Rules of Civility

I frequently wonder about first-time novelists who had alternate careers. According to his bio, he studied English at Stanford, then went on to become a principle at an investment firm in New York.

This gives me a complex. How many other of my fellow commuters, 9-to-5ers, coworkers, have such a rich and varied novel brewing within them?

Forgive the digression. I just find it astounding that someone who was working somewhere else could have the time and energy to produce a first novel as polished as Rules of Civility.

It’s a New York story, through and through: girl grows up in Russian Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, then moves to a Manhattan boardinghouse and begins to haunt various Village bars with her roommate, a vivacious, ambitious woman named Eve. On New Year’s Eve in 1937 they meet a monied, WASPy perfect gentleman who seemingly falls for both of them – until a tragic accident forces priorities to shift.

Wow, that made it seem like a soap opera. There is is much more character development, and meditations on class and personal drive and how we deceive ourselves in doing what we think is right.

This quote, for example:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. …[This] risk should not be treated lightly. One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements (128).

The title comes from a pamphlet written by George Washington – a collection of 110 rules by which to live simply and decently. The book manages to evoke a glamorous lifestyle of New York in the 1930s and 1940s but also how the choices one makes to get there ripple out.

Want more?

Rules of Civility on NPR.

Read Washington’s list here.

Mister Jelly Roll

Must be the New Orleans trip fever, because I’m finally writing up a great book that I found at a used book store ages ago.

The book is called Mister Jelly Roll, and it’s about the famed early boogie woogie pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton played all over the United States in the first forty years of the 19002, but was born and raised in New Orleans.

Mister Jelly Roll cover

Alan Lomax, the author of the book, might be familiar to you for his ethnomusicology work and folklore efforts. Mister Jelly Roll is one of the many oral histories Lomax collected from famed musicians of the early 20th century.

Being an oral history, it’s all you can do to take Morton as his word. He’s a larger than life character, with a pretty strong self-pronounced claim for being the “father of jazz.”

He certainly did originate early arrangements of jazz music, and helped to popularize them all over the U.S. through a grueling tour schedule. Whether or not he is the “father of jazz,” Morton’s life story takes you through marriages, success, failure, small clubs, big band halls, racism, and impressive musical creativity.

The book is illustrated by David Stone Martin, whose strong graphic lines can be found on many jazz album covers of the day. The drawings, as well as the musical notes included in the appendix, make the book a fully engaging historical document. Recommended for music history buffs.

Want more?

Check out the original Time Magazine review of the book here (1950)

Jelly Roll videos: Hesitation Blues, Crazy Chords, and the Steamboat Stomp.

More illustration by David Stone Martin:

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, illustrations by David Stone Martin

The Tiger’s Wife

The Tiger's Wife

There is much quiet beauty as well as power in Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It’s a novel that creeps up on you and make you believe in the mythology it has created.

The story follows a young doctor in an unnamed, war-ravaged Eastern European country. She must pick up her dead grandfather’s belongings in a remote town. At the same time, we learn of the time a tiger came to her grandfather’s town when he was a young boy, and the kindred affiliation that grew between the tiger and a young mute woman in the village.

By not specifying the country, Obreht frees the events of her book to represent any area’s wreckage from years of conflict. The names of her characters and places are like words on the tip of your tongue: yes, you can picture them, but where would they be from again? Yet she manages to invoke very specific details: isolated patio chairs, abandoned zoos, lean cats roaming the streets.

I think it’s the use of these details that makes The Tiger’s Wife‘s magic realism a far more lucid affair than, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These are real people, butchers and doctors, who come across lonely tigers and deathless men – all of which make just as much sense as the random acts of violence around them.

Much has been made of Obreht’s age. I recommended the book to a coworker, adding, “And she’s my age! Makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.” My coworker wisely responded, “But she grew up in Yugoslavia. I’d say she’s lived several lives already.” And it’s true  that her storytelling is so confident, so poised that I keep wanting to use book jacket words like “luminous” and “candescent.” Really a remarkable book for anyone’s career. Highly recommended.

Want more?

Obreht was the youngest on the New Yorker’s 20 Under Forty. Here’s a PBS interview with her.


The Head and the Heart @ Bottom of the Hill (4/28/11)


Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart @ Bottom of the Hill (4/28/11)

Live concerts are kind of odd, if you think about them. You buy a ticket to a band you like, arrive to a venue populated by fellow fans, maybe have a drink or two, and then stand there, waiting to be utterly transported. And transported alone, too – from what I can tell from shows in the Bay, people don’t like to show emotion. The most you’ll get is some mild bopping as people clutch their beer bottles. I’m not asking for dance circles, but if you’re not looking for connection, why did you leave the house?

And yet we’re all guilty of craving the experience. I had first heard the Head and the Heart on KEXP, was converted by rapturous praise over at I am Fuel, You are Friends, and found myself greatly enjoying their self-titled album. When I went to see them with KO last Wednesday, April 27 at Bottom of the Hill, I confess, I was ready to be transported. And boy, did they deliver.

The songs are not complex, sonically or lyrically. They are about travel, and love, and family, and roads, and rivers. “Honey, come home,” singer Jonathan Russell sings on “Honey Come Home.” “I’ve cleaned out the fridge / wiped the counters off.”

But what the band brings is heart, and so much of it. When they started “Down in the Valley” and the crowd erupted with the chorus, you really felt like you were part of something. The band just moves together so well, and brings the audience along for the ride.

Looking at their touring schedule, I have no idea how they make it work. I’m all for it though, as this is a band to see if they come by your town… especially if it’s at one of the smaller venues that they are sure to outgrow soon. Check out outcoming dates here.

Want more?
Check out the band’s Myspace and Facebook.

Also a live version of “Down in the Valley””

The Fighter

The Fighter poster, via Wikimedia

What’s the deal with ‘based on a true story” movies anyway? Is it any less remarkable that someone came up with a notion of a plot that warms the heart, blows the mind, tickles the funny bone? Most “true stories” are sanitized for audiences anyway. Why the desire to coat it as “real”?

I wonder this because “The Fighter” seemed at first like unlikely choice for a sports movie. “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlburg’s) rise to fame is not epic; he defended his WBU Light Welterweight championship for only one year.

It’s really the second story, about Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) where the plot gets its forward motion. Dicky used to be a real boxer, once beating Sugar Ray Leonard. After his win, he’s drifted, training Mickey some, but mostly delving into crack addiction. An HBO crew is filming him, purportedly film his comeback, but actually for a film about addiction. Dicky is in prison when he watches this. He has let his own career go and he’ll let his brother’s go as well.

Mickey has depended on the tutelage of his brother and mom Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager to direct his less-than-stellar career. And he’s not very dynamic, so it’s hard to say where he would have ended up as a boxer had he not met the scrappy bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who challenges him to stand up to his overbearing family. But the family does not take kindly to letting him go. There’s a frankly awesome scene when Charlene takes on Mickey’s seven Boston-style Greek chorus sisters.

Because Mickey is not really “The Fighter” of the title; his skill in the ring is to be able to withstand the tough punches. No, it’s his brother, Bale at his manic and twitchy best, who has the verve to push Mickey to be a better boxer than he is. Both Bale and Leo got Supporting Oscars for their roles, and they seem to feed off each others’ energies. No wonder Dicky is Alice’s favorite kid: they both have the same drive and will to make life happen.

The film rests heavily on the great performances by Adams, Bale and Leo, but director David O. Russell can’t seem to decide if he wanted a straight-up “Rocky” style movie or something more quirky. What he gets then is an uneven mash-up. Still, a fine entry into the uplifting sports film genre.

Want more?
Maybe you’ll giggle at this take up of Boston-set movies, appropriately called Boston Movie (via

The Bloody Chamber

She falls for an animal. Pretty creepy when you actually think about it.

Have you ever read original versions of Little Red Riding Hood or the Little Mermaid? Depressing, twisted stuff, full of deep symbolism and quite grown-up themes. Most of the stories, Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm alike, got cleaned up considerably for your bedtime version.

But there’s been a recent trend of re-tellings of these tales for an adult audience. The Myths (published by Grove Atlantic in the US) has recruited superstar authors including Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Ali Smith to re-imagine both classic and little-known folk tales. I’m excited to read a 2010 collection edited by Kate Bernheimer called My mother she killed me, my father he ate me which includes forty riffs on traditional tales.

The real allure in these updated versions of childhood classics is the experience of uncovering the stories’ dysfunction, repression and eroticism. Angela Carter, in her 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, peels back layers of meaning on these stories. In her words, the collection was “to extract the latent content from the original stories.”

Carter’s best story I think is the first one – a version of the Bluebeard myth called “The Bloody Chamber.” In it, an innocent young pianist meets and marries a phenomenally rich man, who then takes her to his magnificent estate. She is given control of the entire castle, except for one room. Even as the reader expects every turn, the narrator’s slow realization of her predicament makes the story sing again.

“The Lady on the House of Love” is apparently based on a radio play called “Vampirella,” but the Gothic decay is familiar to any horror fan. A young woman lives in a decaying castle in Romania, keeping herself alive by feeding on the blood of the occasional male houseguest. A young, virginal Englishman on a bike tour stops by, and manages to vanquish her festering existence through his human vitality.

It’s a slim collection, but each tale fulfills a treacherous balance between the familiar and the creepy. I’ll give it my highest honor, which is the desire to actually own the book so I can come back to it, again and again.

Want more? Check out this great 1986 interview with Angela Carter (via Isak).

The King’s Speech

Why did I put of seeing The King’s Speech? It takes place in my favorite time period (interbellum WWI & WWII in Great Britain), has one of my favorite actors (Mr. Darcy, natch), and from all the commercials seems like just the sort of stuffy, Oscar-baiting historical fare that I savor.

I finally caught it Monday, and I must say it was all all those things, but with an added sweetness that well explains its success this awards season. The King’s Speech is the fictional portrayal of Prince Albert (“Bertie” to his family), the stammering Duke of York who becomes King George VI right before World War II when his brother abdicates the throne in order to be with his love, the twice-divorced American Mrs. Wallis Simpson. In order to be able to make speeches to his people without faltering, Bertie gets unorthodox speech therapy from Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor, played by the successful Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, after some gentle nudging from his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

Colin Firth deserves all the accolades he has been receiving for his portrayal of Bertie. Accents are hard enough, but a speech impediment, in differing severity, is very difficult indeed. Firth sounds like an angry bullfrog when he talks, and a gurgling baby when he doesn’t. He’s angry, fearful of the position, but wants to do right by his duty, which, as a King in 20th century England, is to speak into the wireless to his people. And that is one thing that he cannot do. As his father tells him, “Gone are the days when we used to be able to just sit nobly on a horse.” A King in 1936 cannot levy taxes, make a law, or declare war. But he can speak.

I admit to being fascinated by the trappings and rules of royalty. The scene where Edward VIII abdicates his crown – it’s just a signature on a piece of paper. But because of that signature (and that awful woman Mrs. Simpson, gah), it is Bertie’s face that would be put on coins, and not his brothers. And did you know the proper way to greet the Queen? “Your majesty first, and then ma’am like ham, not like parm,” pertly informs the Queen. Helena Bonham Carter’s early career included many Merchant Ivory period dramas, such as the lovely Room With a View, and it is immensely gratifying to see her playing witty rather than spooky. (Historical fun fact! While doing research for my undergraduate thesis on women smoking in Britain, I came across the Bonham Carter name several times in the society pages. If she seems born to play aristocrats in period pieces, well, she is!).

Historically, the movie is also fascinating. The BBC control room shows labels for all of the UK holdings – Canada, Australia, Nigeria. It must have been so astounding to think of how significant it was for people worldwide to be able to actually hear their monarch. (In this way, this movie is not so different from The Social Network: both are about learning how to communicate in a brave new way.) And the final scenes of people rushing to bomb shelters in London was a nasty reminder of what was yet to come.

The King’s Speech, if I may borrow a term from 2009, is at its heart a fine bromance. Bertie and Lionel learn to trust and respect each other. You can tell that Bertie was not a man born to be a king, but knows it is what he must do, and he does it nobly. There’s a fantastic scene of Lionel looking behind the royal family, waving to crowds from the Buckingham Palace balcony, and there’s a shiver of envy from the failed actor side, the side of the man who got rejected in an audition for Richard III on account of not being regal enough. As the king’s speech therapist, though, Lionel knows better. He has seen firsthand that kings are made, not born.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain I decided to watch because I came across the soundtrack and fell in love. The film takes place in the Civil War-era South, and as a country fan, I was immediately drawn to the stark traditional arrangements. The music in the movie was produced by T. Bone Burnett and features, among others, Jack White (who also co-starred!). It’s easy to see the bridge between the Anglo-Saxon ballads transported from England to our modern country songs today.

The movie itself is incredibly beautiful. Filmed in the mountains of Romania (where my dad is from!), director Anthony Minghella’s shots sweep over mountainous snowy vistas and lush valleys. Even knowing it was filmed elsewhere, you get the sense of how open to possibility America still was, how there really wasn’t a lay of the land to speak of (yet).

Jude Law plays Inman, a Southern man who falls in love with Ada, a preacher’s daughter (played by Nicole Kidman). I’d like to deem him Sad Hipster Jude, as he has a musician’s scraggly beard and mourning, soulful eyes (still a good look for him, though! Jude – bring back the beard!). After fighting for and deserting the Confederates, he must find his way back to Cold Mountain and his love. There’s one epic battle scene in particular that is so bloody, such a pointless loss of life on both sides, that we got to Googling and learned 30% of white Southern men perished during the Civil War. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line from The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”: “You take what you need and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”

Inman’s quest does bring to mind The Odyssey, which reminded me of another modern retelling of Homer with a great soundtrack – O Brother Where Art Thou. Cold Mountain does not have as much of a sense of humor as O Brother, and it certainly doesn’t have as much an interest in words. Inman and Ada’s courtship exists mainly in longing looks and one intense kiss, and the actors are forced to maintain stoic intensity that almost verges on constipation.

The supporting cast is quite strong, though. You’ll recognize Jack White, Natalie Portman, Cillian Murphy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Renee Zellweger in the most plucky role she’s held since Bridget Jones.

Cold Mountain will certainly strike you with its impressive, if glacial, beauty, but the heart of the film was in its music. Check out a video (below). It’s worthwhile viewing and even more essential listening.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Hah!!! Did you think I had graduated into sex advice or something?

No, the roomies and I caught Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). It was made in 1972, back in Allen’s Golden Age. The film is based on an actual sexual guide, but don’t worry, you won’t actually learn anything watching this one.

The movie is a series of vignettes, each answering purportedly answer a question: Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm? What Are Sex Perverts? Do Aphrodisiacs Work? You’ll recognize a lot of the actors, including a strapping Burt Reynolds and a shockingly young Regis Philbin. I was reminded most of Monty Python sketches, both in their absurdity and affinity for male cross-dressing. Every You Always Wanted also riffs on other cinematic tropes – the Shakespearian epic, the mad scientist horror schlock, and, my favorite, Allen as the Felliniesque Italian alpha director (but still neurotic, of course).

I also wonder why there aren’t movies made like this today. Wouldn’t this be a better alternative to the shlock like Valentine’s Day? For all the boasting about living in a post-Sex and the City world, I’d say most mainstream movies have steered firmly away from adult sexual relationships – unless you want to know if sex friends can be best friends.

The internet has kindly provided a sampling of the final, and funniest, segment – What Happens During Ejaculation?


Crazy Heart

As much as I like country music, there’s no way I’d want my life to mirror a country song. (Related side note: wondering which song fits your life best? Check out Mad’s awesome infographic!! I helped!).There’s a sense of inevitability in country music – you’re never going to find a happy ending to a sad country song.
Crazy Heart is the sad country song of Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, telling the story of a man forced to come to terms with a lifetime of bad decisions. And really, when you make your living composing ballads about rough and rowdy ways, why should a cowboy be expected to settle down?
Bridges won an Oscar for his performance, and Bad’s sins certainly are firmly established in Bridges’ lined face and sagging belly. It’s almost a dark coda to the Dude of the Big Lebowski, if being irresponsible finally caught up to him. Colin Farrell, who suffered through some blockbuster humdingers in the past few years, was a real revelation as Bad’s successful, polished protegee Tommy Sweet. Both actors do their own singing, actually to the benefit of the soundtrack.
The film nicely captures the wideness of the American South while contrasting it with the claustrophobic nature of Bad’s hotel room benders. You see the real beauty in the open road, but its temptations too. Tommy Sweet drinks bottled water and plays sold-out stadiums; Bad chugs whiskey and plays bowling alleys.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the single mother who trusts Bad too early and almost becomes Mrs. Blake the sixth. The May-December redemptive storyline is a bit pat, even with Gyllenhaal and Bridges playing nicely against each other.
Crazy Heart is not an easy movie to watch. Can a man like Bad Blake change?  As Robert Duvall’s character tells Bad, when it comes to doing the right thing, “It’s never too late, son.”
Check out Ryan Bingham, a great country songwriter who produced the soundtrack, sing the theme song, “The Weary Kind”:[youtube=]