Thursday, April 29, 2010

Even less than zero

So it took me all the way until April, but the first rejected book of the 2010 Book Challenge has arrived. It was Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero and that thud you heard was me chucking the book across the room. I should have known better - really, I should have.

Less Than Zero is kind of a companion book to Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, a book that I love and would rank in my top five favorite books. It follows the adventures of Clay, an 18 year old college student back in L.A. for Christmas break as he navigates the party/sex/drug scene of mid 80s Los Angeles. He and most of his friends are beyond wealthy and are consequently neck deep in that scene. I tried reading Less Than Zero when I was in college, and based on its association with Bright Lights, Big City, I figured I would love it. Turns out I didn't get past the first 20 pages. I remember not really liking it, but then I was reading something about it on Goodreads or some place and thought I'd give it a go. Maybe I just got distracted the last time I tried to read it and it was better than I was giving it credit for. And really, it seems like an "important book" for our generation so I felt a little bit obligated to try it again.

It took me 50 pages this time to give up on it, but give up I did. I just got to the point where I couldn't stand to read about these whiny, unhappy people one more second. Their lives were bad, yes - Clay and most of his friends are drug addicts and morally depraved by most everyone's definition. I don't mind a book that is "unhappy" so-to-speak, but I just found nothing in the book worth pressing onward. The plot was barely there and there were so many characters that all seemed the same that I really had trouble telling them apart. Ultimately, I decided that life is painful enough without voluntarily subjecting yourself to it and cast the book aside. After reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, I'm glad I threw in the towel when I did. Jesus God.

I guess one emo book about a young adult trying to survive in a large city is all I have room for in my life.

LDS (Latter Day Stevie): The Other Side Of The Mirror

I'm fond of saying that being a fan of Stevie Nicks' solo work would be so easy if her solo output had stopped after three albums. If any set of albums really represents a trifecta, it's her first 3 solo albums: Bella Donna, The Wild Heart, and Rock A Little. While this is not strictly true - 2001's Trouble In Shangri-La came closer to the brilliance of those first three album than anything in the interim - there is something about that set of albums that just really hits the mark. There was a natural trajectory from the acoustic folk of Bella Donna to the synth-laden Rock A Little, with The Wild Heart being an amalgam of the two, almost as if it were the offspring of those two very different albums.

The trouble comes with the albums between Rock A Little and Trouble In Shangri-La. The Other Side of the Mirror (1989) and Street Angel (1994) are really hard to love. As a fan, I feel like I end up making more apologies for them than anything else. They have only a handful of good songs between them, but as albums they really miss the mark to the same extent that the first three hit the mark.

The Other Side of the Mirror is the first of Stevie's albums that I experienced in real time. I remember hearing about it while eating breakfast over MTV on January morning in 1989, with Kurt Loder reporting that it would be released "sometime this year." In podunk Iowa, our primary music retailers were K-Mart, Pamida and the local department store chain (now defunct) Sernett and none of them were ones that you could count on for accurate information on new releases. This was pre-internet and the information was not simply at your fingertips! It was eventually released in May of that year after great anticipation on my part.

Maybe it was the anticipation, but I have always been less than crazy about this album. It's WORK to like The Other Side of the Mirror. In a word, the album is overbaked, a victim of the worst of cliched 80s production. Whereas Rock A Little has aged well despite its completely 80s production, Mirror barely sounds like a Stevie Nicks record. She is spaced out and not really engaged in the songs at all. The lead single, "Rooms On Fire" is uninspired, buried underneath layer after layer of turgid production. Sub-par songwriting doesn't help her case either. And what in the world is Kenny G doing on a Stevie Nicks album? For me, TOSOTM is to Stevie Nicks as Hard Candy is to Madonna in that it's an album I really tried to talk myself into liking. Both albums have some strong songs but do not hold together as albums very well.

It's not all bad though. "Long Way To Go" rocks pretty well and despite the fact that it's relatively tuneless, I do still like the song "Juliet" which found a home on this album after being rejected from Fleetwood Mac's Tango In The Night. I think it's the reference to the blue lamp that pushes it over the edge for me. And I have a soft spot for "Fire Burning" even though it sounds like she's barely present.

Years later, we'd find out why she was barely present. Instead of being strung out on cocaine or some other illegal substance, Stevie was growing more and more dependent on the prescription drug Klonopin. She's on record as saying that she really has no memory of the Mirror tour due Klonopin use. As she herself said "The fabulous Stevie that everyone knew just disappeared."

But if you thought Klonopin colored The Other Side of the Mirror, just wait till you listen to Street Angel. You ain't seen nothing yet. But that's the next post.

(part one of a three part series)

My rhythm's (not) mow mow mow

We know that it's officially spring because tonight, I mowed the yard for the first time.

I'm a bit late to the party the year as far as mowing goes. I have a couple friends who have mowed a couple of times. My neighbor has mowed his yard at least that. Apparently on Sunday, when I was at work, the whole neighborhood was filled with the sound of mowers cutting grass. Heidi told me she felt like going out and starting the lawn mower just as a show of neighborhood solidarity.

It's not news that I hate mowing. I get no satisfaction out of it AT ALL. All things being equal, I'd rather be snowblowing - and after the winter we just had, that's a very strong statement. Part of the trouble is that lawn mowing in April is deceiving. Sure, it's all fine and dandy now when it's 65 degrees and 10% humidity. If it were like this all summer, mowing would just be a minor irritant. But give it another 6 weeks and I can guarantee you that I'll want to be mowing naked because I will be mowing in Dagobah. It never fails - one hour of mowing and I am a completely soaked and sweaty mess at the end of it.

I also think that a lot of my disdain for mowing has to do with my yard. We don't have the greatest yard ever, and I would say that it's not for lack of trying except that it really IS for lack of trying. Much like mowing, I get no satisfaction out of yard work of any kind. Mostly, I'm just hot and sweaty (again) and then add in dirty. Where do I sign up? Heidi used to do a lot of that, but with her pain issues, we're really leery of her doing that kind of work, so it falls to me. We also have this front yard that has what I refer to as the grass equivalent of a comb over. Grass barely grows because it's so shady so consequently when you mow, the grass isn't really tall enough to give you any indication as to what's been mowed and what hasn't. So what you end up doing is trying to get as much of it as you can and hope for the best. The good news is that the lilies of the valley that Heidi planted are finally starting to spread like the weed that they are, so our front yard actually looks better this year than it has in years!

I was worried about the mower as well - first of all because I couldn't remember the oil to gas ratio needed for the two cycle engine. I wrote down the model number and manufacturer and went in to do a Google search which gave me nothing. I went back out to look to see if there was a serial number on it and, lo and behold, the directions for mixing oil and gas were right there on the mower. Also, toward the end of the season last year, the mower started getting very temperamental - mostly in the form of not starting. Well, I'm happy to report that not only did the mower start this year, but it started on the very first pull of the cord.

No matter how hard I try, I'll never be a yard geek.

(and while we're at it, let's see the video for the song that inspired the title of this post)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Carrying a laser

I have been REALLY into the song "Kyrie" by Mr. Mister these last few days. It all started when I had to completely reinstall everything on my computer and lost all my Genius playlists in iTunes. To get started again, I randomly created a Genius playlist based on the Go-Go's song "Lust To Love." iTunes populated the list with the expected (Belinda Carlisle's "Mad About You" and Madonna's "Physical Attraction") and the not-so-expected (10,000 Maniacs' "Cherry Tree"? WTF?) But "Kyrie" ended up on that list as well.

Anna and I were listening to it in the car on the way back from her piano lesson last night and she said to me, "Dad, I can't sing along with this song because I can't understand what he's saying!" Well, when I was a kid, I really didn't either - although I did know what a kyrie was thanks to my Lutheran upbringing. But her comment made me think of a friend of mine had misheard the lyric in the chorus - Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel - as "carrying a laser down the road that I must travel." Thanks to her, whenever I listen to this song, that's what I hear.

And talk about a band that was white-hot and then completely disappeared. The follow-up album to Welcome To The Real World was a commercial disappointment and the band broke up shortly thereafter. I wonder if it was any good - surely three Mr. Mister songs in an iTunes library is enough?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Grown up for grown ups

I stayed up late last night for the sole purpose of being able to do the digital equivalent of midnight shopping at a record store. I think the last time I actually went to a midnight release was 1998 when I went out to Wal-Mart in Iowa City to pick up Ray of Light. Midnight releases may seem antiquated in light of the rise of digital music, but there I was last night in the moments leading up to midnight, refreshing the page that would hopefully contain the download of Mary Chapin Carpenter's The Age of Miracles.

This has been one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year so far for me. I have written about Carpenter so much on this blog that those who are not fans are probably sick of it. But guess what, it's my space and my rules so here we go. I've been reading all sorts of reviews of the album this morning in an effort to gather my own thoughts and decide which direction I want to go with this post. Many of the reviews said much more eloquently what I was already thinking, and to simply regurgitate what other folks have said seems disingenuous at best and outright plagiarism at worst. In a way, there's a danger in talking about this album on the day of its release. It's almost too early to review the album as I've only listened to it all the way through once.

But I can't put this review off. There are albums that take their sweet time to connect and then there are others that do it instantly. The Age of Miracles is very much the latter type of album. Part of the reason for that is because Carpenter doesn't mess with her formula much. You know exactly what you're getting into and while there aren't tons of surprises, it is as I have said before, like reuniting with an old friend and the conversation picks up right where it left off the last time you met.

All the reviews I've read this morning have hit the same notes. This is a somber outing for certain, and many of them are still pining for Carpenter to cut loose like she did back in her Nashville hit-making days and do another "Down At The Twist & Shout" or "He Thinks He'll Keep Her." She seems so resolutely uninterested in doing that. Read interviews with her and you'll see that she is a profoundly thoughtful person, someone who's been through the music industry machine and is now comfortable with the path she's on even if it doesn't make tons of money or generate chart hits. My favorite review of the album - and the one that resonated most with me - is the one at PopDose. Reading the review, you can tell that the reviewer really gets Carpenter. He makes brief mention of the hits, but then says something like " their best, Carpenter’s songs fill you with a bittersweet melancholy that somehow leaves you with a smile." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Simply put, her music is a balm for my soul and that's no overstatement. I remember being 22 and just getting into her music and being almost embarrassed by how she was reading my mind. It's good to know that 17 years later, she still has that capability. I will admit to liking the songs with a bit of a punch vs. the languid ballads because I've always admired how she can marry the her obvious intelligence and way with a lyric with a catchy melody. And oddly enough, for those wishing for a follow-up to an earlier hit, she does this of sorts with the song "I Put My Ring Back On" which serves as a bit of a sequel to "He Thinks He'll Keep Her." Both songs speak to the difficulties that can plague even the best of marriages although the songs couldn't end any more differently. It's definitely my current favorite track. That's not to discount the ballads though - "I Was A Bird" and "Iceland" rank up with some of her best work.

I always say that Carpenter is thinking man's country. Make no mistake, this is a grown-up album for grown-up people. Heidi always says that despite the fact that I'm in the later part of my 30s, I'm still a consummate boy. She's right you know, and that boy has kept me more grounded than you might expect and I'm very fond of him. He's the part of me that is still giddy over Madonna releases and loves the thump-thump of a Freemasons remix. He's the part of me that spent 2 bucks on a Q*bert game for the iPad yesterday. But I also like the grown up I've become, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Carpenter for that - as unintentional as it was on her part. Reconciling the two is not always easy, but I think the last line of PopDose's review sums it up best.
I think [the album is] full of that bittersweet melancholy that makes Carpenter’s work so great. It feels like traveling — heavy with the loneliness of not yet being where you want to be, and brimming with the hope that you’re almost there — and it moves you with a grace that makes the whole thing sound easy.
And that, folks, is the miracle of Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #7 - 1959: The Year Everything Changed

Whenever I read a book that is devoted to a single year, it is so frequently accompanied by the implication that no other year could possibly match it in terms of change that I really don't believe it any longer. There is, in fact a book written about 1969 that uses the exact same tag line as Fred Kaplan's intriguing 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

I mock the drama of implying that the history of the world hinged on a single year - really, it's never that simple. But 1959 was a unique year, one that I really didn't know all that much about until I read this book. In truth, while I am fascinated by later 20th century history, the 50s don't interest me much. I'd much rather read about the turbulent 60s or the stagnant 70s. I was a bit suspect of this book, figuring that it might start out with a bang and then peter out quickly or worse, be full of facts and figures that I couldn't care less about.

What I got instead was a interesting run through some of the highlights of the year. While many books of this ilk limit themselves to talking about either politics or world affairs or cultural events, Kaplan discusses a wide array of topics. You get the obligatory chapters on US-USSR relations, the space race resulting from the Soviet launch of Sputnik and how the seeds of the race riots of the 60s were actually well planted by 1959, but there is also a healthy dose of the unexpected. There is a whole chapter on Motown and how it came into being as a direct result of African Americans drawn to Detroit by the promise of jobs in the auto industry. The origin of indie film is traced (somewhat spuriously, in my opinion) to John Cassavettes' improvisational film Shadows. Finally, at least three chapters were devoted to the evolution of jazz music.

The Beat Generation plays a large role in the book as well. I've always been only mildly interested in this topic - the antics of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg just never really held all that much appeal to me. That said, the chapters about these men were fascinating. It almost made me want to go and try to read Kerouac's On The Road again - a book I have started twice and abandoned twice. I know better than that though. On The Road is just a book I will die not having read.

1959: The Year Everything Changed reminded me a lot of my favorite book on the 70s It Seemed Like Nothing Happened in that it gave a really good overview of the time period, sprinkling in just enough detail to keep me engaged but not so much that I was overwhelmed. It painted the era in wide brush strokes, covering a lot of ground in a short period of time, but I also didn't feel cheated. Ultimately, recent history is hard to write about because we're still too close to it. I would argue that we're just starting to get enough distance between us and the 50s such that our experiences now are not coloring our recollection.

Despite that fact, I really do recommend this book to those that are interested in not just recent history but pop culture too. It may not have really been the year everything changed, but it's certainly a year worth reading about.

Tomorrow's news

So the first day of my time off hasn't been as productive as I would have liked. Granted, it's only 1:00 and I can turn that around pretty quickly. But mostly, I've been content to sit around in front of the TV, which is odd for me because I so rarely do it. The show I've been spending my time with today is the unlikeliest of candidates - the late 90s Saturday night drama Early Edition.

Early Edition has a very simple premise - regular guy Gary Hobson (Kyle Chandler) gets a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times delivered to his door every morning. The catch is that it's tomorrow's paper. He spends most of each episode going around trying to change the bad headlines before the day is out. I always kind of liked this show, although I have to say that I rarely ever watched it. Mostly, I just watched it sporadically if it happened to be on, never deliberately tuning into it. Even by 1997-98, being devoted to a TV show was quickly becoming a thing of the past. I'm not sure how or why that happened, but somewhere along the way, I decided I just couldn't be bothered with remembering when a show was on TV and that pretty much continues to this day. The big exception to this is Glee, and that's because there's three of us remembering when that show is on. So more often than not, I missed it even though, as I said, I did really like it when I watched it.

Thanks to the brilliance that is TV on DVD, I finally have the chance to rewatch all these old shows that I just didn't watch back then. And after watching three episodes of Early Edition this morning, I realized that I had actually underestimated my fondness for this show and also marveled (much like I do when I watch The X-Files on DVD) why I didn't watch it when it was on TV. What sets this show apart from something that hasn't aged as well (i.e. Quantum Leap) is the writing and characterization. Even three episodes in, you can tell the writers are paying attention to character. If someone is going to get a copy of the paper a day ahead of time, it couldn't happen to a more likable guy than Gary. He's just such an "aw shucks" guy that you can't help but root for him. He does good without being a do-gooder. What I especially like is how Gary is just an ordinary guy who has had something extraordinary happen to him. Yes, he stumbles with it, he screws up, but don't we all? As an everyman hero, he works. He's the kind of guy I'd want to be friends with.

That said, his choice in friends is a bit uneven. I take no issue with Marissa, the receptionist at his office (a job he promptly quits after the pilot episode.) She is the angel on his shoulder, providing the moral compass. It's his "best friend" Chuck Fishman that I have serious problems with. I don't remember him from the few times I watched the series and apparently he leaves after two seasons, but his presence, even after three episodes, is beyond grating. His function is clearly to be the foil to Gary, and in so doing, is everything Gary is not. I'm trying to think of adjectives that describe him, but I keep coming back to selfish. He's like a weasel - one that is completely and utterly harmless - but a weasel nonetheless. When it comes to the paper, he thinks of nothing but the potential ways to make money off of it, usually in the form of knowing the sports scores so that he can safely bet on them, the outcome completely secured. But what bothers me most about him is that he's basically a beta-male pretending to be an alpha, whereas Gary has a healthy mix of both. Nothing bothers me more than someone walking around pretending to be something they aren't and the overcompensation that Chuck does in the guy-ness department just makes me shake my head in complete exasperation.

But no one's perfect. Gary does follow in the late 90s tradition of wearing approximately one pound of product in his hair.

An annoying character and excess hair product aside, I'm going to keep on going with this show. The stories are tightly written and almost always satisfying. And there's always a happy ending, which I am a sucker for, regardless of how cool or uncool that might be. One other bonus is the abundance of Chicago scenery. It just makes me want to go live in Chicago! New York City might be fun to visit, but Chicago is probably the only big urban area that I would actually consider living in.

But that's enough TV for now. I'm going to go read till it's time to go pick Anna up from school. Heidi's disappeared into her office and is back in writing mode.

Early Edition
is available from Netflix. Sadly, only two of the four seasons are available.


As the Howard Dean shirts said back in 2004, it starts here and it starts now.

Tonight starts an 8 day spring mini-break. It couldn't possibly come at a better time for me. So far, I haven't overplanned it and I hope to keep it that way. I have a few house projects planned. I'm meeting Matt & Bess for lunch on Wednesday at the incomparable Fong's Pizza. I'm going to try to get back on the exercise wagon. I want to try to finish both of the books I have going right now. I have an unspecified date with my daughter. And there will be blogging - oh will there ever be.

But most of all, what I want out of this vacation is to get my balance back. I am really out of whack and need to reset myself. If my computer were behaving like I am these days, I would have rebooted it a long time ago. Sadly, I don't have a power button so rebooting a person is not as simple a task as rebooting a computer, but I think this might be just the ticket.

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Countdown to Chapin

I blogged it way back in February, but the day is nearly upon us. Next Tuesday, Mary Chapin Carpenter's new album, The Age of Miracles, will be released and in anticipation, I've been spending way too much time watching MCC videos on YouTube.

Everyone knows "Down At The Twist & Shout" (a song I feel like she regrets) and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her." But there is so much more to her than her hits - some that people might not know. Here's a couple that really hit home tonight. Carpenter's official YouTube channel has smartly allowed embedding. Sony/BMG however, where a lot of her videos are found, are still so worried about the possibility of piracy that they have not yet figured out that it's free publicity.

"House of Cards" is from her 1994 album Stones In The Road and is, as I have said frequently, the most upbeat song I've ever heard about broken homes and the facade of suburbia cracking. It's also one of the few truly uptempo songs on the album. How Carpenter marries the serious subject matter with the easy country-pop music is just amazing to me. And the video is such a product of its time. It's a wonder to me that anyone still bothers with videos.

I just love "You Win Again." As one of the YouTube commenters said, it's one of the best "I am someone!" songs out there. This video isn't as good as the one for "House of Cards" - but Heidi, you should watch it because it's set in VEGAS BABY. She has a tragic haircut but lyrically this song is just fantastic. My sister always used to mock the part at about the 2 minute mark where she sings "Last night I dreamed we were standing here at the corner of love and heartache." Dramatic? Yes. But who cares? It works.

The video is nothing special, but "Almost Home" is one of my favorite of all of Carpenter's songs. It came in between A Place In The World and Time*Sex*Love - albums that both disappointed for their own reasons - but this sounded the more like classic MCC than we'd had in a while.

I was talking to a friend in e-mail tonight about Carpenter's new album - sound samples are up on Amazon MP3 - and while it sounds like it will be a bit more subdued than its predecessor, it sounds great and I can't wait for Tuesday.

I hold the lock and you hold the Glee

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The future is this moment

I had plans for several more blog posts this weekend. But here it is, Sunday night, and that's obviously not going to happen. So you'll have to settle for a catch-all post.

Anna had her very first equestrian event today at Canterbrooke Equestrian Center here in town. She has been taking lessons for at least a couple years now, but changed instructors last fall. This is the first year that she's really had enough skill to be in a show, and she was VERY excited about it. We got there at 8:15 this morning and, while Anna was on her practice walks on the horse, another horse got off of its tie and ran free. This agitated all the horses in the area, including the one that Anna was riding which started trotting off. Fortunately, Anna had the sense to get it under control, but the instructors in the area were of great help. There's nothing like seeing your kid on a spooked animal and being completely unable to do anything about it. She recovered pretty well, and it taught a valuable lesson about how sometimes, when you're scared, you just have to go through it anyway. Here she is, doing her best "Madonna-from-the-first-set-of-the-Confessions-Tour" (well, sort of.)

Heidi is going to have a table at Capital City Pride this year (June 12th/13th) - representing not just her own books but the whole of Dreamspinner (they paid the table fee!) There's a good chance that another Dreamspinner author will be coming in for the weekend as well, so it should be a good time. Between now and then, we probably should figure out how to procure a tent (Jeff tells me that Sam's Club should do the trick) and we'll have to order some more paperbacks of Heidi's three books (4 by the time Pride gets here.) Anyone in the area is encouraged to come out (no pun intended) and see us! We'll be there both Saturday night and Sunday during the day.

In related news, I was looking for a good shirt to wear to Pride this year. I determined it would be SO much easier if I were actually gay. The shirts that I've found on various web sites are just great. There are so many I would wear, but they just don't apply. I'm a bit annoyed by the "Not Gay (But Supportive)" T-shirt because I feel like it makes too big of a deal out of not being gay. Ultimately, I'll probably settle on something like this or this. Because you know, you can't wear just anything to Pride. I will admit to being slightly attracted to this one, but bromance is so last season.

I have the week of April 26th off of work and it can't come quickly enough. I'm going to play at being my father that week and try to get one little house thing done each day. Nothing big, nothing earth-shattering, but something each day. We're also going to be heading to Iowa City that week to see my sister and the Daddy-Daughter dance is that weekend as well. I'm sure there will be news to report from that.

As I mentioned on Twitter this weekend, I was in the mood to search through my heavily archived Gmail and I put in the search term "TMI." This brought up some amazingly funny results, both in e-mails I sent and in ones I have received from friends. I tell ya, there's a reason I archive everything and delete nothing.

I was doing up dishes tonight and the old Tina Turner song "Paradise Is Here" came on - I hadn't heard that song in forever. It was the live version from Tina: Live In Europe which I have always preferred to Break Every Rule version. There's an energy about the live performance, even though it's a ballad. More recently, Cher's version from It's A Man's World has co-opted Tina's version in my brain. I have no idea if Tina did the song first (I have a feeling that someone else did it before her) but for years, I thought hers was the only version out there. It was a late (and poorly charting) single from Break Every Rule, and up until tonight, I thought the only video out there was the live one (embedding disabled, rat bastards.) Not so.

The future is this moment, and not someplace out there. Words to live by.

More to come this week. I'm going to try to kick my blogging output into high gear.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Musical History in 3 videos

Apparently, this meme has taken LJ by storm (I saw it on Casey Stratton's LJ.) Anyway, how could I resist? I'm going to tweak his categories just a little bit to suit my needs.

Age 4-8
My mom had the Helen Reddy's Greatest Hits 8-track. Even when our 8-track player broke and it played everything at chipmunk speed, I still listened to it.

Age 9-13
This time period belonged to ONJ. This was one of her last big hits.

Age 14-18
How could it be anything but? From early on in this period, but still, a classic.

This would be the point at which Heidi would turn to me and say "...and you turned out straight exactly HOW?" What can I say? I'm complicated.

Feel free to play along if you're so inclined.

Year of 25 Books: #6 - Double Blind

For those of you that are not our Facebook friends our follow us on Twitter, Heidi's third full length novel in 4 months, Double Blind, was released today. Of course, I read this book in its beta draft and then was required had a chance to do the galley proof a few weeks back. It hit the internet a week ago Friday in both paperback and eBook format and already, it's already climbing the Dreamspinner best seller charts (#9 overall today.) I thought since 1) I just got done working overnights and 2) I'm a bit behind in my challenge to read 25 books in the year I would do something on the blog to celebrate its release.

Double Blind is the sequel/spin-off to her well-received novel Special Delivery. When she finished writing Special Delivery, Heidi declared to me that Randy really needed his own story. Randy enters Special Delivery towards the end of its second act, and I'll admit, the first time I read it, I didn't really find him incredibly sympathetic - at least not initially. But I was willing to go with it - her instincts are rarely wrong when it comes to her writing. And so Double Blind was born, written in November of 2009 - the month to which we are used to losing Heidi to NaNaWriMo.

Double Blind opens in Herod's Casino in Las Vegas with Randy watching a video feed of Ethan Ellison at the roulette table. He is betting on black over and over again, and he is also losing over and over again. Randy is well known for his ability to read people, he makes a bet with Billy Herod, the owner of the casino, that he knows exactly what Ethan's story is. But has Randy finally met his match in Ethan?

While the book is, as most of Heidi's books are, a romance between two people - and, more abstractly, four people as Sam and Mitch from Special Delivery are back for an encore performance - it also throws Mafia machinations and Vegas' games of chance into the mix. There's quite a bit of poker in the book, and for those that might be afraid to wade into it because of the poker - trust me, you don't have to worry. The rules of the game are explained very well and in such a way as they contribute to the story. Somehow, even when explaining the rules to a game, Heidi still manages to show rather than tell.

I mentioned that Double Blind is a sequel of sorts to Special Delivery, but what I love about Double Blind is that it doesn't suffer from what I refer to as "The Mummy 2 Syndrome." It resists the temptation to take what worked in its predecessor and dress it up with more bells and whistles until it collapses under its own weight. Rather than rehash the past, what happens is that the familiar shows up and goes off in new directions. Consequently, it's not essential to have read Special Delivery to enjoy Double Blind (although reading the former is highly recommended.)

As I said when I reviewed Libby Drew's State of Mind, I really like it when the main characters in m/m fiction read like real guys as opposed to (as Mrs. Giggles said in her review of Special Delivery) "little girls with a pee-pee." Nothing bugs me more than seeing these men act as if they were somehow not men - as if by virtue of their orientation, their masculinity necessarily has to be ratcheted down several notches. This bounces me out of the story and mostly just makes me angry. So when the characters seem authentically written as men, I'm in. The flip side of that is that the emotional connection between men, regardless of orientation or the presence of absence of sex, is the draw for me in these novels, and that can sometimes seem not-very-mannish. Randy even thinks this during a particularly intense scene with Mitch "What the fuck, guys don’t talk like this, not even gay guys!" But as I have said a million times, although that may be the rule, it doesn't mean that it HAS to be that way. In fact, I feel like we would all better served if we banished the kind of statement that Randy made from our collective definition of masculinity. Men of all orientations have so few examples of real emotional connection and if m/m fiction can provide this, so much the better. Too bad that straight men (who, arguably, could use the education the most) will be the least likely to read it. If anyone ever asks me why I enjoy reading m/m fiction, those are the reasons I cite.

And even if I weren't married to the author, I think Double Blind is a more than capable entry into the genre.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back from the dead

It's Monday morning and while everyone else's work week is starting, mine is over. Well, until Wednesday at least. I worked the last 5 overnight shifts and am dead dog tired. I have a proof to finish today for Dreamspinner and I have a date with my daughter for ice cream after school, but first, I must sleep.

I'll be back with some posts this week, but in the meantime, take a look at this review of Heidi's Special Delivery. It is frickin' awesome.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Remixology: My 10 Favorite Madonna Remixes, Part 2

Part two of this post has been delayed due to illness - whatever I caught knocked me flat. Part one of this is here. Hopefully, you've had a chance to listen to my co-blogger P.Viktor's podcast on his 10 favorite Madonna remixes. Anyway, here's my final five as always, in no particular order.

1) Erotica (WO 12" Mix)
"Erotica" is such an odd song. When I first heard it, I felt like it was the bastard cousin to "Justify My Love." If you listen to the original demo, ("You Thrill Me") you wonder what would have happened with the song had they continued in that vein. And then there was the Sex book version of the song. Included as a one song CD with the purchase of the Sex book, it had even saucier lyrics than the album version, but for me, they're the definitive version.

William Orbit, in one of his first collaborations with Madonna, took that version of "Erotica" and gave it a Middle Eastern trance feel that is lacking in the original album mix. Sadly, it still does not allow Madonna to finish the famous line "I'll give you love, I'll hit you like a truck/I'll give you love, I'll teach you how to...." (rhymes with truck). If any version of the song really demands that, it's this one.

2) Human Nature (The Runaway Club Mix Radio Edit)
I still think "Human Nature" was such an odd choice for a single. The fourth single from Bedtime Stories, it followed Madonna's first single to miss the top 40 since her debut, so the momentum was certainly not there. Also, it's her big "fuck-off" song for the brutal treatment she got from the press during the Erotica years. Still, I do like the song and this remix in particular is quite good. It is a pretty straight forward club mix with heavy beats and some great piano glissandos (what was it with pianos and 90s dance music?) The whispered/spoken parts of the vocals are featured prominently and repeatedly. I think what I liked most about this single release was the large number of remixes, how different they were from each other and how Madonna resisted the temptation to go to the Junior Vasquez well one more time. Junior's work on "Secret" was great, but his remix of "Bedtime Story" sounded pretty much the same (thank goodness for the Orbital remix.) I remember many fans discussing how pissed they were that Junior turned "Bedtime Story" into "Secret." You'll find no such trouble here. Even though a lot of fans prefer the Human Club Mix, The Runaway Club Mix still sounds good today even if you really can tell it's a 90s remix.

3) Miles Away (A Crowd Electric vs. Madonna)
By the time "Miles Away" was released as a single from Hard Candy, I had kind of lost interest in the album even though it was one of my favorite songs on the album. As other people have said, it's the most "Madonna-sounding" song on Hard Candy, but I always felt like it was better off as an album track since it had zero chance of getting played on the radio. When I heard the official remixes, I was horrified. They were awful, even Stuart Price's remix was below average. The mistake they made was trying to turn what is basically a bittersweet mid-tempo ballad into a dance floor stomper. Sometimes it works, but this time, it fantastically didn't.

Enter A Crowd Electric who, using the a cappella that WB released, mashed it up with one of their songs ("The Waiter") and turned it into something that was a little more true to the spirit of the original song. They made it available for download on their web site. It was heads and shoulders above the official remixes. And then WB got their panties in a bunch and forced them to take it down, even though they had released the a cappella so what were they expecting? Glad I grabbed it while I could because it has been in heavy rotation in preparation for this post.

4) Hollywood (Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duck Mix)

The trouble with so many of these latter-day singles is that barely anybody outside of the die hard fans have heard of the songs, let alone the remixes. Such is the case with "Hollywood," the second single from American Life. I don't know if this remix was the first time that Madonna worked with Stuart Price, but his remix of this song really changes up the song. Of all the remixes on my list, it's the one that uses the smallest chunk of the original vocal - something that usually drives me batty. Nothing makes me crazier than a 12 minute remix with 1:30 of vocals. But this one really works. It hints at things to come when Madonna worked with him on Confessions on a Dance Floor. It was also version of "Hollywood" that Madonna used on the Re-Invention Tour. Of all the remixes to come out of American Life, I think this is probably the only one worth anyone's time.

5) Jump (Extended Version)
Rounding out my favorite Madonna remixes is the only remix from Confessions on a Dance Floor to make the list. As P.Viktor alluded to in his podcast, the vast majority of the songs on COADF needed no remix to improve them - most were perfect just the way they were. The output that Madonna had with Stuart Price puts him just one notch below Patrick Leonard in terms of being her musical muse. "Jump" is one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs. Its simple dance beats surround a message of self empowerment which I find very personally inspiring. But if there's any criticism to level against "Jump" it is that it always felt like it was a little bit too short. So what did Madonna do? She gave us the first honest-to-God extended remix of a song since probably "Bad Girl" and the result was glorious. This remix basically is the album version with the Confessions Tour outro tacked on. It took an already great song and made it perfect. It's my preferred version of the song.

Look for more Madonna posts from P.Viktor and me in the future.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #5 - The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is pretty beloved around our house, if for no other reason than family favorite Coraline came from his pen. He is one of Heidi's favorite authors and American Gods is her favorite book. I enjoyed Coraline as well and also was fond of Neverwhere and his Sandman graphic novels, but beyond that, my exposure to his writing has mostly been secondhand. The Graveyard Book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time (Heidi read it long ago) and I thought it was high time I gave this one a whirl as well.

In The Graveyard Book, a young toddler is miraculously spared when the rest of his family is gruesomely murdered. He wanders into the neighborhood graveyard where he is promptly adopted by its ghostly inhabitants. Given the name Nobody "Bod" Owens, he grows up in the graveyard, mentored by a mysterious figure named Silas and sheltered by everyone there because the man who killed his family is patiently waiting to finish the job.

The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 2009, so I was expecting great things. Ultimately, I didn't really connect with this book very much and consequently, it was a very slow read for me. The characters were rich and well drawn, especially Bod, and the menagerie of ghosts in the graveyard, which could have easily blurred together, had distinct personalities. But where I felt the book suffered was in its execution. It read less like a novel and more like a series of anecdotes that happened to involve the same characters with only loose connections between the events. Gaiman took a lot of inspiration from The Jungle Book when writing this, and while I have not read that, I would imagine that the structure is similar. But for me, it didn't provide me with a satisfying reading experience. I also took great issue with the last chapter in which all is explained in a bit of a haphazard way with not much build up. It was almost as if Gaiman realized he needed to write an ending and just grabbed for something, whether it made sense or provided a sense of closure for the reader.

However, all is not lost. While I didn't like the slapdash way the book ended from a plot perspective, I did like the emphasis placed on personal change in the book, especially at the end. Bod grows from a baby to a young man throughout the book, and as the book draws to a close, one of the ghosts tells Bod "You're always you and that doesn't change, and you're always changing and there's nothing you can do about it." These are wise and true words even though they seem to be contradictory. They really resonated with me because the older I get, the more I realize that although I am certainly not the same as I was 10 or 20 years ago, I believe that so much of who we are as adults is hardwired into us from an early age. Most of what we pay therapists hundreds of dollars to help us work out are really just old wounds that we need to pay attention to and be aware of. You can't really change those, but it is important to come to terms with them and understand them. This comes in especially handy when current events lay themselves over the top of those old wounds. We can't change them, and we really can't change how we react (again, thank you hardwiring) but just being aware of that is change. Change is both impossible and inevitable. It's as contradictory as the quote from the book.

The Graveyard Book is probably about a 3 and a-half star book for me. It wasn't really for me on the whole, but there were parts I enjoyed. If you enjoy short stories involving common characters, you'll probably enjoy this book. I just wish the emotional pay-off at the end had packed a little bit more of a punch.

A quandary

As many know, I am a huge zombie fan. As many also know, I don't really identify as Christian. Still, I really do find the renaming of Easter "Zombie Jesus Day" mildly offensive. I don't know if that's 30+ years of Lutheranism getting me or what the deal is. Mostly, I just think it's pretty tactless.

Here ends the rant, if you can call it that. Mostly, I don't feel well enough to rant about much of anything!

Remixology: My 10 Favorite Madonna Remixes, Part 1

Back in February, P.Viktor and I made lists of Madonna songs that should have been singles, and we had such a good time that as soon as we finished that post we were already trying to figure out what our next joint post would be. We tossed around several ideas - many of which we will probably get to as the year goes on - but a Twitter conversation about the Orbital remix of "Bedtime Story" made us realize that the next post had to be about Madonna's remixes. I used to be all about remixes, but as I've gotten older, they pack a significantly smaller punch than they used to, especially considering the sheer volume of crappy fan-made ones. But trying to narrow it down to five choices proved impossible, so we went with 10 each. I'm going to post mine in two parts to diminish the chances that people will see a long post and just skip it. P.Viktor did his as a podcast, which you can find here. And now, here's my first five in no particular order (title hyperlinks are to YouTube videos when I could find them):

1) Secret (Junior's Luscious Club Mix)
Up until the mid 90s, most of Madonna's remixes (and most remixes in general) were nothing more than extended album versions, only occasionally shaking the song up and adding in previously unheard bits. In virtually no instance did the song completely transform before your eyes. This changed with the Junior Vasquez remixes of the kick-off single from 1994's mostly-meh Bedtime Stories, "Secret." The urban R&B groove is stripped away, and seconds after the 90s club piano starts, you know that this is most definitely not the album version. The tempo is kicked into high gear and Junior patented hand claps are all over the place. While the song is definitely ready for the dance floor in this form, it has a good dose of respect for the original version of the song, which is still one of my favorite Madonna songs. Even though it uses Madonna's original vocal, it is so much more than the album version with a generic beat box thrown behind it.

2) The Beast Within (A!O Words of the Prophecy Mix)

"The Beast Within" is itself a remix of sorts. The last track on the "Justify My Love" CD maxi-single, it's an interesting and somewhat self-indulgent track which alternates between Madonna reading from the book of Revelation and the chorus of "Justify My Love." It was always a bit of a head scratcher for me, but it intrigued me because I love Madonna's speaking voice on it. Madonna apparently also really likes it because it's been featured on two of her tours. While researching this post, I realized that I had completely forgotten about the "Synagogue of Satan" mini-controversy that blew up around "The Beast Within." So many controversies, so little time.

This fan remix completely omits any "Justify My Love" mention and instead, samples in the 45 second song that Madonna submitted as the theme for the extremely short-lived TV series "Wonderland." The sample is nothing but Madonna humming (which puts me in heaven) and the effortless juxtaposition of the two unrelated songs never ceases to amaze me.

3) Don't Cry For Me Argentina (Miami Mix)
Released back in the days prior to the massive fan sharing of leaked tracks, these remixes were so heavily sought after by me that when I did finally find the import CD single in an Iowa City record store, I almost didn't believe I had found them. Perhaps knowing that it would be required by law for her to record a dance version of the best known song from Evita, an 8-months pregnant Madonna went back into the studio to completely rerecord the vocals and what resulted was something that I can't really imagine dancing to but is amazing nonetheless. Accentuated with a heavy Latin beat and and the cries of the descamisados chanting "Evita! Evita! Evita!" it was instantly campy yet utterly fantastic. These remixes were the buzz of the fan board I was on back in early 1997, but were only available on import discs. By the time Warner Bros. got around to releasing them here in the U.S., most fans had already snapped them up and sales were not that great. Still, it managed to eke out #8 hit on the Hot 100 which is not too shabby considering it got pretty much zero radio airplay.

4) Music (The Young Collective Club Mix)
The remixes of "Music" are really a puzzle for me. Between the 9 official remixes of "Music" and the 10 zillion fan made ones, you could easily listen to "Music" all day every day for at least a good couple of months. The trouble is, most of the remixes of what is a very important song in her career are not that good. I think that most of them suffer because the original song is so perfect - perfectly simple and short, one of her latter-day classics worthy of the canon. But the Young Collective Club Mix from the Music CD maxi-single rises to the top of the pile for me. At a nearly interminable 13:18, it tries even my patience. Yes, it gets more than a little thump-thump-thump than I think I would have liked, but it's one of the few remixes of "Music" that I felt like really respected the original song, using most of the lyrics rather than ignoring the verses in favor of the chorus. Other remixes did more original things with the instrumentation, but at the end of the day, it's this straight forward club mix that is the definitive remix of "Music" although the "Music Inferno" mash-up really gives it a run for its money.

5) Give It 2 Me (Paul Oakenfold Remix Edit)
I think it's funny how what I perceive to be Madonna's worst albums (Bedtime Stories, Hard Candy) have produced some of the best remixes, whereas her best work has translated very poorly into remixes (see pretty much all the Confessions remixes.) Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Oakenfold remix edit of "Give It 2 Me" which was available with the pre-order of Hard Candy on iTunes. As I have said before, this remix turns a somewhat clunky attempt at R&B into the dance song it should have always been. It also removes the horrific "get stupid get stupid get stupid" bridge. This version of "Give It 2 Me" was an essential song when Heidi was writing Double Blind (which is released on April 9th!) so now even Anna knows it. It's remixes like these that really make me think about what could have been with Hard Candy if she had decided to stick with her more traditional dance/pop route rather than do what she did. Based on this remix, it would have been heaven.

Part two coming tomorrow...

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Plants vs. Zombies vs. Anna

So as previously discussed, we all trekked down to Des Moines late this morning and picked up our iPad. Heidi loves it - it's just the kind of eReader that she wanted. She's already loaded a bunch of eBooks she's been meaning to read into the iBook library and there they sit, complete with covers and the whole nine yards. I've been sitting here tonight using it to beta-read a novella she just finished writing which she describes as "the smutty Snow White."

When we were at the Apple Store today, I picked up one of the demo iPads and was messing around with it and played a little Plants vs. Zombies, which released an HD iPad edition today. For those that don't know, PvZ is exactly what it claims to be - a game in which you defend your home against hordes of undead zombies with nothing more than garden plants. The plants range from simple sunflowers that generate sun to help you plant more seeds, to "pea" shooters and "cherry bombs." It's actually quite a clever game, so I blew $9.99 on it in the app store. It looks a little something like this.

The minute I fired it up, Anna scrambled over to the chair to see what I was up to. She was immediately in love with it, always eager to see which seed pack we would get at the end of each level. Before too long, we were taking turns - she'd play a level, then I'd play a level - until we got to one that we couldn't pass so we called it quits and watched The Muppets Take Manhattan on the Netflix box. When I went out to the kitchen to find some food, she followed me and I knew something was up. I asked her if she was spooked by something to which she immediately replied "NO!" but as I pressed her, asking her if that game had freaked her out, she confessed that it had. She wanted to play it, but was torn between her desire to play it and her general level of discomfort with anything remotely scary. She declared that she didn't want to play the game anymore, which I will admit was a bummer, but one that I was not really going to push knowing how she reacts to things like that.

I was worried about bedtime because for Anna, that's when everything that scares her comes out. But as she was getting ready for bed, we were talking about the game again, and she said "Dad, let me see that game again." to which I replied "Are you sure? I thought that game scared you." She insisted, and we looked at it and when she saw all the plants we still had to unlock and remembered how much fun we had she made a declaration: "Dad, I'm not scared of that game. It's just a cartoon and it was fun. We're going to keep on playing it." We then talked about how ridiculous zombies are because, without a brain to tell your muscles what to do, there's no way movement is possible.

This makes me happy on two levels - the first and most important being that my daughter, who really does get scared of a lot of things like that, faced her fears instead of giving into them. And secondly, this means we get to keep on playing because honestly, it was a hell of a good time. The game paid for itself in the hour or so we played it tonight, and I think we have many more hours ahead of us.

That is, if we can wrestle the iPad away from Heidi.

Easter updatey stuff

Clearly, I'm shooting for once weekly blogging. What can I say - life's been busy.

It's a beautiful Easter weekend here in central Iowa. Mostly, I dislike Easter. I don't like the candy and I color eggs with my own child rather begrudgingly. Thankfully, we had our friends Jan & Sarah and their 4 kids over last night to be Anna's surrogate cousins so that she doesn't have to color eggs with two adults who would really rather just skip the whole darn thing. Still, I was a Lutheran long enough to still feel a little bit like I should get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning to be at a sunrise service followed by breakfast of powdered eggs and orange juice.

The previously mentioned Leafguard gutters have been installed on the house. As I have been saying this week, they look like a million bucks and cost just slightly less than that (okay, significantly less than that, but it sure felt like it.) Every now and then I remember that I won't be getting back up on the roof to clean out gutters and I almost can't believe it. Ridding the gutters of dirt and fledgling plant life has become such a part of my life that I can't imagine not doing it again, but thanks to Leafguard, those days are over. The guys who did the install were pleasantly surprised at how level the house was considering how old it is. When they first pulled up, they thought they'd be here a full two days installing, but in the end, they spent two half-days. Not bad.

We're heading to Des Moines in a bit to go pick up our iPad. I've transferred a lot of my excitement and anticipation from my computer (put off indefinitely for the time being) to the iPad. I've read a lot of rave reviews but am trying to temper my expectations a little bit. A part of me thinks that it is folly to buy a piece of technology before they have any chance to improve it, but I'm willing to take the chance. Of course, the Apple naysayers are out in full force saying it doesn't play YouTube (it does) and it doesn't have Flash (it doesn't). I still can't believe it can't multi-task, but I'll get over it.

A year ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Varnum vs. Brien and Iowa became the third state in the US to grant equal marriage rights to all its citizens. Despite the predictions of social conservatives, the sky has not fallen nor has heterosexual marriage been threatened or cheapened. The Democratic majority in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature effectively prevented a vote on a constitutional amendment overturning the decision, so the earliest a vote could come up is 2014. This will certainly be a campaign issue in both the gubernatorial and legislative races in November, but lest we forget, Iowans don't really care about this issue as much as the Iowa Family Policy Center thinks they do - not when there are other things they care about much more. The winds of change are blowing. My prediction is that by 2014, even if it did come up for a vote (which it shouldn't), a constitutional amendment would be soundly defeated.

I'm working on another co-blog post with P.Viktor. Hopefully it'll be posted this week. Watch this space.