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by David Pullar

24 Jul 2008

We were nothing like the quirky characters in the BBC TV series The Book Group, but we did meet every month or two to discuss a book we’d all planned to read.  The key difference with the TV show was that we weren’t all sleeping together.  The main similarity was that often a whole night would pass with us barely mentioning the book of the month.

Back in 2004, I was invited along to a group by my then-housemate and my overactive sense of responsibility quickly made me one of the “reliables”, the three or four who would turn up every time and have read the book without fail.  The rest of the group was made up of semi-regulars who mostly just wanted to hang out for a beer.  It was a great group.

If you’ve ever been a member of a book group, you will likely have encountered the same issues that we did.  How do you keep everyone interested?  How do you pick a book that everyone wants to read?  Do you bother rescheduling for people who never turn up anyway?

Picking books was definitely the biggest challenge.  The two men in the group weren’t so keen on some of the more Oprah’s Book Club-type selections.  No one was especially keen on books over 400 pages long—who has time?  Finding enough copies for everyone was always a challenge, especially for anything left-of-centre.

There’s something to be said for book-choice-by-committee, though.  That group and its democratic selection process were responsible for me reading a dozen books that I never would have picked up otherwise.  Sometimes this only confirmed my initial impression of the book (My Sister’s Keeper was compulsive but very superficial) and other times it blew my preconceptions away.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was the biggest surprise.  It’s a phenomenally popular book and one of the biggest landmarks in recent Australian fiction.  For some reason, I figured it would be dull and very middle-of-the-road.  Instead, it was engaging and beautifully told.  Rather than relying on the worn clichés of Australiana, it dug deep into the world of post-war Perth and turned up all sorts of unique characters and situations.

Being in a book group and reviewing books are similar in a few ways.  Firstly, you have to read to a deadline and somehow fit a book in with all your normal activities.  The deadlines for our group weren’t too strict—every meeting was delayed at least two weeks—but once you factored in sourcing a copy and the rest of modern life, it could be difficult.

The other similarity is being forced to verbalise your opinion on a book.  Once we’ve finished with the rigours of High School English Lit, most of us are more than happy to just enjoy a book and leave any analysing to our subconscious.  But talking about a book in a group takes you away from vague feelings and impressions and requires you to put boundaries around those feelings.  Once you’ve expressed an opinion out loud, it feels more fixed but also more dubious.

This is a mixed blessing.  Some books open up under that kind of analysis and you find yourself loving them in a deeper way.  Other times you realise that your positive feelings evaporate once they’re aired, especially when you have to defend them.  My good feelings regarding Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised didn’t survive the questioning.

It doesn’t matter, really.  Some books will change your life, others will amuse you briefly and others will let you down.  But talking about a book over a beer in warm pub on a frosty winter with good people, well it’s one of life’s little pleasures.

by Christel Loar

23 Jul 2008

I’m beginning to feel a bit guilty—and geeky—getting to see episodes of Live from Abbey Road before they air and playing them over and over. I’m like a kid in a candy store! Show six (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) features a selection of several of my favorite varieties of auditory confection and might just be the series’ Best. Episode. Ever.

First up, the Hoosiers, with a perfect blend of self-deprecating humor, witty banter, smart lyrics, sharp hooks (and sharp shoes!) close harmonies, bright horns and power-pop keyboards all wrapped up in ribbon of irresistible rhythm! And these guys really have fun with the whole affair, there are far more interview bits cut into this episode than last week’s, there are the obviously great songs (Two hits off of last year’s The Trick to Life and a brilliant rearrangement of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that you’ll have to see to believe!) and, of course, there are the costumes (to appeal to everyone’s inner geek). It’s the whole package!

 

 

Then, the Black Keys step into the echo chamber to talk “ham sandwiches” and studio lore (did you know that all the studio equipment at Abbey Road was once—and perhaps still is—rebuilt, repaired and maintained entirely within the building? That’s so cool! But, maybe I’m just geeking out on little details like that.). Sometimes it’s hard to believe the Black Keys is only two people, but seeing them facing each other in this setting, looking, momentarily, almost like a standoff between guitar and drums, it’s doubly easy to be impressed by the music they create from such a spare and simple setup. One is tempted to throw out exclamations like “incendiary!” and phrases like “power-duo”, with absolutely no irony (but, again, I may be geeking out a bit).

Last in this episode is Manu Chao, bringing poly-rhythmic, poly-ethnic, politically-charged, punk-infused music from around the world to St. John’s Wood. He’s another incendiary artist (and yet another to thank Joe Strummer for bringing to my attention), but one who, although he has best-selling albums and legions of fans who follow his live shows in Europe and South America, is lesser-known in the UK and relatively unknown in the US and Canada. This is a travesty, for there’s no other artist I can think of right now with his finger so truly on the pulse of the people, so on the beat of the music of the streets of the world. During one interview segment, Chao says, “[When you are] a long-time musician… you have to be able to improvise any time, you know? I think that’s the meaning of music.” It could be said that it’s also the meaning of life (and, if I were still geeking out, which I am, I’d point out that this must mean music and life are one in the same. I knew it! Music is life!).

by Bill Gibron

23 Jul 2008

How do you like your comedy - serious (meaning witty without being wanton) or scatological (bring on the feces and the farts!)? Do you prefer your laughter driven by sparkling dialogue, insightful characterization, and tasty interpersonal bon mots, or do you favor giggles glazed over with expletives, bodily fluids, and the fun that can be found in both? It’s a contention that’s as old as the genre itself. For centuries, jesters have lived (and often died) by mocking the rich, ribbing the poor, and playing to both’s baser instincts when the subtler forms of funny didn’t do it. In the movies, it seems the two are often mutually exclusive. After all, no one mistakes The Marx Brothers for the Three Stooges. With the sensationally sophomoric Step Brothers hitting theaters tomorrow (25 July), it’s time to look back on some illustrations of how clever and crude in combination - or C3’s for short - end up being a source of undeniable hilarity. 

While the latest from Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and newest creative soulmate John C. Reilly is all foul mouthed frat boy toilet trade-offs (and damn funny in the process), it’s really nothing more than an extended series of splatter jobs. There’s no important message, no attempt to find reality in its ridiculousness. Yet there are many actual examples of where the two seemingly divergent styles of comedy have meshed quite effectively. Some would even argue that, when done properly, the clever/crude combo gives rise to another alliterative adjective - classic (anyone for C4?). Below are just a few non-inclusive illustrations of the best of both wit worlds expertly fused together. The only comic continuity present is that both types are offered equally, and balanced to make sure neither completely overwhelms the others. If one or the other is out of whack, they fall back into their home category for easier examination.

And let’s get some debatable punchliners out of the way right up front, shall we? The Producers? Too brilliant to be considered crude, even given the bad taste hippie Hitler subtext. There’s Something About Mary? Jokey juvenilia without a stitch of socially redeeming value. The Blues Brothers? The outsized physical shtick and stunt set pieces override the craven culture steals from the black community. Animal House? Something serious? Come on…it’s college after all. Certainly, one could go out on a limb and champion subversive standard bearers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, groove on the gore-laced lunacy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or defend the dick driven delights of something like Superbad. But when it comes to the C3’s, the comparison goes beyond good. There must be a visible inclusion of both the dignified and the dumb within final framework. Let’s begin with:

Knocked Up

While many people write off this Judd Apatow masterwork as just another example of his communal comedic approach (same group of actors, different storyline and setting), there is really much more going on here than slackers obsessed with sex. The message of maturity, about facing life’s unexpected events with candor and personal power are unmistakable. Toss in a few priceless takes on marriage and parenting, and a group of computer geeks that give both delineations a bad name, and you’ve got one of the greatest laugh-fests ever. If Mr. Apatow is remembered for nothing else, this stellar reflection of reality circa 2007 will stand as his best.

Blazing Saddles

You can tell Mel Brooks meant to be confrontational when he helmed this racially charged laugh riot. After all, he was working from material co-written by Richard Pryor, and a few of the original titles for this crazy comic western were Black Bart and Tex X. This remains one of the few non-blaxploitation films to drop the “N” word with intense regularity (up to 70 times, almost always exclusively by whites), and even today, it’s depiction of Old West prejudice still stings. Beyond anything PC, this is one terrific satire, a film that competently comments on the civil rights movement while incorporating a campfire sequence filled with air biscuit floating cowboys.

Female Trouble

John Waters always wanted to make a mass murder melodrama, a combination of Douglas Sirk and Charles Manson. Inspired by Helter Skelter participant Tex Watson, he succeeded with this outrageous sudser, the story of Dawn Davenport, her retarded daughter Taffy, and her rags to riches to repugnance career as a ‘crime is beauty’ supermodel. Loaded with the kind of dialogue that bears constant repetition and the sort of over the top plot points that make Peyton Place seem like The Seventh Seal, this bad taste treat only gets better with age. Along with the equally unsettling (but not quite as funny) Pink Flamingos, it proves Waters’ reputation as the genuine Prince of Puke. 

Tootsie

Before you start squawking and defending this brilliant Dustin Hoffman romp as a pure example of serious, straightforward comedy, remember one very important thing. This movie is entirely premised on one of the most hackneyed, lowbrow facets in all of humor - a guy in a dress. Drag has been a staple of the genre since the all male days of the ancient Greeks, and from burlesque to Benny Hill, it’s been viewed as the cheap and easy way to tweak an audience’s funny bone. In this case, all parties involved raise the vaudeville stunt into something sublime. And don’t forget the less than subtle amorous advances of the dirty old man soap star. Now that’s disgusting!

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Kids spewing profanity. Movies as bad influences. Grassroots campaigns against flatulent Canadians. A useless war fought over stupid USA entitlements. Political hot potatoes tied tenuously to the First Amendment and the right to free speech. These are just a few of the areas creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mine for this flawless big screen adaptation of their hit animated TV series. Taking on the then simmering subject of the media’s influence on the young (Columbine had just occurred four months prior) the duo drove a massive middle finger directly into the eye of dim-witted pundits and self-proclaimed know-it-alls everywhere. It remains the best miscreant musical of all time.

by Rob Horning

23 Jul 2008

The myriad of choices we have in the consumer marketplace is supposed to make up the bulk of our inheritance for having been born into thriving capitalist democracies. Parsing these options allow us to experience the freedom of choice, which is elided with freedom and liberty in general and is meant to compensate for various inequities in income, social mobility, and political access. But as behavioral economists and various consumer researchers have attempted to demonstrate, a surfeit of choices is as likely to make us miserable as it is to make us happy, and the choices can feel merely like occasions to make mistakes, not reveal personal preferences and give tangible shape to our innermost sense of ourselves. We frequently lack the information to make wise decisions in the marketplace yet are compelled to make them anyway—to express our pseudo-political will, and make manifest our vaunted individuality, of which we are supposed to be so proud. So we are left feeling insecure, vulnerable, beleaguered—paradoxically looking for advice on what to buy to express our uniqueness.

The studies detailed in this Scientific American article make matters appear even worse, as it suggests that having to repeatedly make choices—as our consumer culture prides itself on making us do—leads to degraded “executive function”.

When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choose to eat a salad instead of a piece of cake, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes require conscious effort-you have to resist the temptation to let your mind wander or to indulge in the sweet dessert. It turns out, however, that use of executive function—a talent we all rely on throughout the day—draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity.

In other words, the bombardment of marketing we are confronted with tires out our brains and makes it more likely we will make poor decisions or lack the wherewithal to resist that marketing. The advertiser’s campaign against us is really a war of attrition.

If making choices depletes executive resources, then “downstream” decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Indeed, University of Maryland psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found exactly this effect: individuals who had to regulate their attention—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who did not. These different choices follow a very specific pattern: they become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.


This way of viewing the brain suggests we should take a conservationist approach to decision-making, delegating insignificant ones so that we may be sharp for the ones that matter. One might even argue that we could let ads make the unimportant consumption decisions for us, trusting the ubiquity of certain products in the media as a proxy for their worthiness. But then, of course, we would need to decide which decisions to delegate (or make on automatic pilot) and which ones to take ourselves. And that may be the most insidious aspect of all the marketing—it obfuscates the importance of various choices, making silly things seem integral and important decisions seem matter of fact.

by PopMatters Staff

23 Jul 2008

Theresa Andersson
Na Na Na (Empty Heart) [MP3]
     

Birds Fly Away [MP3]
     

Na Na Na (Empty Heart) [Video]

Lykke Li
I’m Good I’m Gone (Metronomy Mix) [MP3]
     

I’m Good I’m Gone (Black Kids Mix) [MP3]
     

Amy Ray
Blame Is a Killer [MP3]
     

Kristoffer Ragnstam
Swing That Tambourine [MP3]
     

Passion Pit
Sleepyhead [MP3] (from Chunk of Change releasing 16 September)
     

Kuroma
Alexander Martin [MP3]
     

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