Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #13 - City of the Dead

I am three books behind in blogging which puts my grand total for the year up to 15. Only 10 more to go in the last 12 weeks of the year. This seems like a tall order and truthfully, it is. But if I read everything else as fast as I read Brian Keene's City of the Dead, it should be a snap. I started this book Saturday night, read 280 pages on Sunday and finished it after work on Monday. It was that good.

City of the Dead is the sequel to Brian Keene's Bram Stoker Award winning novel The Rising. I read The Rising a couple of years back after I picked it up at a used bookstore here in town. I knew that it was a zombie book, but I was hesitant. Zombie fiction is a notoriously tough nut to crack. Most of what little I have bothered to read has been dreadfully boring. Even World War Z didn't really do it for me, which is really saying something. But The Rising, simply put, rocked. It was gory and scary and intriguing and had a killer opening scene. It had zombified animals as well as humans. And these zombies were not your typical slow, lumbering Romero zombies, but they also weren't the Danny Boyle 28 Days Later fast zombies either. These zombies were smart. They could talk. They could drive cars. They could shoot guns. They broke ALL the cardinal zombie rules according to Dan. It was a recipe for failure that instead, served up something so delectable that I could hardly believe it.

City of the Dead picks up right where The Rising left off, and because it had been so long since I had read The Rising, I had to go read the plot recap at Wikipedia. With it all coming back to me now, I dove into City of the Dead. A group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse has made their way from West Virginia to New Jersey in search of Jim Thurmond's young son. By the time City of the Dead opens, the undead population outnumbers the living by a staggering proportion. However, these zombies are not what they seem. As it turns out, a particle acceleration experiment has ripped an interdimensional hole in the universe which has allowed a demon race known as the Siqqusim to enter our world and possess the dead. The fact that the reanimated dead are possessed by demons is a cool idea and goes a long way toward explaining the intelligence that the zombie hordes possess.

Surrounded on all sides in the suburban New Jersey home where they find Thurmond's son, Danny, they make a narrow escape (an absolutely thrilling series of scenes) that eventually leads them to lower Manhattan and Ramsey Tower. It's designer, billionaire Darren Ramsey, declares it to be completely impregnable and therefore, the perfect fortress against the 99.9% of the Big Apple that is now rotting and possessed by Siqqusim. Clearly, Ramsey has never heard of the unsinkable Titanic because the building is not quite as sealed off as it might appear, especially once the leader of the Siqqusim, Ob, starts rallying heavy artillery and tanks.

The chain of events in a novel like City of the Dead is completely predictable, but you're not there to be surprised by the plot. In the hands of a lesser writer, it'd be a tosser. But Keene has mastered this kind of writing. Instead of being bored by the predictable plot and characters that veer a little too hard into cliche at times, I was intrigued not so much by what-happens-next as by how what-happens-next happens. The smart zombies really work even though for me, they really shouldn't. Their intentions are clear (kill all humans by whatever means possible) and they really are pure and unadulterated evil. The writing is graphic and bloody and gory. So vivid are the descriptions of what's taking place in the novel that what's usually necessary to really seal the deal with zombies - the visuals - are rendered superfluous. You can see it in your head. And that is why good zombie fiction is so hard to find. Usually, you need the visuals. With Keene's zombie novels, you simply don't.

It's been a long time since I read a book this quickly - it really held my attention and interest. It's not great literature or anything, but who says a good book has to be? Fans of zombies and horror fiction in general will certainly enjoy both The Rising and City of the Dead. They are leaps and bounds better than some of the other mid-level horror fiction I've read and the best zombie fiction I've read. Of note, Keene has also written another unrelated zombie novel, Dead Sea, which features more traditional slow zombies which is a hell of a read as well.

I was originally supposed to read this book last summer when we were on vacation, but it disappeared part way through the trip and I couldn't find it. I found it under the driver's side seat when I was looking for my sunglasses. Clearly, we need to clean the car more frequently.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Vinyl - garage sale style

I tried to write this post earlier today but today has been lost to sleeping and reading. I woke up at 7:15 this morning unable to breathe through my nose. Ah, allergies - how I love thee! So I was up for a bit but then I went to read in the comfy chair in the living room and fell asleep over the arm of the chair. I went back to bed and slept till 11:30! The rest of the day has alternated between plowing through City of the Dead (Brian Keene writes zombie fiction like no one else on the planet) and sleeping.

Now that it's nearly 9pm and I should start thinking about going to bed soon, I am awake. Such is life.

But here's what I really wanted to write about. Jeff and Caryle came up yesterday afternoon for Heidi's belated birthday celebration. During the morning, he had helped his sister with her garage sale and apparently, there was a crapload of vinyl for sale. He called me mid-morning and ran a few titles by me. A couple I already had, a few I wasn't interested in, but there were two that really got my attention. Here's the first:

It is, obviously, Stevie Nicks' 4th solo album The Other Side of the Mirror which I pretty much trashed here. Still, it was the only one of Stevie's solo albums that were actually issued on vinyl that I didn't have. This album was completely unopened - plastic seal still intact so whoever purchased it NEVER EVEN LISTENED TO IT. Well, because I know Stevie, I knew that the stuff on the inside would not be boring, so I ripped open the plastic, undisturbed since 1989 and sure enough, I was right!

That picture on the inner sleeve is one of my favorite Stevie photos of all time. I always figured it was from an earlier Stevie era, but I guess the poster of it I had in college was a promo for Mirror so it makes sense. Was it included in the Mirror CD artwork? I can't remember and I am too lazy to go look. And I love how Modern had all the vinyl labels for her solo albums be something that tied into the album cover. In this case, it's the black-and-white checkerboard floor.

I'm pretty sure that my Stevie vinyl collecting days are over because I would be shocked to find out that either Street Angel or Trouble in Shangri-La had been released on vinyl.

Jeff also found this - less exciting than the Stevie find, but still a quintessential album of the 80s.

Nothing exciting on the inside of this - all the pictures here were included in the CD release.

Sometimes I really miss vinyl. Sure it started wearing out the minute you started playing it, but I love how big the artwork is. I really need to get myself a record player.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The song goes on

One of my favorite songs of 2007 was Mary Chapin Carpenter's "On With The Song." It was the first song in the Best of 2007 year-end list and together with Debbie Harry's "Two Times Blue" was probably the co-song of the year for me that year. "On With The Song" is an example of something that rarely works - an angry political rant wrapped up in melody and lyrics. However, just because it rarely works doesn't mean that it hasn't been tried time and again, usually with embarrassing results. But as I said in 2007, leave it to Chapin to find just the right way to combine her anger at the Bush administration with her ace songwriting skills and a killer country-pop hook.

The song was written in response to the Dixie Chicks debacle in which Natalie Maines said at a London concert how they were "embarrassed that the President of the United States was from Texas." This seemingly off-hand statement infuriated many of their fans and country radio as a whole. I always applauded Maines' courage but was left scratching my head by it. Had she stroked out and momentarily forgotten who their main demographic was? The response was predictable. The Chicks were banned from country radio, their CDs piled up in parking lots and run over by payloaders in much the same way that disco records were burned at the end of the 70s. All this and the resulting fallout is documented in the highly recommended documentary Shut Up & Sing.

In "On With The Song" Chapin sings about all the people this song ISN'T for. It's not for people who blindly follow jingoistic bumper stickers telling you to "love it of leave it" and "you better love Jesus" and "get out of the way of the Red, White & Blue." It's not for the ones who gladly swallow everything their leader would have them know. It's not for the ones with their radio signals calling for bonfires and boycotts. In amongst all this, she manages to distill the frustration many of us felt during the Bush years, when it felt almost dangerous to espouse liberal ideas for fear of being called unpatriotic or a traitor to the country. It was a time when I watched with stunning disbelief as we went to war in two countries, cut taxes for the most wealthy of Americans and an American city was left to drown. Fortunately for us, this song was not just for the Dixie Chicks. It was for us as well - "this is for the ones who stand their ground when the lines in the sand get deeper/And the whole world seems to be upside down/And the shots being taken get cheaper."

I always wondered how this song would play in the post-Bush years. When Barack Obama was elected on a wave of progressive hope in 2008, I wasn't sure it would resonate like it did in 2007 when I first heard it. I felt that it might feel a little anachronistic and dated now that it seemed like we were heading into a time when it was no longer scary to be a liberal.

Boy, was I wrong.

I heard this song while sitting in flood traffic here in Ames a couple weeks back. Listening to it, I was reminded that, if anything, this song is even more relevant now than it was when it was released. We're living in a time when FOX News and conservative ideology attempts to drive the national conversation away from real issues and toward inflammatory nontroversies. Birthers, death panels, Ground Zero mosques - make no mistake, all these things divert attention from the real issues. They are dressed up in sexy, scary language so as to dominate the news cycle for weeks. The mainstream media seems to have consumed the Kool-Aid as well. They would have you believe that Obama is a left-wing extremist. All you need do is ask people who really ARE on the left-wing fringe and they'll tell you he's nowhere near lefty enough. Even someone like me who identifies as liberal but not wildly so is at times infuriated with his willingness to compromise his principles. Even with a Democratic president, it's a scary time to be a liberal. Again.

As long as the Sarah Palins, Newt Gingrichs and the Tea Party have control of the airwaves, this song will never lose its relevance. Why is it not surprising to me that Carpenter would write an angry political song that transcends its own time period?

And even though it's still not easy being a liberal, I take comfort in the final lyrics of the song - they apply to so many situations in life.

This isn't for you and you know who you are
So just do what you want 'cuz I know that you can

But I gotta be true to myself and to you

So on with the song, I don't give a damn.

She's that good, folks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

37 years young

My most favorite Virgo in the entire world is turning 37 today.

In the immortal words of Violet Newstead, "we're gonna need a special locker for the hat."

There's not much more to say that I haven't already said in these pages, but what the hell, I'll just say it again. 15 years ago, this woman very unexpectedly entered my life after what I refer to as "the summer of my discontent" and when my life was rather rudderless and I knew I was barking up the wrong tree professionally but lacked the courage to make any changes. I was smitten from the start and she pretty much immediately became the anchor and rock that she is to this day. We fit together like a hand in a glove, but have somehow managed not to lose our own identities over the years as well.

We've seen a lot over the years - both good and bad - and have weathered the changes that time inevitably brings to anyone, but the thing that remains constant is my love and devotion to her.

So happy birthday to Heidi. Here's to many more years and many more books of man-on-man action that are also very sweet - just like her.

Go harass her on Twitter - she loves it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Uncle for the very first time

The world now contains another Cullinan. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I got a text from my brother tonight that his wife, Olenka, had delivered their daughter, Sofya Rae Cullinan, at 12:13 PM today in Arizona. Apparently she delivered 45 minutes after the epidural was placed, which is a far cry from the 43 hours of labor, 3 hours of pushing and the help of the vacuum suction that it took to bring Anna Cullinan into this world. I am so happy for them, I can't even properly articulate it. I can't think of two people that will be better parents.

But this marks uncharted territory for me. I have never been an uncle before - not even a pseudo-uncle to a young kid that is the child of a friend like Jeff is "Uncle Jeff" to Anna. I'm not really sure what being an uncle is all about, but I am more than up to the challenge. I guess I can just take lessons from my own brother, who treats Anna like a queen whenever we see him and my soon-to-be brother-in-law Andrew, who dotes on her like she is his own child.

It'll be a few months before we get to meet her - they're coming back to Iowa in December for our sister's wedding - and I can't wait. Anna's waited almost 9 years for a cousin and although she'll never have the "gaggle of cousins" experience that we had growing up, I'm so happy that our family is expanding this year, both by blood and by marriage.

But since we've both had daughters and Heidi & I are done having kids, it falls to him to carry on the family name. But even if it doesn't happen, at least it will live on in gay romances.

Congratulations Ryan & Olenka!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not what you'd expect from an amusement park

Every year we make the trip to Adventureland, an amusement park located just south of here near Des Moines. We've gone there ever since I was in the 6th grade when I went along with the safety patrol at the end of the school year. Like I have written before, my first encounter with Adventureland was the first time I'd gone to an amusement park that didn't require tickets for rides. You pay the admission, you ride till you're done or you puke your guts out - whichever comes first. I get massively discounted tickets through work so we go pretty much every year. As Anna said to me earlier this summer "Dad, it's kind of a tradition that we go to Adventureland." Yes, Anna, it definitely is.

We were supposed to go yesterday, but we got rained out. Fortunately, I had today off as well, so we simply rescheduled for today. The only hiccup was that tomorrow is the first day of school and Anna likes to stay until the very last possible minute. This was not going to happen today. So we got up early and got there not long after the park opened with the caveat that we were leaving at 5pm sharp. After some initial grousing about not being able to stay as long, she saw the light and agreed to the terms. This was a good thing as it was not a negotiable point.

She brought a buddy with her so she didn't have to hang with us oldsters and in the end, it was an especially smart move. I used to ride those rides like crazy. When I was a kid, there was no ride I wouldn't get in line for, even if I really was a little bit scared. I did take a long time to really warm up to roller coasters. I didn't actually ride the Tornado until the year after I boasted to my friends that I had done it, only to give a completely inaccurate account of the ride (based on the cartoon depiction of the coaster on the Adventureland map.) My deception revealed, I vowed to ride it the next year, which I did. After that, I rode everything and mocked those who didn't as sticks-in-the-mud.

Well, karma's a bitch because now it's me that's the stick-in-the-mud. Each year, I ride less and less. This year, I rode exactly four rides - the Giant Sky Wheel (100 foot tall Ferris Wheel), the Tornado, the Space Shot and the chair lift across the park. You can forget anything that goes rapidly around in a circle. My innards just can't take it. The Silly Silo (aka The Human Centrifuge) was the first to go. Now, even something as innocuous as the Tea Cups (modeled after the Mad Tea Party in Disneyland) leaves me feeling nauseous. As I have said before, I will not continue to ride that stuff just to say I can do it. I am over that shit. And Heidi, with all her aches and pains that randomly come and go didn't so much as set foot on anything save the chair lift.

So this year, Adventureland felt more like a sentence than something we were looking forward to. But Anna does love it so and as I have said, being a parent really teaches you the true meaning of the word "sacrifice" so we muddled through. We turned the girls relatively loose and sat on benches, talked a lot, ate crappy amusement park food, listened to late 90s music coming from a speaker near the Falling Star and really, despite our expectations, enjoyed the hell out of it. We enjoyed being together so much today. After a summer that has really felt like the Lost Summer, with me working a fantastic number of evenings and during which we never really established a good routine, it was nice to reconnect, even if it was over our lack of desire to spend one of the last free days of the summer at an amusement park we've been to so many times I need scientific notation to express it succinctly.

Heidi said to me today "you know, I feel like I should feel bad about not wanting to ride and not really liking this anymore, but honestly, I don't." I know what she was saying. We used to make trips to Chicago to go to Six Flags Great America and even up to my late 20s, I was still loving rides and all that. We kind of decided that we were glad we enjoyed it then. It's just like anything else, you grow up. Even this perennial boy-in-a-man's-body has realized that that part of me really isn't there any longer. It only exists in memory. I can still fake it a little bit, but each year it gets a little bit harder. My long-running joke is that I am 3 years away from having to sit in the car while everyone else goes in. The fact that I've been making that joke for 10 years should tell you that it's deliberately melodramatic. However, there is a kernel of truth in it.

I always remember my grandparents taking the entire extended family to Adventureland through my teenage years. They, of course, never rode the rides - at least not that I can recall. They were well into their 70s by then so it's no surprise that they didn't. Still, they went religiously, year after year just to be with family. Those are some of my most treasured memories of my grandparents, even though one year my grandfather did inadvertently belch in my face - something that was mentioned several times at his funeral a couple years back and still comes up in conversation to this day.

So here's to family and relationships and all that. Who knew that an amusement park had such a binding effect? We're not grandparents yet, but Lord knows I have enough gray hair to pass as one!

(I actually had to buy that hat today as I couldn't find my sunglasses and needed something to keep the sun out of my eyes. It's the first piece of distressed clothing that I've ever purchased unless you count stonewashed jeans in the 80s.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Seven songs for a summer night

In an attempt to jump start myself back into more regular blogging, I thought I'd do the old "seven songs you're into right now" meme. Some of these are what you might expect me to be listening to right now, others may surprise you. And only one of these is a current release.

1) You're Nothing Without Me / Belinda Carlisle
Reading the Belinda Carlisle book got me on a Belinda kick (or was it the other way around? Really, it hardly matters.) This little-known track from her little-known album Live Your Life Be Free is one of my favorite Belinda tracks. I always think of my friend Jeff when I hear this song - "you're nuttin' without're nuttin' without me."

2) It's Here / Kim Wilde
Kim Wilde is dramatically underrated. Her output is also amazingly uneven, but when she is good, she is oh-so-good. I had never heard this song until just recently - and it has vaulted into my top 5 Kim Wilde songs. Infectious in a way that only pop songs from the late 80s/early 90s can be, it has a soaring chorus and a killer middle eight. As XO so rightly put it, great albums are full of songs with great middle eights.

3) Snowbird / Mark Eitzel
It's no secret that I'm a bit of an Anne Murray fan (more on that later.) Guess what, I am so over the mockery, I can't even tell you. Her voice is pleasant and I have fond memories of hearing her songs from my youth. Mark Eitzel's take on her first hit, "Snowbird," slows it down some, but it certainly doesn't detract. It does what any good cover should - put it's own stamp on the song while making you appreciate the original all over again.

4) Come On Come On / Mary Chapin Carpenter

Truth be told, I never much liked this Mary Chapin Carpenter song. The last song on the Come On Come On album, it ended the album with a whimper rather than a bang. But as a friend of mine put it, "songs are like clothes, not always great when they're brand-new, a bit too stiff and shiny. After you've worn them a while, you can realize all of a sudden how nicely they fit." This is certainly true of "Come On Come On" - it suits my 38 year-old self so much better than my 21 year-old self. It's a perfect example of a sad song that really leaves you a little bit better off than when you started.

5) Alone In New York / Chatham County Line
I'm not a huge fan of roots music or Americana, but I recently discovered Chatham County Line via my friend Jason and boy am I glad I did. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Dolly's bluegrass albums were top notch (it's Dolly, what do you expect?) but apart from that, I just have never really gotten around to listening to much of it. This is a standout track fromt he Wildwood album, it's a sober and melancholy affair, setting itself apart from the pop frenzy that has really characterized this summer. Much like October Project, I wish I had discovered them in the fall because, really, this is autumn music through and through.

6) Trouble in Shangri-La / Stevie Nicks
Stevie shimmered back in 2001 with her most classic-Stevie-Nicks-sounding song since who knows when. Obtuse lyrics + great melody = Stevie at her best. It almost makes me wonder if this song wasn't from the vaults - with Stevie, anything is possible. But it is latter day Stevie that didn't just not disappoint, it made you think that maybe she still had some spark and fire left in her after all. Props to Matt for putting this song back on my radar for reasons well known to him.

7) Who's Leaving Who? / Anne Murray

So about this Anne Murray thing. I discovered this song, as I have blogged before, when two friends independently of each other sent me a link to a download of the long out of print vinyl 12" single of this 1986 Anne Murray song. Talk about getting out of your pop-country rut - she is positively synth-tastic on this song. It's almost, as Heidi put it, "disco Anne Murray" (which ranks a close second to her comparing Debbie Harry at the True Colors Tour to "Anne Murray gone hard.") And then, I discovered the video. It's non-embeddable (bastards) but seriously click the link. The crowd at the Anne Murray show I went to was nowhere near that animated.

And guess what? This is my 1,400th post. As Cher would say, follow this you bitches!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

There be water here

...only you can't drink any of it.

Yes, I know. The blog has been silent. We've had out-of-town company and have been gone a lot so it's been hard to find time to sit down and do nothing, let alone compose a half-way intelligent blog post (and half-way intelligent is sometimes all I aspire for.) I was all set to do something tonight, but then Ames got smacked by the Flood of 2010. This is an aerial shot of the football stadium and Hilton Coliseum, home of the Iowa State Cyclone basketball team.

We live in the upper right hand corner of this picture, but fortunately, we're dry and doing well.

It flooded in 2008, but nothing like this. It flooded in 1993, which was called the "hundred year flood" but the Skunk River and Squaw Creek are cresting higher than 1993 levels. As my friend Jess said, "this is some 17-year flood we've got going on." And to add insult to injury, a water main broke which caused the city to shut off the water treatment plant. So as of right now, we have no water to drink or shower in or even to flush our toilets. Fabulous.

This came about because of three nights of TORRENTIAL rainfall on an already saturated ground. Restaurants are closed, there was only one very convoluted way in and out of Ames today and there's more rain in the forecast for Friday. As Kylie Minogue would more rain!

(props to Heidi for the blog post title)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Come down here for a minute

All my Stevie Nicks listening last week caused a song I had nearly forgotten about to bubble back up to the surface. The great thing about being a Stevie Nicks fan is that you can double your pleasure so-to-speak because not only do you get solo songs from her (well, we USED to, anyway) but you also get songs from her when she's working with Fleetwood Mac. It's kind of like when Phil Collins was recording solo and with Genesis, which led to a pretty much uninterrupted onslaught of Phil Collins music, only Stevie produces music that I actually like. (that's harsh, I listened to and enjoyed a fair amount of Genesis and Phil Collins back in the late 80s.)

The song in question is Fleetwood Mac's "Sweet Girl" which was recorded for The Dance live album in 1997 and featured on the subsequent tour. I am fond of saying that it is one of the best Stevie Nicks songs of the last 15 years, and I stand by that assertion. Despite the brilliance that is shown on Trouble in Shangri-La, especially when you compare it to the previous two solo albums, there is something about "Sweet Girl" that sounds like classic Fleetwood Mac. Listen.

I don't know if it's the fact that you can hear all three voices, or if it's that Stevie sounds so damn good (and looks so good too - the Street Angel days were definitely behind her at this point) or what, but it's such a solid song. I was talking to my friend Matt about it the other day who I can always count on when I'm in a decidedly Fleetwood Mac mood. Our passion for Fleetwood Mac was one of the first things we discovered we had in common, but as we've discussed frequently, we see the band through decidedly different lenses. His is Lindsey-centric whereas mine is, naturally, more Stevie focused. We do agree on "Sweet Girl" though - it comes together just perfectly in the end. The harmonies, the guitar work, the production, Stevie's vocals - everything just works.

Lyrically, this is in between some of Stevie's more straight forward songs and her so-spaced-out-not-even-she-knows-what-it's-about songs. It is a bit obtuse in places, but a Stevie Nicks song without at least some degree of hazy lyrical meaning is no Stevie Nicks song at all. It has a wonderful bittersweet tone that characterizes many of my favorite pop songs. And what's better is that it reprises the "track a ghost through a fog" lyric that originally appeared in Tusk's "Angel." It is one of my favorite examples of Stevie recycling her lyrics. From a lesser songwriter, it would seem lazy. From her, it is endearing.

And speaking of, Matt and I were also discussing the "dramatic conversational moment" in "Sweet Girl" - the point at which Stevie descends into a bit of speak-sing and says "Come down here for a minute" only to follow it up with a patented Stevie wail "Weeeeelll, come down here for a minute." It starts at right about 2:50 in the above video. It works so well, and so few artists can get away with that and actually make it work. According to Matt - and I agree with him - it ends up sounding cliched. But with Stevie, she always makes it work. Examples are littered through her solo work, my favorite being the breakdown of "Some Become Strangers" where she mutters "I don't really need this in my life!/Why don't we forget about it." Mentioning this to XO, he brought up the baby-talk "do it for yourself" in "Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?" You could do a whole blog post on it, but it would likely be only interesting to me.

I saw The Dance tour a month in the Quad Cities a month after Heidi and I got married. Little did I know that it would be the last time that version of the band would ever tour. My biggest wish for that band is that they can coax Christine McVie out of retirement for one more album. They don't even have to tour (which is why she quit the band.) Just one more album of that lineup and I would be quite happy.

Sadly, I think it's a pipe dream, but one can still dream.