Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chang-Rae Lee Bores Us Endlessly with Tedious Future Worlds

The description on the sleeve and in critical reviews made Chang-Rae Lee's new novel On Such a Full Sea a dead ringer for something I wanted to read.

I should have stuck with reading just the sleeve and the reviews.

Because that's all I enjoyed upon reading the full book. Lee is no doubt a talented descriptive writer, but the story and plot of Full Sea are such non-entities that the whole thing felt like a monumental waste of time (I can't wait to get back to reading the much more entertaining Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson that I put down for this high-art claptrap).

The before-mentioned sleeve describes a world we will venture into that has never been imagined before. And indeed, the premise is immaculate: Chinese cities of the future becoming uninhabitable because of pollution and entire populations being moved over to form new colonies in U.S. cities. The book never really goes into what happened to the people who used to live in the U.S. But the focus is on the newish settlers B-Mor (formerly Baltimore).

The people of B-Mor are North Korea-like workers for the common good and protected for their services (albeit never do much more than sit around and smoke). Their job is to cultivate seafood for rich people out in villages walled off from unruly and deadly free-roaming states throughout the rest of the country.

Fan, the protagonist, is a 16-year-old pregnant girl who mysteriously leaves B-Mor in search of her older brother and boyfriend, who have also mysteriously left. The novel is told from the voices of B-Mor citizens who form a (ridiculous) mythology around Fan. She bounces from place to place (or, as the sleeve will entice you: magical worlds) where truly nothing much happens. This goes on and on.

I kept expecting something to happen, but it never did. For anyone who enjoys a good yarn, this is definitely not the place.

** out of ***** stars (because I'm feeling generous today)

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Acoustic Version of Blake Babies' Sicko Classic "Girl in a Box"

Zoey, my 11-month-old, loves to climb into a cardboard box of toys that currently lives in our living room. It reminded me of one of my favorite Blake Babies' songs.

I like how "Girl in a Box" is super sweet but seems to be told from the viewpoint of a serial killer, and is based on a really sick true story that happened in California. It's one of the rare Babies' songs anchored by the singing of John P. Strohm rather than Juliana Hatfield.

Father-Son Treatment with Jeff Tweedy in Baltimore

Getting to see Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is always a treat. Add his 18-year-old son, Spencer, on drums and it sweetens the deal even more.

The set the family played at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore recently was a mellow affair. It's always strange to hear songs you've never heard before. And the band (with mostly guys who seemed about the same teen age as Spencer, and probably just said, "sure, our band can go on tour with your rock star dad") played the Sukierae album, slated for September release, presumably straight through. I've since listened to the bootleg-live versions of the songs online several times and love their vibe.

Dad Jeff took the stage for a while to play solo acoustic versions of Wilco songs and, probably my highlight, Uncle Tupelo's "New Madrid," before the band came back out to join in for the encore.

I think the Baltimore City Paper's reviewer summed up the father/son dynamic well:
Spencer Tweedy’s lanky adolescent arms may have given doubt to his drum playing abilities, but the kid was pretty impressive with his sticks. Maybe not Glenn Kotche of Wilco impressive, but then he’s got years to practice. Certainly the audience didn’t seem to mind the slight quality sacrifice from the generational pairing, as evidenced by their enthusiastic reaction when Tweedy introduced Spencer. His voice full of paternal pride, he announced halfway through the show,“That’s my boy on the drums,” and the audience erupted into applause and cheers. Still, Jeff and Spencer Tweedy proved last night that they are more than just a family-oriented, Hallmark-y, gimmick: they’re also two talented artists who make great music together.
**** out of ***** stars (saw the show with Rachel, Mandy, and Jason)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Brothers Isn't Quite Swinging, But It Is Sixties London

Peter Ackroyd has written a long list of books that take place in and around London. 

London: A Biography, London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, Shakespeare: The Biography, and now Three Brothers: A Novel

I wanted to read Three Brothers because I've always been fascinated with the London of the late Sixties. Austin Powers. Rolling Stones. The Beatles. The swinging times of the sixties. However, this novel delivers a little bit more of the Charles Dickens/Geoffrey Chaucer side of the city. 

Harry, Daniel, and Sam are three brothers who grow up in Camden Town and drift apart as one goes into big business, one becomes a newspaper executive, and one doesn't really do much at all. They're each linked together through different characters that make London seem like a small village.

Their mom disappears and their father dies. Um, nothing much actually happens, but it still is a compelling read even if it wasn't exactly what I thought I was getting myself into. 

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Fearful, Lurking Parents a Reason for Uninspired Transportation Choice?

This article was originally published at

I’ve been enjoying danah boyd’s book titled It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

She is a researcher from Microsoft, New York University and Harvard who toured the country for the past several years interviewing teens about why they seem so addicted to social media and whether they are destroying their brains and their lives in the process.

Her findings are basically that the kids are alright and it’s probably the parents who are crazy.

What does this have to do with alleviating traffic congestion by promoting better transportation options? Well, while the parents are aggrieved over their kids’ technological addictions, they are often pushing their children towards having virtual relationships due to their clamp down on the mobility freedoms most of us probably enjoyed in our own youth.

From boyd’s book, on page 90:
From wealthy suburbs to small towns, teenagers reported that parental fear, lack of transportation options, and heavily structured lives restricted their ability to meet and hang out with their friends face to face. Even in urban environments, where public transportation presumably affords more freedom, teens talked about how their parents often forbade them from riding subways and buses out of fear. At home, teens grappled with lurking parents. The formal activities teens described were often so highly structured that they allowed little room for casual sociality. And even when parents gave teens some freedom, they found that their friends’ mobility was stifled by their parents.

Parental fear of letting kids have freedom to move around seems pretty irrational. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime against youth declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010. In 1994 and before, we were all undoubtedly biking around town with our friends and swimming unsupervised at fishing holes that would unquestionably be off-limits today.

Teens have apparently been brainwashed. They do a lot of self-policing of their mobility as well, according to boyd:
Teens regularly echoed parental fears, also arguing that today’s world is much more unsafe than it previously was.

It doesn’t help that public spaces – almost as if they are actual people – can practically be seen frowning upon kids when they try to enter. Policymakers have enacted countless freedom-crushing curfews and loitering laws. My old McDonald’s parking lot in Edwardsville, Illinois – where I spent countless hours socializing as a teen – will never be the same. Businesses as well ban teens, some even going so far as to install sound technology that emits high-pitched sounds only young people can hear.

Independent travel on public transit is often forbidden by the parents of teens boyd interviewed. “Even in cities, many teens never ride public transit alone except to take a school bus to and from school,” she writes.

In 1969, 48 percent of children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family member. By 2009, those numbers had reversed; 13 percent walked or bicycled while 45 percent were driven. In a safety-obsessed society, parents continue to drop off and pick up students well into high school.

[Along with implications for childhood obesity,] walking or biking to school historically provided unstructured time with friends and peers. Even when teens commuted alone, they often arrived early enough to get some time with friends before heading home. This is no longer the case in many of the schools I observed.

We have to remember that when you’re younger, you always want to be older. Kids see adults in places like bars, clubs, restaurants, and even public transit where they are not allowed. Somehow within that mix, we, as a society, have to do a better job of helping our children go through the coming-of-age process in ways that will create the local and global communities for them that we once had as kids ourselves.

Photo by TheeErin