Thursday, April 30, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Top 4 Works

Just to get that taste out of my mouth from my last post on 1930s-era novelist Evelyn Waugh, here are my favorite works by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He's among my favorite authors, along with Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Orwell, Poe, and Wilde, to name a few major ones.

04. The Beautiful and Damned (1922). If there's an underrated novel in this powerful four, it's this tale about Anthony Patch, who weaves his way through the fabric of the Jazz Age and his many East Coast elite social circles.

03. Tender Is the Night (1934). Fitzgerald's answer to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. It's about the exploits of Dick and Nicole Diver and their (mostly) American ex-pat friends in the South of France.

02. This Side of Paradise (1920). Scott wrote this tale about a Princeton student named Amory Blaine. He and Zelda had broken up and he hoped to win her back by getting his first novel published. It worked.

01. The Great Gatsby (1925). After the Fitzgeralds moved from Great Neck, Long Island, Scott finished TGG while living on the French Riviera in 1925.

Another Underwhelmimg Scoop From the Media

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (pictured) is supposed to be one of the great journalism novels. I threatened to stop reading it several times, as I noted a couple of weeks back, but carried through. Now I've finished it and my opinion stands. Trash.

The book is mostly about the tensions between the busy lives we lead and the quiet, meditative moments we seek amongst the madness. Should translate well to our era, but it doesn't. Waugh really is a poor man's F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Or, as one reviewer in The Austin Chronicle surmised: "Evelyn Waugh was a cruel, faddish, reactionary snob -- a pattern, in other words, to succeeding English satirists like Martin Amis and Will Self." That's about right, although Self's Great Apes is a classic, humorous, and weird alternate take on the Planet of Apes.

Scoop gets **1/2 out of ***** stars

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Cold Reality of Horrible U.S. Immigration Enforcement

The Visitor (2007) is a great little indie movie that sneaks up on you throughout its 105 minutes. It brilliantly examines the devastating world of immigration detention through the lens of an aging, balding, white American man. Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a professor from a Connecticut college visiting New York City to speak at a conference. He gets more wrapped up in the lives of the immigrant couple he finds squatting in his second-home apartment than he does the conference.

Jenkins has been a great bit player in films like Burn After Reading, There's Something About Mary, amd Hannah and Her Sisters, but here he shines in the lead as someone who isn't what he appears to be. He deserved his Oscar nomination for best actor.

The couple is from Syria and Senegal, and when Tarek gets separated from Zainab, with threats of being deported, Tarek's mother arrives from Michigan to check on the welfare of her son. The cast does an all-around excellent job. The four main players are all so likeable and so good with and for each other that it puts a truly human face on the realities of how U.S. immigration authorities act in cold blood to enforce a set of considerably dubious and frequently unfair American laws.

**** out of ***** stars

Guest Blogger: How Rachel Lettre Educated Barack Obama, Part II

Rachel Lettre, my wife (pictured here telling President Barack Obama how to safely plant a tree) has been planning and running conservation service projects for almost eight years with the Student Conservation Association. This is part two of her series on "friends in high places:"

April 17th, 11 a.m.: We rush over to Kenilworth for another site visit, this time we’re greeted by the guys we’ve been working with plus about 10 secret service in suits, press liaisons, and communications people carrying strange bags with wires and mics. This is when I decide I better tell the park staff what is going on, because this was no ordinary-looking group of birders or park-goers. I did pick this park because of the great relationship that we have with the staff and the high level of support SCA gets from them throughout the year. Still, it was awkard telling the site manager that the president would be planting trees in the park in 4 days.

We talk through the plan, where the motorcade may drive in, and also develop the rain plan of planting in the greenhouse. At this point I’m thinking that I should probably tell our high-school volunteers what is going on and get them ready.

April 18th: I still haven’t told the volunteers who they'll be working with! Ran around getting t-shirts printed, continued to keep my mouth shut about the event, and prayed for sunshine!

April 19th: Went to the nursery to look at trees with Amtchat and Jackson. Called 10 nurseries to find plants for the indoor option. Went to Home Depot to buy work gloves. I was buying gloves for the president! And I also had to find something neutral to match whatever Michelle would wear. Not to mention a large pair for big-hands Bill. (Jackson thought shopping at Home Depot was fun and loves saying Obama.)

We then picked up the students and, in the car on the way to the park, told them who they’d be working with. They went crazy! Since we were in 2 cars, the highlight of the day was when they all got out at the park, screaming, jumping, and hugging each other. (Have I mentioned how much I love the students I work with?) We met Leah, briefed the students, walked through the project, and made plans to get them out of school on Tuesday.

April 20th, 9 a.m.: Pouring rain, our final walk through/site visit with White House staff, secret service, National Park Service and my other three SCA co-workers who would be directly involved. This went pretty smoothly. We went over the program for both the outside and inside plans, got confirmation on a lot of questions, and got soaked!

The rest of the day Amtchat and I spent running around getting supplies, buying trees, gathering tools, delivering them to the park, talking to students, having meetings about the program, deciding who was working with each of the "principals" and periodically asking ourselves if this was really happening. Evidentally, according to Amtchat, it was meant to happen, but I haven’t seen The Secret so don’t understand yet.

Tomorrow's the big day ...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Love Mountain Biking

Second outing of the year. Today was beautiful and very hot for late April. Loved the medium-difficulty trails at Patapsco Valley State Park near BWI Airport. 

Went with Rachel and Loni, while Lynn, Mandy and Julia babysat Jackson while playing and eating lunch at various locales throughout the park.

In case you're wondering, this was my one wipeout. My front wheel hit the mud and I hit the ground, with my face missing a major mud puddle by just inches.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Guest Blogger: How Rachel Lettre Educated Barack Obama, Part I

Rachel Lettre, my wife (pictured walking behind President Barack Obama), has been planning and running conservation service projects for almost eight years with the Student Conservation Association. This is part one of her series on "friends in high places:"

Each year, for Earth Day, we have over 100 volunteers join our staff for a huge project at Anacostia Park. We’ve done it so many times that it barely needs planning, other then getting the word out and moving tools and supplies to the park the day before. We send crews out to parks all over the country for weeks, many that we’ve never seen, some that we spend less then an hour talking to on the phone. This project was different.

Here’s how it all started:
April 9th, 9:30 a.m.: I walk into the office and Leah, SCA’s Director of Government Relations, pulls me into a phone call with some of our New Hampshire-based staff, who are asking if we can do an Earth Day project for some Americorps members. I say absolutely not, it’s our busy season and our staff is maxed out.

Later that day at 3 p.m.: I’m in a meeting and Leah runs in and grabs me, she’s on a call with the White House and the National Cooperation for Service. Can we do a site visit at Kingman Island for a project with First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of kids the next morning? Confidential.

April 10th, my day off: Amtchat Edwards, Leah and I go to Kingman Island with 2 members of the White House Advance Team to look at a potential project for the first lady, a group of students and some Americorps members. I suggest going to Kenilworth because it’s a more appropriate park. Still no clear answer on whether or not it’s really going to happen.

April 14th: Second site visit with two separate White House reps. They like Kenilworth better, still no confirmation and talk is for the first lady only. Still top secret.

April 16th, 10:30 p.m.: I’m getting antsy, haven’t heard from the White House in a day, and don’t know if it’s happening or not. Leah calls me at home and says, “Rachel, this is huge, and it’s confidential … are you ready? We’re on and it’s going to be The President, the First Lady, The Vice President, Dr. Biden, and Ted Kennedy. We need 12 students/Americorps members' social security numbers by morning and don’t tell them why.” Holy shit! My heart is racing, I can’t believe it. It’s 11 p.m. and I start texting all of our best students asking for their social security numbers. It’s all very surreal. Somehow I manage to get everyone’s socials to the White House the next day for vetting.

April 17th, 10 a.m.: Conference call with the White House: They go over the list of principals and I write these down. Not like I’m going to forget, but when will I ever be told such high-level superstars would be at one of my events again! “President Obama, Michelle Obama, VP Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, and Bill Clinton.” ... My heart stops again ... did they just say Bill Clinton? OK, I’ll trade Ted for Bill. It’s not like Ted was going to get out there and dig a hole anyway.

Woolly Mammoth Goes Before and After with Antebellum

Antebellum continues this season's theme of remembering earlier eras at the Woolly Mammoth theater in D.C.

Antebellum (which means "before the war") takes place in both pre-war Germany and later in 1939 Atlanta. A Hitler-like character falls in love with a black male camp prisoner, who earlier was a popular jazz singer having a passionate affair with an American Jewish man living temporarily in Berlin.

The prisoner eventually escapes his Nazi confines and reunites in Atlanta with his Jewish lover, who has since married a seemingly simple 25-year-old virgin female infatuated with the hottest new "picture show," Gone With the Wind.

Identity problems ensue for all the characters, and there are plenty of heartbreaks to go along with some laughs and gratuitous male nudity. All five actors are excellent, Robert O'Hara's script is exceptionally strong, and this continues the remarkable string of fantastic productions at Woolly Mammoth.

**** out of ***** stars

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten Best Philip Seymour Hoffman Movies

He's too good of an actor to pick his "best performances," so here are his best movies:

10. Red Dragon, 2002
09. Along Came Polly, 2004
08. Capote, 2005 (A favorite author, a disappointing movie, a great performance by PSH)
07. Magnolia, 1999
06. The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999
05. Boogie Nights, 1997
04. Punch-Drunk Love, 2002
03. Almost Famous, 2000
02. 25th Hour, 2002
01. The Big Lebowski, 1998

Honorable mention of the one PSH movie I haven't seen but want to see: Empire Falls, 2005

No "Doubt" About How Good This Movie Is

It's a battle for supremacy at St. Nicholas in the Bronx in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the kind and passionate Father Flynn and Meryl Streep as the cold and bitter Sister Aloysius turn in truly gripping and award-worthy performances. Amy Adams as the young and still relatively idealistic history teacher at the parish is also rivetingly innocent, likable, and a little creepy.

Indeed, all three actors received Academy Award nominations for their performances. The only problem with Doubt is the thinness of the material that Hoffman, Streep, and Adams have to work with. A little more back story on each of the characters might have helped. But then again, it might have distracted from the excellent suspense and discomfort that builds between the characters in almost every scene.

**** out of ***** stars

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Flaming Lips + Earth Day = Good Times

The Flaming Lips put on an hour-long, greatest-hits show on the National Mall late this afternoon (check out my awesome videotape job of a portion of "She Don't Use Jelly" below). New EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson introduced the band for the Earth Day-related concert as leader Wayne Coyne waved his huge-huge-huge fake hands behind her. Rains threatened and it got progressively colder as the show went on, but it never failed to deter the enthused crowd.

Coyne surfed the crowd in his bubble, banged a gong, shot confetti and smoke into the air (even though he said he had promised festival organizers that he wouldn't be so callous to the environment), played all manner of crazy-colored and multi-necked guitars, and enjoyed a crack backing band that included some sort of huge caterpillar-like creature that just stood there and looked, well, big.

The sound and the show were great. The quality was probably equal to the time I saw them at Madison Square Garden with Wilco for New Year's Eve and almost as good as when I saw them play with Sebadoh years ago in St. Louis. The band played "Yoshimi," "Do You Realize?" "She Don't Use Jelly," a great cover of Madonna's "Borderline," and several other prime selections.

The real reason I know the show was excellent is that my 17-month-old son Jackson was all smiles the whole way home, danced around several times through the rest of the evening, and kept waving his hands in the air like he really cares (for the rock, that is).

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Who's the Freak With That High Voice? Paul Mackie, Of Course

Here's what waking up at 7 a.m. on Sunday with a kid will do for one's creativity. It's a song I wrote and recorded this morning. Don't usually sing in such a high register. But once you get past the shock of that, I think it's going to rock with a fully amplified band effort. What do you think, Sprogs, should we add it to our set list when we reform in a month or so?

It's called "Someone Else's Girl."

Chuck Klosterman Doth Protest His Royal Hipness

Ever notice how hipsters rarely ever publish any books, or at least any books that are worthwhile? Long-time Spin Magazine writer Chuck Klosterman is one of the rare successful publishing-world hipsters, even if he devotes lots of ink to proclaiming just how unhip he is in Killing Yourself to Live.

Between his constant cool denials (making him ultimately, of course, a true hipster, despite wearing shorts in New York City), he tells some pretty decent rock n' roll stories. Like what it's like to work at Spin. "It is always the spring of 1996 in the offices of Spin. Just about everybody who works there looks like either (a) a member of the band Pavement, or (b) a girl who once dated a member of the band Pavement."

Or like his first relevant story in this book, which is all about Klosterman's trek around the country to visit sites that have something or other to do with rock n' roll death. This stop involves a visit with Stanley Bard, the manager of New York's Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols famously killed his equally low-life girlfriend Nancy Spungen. "I do not want the Chelsea Hotel associated with this story," Bard tells the author. "If you want to understand what someone fascinated by Sid Vicious is looking for, go find those 
people. You will see that they are not serious-minded people. You will see that they are not trying to understand anything about death. They are looking for nothing." Klosterman is then asked to leave the hotel, and that's that.

He takes up the death topic because he calls it "the most interesting thing absolutely everybody does," which is probably true. Although I'm a little concerned about pressing on with this book because of its style, I'm pretty intrigued about what this nerdy hipster uncovers. More stories to come, I suppose.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The White Tiger Visits India and China

India and China are two countries it behooves Americans to learn a lot about these days. So Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger seemed like a good place to start.

It begins with a Balram "Munna" Halwai telling his story (in a letter to the soon-to-visit Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao) of growing up as one of thousands of entrepreneurs from the streets of the southern city of Bangalore. "You hope to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting," he writes. And he claims the president will learn a lot by reading his story as one the city's "most successful, but probably least known, businessmen. I am tomorrow," he proclaims.

We slowly begin to learn pieces about Halwei. He is the son of a rickshaw puller and a very sick mother who "lies in bed and spews blood." He was briefly, three years ago, a "person of national importance," in what sounds like he was a wanted criminal, but we're still not sure at this point.

Unfortunately, the opening of the book doesn't jump off the page with much momentum. Instead of wasting any more time with this one, I'll look elsewhere to satisfy my curiosity of these two great nations. Unless you can change my mind ...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guest Blogger: Sean Felix Infects Your Maggot Brain

Sean (the one with the wieners around his neck, to the left) takes a look at Funkadelic's amazing "psychedelic druggie album" Maggot Brain:

The title track opens the album, and it owes a great deal to the guitar rock acts of the 60s and 70s. Apocryphal Story Moment: Eddie Hazel was supposedly told by George Clinton to play the guitar solo “like your momma just died.” And Hazel indeed offers a solo so emotionally wrought and powerful that it exists in and of itself. It is truly a testament to what music can be in the hands of a master. "Maggot Brain," the song, even though it is 10 minutes long, is the opening track to my Spring/Summer mix. It’s the perfect way to signal the cathartic end of Winter and the new possibilities of the coming sun.

"Can You Get to That" combines funk bass and folk-rhythm guitar with great lyrics, including opening lines: "I once had a life, or rather life had me/I was one among many or at least I seemed to be/But I read an old quotation in a book just yesterday/It said you’re gonna reap just what you sow/the debts you make you’ll have to pay/can you get to that."

After trying to get your mind right, the album brings your ass into the picture. I dare anyone to not dance to "Hit It and Quit It," a thunderous funk jam. The song title hearkens back to a line you can hear on any of James Brown’s albums. Here Funkadelic and George Clinton bring James Brown’s tightly orchestrated funk into the realm of men in diapers, platform shoes, LSD, and UFOs. "Hit It and Quit It" isn’t as tight as JB's stuff by any stretch, but one of the great things about this album is that it doesn’t have to be.

Maggot Brain goes on into the realms of race relations in "You and Your Folks," "Me and My Folks," and even some straight Chuck Brown, DC, go-go style funk on "Super Stupid" (Clinton did spend some early years in D.C. and Virginia). The album closes with the tracks "Back in Our Minds" (note: editor's favorite) and "Wars of Armageddon," the former which belies the drugged-out-haze form that Clinton brought into the mainstream of funk music, and the latter a psychedelic funk jam combining the sounds of the streets (tenements, protesters, police, laugh tracks, and airports?).

Evelyn Waugh's 1930s Scoop

As an ex-journalist and a current director of media relations, I read a lot about the media industry. One book I've always heard kicked around as a "must-read" for those in my profession is a 1938 novel by Evelyn Waugh called Scoop. It's billed as "a satire of sensationalist journalism," so what more could someone like me, who once came close to taking a job at the National Enquirer, ask for? I finally got around to starting it last week, but after about 35 pages, I'm not impressed. It's like the worst of F. Scott Fitzgerald's writings. Dated stuff from the '30s. A fascinating and wonderful decade, by the way.

I'm going to press on because people claim Scoop is hilarious. But, so far, as a Waugh newbie, it doesn't look like his writing has translated well over the years. He was once very popular and, still, his novel Brideshead Revisited (about the spiritual lives of an agnostic family) was turned into a movie in 2008, and Vile Bodies, about decadent London society in the 30s, was made into a 2003 movie called Bright Young Things, with Stephen Fry.

Scoop is about a young man named William Boot, who writes a backwoods column about nature for a national newspaper in England called the Daily Beast. He becomes a foreign correspondent when his editors, who don't recall having ever met him, mistake him for a novelist who also has the last name Boot. He is sent to cover a civil war in a fictional African country named Ishmaelia. Wackiness ensues for the inept Boot, who still manages to somehow get the "scoop."

More to come (hopefully positive) soon ...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The "Brains" Behind the Global-Warming Denial Hitmen

I just returned from a scary gathering of climate deniers at the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation. It was for a presentation by FOX News columnist and pollution-industry lobbyist Steven Milloy, to promote his new book, Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them.

While solutions we're exactly on the table ("I can't give away everything. I want you to buy the book"), Milloy was full of accusations that organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council are the "facist/communist/Nazi" block that are pushing a dictatorship of environmentalism that will be promoted by Obama and Congress to create policy loopholes and tax incentives. These will then line the pockets of environmentalists, politicians, and big business, while forcing consumers to pay higher prices for all their purchases.

Milloy accused Al Gore of spending $600 per month to heat his pool. Not to nitpick, but I doubt Gore spends that much to heat his pool in the Tennessee summer months. One audience member (the audience, incidentally, looked to be about half with Milloy and half against, including one vocal person dressed as a polar bear) asked him about his connections to ExxonMobil, Chevron, Phillip Morris, Dow Chemical, and a litany of heavily-polluting corporations. Milloy deflected the question without offering a convincing explanation.

No substance was the sickening theme of the talk. He cited some 31,000 scientists in the U.S. who don't think climate change is caused by humans.  But he didn't mention the name or affiliation of even one of those scientists.

His most interesting points related to how conservative groups are up against a mighty challenge from the greenies. He claimed that both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have greater assets than the "top conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation." He said right-wingers have lots of think tanks but need more activist groups, like the lefties, to influence more Republican Congressional leaders to step back from all this "green stuff."

I walked away pretty sick to my stomach thinking how Milloy manages to live with himself. Was he suggesting we all buy Hummers? Was he suggesting that care for the planet and its people is somehow not aligned with freedom? Was he simply profiteering from the fact that nobody else is crazy enough to combat the scientific wisdom of every reputed climate expert worldwide? C-SPAN's irresponsible coverage of the event (as well as mine?) definitely confirmed that there's still a spot for anyone with a shocking, if unsubstantiated, opinion within the news cycle.

Luckily, the nervous (his hands were shaking prior to speaking) and beady-eyed Milloy is no intellectual match for the likes of Gore and Van Jones. Let's hope the clean-energy argument finds a few more well-articulated spokespeople to join in a chorus that is helping make real human progress. For now, the right continues to remain brain dead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The First Sex Between a Human and an Alien in Sci-Fi

Peoria, Illinois native Philip Jose Farmer died in late February. I had never read anything by him, but was intrigued by descriptions of his Riverworld series, in which everyone who dies comes back to live along the bank of a very long river.

After a little research, I thought I'd test the waters with a highly regarded Farmer novella, "The Lovers," which is supposedly the first instance in sci-fi of a human having sexual relations with an alien. It won a Hugo Award in 1953. And Robert A. Heinlein (who wrote my favorite sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land) also cited Farmer and the story as an influence.

In "The Lovers," Hal Yarrow is a linguist Earthman who goes with his crew to the planet Ozagen. He rebels against a world of religious fundamentalism by falling in love with and impregnating a female alien. Although obviously tame by today's standards, Farmer is exceedingly creative, especially in his description of how the baby takes shape in the alien's body, and the story and its originality hold up well.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Sad and Touching Story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Bruno is an eight-year-old boy who has moved with his family from Berlin to Poland during the war. His dad is a powerful soldier who believes deeply in family. But Bruno is not too happy about moving away from his friends until he meets another boy, named Schmuel, who is separated from him by a tall electric fence.

When Schmuel says his father has gone missing, Bruno, who loves nothing more than a great adventure, vows to get through the fence to help locate the father of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This proves to be a risky decision.

The tension and suspense create several heart-racing scenes. It's fascinating to see the difficult, manipulating, and changing relationships of the family members. The innocence of the two boys as they learn about each other and the worlds they live in is heartbreaking and very touching. Although some critics have charged that the story is unrealistic and that no eight-year-old boys were ever around long enough to do work at Auschwitz (they were gassed immediately upon entry), this movie is a classic WWII drama.

***** out of ***** stars

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Which Tarheel Team is the Best?

So now that North Carolina has won its fifth NCAA Championship (trailing only UCLA and Kentucky in total), which of those Tarheel teams was the greatest? My vote goes to the 1982 champs, led by the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan. But the 2009 winners have got to be close with Tyler Hansbrough, arguably the best player in NCAA history (and somehow projected to be picked 43rd in the NBA Draft this summer).

I rank them 1982, 2009, 2005, and the Eric Montross/Donald Williams championship team of 1993 as honorable mention.

A good summary of the players, coaches, and key wins of all these teams is here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bob Mould's 10 Albums Worth Owning

10. Solo-District Line, 2008
09. Solo-Workbook, 1989
08. Husker Du-Warehouse: Songs and Stories, 1987
07. Sugar-File Under: Easy Listening, 1994
06. Solo-Life and Times, 2009
05. Husker Du-New Day Rising, 1985
04. Husker Du-Zen Arcade, 1984
03. Sugar-Copper Blue, 1992
02. Husker Du-Candy Apple Grey, 1986
01. Husker Du-Flip Your Wig, 1985

Bob Mould Returns ... Much Less Wimpily

Bob Mould's new album, Life and Times, is streaming in full on his My Space page. I thoroughly expected to start listening and get fed up after a song or two. But I'm addicted. It's like the lighter-punk era of Husker Du (Candy Apple Grey) or the sacharine-pop of his other band Sugar.

Some may enjoy his more-and-more frequent lo-fi, avant, folk recordings, but this is the Bob Mould I can relate to and enjoy over and over again. Now I regret missing him perform with Juliana Hatfield at the Birchmere last week. The good news is that Mould lives in D.C. and plays here all the time.

**** out of ***** stars

Monday, April 6, 2009

Running With Scissors Away From This Book

I've heard a lot of good things about Running With Scissors, the memoir of Augusten Burroughs' (pictured below), so I started reading it the other day.

Nine-year-old Augusten is growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts and spending a lot of time with his mom, who "looks a lot like a young Lauren Bacall, especially in the eyes." She is also "a star, like that lady on TV, Maude, except my mother doesn't have all those chins under her chins." She gives poetry readings and submits these writings to The New Yorker.

Augusten dreams of one day becoming a flight attendant: "I want to be the one who opens those cabinets above the seats, who gets to go into the small kitchen where everything fits together like a shiny silver puzzle ... I've already memorized almost everything these flight attendants say." He dresses in his mom's clothes upstairs in their house when his mom is out reading poetry and his father is downstairs watching TV and drinking. He refuses to go to school if his hair is out of place or if there is a piece of lint on his shirt.

Augusten's father is "a highly functional alcoholic professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts" who had psoriasis over his entire body, doesn't like to play checkers with his son, and only spends time with him when they take their piles of trash bags to the dump every couple of weeks. Augusten's 16-year-old brother doesn't appear to be much help either. He is rarely seen by the family, dropped out of high school, and hates their parents.

I'm done after a chapter or two. This book seems a little too safe and generically written. It was turned into a Golden Globe-nominated movie in 2006, so I may Netflix it, if for no other reason than the always-fantastic Alec Baldwin, who plays Augusten's father.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Millard Kaufman's Prisoner in Poop

The debut novel by 90-year-old Millard Kaufman, creator of Mr. Magoo, was published in 2007. I decided to start reading it because I was reminded that this is a Dave Eggers' McSweeney's-endorsed book (like if Oprah was cool) by Kaufman's death last month.

It starts with the young protagonist holed up in a crummy jail in the backwater, desert-town of Assama, Iraq. He is set to be executed at any moment by a squad that will prod him off the ledge of a building and down onto a mob below with their spears pointed upwards. 

Apparently this jail, like just about everything else in Assama, is composed, literally, of human excrement mixed with sand and glue. The locals "hate to part with anything of themselves" and also use ground toenails for curatives, plaited hairballs for amulets, and urine as a skin conditioner.

Anyway, the prisoner begins pondering his life. His father, Morton Breslau, was an English literature professor at a college in Virginia, where the anti-Semitism of the faculty was as bad as it had been at other colleges in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. His father was discriminated against but he was also a jerk. His mother ignored her husband's outbursts and stuck to writing her poetry. She was a large and handsome woman who "could not write her way out of a net brassiere. But she did pack a lot of brisket." One year, when his father didn't receive tenure (yet again), he disappeared into thin air.

That's where my free sample from Amazon ended, but I'm going to keep reading what looks to be a funny and engaging novel.

The Sprogs Will Soon Reconquer D.C.

I was very excited when I got the news recently that Paula Wertheim Luxenberg, my cousin, is moving back to D.C. after her two-year hiatus at the University of North Carolina MBA program. Her drumming is the ingredient that makes The Sprogs go. So it looks like we'll be reforming with bass player Gordie Shaw and guitar player Tim Getman. That means I need to get to work writing songs. Hopefully we'll all write songs. And Paula got a head start by sending us some lyrics for a kids song called "Anything That You Want." I never write songs that are this long, so I'm glad she's volunteered to sing most of it (which means I don't have to memorize the words, yay). See what you think of this sketch of the tune. Should it be in the set list?

First Guest Blogger: Sean Felix Rocks Your World

As MonotremeInDC grows (we've now got readers from Brazil to the UK to Tanzania!), I’ve decided to seek contributions. My friend Sean Felix (pictured, right), who played Professor Dr. Schmock last summer in my musical comedy Wiener Sausage: The Musical!, has agreed to submit a few posts each month on what I believe to be his excellent and trend-setting musical tastes. Take it away, Sean:

The main reason I’m doing this is because I don’t have anyone to talk about music with these days, even though I can’t stop buying new music and even rediscovering old music.

On that last note, for the past couple of months, I’ve been saying that I was going to re-pot my plants so that they don't die slowly. Well, I actually got around to it on Wednesday while listening to CSNY's album Déjà Vu. It’s got a bunch of great songs, including "Carry On," "Almost Cut My Hair," and "Woodstock," to name a few. I got so distracted listening to it I got lost in listening to it.

I almost regret not having listened to the album during the House/pseudo-hippie phase I went through, but I don’t think I would have appreciated it nearly as much. Being high and listening to it back in the day would have been fine, but I wouldn't have gotten most of the songs on the album. Not because I wouldn't have understood what they were saying, but I was pretty dumb back then, both intellectually and emotionally. And this album and many of the albums from that era require you to have either lived during the late '60s or to at least understand what the era meant to the hippies, the squares, the soldiers, and the everyday families like those of our parents.

Having gained a musical literacy through the years makes the album come to life. The fantastic harmonization on most of the songs rivals the harmonization Brian Wilson dragged out of the Beach Boys. And the acoustic arrangements on all of the songs make you appreciate what an acoustic guitar can do in folk music, almost making you forgive the douche bag on your college campus with no shirt on, playing guitar on the quad.

But more than anything, growing older and listening to this album means I can sit on my balcony when I’m done potting my plants with a glass of Wild Turkey, and get loaded nice and slowly while enjoying a music style that I totally wrote off when I was younger.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rockin' and Rollin' All Night (and Part of Every Day) with Paul Rudd

Paul Rudd is pretty unstoppable as a Hollywood comic. He's starred in Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).

Now he has written Role Models, a movie that begins like it could be completely deplorable. But the viewer grows to like all these losers. Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott of Old School, Road Trip, and American Pie fame) do a bunch of stupid things while hocking nuclear-green energy drinks to middle schoolers. Elizabeth Banks as Rudd's girlfriend lawyer keeps them out of jail, but they have to perform a month of community service being mentors (or "bigs") to a couple of screwy kids ("littles"). The program, "Sturdy Wings," is run by kooky ex-addict Gayle (played by Jane Lynch from the Christopher Guest spoofs) and populated by other bigs like five-timer Martin (A.D. Miles, who was also classic in Reno 911!).

The kids are great as well. They win you over, despite their nerdy awkwardness and hesitancy over actually needing big brothers. 

Rudd's screenplay is wholly original and his trick is to say the things that aren't supposed to be said, but to say them sweetly with just a tinge of vulgarity. And when has their ever been a better glimpse into the world of medieval role playing war games? Role Models is unsuspectingly hilarious.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, April 2, 2009

How to Get to Sesame Street, Yo

Muppet Master Jim Henson complained about having a sore throat one night on The Arsenio Hall Show. Shortly thereafter, he had contracted a raging infection (Group A streptococcal pneumonia) that caused him to twice go into cardiac arrest the night he died, May 16, 1990.

Henson was deeply depressed in the last years of his life, mainly due to the battle he entered with Michael Eisner's Walt Disney Company, which had gained part ownership of the Muppets. Henson believed that they belonged to the world's children and risked exploitation by Disney.

by Michael Davis, a former TV Guide columnist.

The next story is about former reporter Joan Ganz Cooney, whose friends one night in 1967 at a dinner party told her a story about their 3-year-old daughter being transfixed by the television, even when it displayed nothing more than a test pattern early in the morning before the cartoons. She set about inventing something that combined the addictive qualities of TV, education (sorely lacking at this time, other than the relatively successful Captain Kangaroo), and entertainment. Cooney secured money from the Carnegie Foundation, the U.S. government, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation.

When test audiences rejected the setting of an urban street with trash cans on the curb and laundry hanging on lines, Henson was hired to sketch funny characters like a 6-foot-tall bird, a grumpy trash-can dweller, a Laurel and Hardy-like pair of best friends, and others. This made the city-street scene come alive with color and life. And the rest is history ...

Neil Young's Top 13 Studio Albums

13. Harvest Moon, 1992
12. Old Ways, 1985
11. American Stars 'N Bars, 1977
10. Ragged Glory, 1990
09. Freedom, 1989
08. Neil Young, 1969
07. Tonight's the Night, 1975
06. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969
05. Zuma, 1975
04. On the Beach, 1974
03. Comes a Time, 1978
02. Harvest, 1972
01. After the Gold Rush, 1970

Buy them all now. And here's a good full discography of Neil Young. Do you think I missed one? Or tell me what you think is the worst NY album (there are plenty of stinkers to choose from).

Are Politics Making Neil Young's Brain Mushy?

Neil Young's umpteenth album is streaming in full on his My Space page. Now, of course he's put out some of the greatest music in rock history, but ever since his understandable dismay in the George W. administration, Young seems to be getting more and more political in his songwriting. 

His surliness is displayed in all its glory on this new album, called Fork in the Road. And while there's nothing wrong with surliness, this album is just plain unpleasant

Seems like Neil Young is increasingly forgetting how to write a good riff. Too bad. At least my iTunes library is stacked with great NY albums.