Tuesday, 31 July 2012

D CDs #499: Confronted With The New Paradigm



It has been a miserable summer, this summer.  More sweat than sun, and more rain than either.  Even that wouldn't be so bad with a breath of wind from time to time.  Rain without wind is boring; just gravity.  Nobody cool cares about gravity anymore.

Safe inside, or trapped inside, or both, you sigh in the way only the British and dogs can sigh, and you decide on a CD, hoping to eat up some time before you can leave the house, or go to bed, whichever comes first. Feeling capricious, or possibly just starved for distraction, you grab an album at random and load it into the tray.

What bursts from stereo takes you by surprise for a moment.  This isn't music.  It's a woman announcing an upcoming act whilst a piano is played lazily in the background.

Your current review score is 0.  If you have any interest in American history or musicology, turn to 6.  If you just want some goddamn tunes, turn to 3.


Oh, dear.  It's not as though you're completely against the idea of some neat noodling, or anything, but six minutes of it in two songs is really too much.  It's not even so much that you don't like instrumental stretches, but there's only so long times you can hear a guy pulling off a riff over frankly fairly rudimentary bass and piano backing before you start to wonder when something interesting will happen.  For the record, six minutes in two songs is too long a time.  

Not that it isn't competently done.  But it's something to appreciate, not feel.  And if blues music isn't making you feel something, it's hard to not conclude that something is missing.  Maybe this is one of those times something really is lost from not being there in person.

In any case, subtract half a tentacle from your review score and turn to 8.


It occurs to you that a CD boasting only eight tracks and a 38 minute run-time has an exceptional cheek kicking off with a spoken word track in which the act you already know will appear, having bought his record, is introduced.  You don't need to be informed of when the show is about to start.  You have the fucking CD.  Turn to 4.


The introductions over, the first song begins.  "Everyday I Have the Blues" is simply brilliant, a fast-paced run through an old blues staple that manages that uncanny feat that exemplifies what might be the genre's single greatest trick: making misery defiantly uplifting and, more, something to dance to.  As the song finishes you feel exhilarated, eagerly anticipating what comes next.  Add six tentacles to your review score.

If you have a love of tasty blues riffs spread over a ludicrously wide space of time, turn to 10.  Otherwise, turn to 2.


You don't even understand why you own this album.  Or are reading a blog without a Confederate Flag at the top.  B B King's voice begins to burn into your brain, and you begin to panic that you have become contaminated in some way.  The knowledge of how far civil rights has come since that afternoon in 1971 suddenly becomes clear to you.  You've already lost!  The world has spun on without you!

You begin to hear drums pounding inside your head.  The drums of history.  The ticking clock that's counting down your kind's final days on this Earth.  They will remember what you fought for, but none will understand.


No, wait.

First you get syphilis.



It occurs to you that live albums are, almost always, a product of their times.  So are studio albums, of course, but they can often hide it better.  They are works of fiction.  A live album is a recitation of fiction, to an audience who are quite real.

On this occasion, the audience is a group of convicts, seemingly predominantly black from the faded picture which accompanies the liner notes.  Convicts, as you learn from the liner notes, from a jail previously notorious for letting the inmates very much run the place, and who were unsurprisingly far from happy when a new governor, Winston Moore, took over and had the temerity to start running it as though it were actually a prison.

Listening to this introduction, then, in which the MC unflappably thanks Moore for organising the gig and for Chief Justice of the Criminal Court Joseph Power for attending, and hearing the raucous sound of booing from those not particularly fond of those who put people in cells, nor of those who keep them there, there's  a brief moment, however far removed, of feeling some jolt of connection to a day 41 years distant.  

This album was a historical document all along, but nowhere is that made clearer than in these opening ninety seconds.  Some discs you can carry through the rest of our lives.  This one stays where it always was, and you can only visit.  Add half a tentacle to your review score, and turn to 4.


Alright. It's a weird thing to have heard in the middle of a blues number, but whatever.  Turn to 11.


This is very much an album of two halves, you notice, glancing at the liner notes.  This first half features nothing actually written by King.  He's playing other people's songs, and doing a pretty good job of it (add two to your current review score).  Halfway through "Worry, Worry", though, he puts the blues singing away to interact with his audience, as though the exact middle ground between a revivalist preacher and a carnival barker.  It's time to dole out some relationship advice, which is arguably a stable door/bolted horse deal for some of the assembled, but never mind.  The guy has charisma and delivery, there's no way around it.

Then we get onto the subject of beating your woman. "Don't go upside her head!" King exclaims, and I don't think anyone's going to argue with him there. "Judge sez it's cheaper if you don't beat her!" he continues.

If you think jokes about wife beating are never acceptable, and particularly not when talking to a crowd who you suspect must include some domestic abusers, turn to 9.

If you're not sure about whether white people in 2012 get to judge the humour of a black man in 1971, and aren't worried to much about whether this is the soft bigotry of low expectations, or if you think a jokes just a joke, maybe, or something, turn to 7.

If you straight out just don't like black people, turn to 5.


You can't let this one go.  Banter is one thing, but this bothers you too much to dismiss.  Subtract one tentacle from your review score, and turn to 11.


You're in luck! Tasty blues riffs spread over a ludicrously wide space of time!  Hell, the second song doesn't even really start until the three minute mark!  The song after that spends almost as much time to spool up.  And throughout these meandering introductions, King handles his guitar like the pro he is, offering skill without flash, and familiarity without repetition.  Add one tentacle to your review score, and turn to 8.


The second half of the CD now begins; mainly featuring songs written by King himself.  Frankly, it doesn't work quite so well.  There's that weird blues habit of repeating the first line of a verse, which is fine, except this is already an exceptionally simplistic record lyrically, and these later tunes aren't enough to make up for them, despite some good bass work and excellent support from the trumpet and saxophones.  It's far too easy to not even realise one song has ended and another's begun, which is never a good sign.

That said, it ends pretty well with "Please Accept My Love", but it's still hard not to see this as a pretty front-loaded album. Subtract one tentacle from your review score and turn to 12.


With a soft click, the CD player announces it has completed the task you set it.  As you glance out of the window (the same unending rain glints at you through the streetlight), you ponder what you've just heard.  Was it really the 499th best album of all time, as Rolling Stone once claimed?  A diverting enough LP with some interesting historical context?  Or a phenomenal showman who for whatever reason lacked the songs to back him up on this occasion?

That depends on your path through this Choose Your Own Review post.  Your current review score is your final adjudication regarding the record's quality.  


PS: Also, congratulations on not contracting syphilis.

"The Cradle Of The Best And Of The Worst"

Two quick notes on our cousins across the pond, one encouraging, the other... well, you'll see.

First the good news: gay marriage support has been unanimously approved as part of the Democratic Party platform.  It's not totally a done deal, since the precise language still needs to be worked out, and very few people ever lost money on betting Democrats being too venal and cowardly to get anything done ("breaking news: Democrats abandon plans for piss-up in brewery after Limbaugh points out Communists liked vodka"), but it's a welcome development. 

Obama's party are now on record of being in favour of a free choice between adults over who they marry, protection for those who learned they were illegally brought into the country as children, and the idea that non-wealthy Americans should not be allowed to live in crippling pain and abject terror. The Republican convention in Tampa will come out against all three.  Following that convention, Romney's poll numbers will go up.  Go figure.

Anyway, onto the rather less impressive news.  Well, it's not exactly news, really - which in itself is cause for reflection - but Chief Justice Antonin "Get over it" Scalia is on a book tour, and here's what he has to say on interpreting the right to bear arms in the 21st Century
SCALIA: We’ll see. Obviously the Amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried — it’s to keep and “bear,” so it doesn’t apply to cannons — but I suppose here are hand-held rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes, that will have to be decided.

WALLACE: How do you decide that if you’re a textualist?

SCALIA: Very carefully.
For those who aren't up on the lingo, a "textualist" is basically someone convinced that there can be no extrapolation of the Constitution to represent the progress of the US as a country over 200+ years, because a text written by multiple authors frequently at odds with each other contains a single "intent" that just so happens to be whatever modern-day conservatives believe in at any given time (seriously; Scalia literally reversed his position on what the document says just before his Affordable Care Act ruling; the ruling he came out with would have been impossible under what he insisted was the "intention of the framers" for the entirety of his previous career).

So, for those keeping score: an immensely complicated multi-part law modelled on previously-judged constitutional processes aimed at improving the health of the American people?  Obviously needs to be thrown out in its entirety, because it might lead to the government force-feeding people broccoli, and because judging each part separately would take, like, a really long time (I am not exaggerating in the slightest here).  Whether or not individual citizens have the constitutional right to own shoulder-mounted rocket launchers?  That shit is complex!

(I confess I had the same question that ABL has in the link above: what about suitcase nukes?  I've seen Starship Troopers.  But the truth is, I don't think the possibility of shoving an a-bomb into an RPG and letting rip really has Scalia worried at all, since it would only ever be rich white guys who could afford them.  Scalia's biggest fear on this score is that portable nuke launchers would make killing ducks too easy during his next hunting trip with Dick Cheney.)

In case it hasn't been obvious from this and other posts, I despise Antonin Scalia.  Really and truly, my blood boils whenever I think of him.  Not because he's wrong, or even because his wrongness comes with a body count.  It's because he's simultaneously an unprincipled hack, a terrible debater, and a constant scold of others for lacking integrity and intelligence.  A man of unsurpassed arrogance who will spend the morning violating the constitutional principles that are his job to uphold, the afternoon calling his colleagues unworthy of their positions, and his evenings cruising the talk show circuit hawking a book about how only he is principled enough to be able to change his principles when they no longer suit him.

Because he's a guy who can argue it would be a terrible idea to let cameras film the Supreme Court because the media would distort the truth of what goes on - only an idiot would disagree! - and can also argue there's no reason to worry about the staggering amounts of corporate money pouring into political campaigns right now, because the American people are smart enough to tell when political ads are distorting the truth of what goes on.  Only a monarchy-lover would disagree!

And because he can argue both those things during the same interview.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Bonfire Of The Vanities

When last we delved into the story of Lucifer, we considered the nature of absence. Absence, as I argued, is simply the presence of some other concept, or some other state of mind. This is why Lucifer's insistence that there is nothing he wishes to acquire is entirely reasonable on its face, but distinctly lacking when you dig into it.

Death has already worked this out, of course, but further ruminations on this subject will have to wait. Lucifer has an appointment to keep in Hell, and whatever else one might want to say about him (quietly, for fear he may hear you), the Morningstar is a not someone to keep his enemies waiting.

Instances Of Darkness I Have Known

Brutal Snake was kind enough to buy this for me a couple of birthdays ago, and I've finally found time in among my comic reading/cider drinking/shouting at clouds schedule to give it a whirl.

It's not hard to see why Brutal (Mr Snake?  Or is it Dr Snake these days?) thought this would appeal to me; one of the main characters is essentially a probability monk who uses his total understanding of stochastic concepts to control men, destroy opponents, and eventually get laid.  Just like in real life!

Moving beyond that point, which I can understand may be of more interest to me than to anyone else, more than anything else, this book struck me as Dune by way of A Song of Ice and Fire.  The similarities to both are fairly obvious. Bakker seems to have at least some interest in recreating the feel of Herbert's masterpiece; the political intrigue flowing from a multitude of political factions - many of which are nominally under the control of others, and others which are nominally antagonistic but have formed common cause - reminded me a great deal of the diplomatic feints and lunges of much of Dune, which in both cases can best be described as two people dancing around each other until one gets the chance to utterly destroy the other.  Even some of the names of various nations and families evoke the galaxy under the rule of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.   And if the lethal warriors of the Scylvendi aren't essentially the Fremen with access to fermented mare's milk, that's only because they've been mixed with some aspects of Stephen Donaldson's Haruchai as well.

The similarities to Martin's ongoing series are both more specific and less important.  Indeed, whilst this is a story about an ancient evil once more stirring in the north, with their only opponents a pitiful laughing stock within a culture that has forgotten its peril, one could (and I do) argue that this represents Martin and Bakker simply blowing the dust off a similar old trope, before doing their own thing with it.  There's no similarity between the No-God and his Consult allies and the Others of Martin's Land Beyond the Wall, and Bakker is happy to use his choice of names and imagery to remind us that really this was all Tolkien's idea in any case.

Speaking of Martin, however, and considering the flak he has gotten from many sources over potential misogyny (some of which is overblown or badly argued, some of which is entirely correct, particularly in his latest book), it's worth noting that this book suffers badly from a lack of strong female characters.  Indeed, there are only three women who have more than a couple of lines.  One is an uncommonly beautiful girl who is constantly being abducted and raped; mere property to those who possess or wish to possess her (still, at least she has a "perfect breast").  A second is an embittered harridan who was once the most gorgeous woman in an empire, and is increasingly pissed off that no-one wants to fuck her anymore (except possibly her son; there's some incestuous interplay going on here, another reminder of Martin's work).The third is a prostitute who alternates between wishing a man would save her from her drudgery and needing a man to save her from angry religious types.

That perhaps sounds worse than it is.  It's not as though men come across particularly well in the book, nor the religious, nor scholars, nor warriors, nor spies.  Still, in what remains a recurring problem for fantasy fiction, The Darkness... isn't really helping.

Whether or not one can overcome this problem is a matter for yourselves.  I you can, though, there's a lot to like here.  I've mentioned the debt Bakker owes to Herbert, but this is far from a pale retread; the world of Earwa and the lands of the Three Seas are their own world, and Bakker does well both in building his fictional places and in introducing them to us without relying on clumsy exposition (naming his chapters after locations in the story doesn't entirely work, though).  The characterisation is good, and the plot interesting and well-paced, packed full of the aforementioned political manoeuvring interspersed with occasional bouts of arcane horror and vicious bloodshed.  I finished this first volume of three (1:3) with a strong desire to buy the next book in the series, which is always a good sign.

Be warned, though, the ending is unforgivably anti-climactic. Indeed, the final chapter is absolutely baffling in how much it slams the breaks on a building narrative and seemingly just twiddles its thumbs.  Maybe I'm missing something, though.

Still, all told, this is a four and a half star book with one and a half star female characters.  Draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Every Dog Has His Election Day

What intelligent mind could not fail to be delighted at the news that leftist dogs, tired perhaps of the endless foolishness of their Virginia masters, have finally chosen to take matters into their own paws?  The surrounding humans may think they have stymied this glorious push towards the socialist utopia by barring the list of dogs given on the website, but they have been PLAYED FOR FOOLS!

The real leftist dogs, the true rousers of the canine rabble, are shown below.  Soon, America, there will be none amongst you who know not their names, save those whose deaths are too quick for grim realisation to dawn.  Allow me to introduce you to:

Karl Barx:

 "Private property has made us so stupid and partial
that an object is only ours when we play fetch with it."

Che Gruffvara:

"The life of a single dog is worth a million times more
than all the dog biscuits of the richest man on Earth."

Fido Castro:

"A revolution is a fight to the death
between the future and the cats."

and Leon Terrierotsky:

"The life of a revolutionary would be quite impossible
without a certain amount of walkies."

plus, obviously:

Bo Obama, secret Communist doggy of the secret Communist Muslim.

Mend your ways, America, before it's too late.  Your dogs are watching you.

You have been warned...

Friday, 27 July 2012

Radio Friday: Strange New Worlds

Next up on Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest albums of all time is Live From Cook County Jail by B B King.  It's another marked departure for me, so let's celebrate my grudging concessions to multiculturalism with a little slice of the man's blues.  Which he has EVERY DAY.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

"Us White Dudes Gotta Stick Together"

I'm kind of torn over which part of this is more offensive; suggesting Obama doesn't understand the UK because he lacks an Anglo Saxon heritage, or the idea that we might be dumb enough to swallow it.

Just kidding.  It's the first one.

I suppose I could point out there's plenty of white Americans would be pretty annoyed if you called them Anglo Saxons - like say the Italian-, Norwegian-, Polish- and German-Americans, pluse of course the Irish-Americans, who'd tear Romney's guts out if he chucked that term their way - and pissing them off to court David Cameron is a pretty stupid choice.

I could also point out that, the Daily Telegraph's typically milquetoast statements on anything to do with race notwithstanding - this "may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity" in roughly the same way that consuming a cement mixer may prompt suggestions of a lack of dietary balance - that's a spectacularly offensive statement from a British perspective as well.  My girlfriend isn't Anglo-Saxon.  Plenty of my buddies aren't Anglo-Saxon, or of any European heritage in general.  I grew up in a part of the country where there's a non-trivial chance of being closer to a Viking than anyone from a German tribe, and an hours drive from places where you're more likely to have the Ganges run through your ancestral veins than you do the Rhine.

Instead, though, let's focus on the main point: Mitt Romney wants the UK to believe that we share less in common with a Protestant whose father came from the Commonwealth than we do with a man from a country that fought a war against us when we wouldn't let them slaughter enough Native Americans for their liking, and who belongs to a religion that believes magical underpants are given to them by American Jesus, which is why they get to posthumously baptise Jewish Holocaust victims.

There are weirder things than being black, is my point.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

First Time They've Beaten Us Since Dunkeld

Good.  Unequivocally good.  One more reason to love Scotland, aside from its scenery, wildlife, music, food, and flame-haired Scottish lassies, who I can now only appreciate in the abstract (my flame-haired lassie being Welsh).

Not everyone is thrilled by the idea of gay marriage in Scotland, of course. It's interesting to note the difference between the objections of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland.  Sayeth the CoS:
We believe homophobia to be sinful and we reaffirm our strong pastoral commitment to all people in Scotland, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs [but we] are concerned the government will legislate without being able to effectively protect religious bodies or their ministers whose beliefs prevent them from celebrating civil-partnerships or same-sex marriages.
If we can only have one of same-sex marriage or religious freedom in this field, I know which side I'll be standing on, and I don't believe it will come to that in any case.  Nevertheless, it's a sensible, considered response.  OTOH, opines the Catholic Church in Scotland:
The Scottish government is embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale.
Nice, guys.  Nice and measured.  And it gets better:
[S]ame-sex sexual relationships are detrimental to any love expressed within profound friendships. 
When will gay people wake up and realise the love they think they're experiencing is just friendship with fucking?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Chaos Theory, As Applied To Zombies

This here is a collection of thoughts about last night's Walking Dead, "Judge, Jury, Executioner".  I'll try to keep comic spoilers out of it, but obviously, the show is going to be discussed in detail, especially the game-changing ending.  You have been warned.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Tale Of Cocktails #30

More Sunshine
2/3 oz creme de cassis
2/3 oz gin
2/3 oz orange juice
Blackberry garnish
Taste: 7          
Look: 6          
Cost: 9        
Name: 6
Prep: 8
Alcohol: 2
Overall: 6.7

Preparation: Pour in ingredients and mix well.  Add garnish.
General Comments: Not a bad mix.  It's difficult to taste the gin, but then that's probably the point.  It's a nice cocktail for a hot summer (assuming we ever see another one, of course); one of those that's both very refreshing and easy to forget there's alcohol in as well, though it's sufficiently weak that there's not much of a problem in that.  Quick to make, as well, which is handy when it's too hot for putting much effort into anything.

Plus: blackberry.  Tasty. 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

New Rules

A couple of nights ago The Other Half was in a frightful bate about the intolerable difficulties and hazards of browsing for fantasy books in actual physical stores.  Some people still like to rock it old school, exchanging money for slices of flattened wood pulp that are then upended one after another in a set order.

Yet despite the many centuries through which this approach to reading has been considered superior (nay, mandatory), today's paper-lover is now increasingly ignored when it comes to a critical aspect of the choosing procedure: working out if the book in your hands is standalone, the beginning of a series, the middle of a series, or the beginning or middle of a series that's part of a series of series, or a prequel to a sequel of a series of prequel series to a sequel which was carved on the haunches of a rhinoceros.

In the interests of pleasing my girlfriend, then, and having seen the amount of mad respect and moolah that Melvil Dewey accrued after inventing the decimal point (or whatever), I proudly present: the Spacesquid Serial System.

There are four stages to the SSS.  First, every fantasy or science fiction book will bear a number, telling you where the novel lies chronologically in the relevant series.  Thus The Magician's Nephew will be listed as 1, and not 6.  If a book is standalone, this number will be 1 by default.  If the book, like A Dance With Dragons, was one book in hardback and several books in paperback, this will be referenced by a decimal point.  The hardback is 5, the softbacks 5.1 and 5.2.

Second will come another number, which denotes how many books exist within the current series.  Sticking with The Magicians Nephew, then, the book will be labelled 1:7.  Currently unfinished series will be represented by brackets: A Feast For Crows would therefore be 4:(5), the paperback A Dance With Dragons: Dreams And Dust would be 5.1:(5).  If the author died partway through, an exclamation mark will be included.

The third and fourth stages involve colour coding.  The first colour denotes the necessity of prior reading in order to enjoy the book.  Books which start with no prior knowledge required will be given a green rating.  Books which include information or settings from past instalments sufficient to make reading it alone significantly less rewarding will be given an orange rating.  If trying to read the book without previous experience would render the whole exercise ridiculous, it will be defined as red.  Since these are subjective criteria, a team of highly-trained literary critics will be assembled and required to pass judgement on all genre books everywhere and ever, on pain of being forced to listen to Raymond Feist books-on-tape until their own ribs stab them through the heart in hopeless disgust.

Once they've done that, they can start on the final phase, a second colour-coding informing the reader if the book ends with a sense of finality (green), wraps up major plotlines but leaves the door open for a sequel (orange), or leaves so much hanging that further reading (author output permitting) is the only way to get any sense of closure whatsoever.  I am aware that this last idea is the most controversial; many would argue that this could rob the ending of some books of some of their force, if one were to know in advance how much is liable to be resolved.  There are two possible solutions to this, and I can't decide between them.  Either the colour coding could be placed somewhere sufficiently non-obvious in the book that it can be avoided easily, or we can tell these whingers to fuck right off and never return.  Either way, it's a minor kink, to be ironed out later.

Some quick examples:

The Hobbit (J R R Tolkien) 1:1.  It'd be a real shame if someone read The Hobbit and not Lord of the Rings, obviously, but there's really no narrative through line; Bilbo goes home and status quo ante is (almost restored).

The Wounded Land (Stephen Donaldson) 1:3.  It would be helpful but certainly not crucial to have read the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant here, but it's that really demands further investment.

Judas Unchained (Peter F Hamilton) 2:2.  Very much a judgement call for that second colour.; why should this book be considered any more of a springboard to a new series than The Hobbit?  I think the difference is in the number of minor threads that are left unresolved. I'm certainly not arguing the Void Trilogy is either more closely related to its predecessor or more interesting than LOTR, but whilst that latter work expands the world of the Hobbit, it doesn't make me re-evaluate the original's world nearly so much.  The two Tolkien works are just too different in scope and tone for that.

A Storm of Swords (George R R Martin) 3:(5).  Obviously.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch) 1:(2).  Because "then they left for a new adventure" could never really be anything other than orange.

Vicious Circle (Mike Carey) 1:5. The Castor novels build on each other, but they're intended to be standalone (Carey goes over the basics each time).  The benefits of reading multiple books in the series is in growing familiarity with the characters, rather than a grounding in the fictional world which, after all, is just London with more ghosties.

The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) 1:(13!).  Orange for the pointless prequels, red for the relentless death-march into endless bullshit.

So, there you go.  Problem solved.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Jesus Of The Future

Regular readers will perhaps remember Mr Ross Douthat, a man determined to bring about a return to Christian morality at the centre of public life through the tools of deception and oppression.  Well, he's back this week with another silly article, this time about how liberal Christianity seems to be on its last legs:
In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the [US] saw churchgoing increase... 
Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance...
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis... Liberal commentators... consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this week's showing of "Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc", in which our brave Mr Douthat will once more again seek to silence poor women seeking abortion the very laws of logic themselves!  Drum-roll, please!

Notice any major denominations missed out the list above?  I'll give you a clue. Ross Douthat is Catholic.  He's spend hundreds of column inches on the complexities in interpreting Catholic doctrine when faced with modern life, and the importance in making the attempt.  He briefly mentions that liberal Catholics are having problems too, but he avoids any figures.

And why? Because the attendance drop amongst US Catholic congregations in the last 25 years is approximately 30%.  That's two and a half decades, so it's a bit apples and oranges to compare it to the figure Douthat quotes, but still, Douthat is arguing liberal Christianity is facing extinction based on loss rates not dissimilar to those of conservative Christianity (maybe the Baptists are going great guns, though).

Christianity is undergoing a recruitment crisis.  Christianity is having profound difficulty in persuading young people to join the church and ensure its relevance for another generation (something which, to be blunt, isn't something secular liberals really need to give a shit about; liberal Christianity is the only alternative the religion has to total irrelevance, but the choice isn't ours).  Trying to blame this on the reformers is a typical Douthat switcheroo.  That man never saw a logical fallacy he didn't like, just so long as it helped him in his quest to deny women autonomy rehabilitate Catholicism.  Presumably this is why he says something as stupid as this:
Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. 
Actually, we kept that one quiet as a favour to you, Ross, because the last thing the public needs right now is further evidence that the Vatican is far too busy keeping the church in one piece to worry about whether or not its actual doing its damn job.  The truth of that - and the horrible, despicable consequences of that truth - are far too obvious already.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Writer, Writer, Show

With the arrival of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, what was already fairly clear has now become undeniable: Sorkin is television's answer to M. Night Shyamalan.

There are two seemingly cast-iron rules to Shyamalan's output, starting with Sixth Sense and ending with The Happening (I've not seen Last Airbender): each new film will be somewhat disappointing considering what has gone before, and each new film will be treated by critics as being, at a bare minimum, ten times as shitty as the last film Shyamalan slapped together.

I can't remember the last time I read a review of a Shyamalan film that was recognisable as discussing the film I had watched.  Signs, maybe? More likely Unbreakable, though even that is underrated.  Certainly by the time The Village came out, there was significant grumbling that the film was poor, as oppose to what it actually is - reasonably good with a frustrating ending.  More interestingly, though, the amount of column inches spent on discussing the director increased dramatically.  It wasn't enough to review The Village; everyone had to bitch about how they didn't like Signs, and how Shyamalan was a dick for always giving himself cameos.

Then, when Lady in the Water (entirely lightweight with some good moments) appeared, reviews seemed to discuss the film almost as an afterthought, and then only to argue that Shyamalan's role as a visionary writer was proof his colossal ego was ruining everything, including a cynical film critic who's horribly mauled was evidence that he couldn't take being slated in the press, and mocking him for being overly-reliant on twist endings, which doesn't actually describe the film at all unless you take "twist" to mean "new development".

(The Happening, of course, was generally hailed as one of the worst films ever created, by reviewers so blinded by their contempt of Shyamalan that they didn't even bother considering whether or not what they were writing made sense any more.)

Aaron Sorkin has had a similar problem over the years (Ryan Adams too, but that's a different post), though since The Newsroom is only his fourth TV series, there's been less opportunity to observe the phenomenon.  Sorkin pissed off a spectacular number of people with The West Wing.  Conservatives hated it because it cast them as the bad guys forever stymieing the geniuses inside the White House.  Liberals hated it because it spent so much time presenting "reasonable Republicans" at a time in US history where the left was convinced the GOP was nothing but a collection of bullies hypocrites (which is true, obviously).  And lots of people in the middle hated it just because of the aura of smugness the show demonstrated.  Reports of Sorkin himself being something of a jerk didn't particularly help, either.

This background hum of disgruntlement came to the fore when Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began.  Now,  there are a lot of reasons to not like that show, chief among them the fact that it never gave us any reason to care what happened backstage at a comedy show, and couldn't sell that show as being even remotely funny. When one of your characters is trying to justify why a comedy show should be worth writing an article about,   something's gone wrong.

So it was a disappointment.  An extremely expensive, po-faced disappointment that I enjoyed, but couldn't find it in my heart to argue deserved a second season.  From the reviews the show got, however, you could be forgiven for thinking each broadcast downloaded an electronic variant of bubonic plague straight into the viewer's eyeballs.  Tellingly, many of these screeds focused not on the show's failings, but on Sorkin himself. What made Sorkin think he could handle comedy? Did the main character being told he wasn't great at writing for black cast members mean Sorkin himself didn't know how to relate to black actors?  Which of Sorkin's ex-girlfriends was Harriet Hayes most based on, and why should we care about his personal life anyway?  On and on and on, an outpouring of dislike for a writer hastily disguised as comments on his work.

Five years after Studio 60 concluded, Sorkin has returned with what I can only describe as a classic Shyamalan move: a show about how the American media are a bunch of cowards and/or pricks.

Now, obviously, the American media are a bunch of cowards and/or pricks, at least in general, but that in itself doesn't mean the show is necessarily any good.  What it does mean, however, is that it was always going to have a rough ride.  Right now it's being decried as the worst work of fiction since Jud Suss by pretty much anyone who's paid for their critical opinion, and once again, much of the ire is directed at Sorkin himself.  Two thirds about the writer, one third about the show.  Kind of like this post, really, though I have an excuse: I didn't get paid for handing this in and calling it a review.

It's almost impossible, then, to form any kind of opinion about what the show is like without seeing it for yourself.  Here, for what it's worth, is my take on the season opener, "We Just Decided To".  The two problems that sank Studio 60 have both been rectified by the change of location: The Newsroom isn't under pressure to be too funny, and the relevance of the show is clear.  The downside is an increase in sentimentality and mawkish speeches about the awesomeness of America, along with an entirely unbearable (and unlistenable; WG Snuffy Alden's absence is noticeable here) title sequence that felt like it went on for sixteen minutes and was trying to subconsciously compel me to blow Edward R Murrow.

If you can take such moments (there's two or three in the entire seventy-minute episode), and those who watched The West Wing probably already know whether or not they can, then there's a great deal to enjoy here.  Jeff Daniels is excellent as Will McAvoy, and though his character seems a little over-the-top and cliched in his egotistic belligerence, and the rest of the cast are strong too, particularly jittery delight Alison Pill and reptilian malcontent Thomas Sadoski.  Only Dev Patel seems ill at ease, but then he didn't really get anything to do this time around in any case, so maybe that explains it. It's interestingly shot: far more expansive and coldly lit than Sorkin's previous shows, and the dialogue feels very differently paced.  If anything, it's more reminiscent of The Social Network in look than anything from Sorkin's TV work, which is presumably partially due to the absence of Thomas Schlamme. 

If nothing else, then, it's fascinating for longtime Sorkin fans to watch purely to see how differently one of his shows can seem when his usual collaborators aren't involved.  Fortunately, there seems to be plenty else, and if we're never going to get to see anything as wonderful as The West Wing spring from Sorkin's pen again, this could end up finishing a respectable second.  Just so long as the show avoids the greatest danger presented by its format: taking real news events and having the cast cover them, which is that Sorkin simply writes down exactly what he wished he could've said to everyone involved at the time.  Twitter can only get you so far, after all.  Is it really just coincidence that this first episode mentions the difficulty of saying things of any real meaning on Twitter and OH MY GOD NOW I'M DOING IT TOO.

The Song Remains The Same

I took a bit of a detour from my usual genre stomping grounds recently, on the request of a friend who wanted a book review without having to go to the trouble of actually reading the book in question.  Happy for a change of scenery, I agreed.  That's how I came to read Madeline Miller's debut novel, the Orange Prize-winning Song of Achilles.

I don't get it.

Homer's Iliad is well over 2000 years old - and closer to 3000 - and even it wasn't being original when it told the story of Achilles' endeavours in the war between Greece and Troy.  Nor is it as though the tale of Helen's flight from Menelaus and the resulting conflict something fiction writers have chosen to ignore until this point (there's been two feature films and a TV miniseries on the subject just whilst Miller was writing the novel).  If you're going to jump into such a crowded and longstanding market, you've either got to rejig the basics to the point where they become original again, or you've got to tell the standard story with enough style to make a well-worn path seem new and interesting again.

Miller ultimately fails to do either.

The central conceit to Song of Achilles is that Achilles and Patroclus were not merely close companions, but gay lovers.  When asked where she got the idea, Miller says she got it from Plato. I'm sure that's true.  But she could also have gotten it from any GCSE student who's been exposed to the Iliad, or even the story of the Trojan War more generally. As twists go, "What if Achilles was shagging Patroclus?" is only slightly less obvious than "What if God was an alien?".  Miller was still the first (so far as I know) to actually put the idea into practice, but even so, if your foundations are this obvious, you need to put an awful lot of effort into ensuring the completed structure is pretty enough to disguise its prosaic beginnings.

Song of Achilles just doesn't really manage that.  It's prose is pleasingly concise, and the whole book rattles along at a reasonable pace, which is certainly a plus point, but minimalist doesn't necessarily need to feel bloodless and stark, but for too much of the book that's the impression generated.

The novel can be broken down fairly easily into three distinct parts: the meeting and growing closeness of Achilles and Patroclus during peace-time; the build-up to and first few years of the war; and the final days of Patroclus as destiny finally begins to catch up with our heroes.  The first two sections call to mind that old saw about writing that is both original and good: the first part is only the former, the second merely the latter. The opening third is all the more frustrating because of the obvious parallels to real life that Miller seems uninterested in exploring.   Who among us, in the bloom of puberty and of our first loves, didn't endow the object of our affections with supernatural qualities.  When Patroclus looks at Achilles and sees perfection, isn't that what we all did?  Exploring what that would mean in a situation in which the one we obsess over actually is as a god?

In Miller's defence, such an approach would require a very different book, one in which Patroclus either is not narrator, or shows a great deal more awareness and agency than he does here. Frankly, those are things he could really do with; there's only so many iterations of "I saw how awesome Achilles was, and thought I was rubbish, then it was time for cheese and olives" you can get through before you long for Hector to show up early and get down to some serious stabbing.  There's something very Marty-Sue about Patroclus, constantly thinking he's worthless whilst demigods, centaurs, and the Fates themselves keep alluding to his superiority.  A few references to the perverse difficulties inherent in being with someone you consider so much better than you are interesting to digest. Two hundred and fifty pages of it can fuck right off.

The biggest missed opportunity and baffling choice in Patroclus' pre-war adventures involves his time with Achilles in the mountains, under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron.  Achilles' mother Thetis [1], a sea-nymph, has made her dislike of Patroclus very clear, to the point that, unbeknownst to Patroclus, the only reason Achilles doesn't jump his bones when both boys are fourteen is for fear his immortal mother may be watching.

This state of affair lasts for two years after Patroclus first dares a kiss, and is silently rebuffed.  Two years in which Patroclus was with his love almost every minute of every day, in which they slept inches apart, in which there was plenty of wrestling practise and long dips in mountain pools and the gods alone know what else.  And through all of this, Patroclus doesn't know why Achilles won't kiss him.  Mixed messages don't begin to cover it.

A great deal of this will sound familiar to almost everyone.  How many of us got hit by our first real, breathtaking crushes (which we called "love" simply because we lacked a frame of reference) when at school, and so ran into those we wanted every day, unable or unwilling to admit our interest, or having already been discovered and desperate to believe that one day the calculus would change and we could get what - who - we wanted?  And whilst this might have hit for the first time when the deadline for algebra homework was still a pressing concern, it is a lucky man indeed (or perhaps simply an inexperienced one) who can say they never came across it again.

Miller deals with this ocean of melancholy possibility by writing "two years passed," presumably so she can hurry to the second third of the book, in which the early myths of Achilles are retold in a style which is breezy but entirely perfunctory.  But what kind of love story skips the tricky bits?  And if Miller didn't come to tell us a love story, then what exactly is she doing here?

The best answer I can find to that question comes during the book's final third which, to be fair, is a great improvement.  It is here that once again Patroclus goes through something familiar to us all, the realisation that those we loved as perfect are anything but.  What makes Patroclus' awakening so interesting is that it's precisely the aspects of Achilles he loves so much that end up wrecking everything. Achilles' lack of guile and willingness to forgive prove to be evidence not of empathy, but of having so little interest in others that it is difficult to make any impression on him, even a negative one.  His all-encompassing quest for immortality through glory seems entirely appropriate to Patroclus when it involves Achilles fighting battles alongside their comrades ("The assembled might of Greece Offended"), but it looks a lot less appealing when it leads to Achilles abandoning innocents to the wrath of Agamemnon so as to paint the latter as a petty tyrant.

In other words, it's about the point where you finally figure out that a relationship is not hermetically sealed; that they cannot be judged simply on internal interactions.  Watching Patroclus come to terms with this, and Achilles entirely fail to (indeed it's not even clear he comprehends whats happening) provides a surprising amount of pay-off to what has been for most of its span a fairly lacklustre novel, and does at least give the whole a purpose, albeit a shaky one.

Still, it's a quick read, it ends well, and for those with only a passing familiarity of Achilles, it might work rather better than it did for me.  Just don't expect much in the way of surprises, or pretty prose, or any help in understanding how this won the Orange Prize in the first place.

[1] One of only four women in the whole book who have anything but the briefest of appearances, by the way. She and Deidamia are both deeply unpleasant, and Patroclus' mother is mentally retarded.  Only Briseis is particularly sympathetic, and it isn't until the book is more than half done before she shows up.  

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Fiddling Whilst Jacksonville Burns

As the "world's greatest country" continues to experiment with determining exactly how cruelly it can treat its own citizens and everyone else on the planet who's country doesn't rhyme with Bisrael, we can now add "fatal diseases" to the list of dangers not all governors agree it should be their job to deal with, or even admit exist.

Of course, with a little bit of budget juggling it would be perfectly possible to reopen the tuberculosis clinic - though it would've been a damn sight easier if after the CDC filed report on the TB outbreak the brass hadn't ordered the hospital be closed ahead of schedule - by making use of the extra money the state is now eligible to receive following the ruling of the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality.

Will Rick Scott be accepting that money?  No.  No he will not.  If dozens of men, women and children have to die of a curable disease in one of the richest states in the world's richest country in order to demonstrate that... President Obama is really mean, I guess? - then that's not so bad, is it?  Especially when you consider how many of the bodies hitting the floor are homeless, or worse, black.

Monday, 9 July 2012

D CDs #500: Star-Crossed Brothers

Well, this should be interesting: the guy once voted his home town's whitest white guy - a town in which I shared my time at school with precisely three non-Caucasian families, no less - trying to write about the prelude to the era of Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, two releases which even I paid attention to.

Fuck it.  Let's just ask Kanye to step in, shall we?

Yes, I heard about something a black person said once.

Ah.  Actually, that was less help than I'd hoped.

This can't come as a surprise to anyone who's read this blog, or met me for more than five minutes, but I'm not really a fan of hip hop.  It's an aesthetic thing: I like my lyrics sung.  It's not a simple a formulation as singing > rapping, of course.  It's just that for me, you get more emotional punch to a song when you can underscore the words with a tune.  This is almost certainly why I adore music, and have so little interest in poetry.  Set a poem to music, and I'm all over that shit.

Whatever advantages in delivery rapping presents over singing are lost on me, I suppose, which means whenever I listen to an album like this, my focus is on the quality of the lyrics themselves, along with the degree to which the backing catches my attention.  This is all by way of saying this review is at best a curious look at how out of touch white guys might view hip hop, and in no way of any use as a commentary on the strengths of the disc itself.

So, with all that said...

There's a lot I like about Aquemini (pronounced a-QUEH-min-iy, if you were wondering).  It starts particularly well with a quick intro ("Hold On, Be Strong") and the disc's statement of intent, "Return of the 'G", a track which treads the fine line between slamming "gangstas" for their attitude and lamentable choices in rap topics, but insisting that disliking confrontation is not the same thing as fearing it.  This is done by giving the former job to Andre 3000, and the latter to Big Boi. Sitting here in my white enclave in deepest Warwickshire, I'm not qualified to and have no intention of discussing whether this combination of attitudes is wise or even possible, but points have to be awarded for tackling the bifurcation of Outkast head-on here (that said, I'm not sure the subject matter of the rest of the disc is nearly so unique and "mind-unravellin'" as its creators would have you believe).

The other advantage of sharing rapping duties within the tracks is that it gives the illusion of development in each song, which is where in general the album ultimately comes a cropper.  Almost without exception, the tracks here do not build; they spring fully-formed from Zeus' cranium, and with an average song length of around minutes, even the best cuts here - "Rosa Parks" and the bonkers "Synthesizer" being the finest - tend to end at least a little time after you want them to; only the breezy attack of "Skew it on the Bar-B", the slow rolling "West Savannah", and the jittery apocalypse-warning of "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)" feel completely free of flab.  The situation is hardly helped by the skits; I'm sure I'm not their intended audience, but that makes no difference to the fact that they take an already overlong album and pushes it into a serious endurance test.

Perhaps Aquemini is best considered as three separate suites.  Certainly, the first six tracks hang together very well, showcasing plenty of Outkast's undoubted range without stretching the point.  The second third, say from "Slump" (unfortunately though not inaccurately titled) through to the somewhat unlovely "Mamacita", can be bypassed without too much being lost, only the aforementioned "DAoS(P2)" standing out.  The final sashay towards the finish line picks up again, the five-way rap of "Y'All Scared" and the fuzz-guitar-laced "Chonkyfire" bringing things to a satisfying close, ebullient and sinister by turns, plus somewhat silly, which is always welcome. 

Brilliant though the song is, however, it stumbles into a slow-motion death march for its final minute, and segues into another skit.  It's just one more reminder of Outkast's refusal to tidy up the place after the party's over.  You can take almost any four or five tracks on here, listen to them together, and thoroughly enjoy the experience.  Try grinding through the whole thing and, assuming you're not doped up from toe to tongue, the sprawl just collapses under its own weight.

Six tentacles.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Five Things I Learned In (And Around) Shropshire

I'm newly returned from a weekend at The Other Half's parents, helping her celebrate her birthday through the application of cocktails, cooked meat, and zoo animals. Among the revelations of the last three days:
  1. The chances of a train journey inside or just beyond Wales being free of intolerable fuck-ups is around 50%.  Maybe it was bad luck, but I travelled to Shrewsbury and Chester during my stay, as well as the actual trip to and from my flat, and every time something went wrong on either the outbound or return journey.  The smallest problem was a half hour delay on Friday; yesterday and today both involved cancellations all over the place.  Naturally, the staff involved ranged from brusque to actively objectionable.  How dare we ask for clarification on how to use the tickets we've already paid far too much for?
  2. The Armoury in Shrewsbury is absolutely fantastic.  It's not exactly cheap (though neither is it exorbitant), but you're paying for both quality and quantity; concepts which all too often seem to work against each other.  Also, whilst you're eating, you can play with the pub's pile of games; TOH and I wiled away a necessary hour's worth of digestion by working through a copy of Articulate.  They've got an Etch-a-Sketch, too, which allowed me to present TOH with the worst rendering of a rose in assembled human history.  If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well, and if you can't do it well, it's at least worth doing so badly that it's at least worthy of comment.  There's also loads of explosives on the walls, which has to be worth something;
  3. Another significant advantage to The Armoury is that it's less than ten metres from Ramdala Romolo, a restaurant that presumably serves food of some description, but which also has a kick-ass cocktail bar upstairs.  It has a far greater range than Ebony in Durham, and is cheaper than The Kenilworth in Kenilworth, my previous high watermarks for such things.  Try the Alaska Ice Tea, if you're ever in the area;
  4. No-one would ever go poor betting on zoo crowds being filled with idiots and viciously callous idiots. How can anyone get into their thirties (at least) and not be able to tell the difference between a sloth and a koala? What possesses a father to encourage his child to mimic the behaviour of the mandrills through the glass, despite signs begging him not to and increasingly violent attacks by the primates on the glass in response (the toddler in question ended up in terrified tears: nice work!)?  What would possess a parent to take their kids to the zoo and complain about how boring animals are at every single enclosure?  And whilst it's entirely forgivable for someone to not be able to recognise an aardvark on sight, what hideous recesses of the lizard-brain could lead to someone arguing it's either a giant meerkat or an antelope? (Their companion tried to argue that they probably meant "anteater", only to be told that "an anteater is a type of antelope".);
  5. I have finally been exposed to "original" Strongbow, which tastes identical to its more famous cousin (though is slightly less strong), but which gets some marks purely because the archer on the cans is clearly from Antiquity, rather than the Middle Ages warrior which is the standard symbol.  I'm not saying it makes the endeavour worthwhile, but it did make me smile. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Last Gang In Town (Part 2)

Part 1

Time for another look at Game of Thrones' second season finale, as we consider how well the show adapted the travails of Jon in the north, Dany in the east, Theon in his father's shadow, and Stannis in a number of compromising positions with a sexy redhead.

(Spoilers etc.)