Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mutt Ploughman's Quick Hitz for Summer

or, Random Thoughts When There’s Nothing Else to Write About
Recently, your humble(d) scribe has been anxious to once again pick up his pencil and write down something extraordinary, revise it, and float it out into the world for the enjoyment of others.  (The fact that the last part very rarely occurs, in reality, has no bearing on the writer’s desire to do it.)  However, since his ideas are not keeping pace with his energies, which were recently expended utterly in recent “career” exploits (i.e., office nightmares) and, more happily, in the composition of my newest short story earlier this month, I find myself with nothing in particular to work on.  Alas; let’s hope that nobler creative moments will come in the near future.  In the meantime, and with a merciful lack of further delays, I present you the following “quick hitz” – stuff I feel like writing about.  
Two Books I’ve Read This Year That Stand High Above the Others
The first one is Railsea, a novel that has been marketed “for readers of all ages” written by the English science fiction/fantasy wunderkind China MiévilleIf you have reservations about trying “genre fiction,” as this book will inevitably be cast, you need to forget them all when you read Miéville, a writer who effortlessly blends them as if he had a literary Cuisinart machine sitting on his desk.  Those who know me will suspect that this choice is more about my lengthening obsession with Herman Melville, but my love for this story goes well beyond my affinity for Uncle Herm and his great Moby-DickRailsea positively bursts with creativity and imagination in purporting to stage a kind of re-telling of the aforementioned “sea story” about the white whale and its obsessed hunter.  Only in the similarly-named Miéville’s (stay with me) novel, the hunted is a giant ivory-colored mole, the hunter (or huntress) is a female engineer with an artifical arm piloting a massive train instead of a ship, and, spectacularly, the “sea” itself is a steampunk-like wasteland of tangled iron rails from a long-vanished civilization gone amok.  If that’s not enough, the story also features a viral video clip of explorers who have located, by appearances, the “end” of the railsea; mechanical angels; layers of post-nuclear atmosphere in which strange creatures fly; and a denouement which dares – quite literally – to take you to the end of the world – and beyond.  Beautifully written, full of excitement, with a thrilling conlusion and a note-perfect epilogue, this is my adventure of the year by a wide margin – look for it on my year-end “Best Books” list.  
The second is Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which just this year was one of the Finalists in the “missing Pulitzer” controversy, which you can read about here.  Luckily, this story needs no badges or laurels to confirm its greatness.  It was originally published a number of years ago in the Paris Review and also appearing in the 2003 O. Henry Award story collection, then published as a stand-alone novella last year.  I read this once before, a couple years ago, and recently had the occasion to revisit this slim wonder of a book, and it is well worth its 128-page weight.  Johnson for me stands in a rare category of living American writer, with people like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, whose work is mature, deeply resonant with what I might broadly call the American experience, and buzzing with spiritual import and inquiry.  He’s best known for his remarkable story collection Jesus’ Son and his towering, National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke, but this brief, nearly-flawless story represents the very best of his skills and is a beautiful and moving tale about a way of life that is gone forever.  Set in the panhandle of Iowa in the early 20th century, it tells the story of Robert Grainier, one of the legions of unheralded American and immigrant workers who helped lay the railroads across the western United States.  After surviving an unimaginable tragedy at enormous personal cost, Grainier navigates a long and solitary life filled with back-breaking labor, while both struggling against and communing with the vastness of nature.  It ends on a mysterious and almost primal note that nonetheless resonates deeply and meaningfully within the reader.  
My Two Favorite Films of 2012 So Far
Meaning, films I have watched myself in 2012 – both of these titles appeared initially in 2011.  The first is Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon, who delivers a startling performance as a man troubled by ever-darkening visions and paranoia. Curtis LaForche, a family man in a small midwestern town who works in construction, leads a quiet and generally happy life with his lovely wife (Chastain) and small daughter. But he begins to experience very troubling dreams about impending danger in the form of a terrifying apocalyptic storm, which soon leads to other, increasingly menacing visions.  Because he has a family history of psychotic illness, most people, including his own wife in time, question his very sanity.  But the film skillfully leaves open the question of whether or not this is actually the case, or if his dread of a terrifying future could, in fact, be correct.  This film features one of the most interesting and beautifully-executed, “open-ended” concluding sequences I’ve seen in a long time.  It works on all levels of filmmaking, and refuses to pander or over-explain to the audience.  
Next up is the Shakespearean adaptation Coriolanus, marking the directorial debut of the terrific English actor Ralph Fiennes.  Many folks may not find much affection for Shakespearean plays or film adaptations of same, especially those that use the original language and stage the action in a modern setting, as this one does – brilliantly, for this viewer.  If the purpose for doing this is to demonstrate how effective and applicable the original language truly is no matter what the age, Fiennes’ film certainly lends even more weight to that well-argued case.  Anyone who enjoys even a little the challenge Shakespeare’s linguistic acrobatics presents to a viewer will be driven to renew their appreciation for his gifts in this harsh and timely interpretation.  Ralph Fiennes makes several intelligent choices here, but probably his best ones have to do with the amazing cast he assembled, which includes Brian Cox, an imposing Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain again (!?), and the excellent thespian James Nesbitt (Millions, Bloody Sunday).  Yet the best performances are his own, as the menacing war machine Martius, who earns the film’s name as a war title; and a shatteringly good Vanessa Redgrave as his ambitious, hawkish mother.  Don’t go running to her with your cuts & bruises, boys.  She’ll frog-march you straight back into the fray.  
Two Albums I Can’t Stop Playing
Quick, what’s your favorite contemporary Christian album of the year? I’ll wait while the room empties.  Being a Christian myself, and not quite sure why I ought to apologize for it in spite of the general lean of the times, this kind of music has never bugged me.  To borrow from that old hymn, if you feel God’s love in your heart even some of the time, how can you keep from singing?  Not that I live this principle necessarily, but I’m certainly not against it.  If I do have one “issue” with it, however, it’s that the genre itself can be a kind of limitation; if you feel obligated to make every one of your songs specifically about God or Jesus, it can get, well, boring.  Which is my ONLY quibble, and it’s barely one at that, with an otherwise oustanding album from this particular category of music, called Economy by an artist I was only introduced to last year named John Mark McMillan.  He certainly hammers home the Christian themes on the record, but as repetitive as it can make the album seem lyrically, my own personal views don’t clash with it, so it’s hardly a problem,  Otherwise, this is the best Christian record I’ve heard in many, many years, maybe ever – a muscular and earnest offering that does not come off even slightly pretentious.  Rather strikingly, one feels this artist’s commitment to his beliefs, coming through the vocals and the music – a stunning feat when you consider the many, many Christian songs and albums that do not come off this way.  This record has numerous virtues, but of note are the painstaking attention that was clearly paid to the sonic architecture of the guitars and the throaty, urgent vocals; and, I hate to pun, but the overall “economy” of the album, which has eleven excellent songs and knows precisely when to close the door while the getting is good.  The opening anthem “Sheet of Night” channels Bruce Springsteen in the best possible way, honestly and unsparingly; while the stirring closer “Seen a Darkness” acknowledges worldly realities while rallying the spirits of the faithful, only to end with a peace-filled piano outtro that feels earned, not imposed.   Don’t make fun of this Christian rocker; he’ll be headlining when the crosses are gathered, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor.  
Lastly, I offer comments on a brand-new record that I have only heard twice so far and can still whole-heartedly recommend, and that is Synthetica, the new album from the Canadian pop-rock outfit called Metric.  Here is a great band on the ascent.  Their last album, Fantasies, was relatively brief pop-rock celebration with nary a song that you could not jam along to and enjoy yourself completely.  Metric has a rare but startlingly effective combination - musically, the group has a clear talent for creating lush melodies crammed with powerful hooks that almost no one could remain indifferent to, while lead singer Emily Haines is gifted with an infectious voice that you just can’t help enjoying no matter what the words.  Metric is perfect for summer, full of energy and lush soundscapes - their music is engaging and fun, but they will surprise you with their occasionally intense lyrics and willingness to break the rules.  Their new album picks up where Fantasies left off and immediately arrests the listener with power-pop gems like “Youth Without Youth” or “Speed the Collapse.”  I defy anyone to download those two songs and not enjoy them!!  Hitch on to this band now, they are going places.

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