Friday, January 30, 2009

Five Sentence Friday

1. How long will it take for the wonderful delicious novelty of seeing the words "President Barack Obama" to wear off?

2. Having an ear infection really sucks; damn beaches.

3. I've discovered there's no such thing as too many Neil Young live CDs.

4. Why does Bob Haney write, like, the coolest Batman comics ever?

5. John Updike's posthumously revealed "Requiem" poem is a thing of great and humble eloquence.

(Updating parenthetically, which surely doesn't break my five-sentence rule: I've been sad to see relatively little mention of Updike in the blogosphere [whereas Ricardo Montalban generates reams of tributes, and hey, I love Khan and all too, but y'know, parity and all that] -- but I do want to note two really nice pieces I've read on Updike lately, one by the always wonderful Jon Carroll over at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a really nifty reminiscence of meeting Updike by Dr. K. Good stuff both.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

PhotobucketJohn Updike is dead, and I think today the title of America's greatest living writer is vacant.

I first discovered Updike right around my freshman year in college, when I tackled his "Rabbit" novels one after another, chewing them down like the best meal you ever had. Probably it was around then that I really started to realize that I wouldn't mind spending a great deal of my life ahead reading books like this, that "literary" books, the fancy kind you usually read for school rather than for fun, could transform you a bit. The "Rabbit" series follows the life of one Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, former basketball star, from young and married to aging and retired over four utterly amazing books, one for each decade from the 50s to the 80s. Every five years or so, I take these books down from the shelf and read them again, because I've discovered that the older I get the more I discovered about Updike.

I wrote a lengthy term paper on one of my favorite of his books, the underappreciated "Memories of the Ford Administration," the research for which was like taking a bath in Updike. I wandered around the thickets of his sentences, casting about for clues that fit my thesis. And during college, I read a lot of Updike -- the fine short story collections, each piece a honed little diamond, the dense novels, the constantly curious and questing non-fiction. As he aged he began to branch out into material like quasi science-fiction ("Toward the End of Time") and Shakespearean riffs ("Gertrude and Claudius"). Always, a keen intelligence animated his work. When I first read Updike, I constantly got the feeling of being stunned about how one man could know so much, have so many words in him.

His style might have started to seem poky and antique to some - sex and infidelity continued to be big themes for him long into the age of the Internet - but even in his less remarkable works I'd always find dozens of sentences that filled me with amazement. He managed to be both ethereal and crude, writing with equal passion about everything from death to used cars to masturbation. He saw fine lines everywhere.

My father-and-law and I were just talking about him the other day, and I loaned him a copy of Updike's remarkable memoir "Self Consciousness" to read. Such was his remarkable prolificness that I could never quite keep up with Updike's output -- there's probably still a dozen of his 50+ books I haven't read. Plenty of company to keep in the years ahead when no more books are forthcoming.

Goodbye, Mr Updike, and thanks for the words. From "Rabbit Run":

"His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Rough Guide to (some of) Auckland's Beaches

'Tis summer here, and that means one thing -- beach time. New Zealand is home to more than 15,000 km (9500 miles) of coastline, which is a lot. There's no spot in the country more than 80 miles or so from the sea.

So during summer, we spend a good bit of our free time at the beach. Auckland is surrounded by water on most sides and there's probably 50 beaches within a short drive from our house. But the interesting thing is that NZ beaches all have a different character -- you've got placid sandy, stormy epic, secluded rocky and so forth. Within the immediate perimeter of our house, there are basically three kinds of beaches.

PhotobucketAuckland beaches: The beaches closest to downtown Auckland are busier, less isolated than the ones you'll find elsewhere, but perfect for a quick dip before dinner. We often spend time at ones like St. Helier's and Mission Bay, which are on our side of Auckland and have a gorgeous view of dormant volcano Rangitoto Island which dominates Auckland's harbour. They're not so great at low tide, though, as the sea bottom is rather mucky and weedy. But at high tide, you've got gentle surf, an excellent panoramic view of the downtown, islands and flash beachside housing is to be had, along with assorted parasailers, boaters and wakeboarders. And turn around and cross the road, and you've got ice cream and coffee!

PhotobucketWest coast beaches: Raw and wild -- if you've seen the opening of "The Piano," then you've seen Karekare, which is about 40 minutes west of Auckland and where our family bach is. These are awe-inspiring beaches like Karekare, Piha and Muriwai that go along the North Island's western coast (facing Australia about 1400 miles west). Perfect for long walks, with giant rocky cliffs, dense bush and amazing colours and views, these beaches are huge with surfers. They're also highly dangerous, which is the downside -- you don't swim at Karekare so much as you get bashed about in the surf for a few minutes. People drown all the time out here (a noted rugby league player did just a few weeks ago), often because they take the water's power for granted. But as long as you keep that in mind, the west coast is a great place to see "classic" unspoiled New Zealand.

PhotobucketNorth Shore beaches: Just across the Harbour Bridge you've got a whole other series of beaches, facing east toward the Hauraki Gulf that includes Auckland. The North Shore is more "Californian" in feeling than the rest of Auckland to me, and the beaches that stretch from Takapuna on up north towards Whangarei are very nice indeed. They're long, relatively calm and great for kids, with excellent views of the Harbour islands and Auckland's downtown in the distance. When we feel like a bit longer drive, we go across the bridge to Milford or one of the beaches up here for a picnic and swim. Some of these beaches do tend to get pretty crowded, but New Zealand crowded isn't really crowded by most people's standards.

There are many more kinds of beaches, of course, and these are just the immediate Auckland ones, but these are the ones we see the most. And now if you'll excuse me, I need to wash the sand and sunblock off!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Congratulations, Mr. President

PhotobucketPresident Barack Obama.

Oh yeah. That's what I'm talking about. It's very nice to feel excited rather than vaguely depressed at an inauguration. I remember how good it felt in 1992, before Bill Clinton's seamier side tainted his presidency, to feel that "your team" won one. And it's fine to feel some optimism after an awful lot of bad news days.

And what a fine speech by Obama today (but was there any doubt really?). Brief but powerful and finely carved as a statue from granite. I get a sense when he speaks that he means what he says, that they aren't just words on paper, and of course knowing that he's a decent author himself I highly imagine much of the memorable turns of phrase -- "our patchwork heritage," "the bitter swill of civil war and segregation," "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break," -- come directly from Obama's pen. The man can give a speech.

But still...

Still... it might be totally, utterly immature of me, but somewhere in the 13-year-old boy in my head, I have to admit, wouldn't it have been really kind of cool if he'd started off the speech like this:


I'm so, so sorry. But I've been waiting to use that joke for a year now. Sorry.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So long and thanks for all the mess

PhotobucketI don't hate George W. Bush, really.

I am fundamentally optimistic about people, and even at 37 years old I still find myself surprised when they live down to your expectations. So it was with Bush -- I didn't vote for him, didn't think much of the smug daddy's boy, but after all the agony of recounts, etc., I was willing to give him a shot. It's kind of hard now to remember that somewhat more idyllic pre-9/11 world, but what I recall of the 2000 election was real disappointment -- Al Gore is a terrific man and would have been a terrific president, I believe, but he was a lousy, slow-reacting candidate, much like John Kerry. Bush out-folksed them. I was disappointed, but I wasn't horrified. Another mediocre Bush like his dad. How bad could it be?

I certainly couldn't have imagined how poor Bush would be. Even though I moved away from America more than 2 years ago, I've had to live with the quasi-burden of being linked with Bush many a time -- one man once started berating me about "my" President, as if we hung out together at the BBQ or something. Having lived overseas, I can totally affirm the impression that Bush has radically hurt America's image overseas. He's confirmed the worst suspicions many have and made them forget about the all the fine, trailblazing things about America.

Despite all the reasons I've got, though, I've always found it hard to hate Bush. I feel sorry for him more than anything, for the damage he's caused and the willful blindness that's led us into it. I wouldn't call him stupid, either – merely stubborn, incurious and ideological to the extreme. Maureen Dowd had a fine line in her Bush kiss-off column in The New York Times: "W. was immune to doubt and afraid of it. Obama is delighted by doubt."

Some of it wasn't Bush's fault -- I have never believed all the 9/11 government conspiracy theories -- but it was his consequence. Great presidents have almost always risen to the crises given them -- Lincoln, Roosevelt -- while the ones regarded as the worst have looked history in the eye and failed. There's a reason few people remember who James Buchanan, Warren Harding or Franklin Pierce were. Bush took things like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the economic climate and made them all worse through inaction, miscalculation or outright incompetence. His legacy will be echoing for a long time.

I don't hate him, though. I hate what he's done and how he's made people think my country isn't as good as place as it really is, as it really can be. Contrary to what some folks think, liberal expatriates can and do love America too. Barack Obama's got the weight of a million expectations on him starting tomorrow, but y'know, even if he doesn't deliver, at least the adulation and optimism he's unleashed has had a kind of cleansing effect. Is it over the top, the Obama hyperbole? Well, sure, but at least it's washed the taste of the last 8 years out.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Auckland Big Day Out 2009 review: In which we realize Neil Young is God

PhotobucketI bow before the altar of Neil Young. Yes indeedy, he is the hope, the way and the light. He took last night's Big Day Out 2009 in Auckland to a whole new level of awesomeness, and showed why he's a legend.

Big Day Out might not have been quite the same for me as last year -- it was more of a novelty then, I saw a few less acts this year, and faithful wife wasn't able to go with me. But I finally ticked off an item on my bucket list and saw Neil Young live, and also several other great bands including TV On The Radio, My Morning Jacket and Arctic Monkeys. (I also learned my new cellphone's camera really really sucks, so the photo at right is from the Stuff website. )

But in the end, though, it was all about Neil, who rocked my face off so hard that I was picking my eyebrows off the field afterwards. Neil's easily in my top five musicians of all time list and frankly, he may not make it down to New Zealand again for a long time if ever. Seeing Neil Young thrash through 90 minutes of his biggest hits had me thinking "rock god" without an ounce of irony. Simply astounding, and hard to believe this guy is nearly my dad's age! If you closed your eye you'd think he was 30, not 60-something -- the freshness of his sound and voice is something even Dylan can't lay claim to these days. He had a cool professionalism (very little bantering) but a genial sense of love for what he does, still thrashing away like a kid in his garage after nearly 50 years of doing this rock stuff.

This was a set of pretty much nothing but hits -- "Powderfinger," "My My, Hey Hey," "Cortez The Killer," "Love To Burn," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Heart of Gold." Now, I've always leaned more to grunge godfather crunchy Crazy Horse electric guitar Neil over sensitive acoustic Neil, but I dig 'em both. Still, I was happy as a clam this night was mostly Neil blasting away, stomping his way through his guitar solos like an old god made flesh. The mid-show acoustic interlude was great too -- the burst of cheers from the crowd when Neil strapped on the harmonica and acoustic was deafening. However, folks were so into it that during "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man" I mostly heard the guy behind me bellowing off-key over Neil! Neil plunged through his epic catalogue with many fine stops, but a true highlight for me was the rambling romp through "Cowgirl In The Sand," where I felt the guitar scribblings echo right along my nervous system. Fantastic.

Then came "Rockin' In The Free World," and I burst into a pillar of flames. "Free World" is one of the first Neil songs I ever heard, from 1990's "Freedom" album, and one of my all-time favorite anthems -- and it seems highly appropriate, to hear a song about the first age of Bush as the second Bush era comes to a rusty halt in just a few days. Young took "World" to a full-on blast furnace assault, with the audience yelling along to the chorus, stop-and-start feedback chords. It was quite possibly one of the best songs I've ever heard live, and when it was followed up a few minutes later by Young doing a surprise encore, guitar-string snapping cover of The Beatles' "A Day In the Life" -- well, between those two songs you get what the NZ Herald critic called "the most wonderful ending to a Big Day Out. Ever." I can't argue with that. Sheer bliss.

So what else did I see besides Neil? A rundown:

TV On The Radio: Sadly, a bit of a disappointment, but only a bit of one. I truly love their records, but their epic dense sound simply didn't quite translate to a hot field as well as it might, feeling sort of sludgy and taking time to warm up. But once they got going, the band delivered on some of their promise, particularly turning tracks "Wolf Like Me" and "Staring At The Sun" into bellowing freak-outs. Unfortunately by the time they really got going it was the end of their set! I'd really like to see them stretch out sometime in a more intimate club venue, as this felt more like a teaser.
Grade: B
Best song: "Wolf Like Me"

My Morning Jacket:
I have never been a huge fan of "jam bands" like the Dead and Phish, so it's taken me a while to get into these guys, who're often called stuff like "psychedelic space rock." I've heard a couple of albums but now consider me a full convert -- I'm loving their eclectic, guitar-drenched sound, which moves from country-rock to Prince-like jams. Singer Jim James has got a golden voice (if you saw the movie "I'm Not There," that's them on stage during the Richard Gere sequence). This hour-long set was just a taste of what the band can do (they did a four-hour epic not long ago) but I'm definitely tracking down more of their work.
Grade: A-
Best song:
I'm not familiar with every track they sang (yet), but I really loved the take on "Golden" from "It Still Moves" and a really funky Devo-meets-Parliament number from their latest disc.

Arctic Monkeys: These spunky Sheffield pop-punksters have put out two really nifty albums, with singer Alex Turner sounding a bit like a fusion between Blur and the Ramones. Their set was most excellent, although it suffered some from being stuck before Neil Young on the main stage -- the band thrashed through a bunch of their hits and premiered some new material from their next album. Some of their songs run the risk of sounding a bit too alike, but they're definitely one of the most impressive young British bands going these days -- considering they look all of 15, I'm eager to see where they go next. I loved an unexpected cover of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" with Turner putting a bratty spin on the gothic gloom.
Grade: B+
Best song: "I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor,"
their first big hit, is a terrific crowd pleaser. I did my best to pogo-dance in the mob.

I also caught bits and pieces of a few other acts I hadn't seen -- the electro-diva disco of Sneaky Sound System was quite fun, while the raucously cheesy metal-rock of Australia's The Living End was really a blast (reminded me a bit of Bad Religion). I would've liked to catch a bit of the Prodigy but they clashed with Neil's set and frankly, after that, I was spent as they say and anything else would've been an anticlimax. Neil!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Please. Just. Go. Away.

Photobucket"I think media should be abolished from, you know, reporting,” Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher said. “You know, war is hell. And if you’re gonna sit there and say, ‘well, look at this atrocity,’ well you don’t know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.”

I'd try to write something but this buffoon's blathering really just kind of demands slackjawed silence. Or maybe a quote from Harlan Ellison is a better rejoinder:

"We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing."

You don't get the "whole story" without some form of media, whether it's a book, a TV or a podcast. This is what a steady diet of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter will get you -- a species so divorced from the concept of freedom of speech that they see it as an option rather than a necessity.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Year in Review wrap-up: Movies, TV and Comics a-go-go

Right -- after about two weeks into the new year, you really can't get away with "Year in Review" posts much more. So let me quickly zip over my thoughts on 2008 in movies, TV and comics (previous, longer posts on Books and Music already done).

PhotobucketI'm really loathe to do a "Top 10" movies list when I usually only get to the theater 5-6 times a year anyway, and a great many of the year-end Oscar bait movies don't make it here to New Zealand for months. So I haven't seen many of the movies that would likely end up on an eventual top 10 of 2008 list. I did watch a ton o' movies, but they were like, old and stuff. That said, movies I did like? Well, I'm a comics blogger geek, and this seemed like a pretty good year for superheroes on screen -- "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" made for a heck of a tag team, of course. I actually saw Dark Knight in the theatres twice which I never do anymore. While I do have a tendency to rebel a bit against the BEST MOVIE EVAR!! hype you see online, I have to admit it's one heck of an entertainment, Heath Ledger was masterful, and it's the best darn Batman movie since Batman fought off sharks with bat-shark repellent spray. (What? I love Adam West.)

I also really liked Hellboy II and enjoyed the underrated Incredible Hulk. (Wanted, though, might have looked pretty and been brainlessly fun, but it bore about as much resemblance to the comic as my left shoe.) In non-big event type movies, other films I really dug that came out in 2008 were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (probably my current pick for Best Picture) and Tropic Thunder. Guess I'll have to wait and see if Milk, Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire make it down here eventually to catch up!

PhotobucketNo contest, really -- Doctor Who was my favorite show of the year, with Lost and Torchwood a close second. And, er, well, that's actually just about all the TV shows we watch -- I try to catch the hilarious 30 Rock when it airs down here, but that's about it.

I know some quibbled but I really liked the latest Doctor Who series, particularly the apocalyptic everything-and-the-Dalek sink finale. Catherine Tate made a very entertaining companion, although I'm not a fan of her final fate. Like most, I'm not quite sure about the new guy -- I think a black doctor would've been really cool, but hey, let's see where they go with Mr Matt Smith in 2010. Just hope he changes that emo hair.

PhotobucketI finally became disenchanted (I know, I should've years ago) with the endless big-event hype by Marvel and DC. Sadly, the hefty price of comics here and the small market makes finding much in the "alternative" comix scene a real chore. So I'm barely in the art comix market anymore, and am starting to get hardcore about dropping the superhero stuff if they don't amuse me. Marvel's Secret Invasion was particularly annoying -- Brian Michael Bendis can't write endings to save his life, just leaping from event to event. The quirks that were fetching to me in his earlier work on Powers and Alias have generally become obnoxious cliches, and the ending of Secret Invasion -- leading into yet ANOTHER crossover -- was the final straw.

Still, there's good stuff out there -- my favorite books this year would include Criminal (the nifty Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips crime noir which I'd probably pick as my favorite ongoing series this year), All-Star Superman, Daredevil, Ultimate Spider-Man (my sole remaining Bendis book), The Boys, Hellboy: The Crooked Man (with superbly eerie Richard Corben art), Omega The Unknown, and a rejuvenated Amazing Spider-Man. While it's not quite perfect, the thrice-a-month schedule has resulted in more consistently good Spidey stories than we've seen in years, with some real gems (anything drawn by Pablo Rivera, the return of the indomitable John Romita Jr., and I'm finally enjoying the return of Norman Osborn as a character). Biggest comics letdown: Ambush Bug: Year None. We waited nearly 20 years for this? Sigh. You can't go home again.

* As we wrap up 2008 for good, let me throw in a plug for the nifty Hype Machine which compiled 774 bloggers including yours truly into the mega master list of blogging album picks!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Concert review: 7 Worlds Collide with Neil Finn and friends, Auckland, January 6

OK, I know it's only a week into the new year, but last night's show is going to be hard to top. Picture Neil Finn, leader of Crowded House, jamming on stage with folks from The Smiths, Radiohead and Wilco and more. That was 7 Worlds Collide, an all-star three-night concert going on at Auckland's Powerstation and one of the biggest music events to hit this little island in years.

PhotobucketIt's a benefit for the charity OxFam and a sequel to a similar 2001 event organized by Finn, who it's safe to say is New Zealand's most famous musician. The gang of stars are working on an album of new material and debuting their work and a whole slew of their own classic material over three nights of shows. I snuck in for Tuesday's event.

This was just about as much musical talent as I've ever seen on one stage at once -- Neil Finn, son Liam Finn, Jeff Tweedy and several other members of Wilco; Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead; the legendary guitarist Johnny Marr, co-founder of the Smiths; kiwi singers Bic Runga and Don McGlashan and many more. As a fan of Crowded House, Wilco, Radiohead and the Smiths, it was pretty much a dream show at a very intimate venue where you're rarely more than 20 feet from the stage.

The night was like an awesome sandwich with awesome salad on the side, smothered in awesome sauce. There was so much cool stuff to process that it's all a bit of a blur. That said, highlights were multiple:

Photobucket* Neil. The man. The New Zealand Paul McCartney, who's written so damned many classic pop tunes they're spilling out of his ears. I've never seen him live, and the ringmaster of events here was in perfect form, bouncing between vocals, guitar and piano. Particular greats included him opening with "Distant Sun," and awesome sing-along takes on Crowded House classics "Weather With You" and "Four Seasons in One Day." Also great to hear one of his underrated solo tracks, "She Will Have Her Way."

• Johnny Marr singing and playing throughout the night, but especially on an utterly lovely "Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want)", quite likely the nearest we'll ever get to hearing a Smiths reunion. (Overheard on way to toilet at break: "Who is the guy who sang the Morrissey song?" Argh.) There's nothing quite like hearing Marr's distinctive chiming guitar live.

* Wilco are of course one of my top bands playing these days, and I was psyched to see them again less than a year after their last show down here. They played favorites like "Jesus Etc.," "War On War" and "The Late Greats" and one of my all-time Wilco classics, their take on Woody Guthrie's "California Stars" complete with Don McGlashan on a honking euphonium. Marvelous, and Mr. Tweedy in a very good humour throughout (even tossing in a dash of an a capella take on "I'm A Wheel.")

• Neil Finn tackling a full-throttle cover of Radiohead's "Bodysnatchers," bellowing away Thom Yorke's electro-rock vocals in wonderful style, with Radiohead's Ed O'Brien on fire on guitar.

• Guitarist O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway of Radiohead were fantastic -- O'Brien (who's like eleven feet tall) provided wonderfully spooky, very Radioheady guitar accompaniment to several tracks with Wilco and others, and Selway got behind the mic to sing a nifty new song he'd written, "Family Madness."

Photobucket* The lovely violinist Lisa Germano (who's played with John Mellencamp and has had a very underrated solo career) added awesome textures to "Jesus Etc." and several other tunes.

* I named Neil's son Liam Finn's debut album "I'll Be Lightning" as one of my tops of 2008, so I was really pleased to see him here -- and the kid nearly stole the show at several points, really throwing himself into takes on his "Gather To The Chapel" and "Second Chance" (which featured a fantastic guitar duel with Johnny Marr), and joining Wilco on several numbers.

• Kiwi icon Don McGlashan was extremely cool, adding eccentric instruments like ukelele and euphonium to several songs and providing very classy vocals (a highlight being a duet with Finn on "Throw Your Arms Around Me"). Kiwi singer Bic Runga was great too with a countryfied "Change of Heart" cover.

• Of course this entire assemblage has been working on new songs for their forthcoming album, and premiered several tracks, including a new Wilco song (I think called "You Never Know") and Marr singing a track written by Tweedy. Awesome stuff. Tunstall and Runga premiered a nifty little "murder ballad" they'd written as well.

• I wasn't familiar with Scottish singer KT Tunstall but she was a real find, bubbly with enthusiasm and doing several great tracks.

• The encore was totally awesome, of course, featuring what I counted as up to 13 musicians on stage at one point -- all-star takes on Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" (with a giddy Tunstall tackling vocals -- Tweedy had apparently sung it the previous night which would've been something to hear), Neil Finn and the rest of the gang tearing through The Smiths' "There Is A Light (That Never Goes Out)" and a full-band blast on the chestnut "Something In The Air" (which I know best from a Tom Petty cover).

I wish I'd brought my camera (I have borrowed the pics above from another attendee's Flickr page, and appreciate getting to see his pics). The only regret that I have is that for some reason I nearly didn't buy a ticket to go 7 Worlds Collide at all. I must be insane, I realised last night as the last stinging chords of Johnny Marr's guitar echoed in my brain. What an event.

Update: Totally grand YouTube footage of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" from the night I attended. Huge thanks to Youtuber lordez185 for the footage!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The one in which we repeat old sentences

Stolen (or is that tagged?) from bloggers Roger and Gordon, a meme of the year that just was: you randomly select a line from your blog - one post per month for the past year - and then post the lines (and links) publicly. So consider this a Spatula Recap of 2008; and later this week I'll post my final thoughts on 2008 stuff and then we'll finally move on to 2009!

January 2008: (Sir Edmund) Hillary was a remarkable soul, and while there's been the typical amount of hyperbole one gets when someone this famed dies – let's rename mountains after him! let's declare a national holiday! (all ideas he would've hated from most accounts) – there's also been a fair amount of soul-searching as to what being a Kiwi means.

February: Now he is a mighty four-year-old and the baby days are rapidly fading into the past...

March: The Conchords on the other hand are particularly Kiwi as they focus in on the idea of the Kiwi man, a stoic "bloke."

Underneath everyday doings like feeding your cat and playing a jazz record lie the potential for strange abysses indeed.

May: It is perhaps the finest moment of Cher's life.

June: Spidey uses fists, webs, construction equipment, even, in a dazzling sequence illustrated by the young John Romita Jr., a loaded gas tanker.

July: Clark's biggest foe is the general impression she's "had long enough" and even though NZ has done pretty well under her, it's been a dismal year with the economy slowing and a steady drumbeat of violent crime and gang worries.

August: It was strange coming back to my homeland after nearly two years away, and seeing what had changed and what hadn't.

September: What I wouldn't give to be working at my old paper for that one day!

October: Biggest regret in life: When I interviewed Alice Cooper a couple years back, I didn't ask him about "Muscle of Love."

November: When he spoke of 106-year-old Anna Nixon Cooper tonight, and her journey from "a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky" to today when "she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote," for a moment I felt the quivering membrane of history, and how quickly something can change.

December: Running across some of the few remaining giant kauri is a bit like coming across a solid wood wall in the middle of the forest.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Year in Review: My Top 10 Books Read in '08

So it's time to look back at the books I read in 2008 -- and I read a lot. (Too much, if you ask the lovely wife.) The final tally is 76 books read in 2008, give or take -- of which 22 were fiction, about 50 nonfiction. Graphic novels don't count in my tally. I did a lot of biographies or autobiographies this year, of everyone from Orson Welles to Charles Darwin to Sir Edmund Hillary to Phil Spector. The fiction I read was generally top-notch, but for some reason filling in the considerable gaps in my real-world knowledge has just been more appealing to me lately.

As for the top 10 -- well, I can't just limit it to books that came out in 2008, although several of these did. In alphabetical order by author, my favorite 10 books read in 2008 (as with all lists, it's one that could change given my mood):

Photobucket“Man In The Dark" by Paul Auster (2008) -- One of my favorite writers, Auster is dizzyingly prolific -- a book a year, usually. The last few years have seen Auster doing shorter, novella-length work, quite good but not quite at the level of his classics like "City of Glass." But this tale -- also very brief -- is concise yet hugely powerful. It starts off as a strange science-fiction pastiche of a writer imagining a devastated America left in ruins by a Bush-created civil war. What's astounding is how Auster turns these musings around into a shocking end that is among the best, starkest fiction I've seen yet generated out of "war on terror."

“Over The Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe” by Laurence Bergreen (2004) -- I love tales of exploration, about back when the world was mysterious and people drew dragons at the edges of maps. Ferdinand Magellan is one of those figures you know but don't really know much about, and Bergreen does a marvelous job telling us about his harrowing adventure circling the globe for the first time. Magellan isn't someone I admire, like Captain Cook; indeed, he's a bit of an authoritarian jerk, but he's also a project of the intensely religious, crusading culture of his time. (Sea captains usually discipline their men, but Magellan's the first one I've read of who drew and quartered someone. Ew.) Bergreen places Magellan into his context very well, and makes you feel the menace and uncertainty of the then-unknown world.

Photobucket"2666" by Roberto Bolaño (in progress). (2008) -- Technically, this is a cheat, as I'm about 350 pages into this three-volume 900-page monolith. But unless it undergoes a radical deterioration, it's a thrilling ride, which reminds me in turns of some of my favorite writers like Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Borges. Bolaño crafts a tale that starts out as the search for a missing, mysterious German writer, but it winds and catapults into endless fascinating digressions. Bolaño plays words beautifully, spinning out into gorgeous riffs and tirades. There's a deep sadness at its heart, yet it's also a playful, exciting work of fiction. I can't wait to read more of it.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz (2007) -- When I saw Diaz last year in Auckland, I wrote how "like Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon, Diaz has the knack of channeling a diet of '70s pop culture ephemera" into his fiction. But Diaz also draws on the history of his native Dominican Republic to create a kind of Spanglish fable. "Diaz" tosses geek-cred Mordor lore side-by-side with the history of one of the last century's forgotten dictators and the battered but passionate culture left behind. One of the most enjoyable writers going these days, and hopefully his next book doesn't take the 10 years or so this one did to gestate.

Photobucket“33 1/3 series: Black Sabbath: Masters of Reality” by John Darnielle (2008) -- I've barely ever listened to Black Sabbath, but I'm a huge fan of Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, who turns out to be as good at fiction as he is at song lyrics. This entry in the highly enjoyable music chapbook series is a fictional diary of a Sabbath-obsessed teen in a mental institution, and Darnielle does an uncanny job of getting into the voice of an angry, unstable kid who just loves his Ozzy and Iommi. By the end of this brief story this Sabbath novice wanted to crank up "Sweet Leaf." A valentine to music and the power it can have, whether you like Sabbath or Dylan or Mozart.

“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005) -- This one's been talked about a lot lately post-Obama's victory, and his own Cabinet choices do seem to show some of the Lincoln template – former political foes gathered together under a novice president. But Goodwin's book is also invigorating just as history, a worthy addition to the towering forests of Lincoln lit that sheds new light on Abe, the character of his cohorts like Seward and Chase, and also rescues poor Mary Lincoln a bit from the title of unbearably tragic madwoman. A great read for political junkies.

Photobucket“Dishwasher: One Man's Quest To Wash Dishes in All 50 States" by Pete Jordan (2007) -- From the pages of zines (how's that for a pre-Internet buzzword?) springs this genial and amusing little gem. Pete Jordan's a dishwasher, and his mission in life isn't to move on up to being a chef or a restaurant owner -- it's to wash dishes in all 50 states. A very engaging look at a so-called "slacker" as he bops around America, washing dishes all the way. We read lots of books about writers and policemen and senators and so forth, but this humble tome shines a light on a blue-collar life, and will give you a bit of respect for the humble "dish dog."

“The Audacity Of Hope" by Barack Obama (2006) -- What turned me on to Obama was reading his first book, "Dreams from my Father." The man can write; not especially lyrically, maybe, but with an honesty, insight and ease that appeals to me. (And it really irritated me everytime I heard Obama described as some kind of utterly blank slate -- if you want to learn about the man, read his books, for cryin' out loud, which were written without ghost-writers I might add.) "Hope" is more policy-wonk focused than the highly personal "Father," and so can be a bit dry in spots, but it's a compelling summation of what he believes in and hopes to do as president. Obama is the best writer-President we've seen since Teddy Roosevelt; let's hope he measures up in other fashions.

Photobucket“Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" by Rick Perlstein (2008) -- Speaking of presidents -- this huge 800-page tome attempts to explain how American political culture has changed since 1960, and how it's all Richard Nixon's fault. A biography of Nixon the politician that also sums up the last 40 years or so of American life, how the change of the '60s echoed throughout the ages of Reagan, Clinton and Bushes. Will President Obama mark another change on the order of the Nixon shift, perhaps one that plays a little less to our venal natures? In a year full o' political reading, "Nixonland" offered a lot to chew on.

“The Wild Trees” by David Preston (2007) -- I reviewed this in length earlier last year, and I still love it. An epic look at a world high in the redwood trees on Northern California, a rare and remote ecosystem most of us will never see.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Greetings from the first country to be in 2009

...Wish you were here. This whole summer-in-January thing ain't so bad, really.

(Regular posting to resume soon; between brief zippy holiday getaways and a traumatic works schedule that has me doing a lot of 4.30am [aarrggh] starts in recent weeks, I haven't had much time for blogging. Posts on my favorite books of 2008, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and more to come sooner or later.)