I didn’t know who Jim White was before this Tiny Desk Concert. And I’m still not entirely sure who is he. But he’s a gifted songwriter and storyteller.
Bob explains how he and Jim tried to work together for All Songs Considered, but that every time Bob asked Jim to do a 3 minute piece, he’d hand in a 15 minute piece. And then somehow Jim would edit it into a 17 minute piece. Jim admits that anything can set him off on a tangent (most of which are thoroughly engaging). He also says that he writes songs not a bout “you” but about “me.”
So with him and a drum machine, he sings some really pretty songs. “Jailbird” is a slow ballad that is quite beautiful. I enjoyed that he played his harmonica solo without playing the guitar at the same time (I don’t know if the guitar was prerecorded or looped, I think prerecorded).
Then he gives a funny story about working with the guitarist for P.M. Dawn. “Turquoise House” is a boppy little number about not fitting in. It’s a wonderful song. “Stranger Candy” is a darker song (full of lessons). He says that it took him several tries to get the music right for this one.
There’s a fascinating story about a gift that Jim sent to Bob. The story goes on about a racist incident in which his daughter rises above racism.
“Somewhere in the World” is a gentle ballad about finding the person you are waiting for. I like it (except for that falsetto note at the end). Then he talks about how for his old songs (like the previous one) he was kind of bummed. But he has grown up and is happier. And that has made his songwriting much more difficult.
The final song is called “A Town Called Amen.” It’s another boppy little song, charming and sweet. And Jim White seems about the sweetest, nicest musician in the world.
I came away from this Tiny Desk Concert really enjoying Jim White and wanting to hear more from him.
[READ: December 15, 2013] The Braindead Megaphone
This is Saunders’ first collection of essays and non-fiction. At some point, I stated that I thought I would enjoy his non-fiction more than his fiction. That is both true and not. I enjoyed his “reporting” essays (from GQ) quite a lot. But I found his shorter, sillier pieces to be a but too much. Nevertheless, he is an inquisitive reporter, looking for truth and traveling far and wide to find it (even braving the depths of FOX news). It’s a good collection and only slightly dated.
The Braindead Megaphone
This essay seemed a bit like a blunt instrument hitting a soft object. Although 2007 is seven years ago, I feel like the subjects (dumb newscasters) were pretty soft even then. However, it’s entirely possible that people who were apolitical or just simply not that interested in what obnoxious outlets like FOX were doing may not have been entirely aware that the Braindead Megaphone (ie. all news outlets) were not doing us any favors with their spouting of nonsense and being incurious about where stories are really news worthy or even accurate. I imagine this is mostly just preaching to the converted. I was a little worried that the whole book would be just as unsubtle, but that proved to be a foundless worry. This is not to say that I didn’t agree with everything he said in this essay. He was spot on. And often he was pretty funny too.
The New Mecca (originally published in GQ)
This is a very lengthy article in which Saunders goes to Dubai and experiences the amazingness of extreme pleasures that the wealthy can have in the UAE. This was written just as Dubai was beginning to make a name or itself, so it is a sort of first hand questioning of the bragging that the UAE was doing. As Saunders says, he falls in love with a fake town. He even gets to stay in a seven star hotel. But he also sees the amazing squalor that a caste system imposes on people (especially when he can’t withdraw enough cash for his stay at the seven star hotel).
Thank You, Esther Forbes
Saunders talks about his school days in Catholic school when Sister Lynette was a nun that he fell in love with. He trusted her wholeheartedly, so when she gave him Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, he knew it was a special book–one that only he could handle (because clearly she felt the same away about him as he did about her, right). Aside from the sheer joy of reading a Newbury winner (given to him by Sister Lynette) what he ultimately took away was the great writing–powerful sentences that Forbes created (I haven’t read the book so I have nothing to contribute).
A Survey of the Literature (originally published in The New Yorker, 2003)
In the past I had been less than excited about Saunders’ work. I have since retracted that but I think what I find unsatisfying is actually his short comic New Yorker pieces (as I tend to dislike most of the Shouts and Murmurs–which I’m genuinely surprised by). I guess this wasn’t a Shouts and Murmurs as it’s pretty long, but it’s got that same “this could have been short but we really pushed it to fill space” feel. So basically we look at the Patriotic Studies discipline and at hyphenated individuals and their likelihood of supporting military intervention. But the hyphenates are things like Men Who Fish, People Who Say They Hate Television But Admit to Watching It Now And Then, Just to Relax etc. I enjoyed the categories but it seemed a bit much to make those jokes.
Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra
Saunders was a an engineering major so he read very little fiction. He understood that Great Literature was Hard Work. He believed you needed to have something Tragic happen to you before you could write Great Literature. So when he decided to write he looked for a Tragic Event. Then he heard about Vonnegut being in Dresden at the time of the bombing. And that Slaughterhouse Five was about the war. So he expected something Hard. But when he read it he discovered that it was actually Fun and Enjoyable and yet still Great. And that opened up doors he didn’t know about.
A Brief Study of the British
This was another silly article. It’s a look at the British from the point of view of an ignorant American. There was some really funny stuff in here, but it also contained a lot of downright silly things that sort of undermined the insights.
Nostalgia (originally published in The New Yorker, 2006)
Saunders pines for the days when shows were more family friendly. He misses shows like HottieLeader (which featured computer simulations of female world leaders naked). He longs for days before “girl-on-girl” had been invented–heck “girl-on-guy” had just been invented.
Ask the Optimist! (originally published in The New Yorker, 2006)
This was a very funny series of letters in which The Optimist! learns that maybe he shouldn’t be quiet so optimistic. I enjoyed the joke of the letters being in real time.
Proclamation (originally published in The New Yorker, 2006)
This is a pretty funny short piece in which Tehran declares that no English words will be spoken in Iran anymore.
Woof: A Plea of Sorts
Another short funny one, this one written from “Biscuit” to his master encouraging him to stop dancing naked in the kitchen.
The Great Divider (originally published in GQ)
Saunders goes down to Texas to hang around with the Minutemen and the border patrol. He finds them scary (they carry guns but aren’t allowed to use them) but also after a long night–naive and dunderheaded but somewhat reasonable people just trying to protect something. This was a fascinating look for New Yorkers and other East Coasters to see what the fuss is about. I loved that the Minutemen wouldn’t go to New York City because you can’t have guns there. I also enjoyed when Saunders stood astride the border (and then got caught by actual border patrol).
Thought Experiment (originally published as “Advice from an Old Fart, in the Form of a Thought Experiment” in Take My Advice, edited by James L. Harmon, 2002)
What if, just what if, we didn’t take credit for things that were not our doing–like being born to a wealthy family or being born genetically disposed to being happy. Maybe we could stop blaming people for being born poor too.
The Perfect Gerbil: Reading Barthelme’s “The School”
Saunders looks at just how great Barthelme’s “The School” is. How it builds to a certain point and then throws the whole proceedings out the window to keep us more and more engaged. His raving for this story rally makes me want to read it.
The United States of Huck: Introduction to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
This is a lengthy intro to Huck Finn in which Saunders analyzes the story and talks bout how great it is. But he also talks about how it is problematic–it is racist, even though in some parts it isn’t. It is confused–Twain seems to have written in spurts when he was inspired and damn the consequences. And, worst of all, the ending sucks. Yet despite that the story is fantastic and an unquestionable nod to the first real American novel. It certainly made me want to read it again.
Buddha Boy (originally published as “The Incredible Buddha Boy,” GQ, 2007).
Saunders goes to Nepal to investigate a 15-year-old boy, Ram Bahadur Bomjon, who had been meditating for seven months with no food or water. Saunders travels across the world (complaining about the flight). He lands and tries to imagine sitting in the same position all the time (especially since he was so uncomfortable on the plane). He finally gets to see the Buddha Boy and watches him overnight (as if this is some kind of elaborate scam). The night he is there it is freezing cold and he is terribly uncomfortable and yet the boy does not move. At all. Saunders, despite hallucinations, sees no one bring him any food. Saunders comes away thinking that even if it was a scam–and what an elaborate and high-chance-of-failure scam it would be) , he was impressed by the fortitude of such a person.
Manifesto: A Press Release from PRKA (originally published on Slate.com, 2004).
This is a kind of follow up to “A Survey of the Literature” in which his group, People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction, used overwhelming force to not kill anyone. I liked the subtlety of this article.
Aside from a few clunkers, I found this collection to be very enjoyable. And I’m looking forward to reading more of Saunders’ previous collections this year.