Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Circular Anabasis, or Svejk at the Public Library

"The major-general on the train says soliders aren't supposed to think..."

I've started, again, reading "The Good Soldier Svejk and His Adventures In the First World War". This book is the only thing keeping me sane... and it's hilarious.
Thanks Jaroslav Hasek.

More on this next time.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On A Monday ...

Some friends of mine sent out a survey of ten questions about 2009 on New Year's Eve and KDHX asked me to name my favorite ten records of 2009. All this quantifying of activity during a seemingly arbitrary period of time...

One of the survey questions asked about a favorite book I read during the year and I replied with the following list, explaining that I work in a library. Mostly, it's that I like many different things for different reasons and I'd rather spend time listening to more records and reading more books than trying to figure out which is better by my own imagined standards. But this is by no means a list of the current best-sellers, I think the newest book I read this past year is ten years old.

some fiction:
Nick Cave "And The Ass Saw The Angel" - A book I bought several years back and never got around to... I don't know why, perhaps because a few early passages are dense and initially vague but this is one of the best-written books and creepiest narrative voices I've encountered. I've always liked his songwriting but I dare say this is even better work, as well as a logical mid-point between The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. It is perhaps more accessible than the Birthday Party but even more disturbing. It also has that deranged folk-influence that would develop more into work like the record "Murder Ballads".

Tayeb Salih "A Season Of Migration To The North" - A book I saw on the shelf of my May Day-bandmate Brien Seyle, by a Sudanese author not very well known outside the Arabic literary world. Salih died in early 2009 and this novel was reprinted by New York Review Books. As a one-time student of African Studies and English literature, somehow I missed this one until now. Two narrators, one within the first narrator's story, with an interesting take on a common theme of African novels, that of the modern collision between the traditional life of Africa and that of the Europeans.

Aleksandar Hemon "The Question Of Bruno" - A book of short stories by a Bosnian living in Chicago. I started reading this at the Public Library in downtown Alton, Illinois one day. I liked the stories because they stood up by themselves but also crossed over with each other, a few stray characters entering other worlds. Hemon has been compared to Nabokov on the premise of a his being a European who learned English as a second language and then used it more beautifully than its native speakers. He's also rather funny. Left Bank Books hosted Hemon ealier this past year as well for a reading from his newest collection.

some non-fiction:
Phillips Verner Bradford "Ota: The Pygmy In The Zoo" - A book which I've had for a while but finally read in its entirety this past year as I worked with the story of Ota Benga for a project of my own writing. Bradford is the grandson of Philips Verner, the man who brought Ota Benga to the United States and kept him at the World's Fair. The fair was demeaning enough but Ota Benga's life before and after that are revelatory tragedies of their own. From the loss of his family during the Belgian King Leopold's horrific colonial enterprise, Ota Benga took up with the strange white man as a door number two to avoid slavery. After the 1904 Fair in Saint Louis, he lived in the Bronx Zoo and later shot himself.

Ryszard Kapuscinski "The Emperor" and "Another Day Of Life" - Two of many books by the Polish journalist who died in 2008. "The Emperor" is made up of interviews with people in Ethiopia and documents the fall of Haile Selassie. Why people worship at the altar of that fallen leader will always escape me. "Another Day Of Life" is about the Angolan civil war of 1975. Kapuscinski went there as the state was crumbling, after Portugal's own king had fallen and its colonies were abandoned. As in his other books, the author makes himself out to be a bad-ass without ever trying, just simply describing the situatuions he's gotten himself into while keeping a keen eye on the politics of it all.

and some poetical non-fiction:
Vachel Lindsay "A Handy Guide For Beggars, Especially Those of the Poetic Fraternity" - I read some of this with an afternoon beer-buzz in a state park in Wisconsin under shelter from the rain, hoping the Springfield poet would appreciate it. This is one of Lindsay's collections of travel writing, interspersed with poems. Not exactly a memoir or a short story collection, but it works between those genres. Published originally in 1916, it makes a good case for going back to simpler things. The author made rules for himself about what time of day to beg a meal and avoided big towns and railroads, god forbid he had a cell phone out in those woods.

Speaking of technology, here is my list of CDs and records that I turned in to KDHX as my favorites of the past year.
Tinariwen "Imidiwan: Companions" - Nomad rock. Hypnotic and catchy music from a group of Mali's Tuareg people. Thanks to the French record producers that have helped the rest of the world get to hear them.
Sonic Youth "The Eternal" - It was so cool to see them play this summer on a stage in front of the Mississippi river as the sun set. The songs are consistently good on this one.
Tom Russell "Blood and Candle Smoke" - Another great live show I saw this past year, backed up by a good record. Calexico, one of my favorite bands, supports Russell's great stories with some of their trademark instrumentation.
Grace Basement "Gunmetal Gray" - My friend Kevin Buckley has been working on this one for a while. I think everyone that has heard this record has been impressed by it. Now if only more people got to hear it...
Mos Def "The Ecstatic" - I like rap when it's this intelligent. Just like with rock bands, it's so easy to sell out and make meaningless music, so it stands out when popular artists don't do that.
Scott Pinkmountain and The Golden Bolts Of Tone "The Full Sun" - Gino Robair, the drummer on this record, sent copies after his visit to Saint Louis. I think every musician in the San Francisco bay area may have had a hand in making this one.
Neko Case "Middle Cyclone" and Andrew Bird "Noble Beast" - They don't need my help with promotion but these two still make good records.
Stace England and The Salt Kings "The Amazing Oscar Micheaux" - A concept record of sorts from a history-minded rock band from southern Illinois.
Amadou and Mariam "Welcome To Mali" - More music from Mali, whose government at one point asked each of the country's seven regions to pick a band to represent their area. The results were national orchestras and some state-funded art.
There were plenty of other good records that didn't fit into my arbitrary list of ten. Maybe I'll elaborate next week.