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Archive for the ‘Heidi Julavits’ Category

Harpers-1404-302x410SOUNDTRACK: BECK-Sea Change (2002).

Aseachnagefter the wild dance of Midnight Vultures, Beck entered the 2000s with Sea Change, a very mellow album.  It is highly regarded by many, although it’s too mellow for my liking, which is unsurprising give my tastes.  (Of course, if you’re in a mellow/sad mood, it’s perfect).  Even though I feel like it is quite samey, a closer listen shows as much diversity within these songs as any of his thematic albums.  And there are some great sounds that he throws on top of these tracks.  Like the Radiohead vibe in “The Golden Age”

“Paper Tiger” has a kind of sleekness to it, with the strings and the bassline that keeps the track interesting.  “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is a mopey song that has the potential to be too much ,but never goes that far.  It winds up being quite beautiful.  “Lonesome Tears” has strings that make it sound a bit like Air (the band).  “Lost Cause” is the poppy side of this mellow album—it’s got a super catchy chorus (although is clearly not a happy song) and would be a great ballad on any other album—here it comes across as the peppiest number.  “End of the Day” introduces sitar, but it falls a little flat in the middle of the disc.

“It’s All in Your Mind” is a pretty and short song.  “Round the Bend” is easily the most depressing song that Beck has ever done.  It’s also quite beautiful but, man what a downer.  Oh wait, that “most depressing” award would go to “Already Dead” a very sad acoustic song which has Beck singing in an aching falsetto.   The darkness is lightened somewhat with the sitar flavored “Sunday Sun” but it still has that aching vocal.  And yet it ends with a total musical freak out at the end—noise and feedback and chaos which makes sense in the song but seems so out of place on the record—and yet it’s kind of a welcome relief.  “Little One” has a more upbeat vibe (with big drums even).  Although it seems to get lost by the end of the disc.  As does “side of the Road” which doesn’t really have a lot going for it.

 Any one of these songs would be a perfect mellow beck song.  But at 52 minutes, the album is a bit relentless.   I think what weighs down a lot of these songs is their length.  The lengthy strings at the end of “Tears” is very pretty but with several songs pushing 5 minutes, overall it gets to be a bit much.   There’s no “bonus” track on this one.

 [READ: March 17, 2014] “Diagnose This”

This article by Heidi Julavits (whose novels I keep intending to read but have yet to so far), really appeared to me because of the conceit of self diagnosis.  Whenever you go to a doctor, if you have searched your symptoms online (which everyone has) you always feel guilty about bringing it up—like you’re not supposed to investigate these free resources.  Now it’s entirely true that looking up your symptoms online is madness—everything leads to cancer.  Everything.  If you are a hypochondriac, you should never ever do this, but if you are a reasonable person, you can use online medical diagnoses and, more importantly, message boards to see what other people have said about similar symptoms.

In this essay, Julavits talks about her own symptoms for what her doctor diagnoses as possible Ménière’s Disease, a rather rare disease that is more or less worst case scenario.  And the doctor tells her not to look it up when she gets home (she looks it up in the parking lot).   She doubts that this is an accurate diagnosis.  But as she learns when she interviews several doctors and medical school teachers—doctors are not taught to learn gray area thinking.  They have to save lives so they may jump to the most serious situation in order to prevent serious damage—even if that conclusion may involve tons of unnecessary and expensive tests. (more…)

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aug2013SOUNDTRACK: GREEN DAY-¡Tre! (2012).

treThe third and final album of the trilogy is called ¡Tre! (and yes I enjoyed that they named this one ¡Tre! as opposed to ¡Tre! and put Tre Cool on the cover—not exactly the most clever thing around, but it made me smile and makes me think that they only did three albums so they could have this title/cover combo).  And, yes, this is my least favorite of the three discs.  It feels like a bonus disc—songs that don’t really belong anywhere else. It’s kind of an album full of ballads (but that would suck) so they made it mostly ballads with other things too.

Like “Brutal Love”  a slow ballad (complete with horns) that builds into a standard rocker (it’s got a very “rock and roll” vibe).  Many punk songs are really just rock and roll played fast and this is certainly one of those songs.  (I don’t care for that kind of punk so much).  “Missing You” is a another mid-tempo rocker–the kind they do very well.

“8th Avenue Serenade” has another cool sound (as in different from the rest of the album).  “Drama Queen” is an acoustic guitar ballad with creepy creepy lyrics. It’s probably my least favorite Green Day song ever.  “X-Kid”seems even more simple than other Green Day songs (does Billie Joe throw anything away?)  It sounds like a classic rock song form the mid 80s.  “Sex, Drugs & Violence” brings the disc back some with a fun poppy rocker.  “A Little Boy Named Train” sounds a lot like “Carpe Diem” from ¡UnoI (same chords, just played slower—although the verses do change it a bit.

“Amanda” a mid tempo rocker and “Walk Away” is another slow song that sounds like classic rock.  “Dirty Rotten Bastards” clocks in at over 6 minutes!  It’s got several short sections in it though (which makes it more fun). The first part is the melody of The Marines Song.  “99 Revolutions” is so catchy it even has a chorus with only drums (that lowest common denominator of songs that is guaranteed to get the crowd to sing along).

So yes, there are a few good songs in this collection, but they could have easily scraped out the good ones and dumped them on the first two discs and just put Tre’s picture on the back of both of them.

[READ: September 6, 2013] “Neighbors”

Unferth, like Julavits, writes a kind of narrative piece about sleeplessness.  It’s hard to imagine her living the way she does, but if you’ve read her memoir, she has certainly slept in worse places than a Chicago slum.  It turns out that her downstairs neighbor, Maximilian, would turn on his TV late at night and leave it on all night. The odd thing was that he had no electricity in his apartment—he ran an extension cord to the light in the foyer.  When Unferth would get fed up with the noise, she would go downstairs and unplug the cord.

But then Maximilian’s girlfriend Dorothy moved back in.  The two of them fought nightly—loud screaming fights that were worse than the TV noise (when Unferth unplugged the TV, Dorothy found an electricity source elsewhere, although Unferth couldn’t figure out where).

She makes a very interesting distinction about the type of noise that might wake you up as compared to visceral fighting of your neighbors.  From things like jets and trains (or a fire engine, like at my house): “You may lose sleep over them, but you won’t lose sleep over them.”  Whereas hearing your neighbors screaming at each other is far more disturbing. (more…)

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aug2013SOUNDTRACK: GREEN DAY-¡Uno! (2012).

unoLast year Green Day announced that they were going to release three back to basics albums (a sort of antidote to their operas and concept albums).  And lo, there they came: one, two and three.  Oh and in the meantime, Billy Joe Armstrong had a kind of mental breakdown or something.

I’ve enjoyed Green Day’s releases since Dookie–they write simple pop/punk songs that are fun to sing along to.  Not all of them are winners, but many are.  Billy Joe has a knack for a pop hook. So when I say I liked all three of these records, it is with the understanding that these aren’t genius records, they are fun, kind of silly records.  Or, as I like to sum them up: simple three chord pop punk with supremely catchy choruses.

¡Uno!, the first one, is comprised of a lot of these simple, catchy rockers.  There are super fast rockers like “Nuclear Family” “Let Yourself Go” “Loss of Control” (with the fairly lame bridge of “we’re so crazy, oh so crazy now”–even by Green Day standards, that’s pretty lame) and “Angel Blue.”

There’s also slower rockers (which last longer) like “Stay the Night” “Carpe Diem” (with pretty harmonies and falsetto) “Troublemaker” and “Fell for You” (which if it was slower and sung by a girl group would be a perfect girl group song from the 1950s–except for the “pissed the bed line” of course).

Then there’s the jittry “Kill the DJ”, a song I instinctively dislike, (because of the stupid chorus) but which is undeniably catchy.  Even the Green Day songs I don’t really like I find myself singing along two after a couple of listens.

The last three songs change the tempo of the album a bit and each song stands out in its own way.  “Sweet 16” is a big ol’ ballad (with really falsettoed vocals).  It’s a pretty standard ballad from them, not quite as lighter-raising as their huge ballads, but this could have been huge if marketed right.  Along similar lines is “Rusty James” their more uptempo radio hit—big choruses, backing vocals a wonderful bridge—three chords and a major hit.  You have to be really jaded not to tap your foot to this one.  And the final track, “Oh Love” feels like a big 70s rocker (reminiscent of the Who).

There’ a lot of cursing on this album (mostly of the “we don’t give a  fuck” or “you’re a stupid motherfucker” variety).  And while I don’t object to that in principle, it comes across as really lazy songwriting.  Of course, this is a 40 minute album of pop punk and three chords, so it’s not exactly an unlazy album to begin with.

Of the three this is my favorite.

[READ: September 6, 2013] “Restlessness”

The timing of this Folio, entitled “Are You Sleeping? In search of a good night’s rest” is quite spooky.  I myself have been having middle of the night insomnia.  I seem to battle this occasionally.  This recent bout seems to be accompanied by a stomach upset.  So I have this really unfair cycle.  My stomach is bothered by caffeine, so it keeps me up at night and when I wake up groggy and with a headache, I need the caffeine to get me somewhat stabilized (and I’m not a big caffeine drinker—a cup of tea, maybe two a day).  But that seems to upset me during the night.  I am also really strangely accurate with my insomnia.  It is almost always between 2 and 2:30 AM. So, yea, here’s other people interested in sleep deprivation.

Julavits writes about her vacation home in Maine.  Her family spends a few months there each year and it often happens that she is simply hunting the house for sleep while her family snores on.  Beginning at 12:20, she leaves Husband bed and heads off to the other options: Child One, an uncomfortable futon; Child Two: a single air mattress (“basically [a] pool toy for houses”). (more…)

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42SOUNDTRACK: IRON MAIDEN-Iron Maiden (1980).

Steve Harris was on That Metal Show recently.  Harris is the baimssist and primary songwriter for Iron Maiden and has been since their first album in 1980.  When I was in high school Iron Maiden was my favorite band hands down.  I had all their albums, I had all their singles, all their hard to find British vinyl 12 inch singles, even a few pictures discs.  Wonder if they’re valuable?

Every album was an epic event for me–I even played “Rime of the Ancient Mariner “off of Powerslave to my English class (not telling anyone it was 13 minutes long).

And then, after Somewhere in Time, I just stopped listening to them. Almost full stop.  I did manage to get the first four albums on CD, but the break was pretty striking.  I actually didn’t know that they’d had personnel changes in the ensuing years.  I’d vaguely heard that Bruce Dickinson  left, and that others followed, but I don’t think I quite realized that they were back to their big lineup these days.

Anyhow, Harris was so earnest and cool that I had to go check out some of their new stuff. Which was okay.  I’d need more time to digest, but then I had to listen to the first albums again.

And wow I had forgotten how much the first Iron Maiden album melds punk and prog rock into a wild metal hybrid.  There’s so much rawness in the sound and Paul Di’Anno’s vocals, not to mention the speed of some of the tracks.  And yet there’s also some epic time changes and starts and stops and the elaborate multipart Phantom of the Opera….  Wow.

The opening chords of “Prowler” are brutal.  But what’s surprising is how the second song “Remember Tomorrow” is a lengthy song that has many ballad-like qualities, some very slow moody sections–although of course each chorus rages with a great heavy riff and a blistering solo.  On the first two albums Paul Di’Anno was the singer.  He had a fine voice (it was no Bruce Dickinson, but it was fine).  What’s funny is that Bruce does the screams in “Remember Tomorrow” so much better in the live version that I forgot Paul’s vocals were a little anemic here.

However, Paul sounds perfect for the rawness of “Running Free” a wonderfully propulsive song with classic Harris bass and very simple metal chugga chugga riffs.  And this has one of the first real dual guitar solos–with both players doing almost the same riff (and later Harris joining in on bass).

“Phantom of the Opera” is the band’s first attempt at an epic multi-secton kinda-prog song.  It opens with a memorable, if slightly idiosyncratic riff and some wonderfully fast guitars/bass.  There’s a great slow bit that morphs into an awesome instrumental soloing section with bass and twin guitars playing a wonderful melody.

“Transylvania” is an instrumental that is challenging but probably not one of the best metal instrumentals out there, although again when Dennis Stratton and Dave Murray play in synch solos it’s awesome.  This track segues into “Strange World” a surprisingly trippy song (with effects that seem like keyboards but which aren’t).  It’s slow in a “War Pigs” kind of way, but it doesn’t entirely break up the album, because there are other slow bits on the disc.  It is a little out of place though.

Especially when “Sanctuary” blasts forth.  True, it wasn’t originally on the album (in the UK), but man, blistering punk or what!  “Charlotte the Harlot” was always one of my favorite songs (it taught me what a harlot was after all), it’s quite proggy, with a lot of stuttered guitar work and a middle section that features some loud and complex bass.  The disc ends with the by now almost immortal “Iron Maiden.”   A great raw riff opens the song, a harmony guitar partners it and the band blasts forth.  Who even knows what the lyrics area about, the song just moves and moves–There’s even a great chaotic bass/drum break in the middle.  And listening to the guitar noises in the solos at the end.  Amazing.  It’s quite the debut.

[READ: June 7, 2013] McSweeney’s #42

I have made it a point of (possibly misguided) pride that I have read every word in every McSweeney’s issue.  But this issue has brought that to an end.  As the title states, there are twelve stories in the book.  But there are also sixty-one authors writing in eighteen languages.  And there’s the rub.  One of my greatest (possibly misguided) shames is that I don’t speak any other languages.  Well, I studied Spanish and German, I know a few dozen words in French and I can read the Greek alphabet, but none of these would help me read any of these stories.  So, at least half of this book I didn’t read.

But that’s kind of the point.  The purpose of this book is to make a “telephone” type game out of these stories.  Stories are translated from one language to another and then re-translated back into English.  The translators were mostly writers rather than translators and while some of them knew the second language, many of them resorted to Google Translate or other resources to “read” the story.  Some people read the story once and then rewrote it entirely, other people tried to be as faithful as possible to the original.  And so what you get are twelve stories, some told three times in English.  Some versions are very similar and others are wildly divergent.

I normally write about the stories in the issues, but that seems sort of beside the point as the original stories were already published and were selected for various reasons (and we don’t even see any of the original stories).  The point here is the translation(s).  So, in a far less thorough than usual way, I’ll list the contents below. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL YOUNG-Trans (1982).

By most standards this Neil Young album is a disaster.  It’s so bad that despite updating his entire catalog and releasing all kinds of bootleg concerts, he has never issued this disc on CD in the States.  So, just what’s so awful about this disc?

Well, mostly it’s awful as a Neil Young disc.  Meaning, if you like Neil Young (either flavor: country/folk or hard rock/grunge) this disc is a big fat HUH??  Neil Young has gone all synthy?  And not just synth but computerized synthy–sometimes his voice is utterly like a computer.  It’s a travesty, it’s a shame, it’s an incredible surprise.  Unless you listen to it without thinking of it as a Neil Young record.

But after all that introduction, the biggest surprise is the first song.  You’ve been prepped for this weird album full of computer nonsense and you get the fairly standard (if a little dull) rockabilly type music of “A Little Thing Called Love.”  It’s a pretty standard Neil Young song for the time.  Hmm, maybe the album isn’t that weird.

Well, then comes “Computer Age” and the keyboards kick in.  Interestingly, to me anyhow, this is the year that Rush released Signals.  Signals was the album where Rush fans said Woah, what’s with the keyboards guys.  Similarly, “Computer Age” makes you say, geez, was there a sale on keyboards in Canada?  The keyboards are kind of thin and wheedly, but the real surprise comes in the processed vocals (Rush never went that far).  The vocals are basically the 1980s equivalent of auto-tune (no idea how they did this back then).  Because the song is all about the computer age it kind of makes sense that he would use this weird robotic voice.  Sometimes it’s the only voice, although he also uses the computer voice as a high-pitched harmony over his normal singing voice.

“We R in Control” sounds like it might be a heavy rocker (anemic production notwithstanding) until we get more computer vocals.  Again, conceptually it works (its all about the dominance of CCTV), but it is pretty weird as a Neil Young song.

And then comes yet another shock, “Transformer Man.”  Yes, THAT “Transformer Man,” except not.  This original version of the song is sung entirely in a processed super high pitched computer voice that is almost hard to understand).  The only “normal’ part of the song is the occasional chorus and the “do do do dos.”  It sounds like a weird cover.  Sarah, who loves Neil Young, practically ran out of the room when she heard this version.

“Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)” continues in that same vein.  Musically it’s a bit more experimental (and the computer vocals are in a much lower register).  Although I think it’s probably the least interesting of these songs.

Just to confuse the listener further, “Hold On to Your Love” is a conventional poppy song–no computer anything (aside from occasional keyboard notes).  Then comes the 8 minute “Sample and Hold” the most computerized song of the bunch and one of the weirder, cooler songs on the disc.  It really feels like a complete song–all vocodered out with multiple layers of vocals, not thin and lacking substance like some of the tracks.  It opens with personal stats (hair: blonde, eyes: blue) and proceeds through a litany of repeated “new design, new design” motifs.

This is followed by a remake of “Mr Soul” previously only on Decade.  This is a new vocodered-harmonies version of the song.

The biggest failure of the disc to me is “Like an Inca” it’s nine minutes of virtually the same guitar riff.  The chorus is pretty wonderful, but it’s a very minor part of the song itself.  It is fairly traditional Neil song, I just wish it were much shorter.

So, this travesty of a disc is actually pretty interesting and, for me, pretty enjoyable.  Most of these synthy songs sound kind of weak but I think that has more to do with the production of the time. I’d love to hear newly recorded versions of these songs (with or without the vocoder) to see what he could do with a great production team behind him.

Trans is not a Neil Young disc in any conventional sense, but as an experiment, as a document of early 80s synth music, it not only holds up, it actually pushes a lot of envelopes.   I’m not saying he was trying to out Kraftwerk Kraftwerk or anything like that, but for a folk/rock singer to take chances like this was pretty admirable.  Shame everybody hated it.

[READ: July 5, 2011] Five Dials 19

Five Dials 19 is the Parenting Issue.  But rather than offering parenting advice, the writers simply talk about what it’s like to be a parent, or to have a parent.  It was one of the most enjoyable Five Dials issues I have read so far.

CRAIG TAYLOR & DIEDRE DOLAN-On Foreign Bureuas and Parenting Issues
I enjoyed Taylor’s introduction, in which he explains that he is not very useful for a parenting issue   That most of the duties will be taken on by Diedre Dolan in NYC.  They are currently in her house working while her daughter plays in the next room.  His ending comment was hilarious:

Also, as is traditional at most newsweeklies, someone just put a plastic tiara on my head and then ran away laughing at me.

I resist Parenting magazines, from Parents to Parenting to Fretful Mother, they all offer some sound advice but only after they offer heaps and heaps of guilt and impossible standards.  So I was delighted to see that Five Dials would take an approach to parenting that I fully approve of.  Dolan writes:

Nobody knows what works. Most people just make some choices and defend them for the next 18 to 50 years – claiming nurture (good manners) or nature (crippling shyness) when it suits them best.

And indeed, the magazine made me feel a lot better about my skills (or lack) as a parent. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SERENA-MANEESH-Serena-Maneesh (2005).

The thing that surprises me most about this band is that they are Norwegian (although I’m not sure why that surprises me).  They have a convoluted past, and I’m still not sure what the name means, but I really like the CD.

So, as I was led to believe, this debut album is parts My Bloody Valentine, but it is much more than that. The opening, “Drain Cosmetics” is another quintessential shoegazery song with male and female vocals over waves of gentle distortion.

The third track “Un-duex” is another fairly gentle track (clocking in at under 2 minutes) with waves of layered distortion competing with each other.  “Candlelighted” is like the opposite of “Un Duex,” a 6-and-a-half minute noise-fest, conflicted guitars and over 3 minutes of instrumental introduction before the gentle wash of vocals come in.

“Beehiver II” continues the noise (and features the loudest vocals so far).  These darker songs certainly owe a debt to Sonic Youth (not that MBV doesn’t but MBV was more wash and less abrasive).  “Her Name is Suicide” slows things down considerably, almost spoiling the flow, but the song is weird enough to be interesting.

“Chorale Lick” returns to SY type noise with squealing guitars.  The final track is a 12-minute song that begins slowly with gentle washes (and vibes?).  By the seven minute mark all the instruments have been dragged out and it’s a noisy attack.  At about 9 minutes the song screeches to a feedback-fuelled halt, but it is quickly followed by a delicate piano coda.

I didn’t enjoy the album when I was listening to it quietly (I was trying to listen at work).  But when I was able to really turn it up it sounded less like a pile of noise and more like intricate uses of noise.  I’m curious to see now what else they have done in the last five years.

[READ: July 27, 2010] “Multiples of Cohen”

This is a fascinating story that begins surprisingly and ends even more surprisingly (and yet very satisfyingly).

It opens with this statement of purpose: “The important fact about Cohen: he did die.”

The story is written from the point of view of Cohen’s cardiologist. Cohen is a hairy-backed, middle-aged man who judges everyone on their fuckability (the first thing he says to his doctor’s wife: “nice rack”; while his nanny has “an okay ass”).  He also has a heart that will not quit.  He passes all of his tests with flying colors and has the stamina of a bull.

So why did he have a heart attack while making a joke about sleeping with someone’s sister?  How had the cardiologist failed him? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BLUE ÖYSTER CULT-compilations and live releases (1978-2010).

For a band that had basically two hits (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You”) and maybe a half a dozen other songs that people might have heard of, BOC has an astonishing number of “greatest hits” collections.

Starting in 1987 we got Career of Evil: The Metal Years (1987), Don’t Fear the Reaper (1989), On Flame with Rock n’ Roll (1990), Cult Classic (which is actually the band re-recording their old tracks (!)) (1994), and the two cd collection Workshop of the Telescopes (1995).  There’s even Singles Collection, (2005) which is a collection of their European singles & Bsides.

This doesn’t include any of the “budget price” collections: E.T.I. Revisited, Tattoo Vampire, Super Hits, Then and Now, The Essential, Are You Ready To Rock?, Shooting Shark, Best of, and the 2010 release: Playlist: The Very Best of).

The lesson is that you evidently won’t lose money making a BOC collection.

I don’t know that any of these collections are any better than the others.

The 2 CD one is for completists, but for the most part you’re going to get the same basic tracks on all of them.

And, although none of them have “Monsters” for the average person looking for some BOC, any disc is a good one.

Regardless of the number of hits they had, BOC was tremendous live.  And, as a result, there have also been a ton of live records released.  Initially the band (like Rush) released a live album after every three studio albums. On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975) Some Enchanted Evening (1978) and Extraterrestrial Live (1982) were the “real releases.”

Then, in 1994 we got Live 1976 as both CD and DVD (which spares us nothing, including Eric Bloom’s lengthy harangue about the unfairness of…the speed limit).  It’s the most raw and unpolished on live sets.  2002 saw the release of A Long Day’s Night, a recording of a 2002 concert (also on DVD) which had Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma an Allan Lanier reunited.

They also have a number of might-be real live releases (fans debate the legitimacy of many of these).  Picking a concert disc is tough if only because it depends on the era you like.  ETLive is regarded as the best “real” live disc, although the reissued double disc set of Some Enchanted Evening is hard to pass up.  Likewise, the 2002 recording is a good overview of their career, and includes some of their more recent work.

If you consider live albums best of’s (which many people do) I think it’s far to say that BOC has more best of’s than original discs.  Fascinating.  Many BOC fans believe that if they buy all the best of discs, it will convince Columbia to finally reissue the rest of the original discs (and there are a number of worthy contenders!) in deluxe packages.  I don’t know if it will work, but I applaud the effort.

[READ: October 2009-February 2010] State By State

This is a big book. And, since it’s a collection essays, it’s not really the kind of big book that you read straight through.  It’s a perfect dip in book.  And that’s why it took me so long to get through.

I would love to spend a huge amount of time devoting a post to each essay in the book.  But, well, there’s 51 (including D.C.) and quite a few of them I read so long ago I couldn’t say anything meaningful about.  But I will summarize or at least give a sentence about each essay, because they’re all so different.

I’ll also say that I read the Introduction and Preface last (which may have been a mistake, but whatever).  The Preface reveals that what I took to be a flaw in the book was actually intentional.  But let me back up and set up the book better.

The catalyst for the book is the WPA American Guide Series and sort of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.  The WPA Guides were written in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration.  48 guide books were written, one for each state.  Some famous writers wrote the books, but they were ultimately edited (and many say watered down) by a committee.  I haven’t read any of them, but am quite interested in them (and am looking to get the New Jersey one).  Each guide was multiple hundreds of pages (the New Jersey one is over 800).

State By State is written in the spirit of that series, except the whole book is 500 pages (which is about 10 pages per state, give or take).  And, once again, famous writers were asked to contribute (no committee edited this book, though).  I’ve included the entire list of authors at the end of the post, for quick access.

So I started the book with New Jersey, of course.  I didn’t realize who Anthony Bourdain was until I looked him up in the contributor’s list (I’m sure he is thrilled to hear that).  And his contribution was simultaneously exciting and disappointing,.  Exciting because he and I had quite similar upbringings: he grew up in North Jersey (although in the wealitheir county next to mine) and had similar (although, again, more wealthy) experiences. The disappointing thing for me was that Bourdain fled the state  for New York City (and, as I now know, untold wealth and fame (except by me))  I felt that his fleeing the state, while something many people aspire to, is not really representative of the residents of the state as a whole.

And that dissatisfaction is what I thought of as the flaw of the book (until I read the Preface).  In the Preface, Matt Weiland explains that they asked all different authors to write about states.  They asked some natives, they asked some moved-ins, they asked some temporary residents and they asked a couple of people to go to a state for the first time.  In reality, this decision makes for a very diverse and highly entertaining reading.  In my idealized world, I feel like it’s disingenuous to have people who just stop in to give their impression of an area.  But hey, that’s not the kind of book they wanted to compile, and I did enjoy what they gave us, so idealism be damned.

For most of the book, whenever I read an essay by someone who wasn’t a native or a resident of a state, I assumed that there weren’t any famous writers from that state.  I’ve no idea if that played into anything or not.  From what I gather, they had a list of authors, and a list of states (I was delighted to read that three people wanted to write about New Jersey-if the other two writers ever decided to put 1,000 words  to paper, I’d love to read them (hey editors, how about State by State Bonus Features online, including any extra essays that people may have wanted to write).

From New Jersey, I proceeded alphabetically.  And, I have to say that I’m a little glad I did.  I say this because the first few states in the book come across as rather negative and kind of unpleasant.  Alabama (written by George Packer) comes across as downtrodden, like a place you’d really have to love to live there.  Even Alaska, which ended up being a very cool story, felt like a veil of oppression resided over the state (or at  least the part of the state that Paul Greenberg wrote bout.)  But what I liked about this essay and the book in general was that the authors often focused on unexpected or little known aspects of each state.  So the Alaska essay focused on Native fisherman and the salmon industry.  Obviously it doesn’t do justice to the rest of that enormous state,  but that’s not what the book is about.

The book is meant to be a personal account of the author’s experiences in the state. (more…)

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