delighted wonder, partly by how much they seemed to suggest was possible.


This marks me as a child of the 1980s…I was born halfway through the decade, but I have vivid memories of Bush and Reagan, synthesizer-fueled pop and heavy metal on the radio, watching sitcoms and Saturday morning cartoons, and going to see movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Since then I have found films, music, and literature which resonate with me even more, but my passion for these cultural creations, including that simple Atari with the two joysticks, has always stayed with me, to the point where hearing Bryan Adams and Phil Collins on the radio prompts a flicking of the volume knob up higher.  It’s like how you remember your first kiss: for everything in your life which means something to you, be it love or art, the first incarnation t be experienced takes on extra resonance in your memory.


This is part of the reason that Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, published in August by Crown and Random House, is as successful as it is.  Cline is a child of the 1980s himself, albeit older than me, enough to have vivid memories of how rapidly technology and entertainment changed in that era and the video game rose to prominence.  Ready Player One is a love letter the not only 1980s pop culture, but also the unconventional art which influenced that culture’s major players (i.e. Monty Python) and the people whom it in turn influenced (Kevin Smith, Peter Jackson, etc.).  But the mood is not one of nostalgia, rather a mix of true passion and poignancy, due to the story Cline constructs.


In 2045, the world has fallen into a grand decline of rapid energy loss, global warming, war, and famine.  The one respite for humanity is the OASIS, a massive online game accessible to anyone which is not so much a game as an expanding universe of education, adventure, and fun.  When the OASIS’s reclusive inventor James Halliday dies, he leaves his $240 billion fortune and control of his company to whoever can find an “Easter Egg” hidden in the OASIS, only accessible by someone who finds three keys which open three gates.  The only clues are found in Halliday’s obsession with 1980s culture and role-playing games.  For six years, nothing happens…and then Wade Watts, a poor high school senior from Oklahoma City with an avatar named Parzival, finds the first key.


As you may have guessed, this novel about video games has a plot which wouldn’t feel out of place in a video or role-playing game. The Hunt for Halliday’s Egg is described by Cline in a way that any reader with an encyclopedic knowledge of geek lore can play along, and like in a video game or RPG, our hero Wade goes on multiple quests, confronts a seemingly invincible nemesis (IOI, an oppressive conglomerate sending hundreds of people after the Egg so they can turn the OASIS into a playground for the wealthy), and finds the time to try to win the hand of a fair damsel, though his object of affection, the sarcastic blogger Art3mis, is certainly not in distress but rather competes with Wade to find the Egg.  But what makes Ready Player One such a unique entry into the literary fiction world is that Cline also structures the novel like a video game or RPG narrative.

This choice of Cline’s has almost as many drawbacks as attributes.  For example, since the video game is one of the great truly interactive media in art, it makes a certain amount of sense on the one hand for Wade to narrate his own story.  Indeed, having grown up almost never having left the Oasis, he prefers to see his life as a video game, even describing the Hunt in those exact terms.  But in his narration, Wade acts like a video game hero, particularly one in RPG-inspired or adventure games, to sometimes annoying effect.  Most games are based around repetition of actions as a player saves from multiple points to perform a task or complete a battle with enemies in more effective ways, and adventure games are especially based on access to information: knowing what items you have in an inventory and how effective they are, all that an enemy could possibly do to you, what you know from the multitude of characters you talk to.  Repetition and archives of information become part of Ready Player One’s narrative for this very reason, a choice aesthetically appropriate but also working to the novel’s detriment at times.  Wade repeats facts and opinions over and over again with minor variations until things become interminable, and he refers to complete biographies of people and long lists of 1980s cultural knowledge so much that after a while, the novelty wears off and the reader grits their teeth and wonders, was all of this really necessary?  Does the eighteen year-old kid have to show off so much?  Or the thirty-something man pretending to be the eighteen year-old kid?  Warner Bros. acquired the film rights a year before the novel was published, and I have a suspicion that the movie—which is in preproduction—could be better than the book because the story is so perfect and the film will cut through the fat of, for once, really unessential details and exercise a lovely power of selection.


On the other hand, notice the end of that last paragraph.  The story is perfect, a beautiful and metaphorical tale in the classical and epic traditions.  Video games play an even more beautiful role than we might realize, at least in my interpretation of the novel.  Ready Player One doubles as a brief history of the video game, and, my readers, think about how much games have evolved since their creation, especially in terms of storytelling.  From the narrative “Win this tennis game” of Pong, we progressed to—and still play many games based around—simplistic moral definitions of good and evil, be they set in modern society, fantasy worlds, or cartoonish realms.  The video game usually involves a protagonist with great fighting moves or weapons taking down one enemy after another through a variety of levels.  Good versus evil, black and white, we’re done.  But lately, video games have been making great artistic and intellectual inroads in their storytelling: play Half-Life, Bioshock, Portal, and you’re confronted with a more sophisticated and complex take on action and morality.  A point of view which better reflects “the human condition,” as Wade calls it in the opening chapter.


Ready Player One mirrors this evolution in its narrative, and as such offers a potent message for the technology-obsessed world we live in.  The novel is divided into three “levels,” and Level One mirrors the classic video game: Wade plays out the opening stages of the Hunt in a single-minded, action-oriented manner, moving past one obstacle after another.  Morally, he has rejected most of what the real world has to offer in favor of the virtual world, where the good guys and bad guys are easily delineated—indeed, one of the most moving parts of the book is the “human condition” monologue in which Wade laments how reality is nasty, short, and seeing a decline in civilization…his goal is to win the Hunt and leave reality behind forever.  Then, in Level Two, the action temporarily slows to a crawl as Wade retreats firmly into the OASIS, never leaving his apartment, and loses all connection with mankind, especially when Art3mis rejects his proposal of a relationship between them.  His ability to keep up the Hunt suffers, his friendships are shattered, and IOI takes the lead in the battle.  It is in this dire moment that Wade has a gradual awakening: that as much as he enjoys the virtual world, he is still a human on Earth, who cares for and loves other humans, and from that has a commitment to them which requires selflessness and empathy…the qualities which could rebuild civilization.  Once Wade accepts this, he rebuilds his connections with others and rockets through Level Three stronger than ever.  Though what happens and who wins…I’m not going to say because, darn it, you really need to read this book.  Despite the flaws.


Because Ready Player One is a wonderful, smart, and funny read.  The dialogues between Wade and his best friend Aech (who turns out to have a surprising identity), the elaborate nature of the OASIS, and the multitude of in-jokes Cline inserts (the extended Rush sequence, for one) combine with the plotting to keep the pages turning, and Cline develops his characters into rich, emotional figures, using Wade, Aech, and Art3mis as effective representatives of the human being with access to technology, how we can isolate ourselves, and how we can find each other anew.  The love story is even fully integrated into the plot.  It’s a sci-fi lover’s dream.


First Postscript: In one last nod to the tradition, the only really one-dimensional character in the novel is Nolan Sorrento, the suave, scheming chief hunter (or Oologist) for IOI.


Second Postscript: Maybe this is complete minutiae on my part, but if it was intentional, it’s brilliant.  Careful perusal of Cline’s manuscript reveals a series of inconsistencies which subtly make the point that even in the perfect virtual world, fallible humans are running things.




When Sorrento and Wade have their confrontation, Sorrento claims from the school records he pilfered that Wade was born in 2024, making him 20 in the timeline…but Wade himself begins the novel just days before this as an 18 year-old high school senior.  Either Wade is lying—which does not seem likely—or the OASIS system is capable of error.


Further, when Wade summarizes Ogden Morrow’s biography, if we follow his timeline, Ogden did not marry Kira Underwood until both were in their mid-forties…meaning they had been together for 25-plus years…and only began to consider adoption when they were nearly sixty each.  Again, we’re confronted with a choice. The future may be biologically advanced enough to prolong childbearing age…but this, in a world of scant resources, seems unlikely, as unlikely as Ogden and Kira not marrying for so long after living together.  Or it may be that Wade just gets a bunch of dates wrong in retelling a story more emotional—and less factually essential to his quest—than that of the cool, detached Halliday.


And in the end, Wade misspells Sam Lowry’s name, adding an “e,” when he uses the Jonathan Pryce character from Brazil as his alias in the infiltration of IOI.  Wade knows Halliday’s archive better than anyone alive, so for him to make a deliberate error can be interpreted as a recognition of his humanity: unlike Lowry, he will emerge from the technological world alive and himself.


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