Archive for the ‘Fears’ Category

McSweeney’s 49: Cover Stories: Contemporary writers reimagining classic tales (2017)

SOUNDTRACKBIG K.R.I.T.-Tiny Desk Concert #714 (March 5, 2018).

A while back I downloaded one of Big K.R.I.T.’s mixtapes and rather liked it.  Since then he seems to have become pretty huge and I feel like he has really expanded on his style.

K.R.I.T. sings/raps three songs from his new album.

4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, a double album in which he covers everything from blessings to depression while plumbing the carnal and spiritual depths of his own duality. All three songs performed here come from side two, titled after his birth name Justin Scott.

The first song “Mixed Messages” is really thoughtful.  He sings and raps

I gotta whole lotta mixed messages / in my songs am I wrong / to feel this way
I got me a lover but I still wanna cheat / I wanna be saved but its fuck the police
i never really liked the fake shit / but I’m attracted to the fake ass and fake tits
i really wanna sing but id better rap

K.R.I.T.’s backing band, which includes Burniss Travis II on bass and Justin Tyson on drums, also features on keys Bryan Michael Cox — the hitmaking producer and songwriter behind a slew of Billboard chart-toppers. Together, the trio delivers stripped-down versions of the latest thought-provoking material in Big K.R.I.T.’s catalog.

Introducing the second song, “Keep The Devil Off” he says his grandmother introduced him to gospel.  She brought him to church and “she would wake me up when i fell asleep saying wake up you gotta hear this.”  He sings beautifully.  And then the rapped verses are really well structured.

And when he stops to pay homage to his church-going grandmother before performing “Keep The Devil Off,” it’s clear that everything she instilled in him is keeping him alive, too.

Definitely in these times we need to keep the negativity away–keep the devil off.

His grandmother was clearly very important to him.

Big K.R.I.T. has kept her spirit alive through his music since his breakout mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which he released in 2010, the same year she died.  So it only makes sense that he would bring her with him for his Tiny Desk concert.

Halfway through his three-song set at NPR Music headquarters, K.R.I.T. stops to pull out an old-school tape recorder — the same one his grandmother would use to record him singing and reciting poetry as a child. “I have to feel like my grandmother was my first mix engineer,” he says before pressing play to reveal him and his brother as kids singing a duet of R&B crooner Donell Jones’ 1999 slow burner, “Where I Wanna Be.”

He plays the tape and cracks up listening to it.  He gets the audience to sing the refrain with his younger sell.  And then his grandmother introduces he and his brother as an R&B singer, “but I’m sticking with the rap thing.”

It’s a sublime interlude — one that resonated so strongly with K.R.I.T. that he had to start his last song, “Bury Me In Gold,” over to catch the proper beat. “I’m super emotional from this, too,” he says, laughing in a moment so genuine it was only right to leave it unedited.

He says “Bury Me in Gold” is not about gold really, it’s about having something so that in the event he gets to heaven he’ll give everything away.

He tells us to remember that peace of mind and your soul are more important than gold.

I’ve always enjoyed thought provoking rap and K.R.I.T.’s lyrics combined with his voice really work wonders.

[READ: May 29, 2017] McSweeney’s 49

It has been a long time (three years or so) since the previous McSweeney’s volume.  During that silence, the publishing house went non-profit and that seems to have taken up a lot of their resources.  They even address this a bit in the interdiction to this book.

But regardless of the reasons why, it is great to have them back.

As the subtitle says, this is a book of “cover stories.” What that means is a little vague–the contemporary writers model their story after a classic story.  I try to compare it to music covers, although in music covers the music and words are typically the same with some kind of variations.  Typically, the words are the same but the music is different.  I liked to flip this idea on its head for describing these stories in that the words are different by the music is the same.

Since I don’t know most of the original stories here I don’t know how similar these are to the originals–same character names?  Same ideas?  Same plot?  I don’t know.  And perhaps it would affect the way I read these stories if I was familiar with theory original pieces.  But without knowing them, these just turned out to be good stories from good writers.

Interspersed between the stories were poems and, in a wonderful commentary on our current shitty president and the cowardly house of representatives who on the day I finished this voted to strip 24 million people of health care, are comparisons of classic historical figures’ speeches with the petty garbled tweets of out current crap in chief.  Can we impeach this motherfucker already?  And send the whole lot of them to jail, please.  #ITMFA

As many McSweeney’s do, this one opens with letters.  And of course they aren’t really letters at all, even if they are addressed to McSweeney’s.  Many deal with cover songs, but a few are much more serious, political and right on.

WAJAHAT ALI writes from Camp FDR in Washington DC where he and his fellow prisoners were finally able to cobble together WiFi.  Ali explains that the Executive Order was inevitable the ban, the vetting, the registry were all just prelude. The need to protect against terrorism outweighs the individual rights and the rights of American Muslims…read the Supreme Court decision.

NICK JAINA writes about the Sept 23, 1970 episode of The Johnny Cash Show in which Ray Charles appears and plays “Walk the Line” and then “Ring of Fire.”  The letter states that the creator of “Ring of Fire” is actually mis-attributed.  The story is that June Carter wrote it after seeing a page in her uncle’s book of Elizabethan poetry.  But Johnny first wife claims that Johnny wrote it while drunk about a certain female body part: “all those years of her claiming she wrote it and she probably never knew what the song was really about.”  Then it reverts back to Ray Charles’ performance with an unseen band playing behind him–especially a great baseline–and as the song ends he lets out one last shudder and cackle like he just invented the orgasm.  “Johnny returns to the stage looking like a man who just watched someone have sex with his wife but was so in awe of how good he was at it that he could only thank him.”

ROBIN TERRELL talks about trumpmania in the Czech Republic from the perspective of a black woman, lesbian, child of civil rights activists, mother of a black man living in Prague.  The look in the eyes of people after the election: The U.S. is going to fuck us over again.  It stunned Europeans that the U.S. could generate someone fouler than Europe’s own crop of white male extremists.  She is now a refugee from her own country.  #RESIST #ITMFA

KIMBERLY HARRINGTON says she always believed that even in the darkest times humor has its place.  But lately she’s been bursting into tears rather than cracking a smile.  She hopes she can find things to laugh at–even death in these horrible times.

MARY MILLER says that for the longest time she thought her uncles wrote “Stagger Lee.”  Her uncles were musicians who wrote songs but also threw some covers into their shows.  She believed that “Stagger Lee” was one of theirs. She realizes that they are not famous and that no one will remember them–but she promises them that she will remember them.

RICK MOODY writes at length about Elektra’s 1990 tribute album Rubaiyat: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary.  I remember it coming out and I remember not getting it because it was too expensive. But Moody talks about what a great conceit this collection was to have contemporary artists cover classic songs.  He also talks about how the tribute album was quite popular in the 1990s (was it ever).  Some thought: He loves Bjork, but he thinks of the Sugarcubes as a cheeseball imitation of the B-52s (and that their “Motorcycle Mama” is pretty bad.  He mentions a few great tracks, like Kronos Quartet covering “Marquee Moon,” Metallica doing “Stone Cold Crazy,” and even a Howard Jones cover of “Road to Cairo” by the cult hero David Ackles.   But he says fully half of the collection is bad, some of it even awful–not worth its list price at the time but it has a great number of masterpieces on it.

Will Buttler (from Arcade Fire) wishes to make some amusing corrections: some errors during concerts, and apologizing for singing “I’m So Bored” with the USA because he is not.

ARIEL S. WINTER-This is an interesting philosophical question wondering whether or not Marty McFly actually created “Johnny B. Goode.”  How could he cover it before Chuck Berry had released the original.  As a child this blew her mind.  This facile beginning then goes on to say that before recorded music the notion of a cover didn’t really exist.  And indeed in the 1950s people recorded songs without concern for copyright.  It’s also true that when Chuck Berry plays Johnny B. Goode live, it’s not considered a cover of his original.  She concludes by that the Back to the Future is probably the first time she ever heard Johnny B. Goode.  So Marty McFly’s is the original to her (as it is to all the kids at the dance).  So in addition to a song having an original for the performer there is also an original for the listener.  Anyone who has loved a song for years before finding out that it’s a cover has had that experience.


This introduction talks about how the first time they did a “cover story” was in 1999 in issue 4.  Rick Moody covered Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg.”  They had been planning to do an entire issue of covers as far back as two years ago and then things happened in the McSweeney’s universe to delay it.  And now : this issue is being born in a moment of racial, social and economic reckoning and imminent fascism…into a country that looks much different from the one in which it began, fronted now by a mean and disingenuous imitation of a president.   As such: Tucked between these thirteen beautiful renditions of thirteen classic stories are instances when a cover is not an homage but rather a perversion of its predecessor”  And by that they offer examples of eloquent speeches by former leaders and then tweets from our pervert in chief.

GARY BURDEN-excerpt from Nobody Knows (an autobiography)

Gary Burden created the cover images for this issue.  I had no idea who he was, but this autobiography tells me just how interesting a fellow he was.  He has been responsible for some of the most iconic album covers of the last 60 years!

These excerpt shows his origin story–he was 8 on December 7, 1941 and he has had vivid memories of WWII.  When he was 16 he joined the Marines.  But he was restless, got involved in bad things, was dishonorably discharged and got mixed up with even worse people (he says he can’t believe the things he did back then).  In 1964 he met “Mama” Cass Elliot. They spent a lot of time together and this opened him up to meeting all kinds of people: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash.  Eventually he met and hung out with Jim Morrison and designed Morrison Hotel (a fascinating story that).  In one of the nicer things I’ve heard someone say he says that Jim was a real poet, someone who was unafraid of delving deeply into life irrespective of the personal cost.  Then he met Neil Young. He says that Buffalo Springfield has been his favorite band and then one day Neil came to Mama Cass’ house in his 1948 Buick Hearse.  He was also hanging around when CSN decided to become CSN&Y and then he and Neil became friends. and Neil sold him his house in Topanga.  Eventually he made the cover art for After the Gold Rush (and he gives a little story about the old lady there on the cover).  I’m kind of curious to read this whole book now, especially if it includes album covers.

EMILY RABOTEAU-“The Babysitter” after “Some Women” by Alice Munro
This is the story of a babysitter for Mrs Fagan.  She is a young girl and her employer is very rich and locally famous.  And quite eccentric (she went to East Africa and allegedly witness the Ark of the Covenant and then wrote a controversial book about it).  But in their town she was known as the white lady with black kids (Maya 3, Eddie 10 months old).  The story reflects back on the babysitter as child (she is now the same age as Mrs Fagan was when the babysitting began.  The babysitter’s mother is kind of jerk and is very sarcastic about this babysitting arrangement.  She is also a very strict Jehovah’s Witness, so when the narrator gets her first period rather than tell her mom, she just takes products from Mrs Fagan.  As the story opens Mrs Fagan’s son has just arrived and that changes the dynamic in the house.  How will Mrs Fagan take it when the narrator accidentally sets fire to the kitchen? I really enjoyed the way the end of the story plays on the notions of memories and the impact people have on others.

MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN-“The Lottery, Redux” after “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” seems like a pretty easy story to cover–I think everyone knows everything about it and it has been covered in things like The Hunger Games in their own ways.  I don’t know if this story references the original (with the redux),  for this story the people of the island of Timothy were exiled from America fifty years earlier for crimes against the environment.  They were gathering on July 27th, the day of the lottery.  And indeed the lottery is a death sentence, although it’s not entirely clear why.  Interestingly, the story is more about the girl chosen and what her life up to that point has been like.

ANTHONY MARRA-“The Tell-Tale Heart” after “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
This story doesn’t diverge all that much from the original except for the wonderful modern twist on the beating heart.  It’s hard to say more without giving things away but I loved the modernization.

JESS WALTER-“Falling Faintly” after “The Dead” by James Joyce
I didn’t know all that many stories before hand, but I knew this one very well and this is wonderful homage.  It is not in any way rewriting the story–it’s a very different story, but it alludes to the Joyce story and directly mentions it and it is quite clear where the connection between them is.
Michael is a writer.  He is married with kids but has moved temporarily out to New York to write for this new police procedural.  The show is doing well and the female star is quite beautiful.  They bond over cigarettes–she is foreign and smokes like a European, he recently started again.  As stories like this tend to go, Micheal gets the wrong idea about this young, hot actress.  And given that she is not American she misunderstands the subtleties of his behavior (which isn’t very subtle admittedly).  But he wants her to know that his story is a tribute to Joyce’s “The Dead.”  When he talks about the dead she thinks he means real dead people and is pretty freaked out.  This leads to a restraining order and a police intervention–not how he thought his life in New York would go.  What doe sit have to do with “The Dead”?  Well they are standing smoking in the snow as it gently floats to the ground falling through the universe, faintly falling.

LAUREN GROFF-“Once” after “Wants” by Grace Paley
I loved the way this story started.  I saw my enemy at the beach.  With that as a groundwork we slowly learn just how this woman has an enemy (it’s an old boyfriend’s mother) and how they have grudgingly begun to respect each other decades after the two broke up. I really enjoyed this short piece.

ROXANE GAY-“Men on Bikes” after “Rape Fantasies” by Margaret Atwood
I can’t imagine what the original of this story is.  The actual story of this is pretty peculiar itself.  Basically, the men in town have all started riding bicycles everywhere.  It started when one of them was arrested for drunk driving.  He didn’t lose his license but his wife took it away from him.  He dug out a bike and began riding it.  She thought he looked ridiculous, but when another man had his license taken away, they began riding together.  It was quite a sight, although I’m not sure what the point of it was.

NAMWALI SERPELL-“Company” after “Company” by Samuel Beckett
I like Beckett, and I know that he can be confusing.  I don’t know what “Company” is about so I have no idea how it relates to it, but man I did not get this at all.

It was confusing and really long.  It is broken into many small sections which might be connected.  The first is about the brightening which happened although many people missed it. Then we learn about the ship which is electro epidermal, which is cool but not really explained  and then the story turns into a quest for melanin and just when you think it’s a sci-fi story, it becomes a story about race.  There is a pale man tied to a tree hitting a sack (pound pound).  There’s a lot of vomit.  If the white man inseminates even one person, finding pure stem cells is impossible.  Dark skin marked you as  lucky when the darkening came.  But then she says the mission is over.  There’s more vomiting.  A fellow is supposed to be invisible in the village but Pound sees him.  There’s more vomit, a section titled rape, where Pound rapes Lila every once in a while and then who the hell knows what happens at he end.

KIESE LAYMON-“And So On” after “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
Weeks ago 64 black folks changed the world.  You are the 11th.  Aside from the direct address to the reader the story is pretty straightforward and interesting.  Chanda Stewart was 8th, the narrators research assistant was 9th and Doug E., Chandra’s boyfriend was 1st.  They are at a fancy restaurant, Chandra, the narrator and you.  She swears that Doug is a porn star, but the narrator argues that having 1089 twitter followers and awkward consensual sex with a few white women filmed on an iPhone 2 in his fake Timberlands, blue knee brace and yellow wrist bands makes you a porn participant, not a star.  The story comes down to which side the narrator is going to choose.   sides or run for our lives.  Because while they were talking, Doug E. and about sixty young black kids were marching down the street.  To the school.  They each had an ax and a shovel.

MEG WOLITZER-“If You’re Happy and You Know It” after “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” By J.D. Salinger
I haven’t read this Salinger story in a long time, so I don’t really know how it connects to this, but I really enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the way that it was written which was a little confusing but in an intriguing way.  Set in a hotel on Miami there is the young woman in 609 who arrived with her new husband.  She’d sent him off to the beach.  We see her telling her parents that he is taking it easy, but they want to know if he is taking the Klonopin.  Later that night in the lobby, a four year old girl, Chloe, is in the lobby of that hotel watching a man play piano.  The man is a guest also and he is playing and really getting into it.  Another boy asks if he can play This Old Man and the player jokes about the boy calling him old.  But Chloe asks if he can play “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”  He says he might be happy but he may not know it. She is puzzled by that.  He says she is breaking his heart.  We soon realize that the pianist is the Klonopin man, and while things don’t get dark exactly, they certainly get strange.  And Chole’s parents have foisted her off on a poor babysitter the whole time.  This was one of my favorites in the book.

T.C. BOYLE-“The Argentine Ant” after “The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino
I can’t imagine what the original story is like, but this one from Boyle was really icky and really fantastic.  Its’ a fairly simple premise–a family moves to a rental property in Argentina, only to find that it is swarming with ants.  The ants are everywhere–even crawling all over their baby.  They run to the next door neighbor’s house only to see that they know about the ants and might have a secret weapon.  But mostly they just seem to be putting their furniture in jugs of water–presumably as a deterrent.  There is also an Ant Man who might be fighting the ants or who might actually be bringing more.  What is great about the way Boyle writes this is that the guy renting the house is working on an academic theorem that his wife thinks is rather frivolous.  And that tension underpins everything.

ALICE SOLA KIM-“One Hour, Every Seven Years” after “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
Again I don’t know the original, but this story was great, and also weird. The weird part is that the story seems to start over multiple times. And that’s because there is a kind of time travel component to it.  The title refers to how often the sun comes out on Venus.  There is a girl, the main character, named Nargit. She was born on Earth and so she saw the sun.  The other kids are pretty angry at her for it (as if it’s her fault).  They are abusive to her, and the time travelling is the girl’s attempt to protect her younger self.  Many things go wrong but they bring about different results.

CHRIS ABANI-“Sleepy” after “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov
This story was pretty horrific.  Kemi, a sixteen year old black girl who is now an orphan is working for a white family.  The family has two little children, one of whom is a baby.   The family is horrible to Kemi.  Pretty unrelentingly horrible.  Kemi is tired and never gets a break and the baby cries all the time.  She can’t soothe the baby and the family blames her for her failures.  Her exhaustion builds and builds until you pretty much know the ending several pages before it happens.

TOM DRURY-“The Yellow Wallpaper” after “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I know the original story although not super well.  But this version feels almost exactly the same. I honestly can’t tell what the difference is (without having re-read the original again to compare).   Jane and John are renting a place on an island for the summer.  John thinks Jane is not strong and keeps her hidden away in a room with yellow wallpaper.  He more or less runs everything in her life until she starts seeing people through the wallpaper.  You know things can’t go well from there.


REBECCA LINDENBERG-“Having a Coke with You” after “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem for Keats” after “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

STEPHEN BURT-“A Nickel on Top of a Penny” after “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca” by César Vallejo

BRIAN TURNER-“The Metaphor Program” after “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

STEPHEN BURT-“Roofers” after “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem on the Occasion of a Weekly Staff Meeting” [the first two lines are taken from “A Poem on the Occasion of the Consecration of Sandford and Shippon Churches” by Rev. F. Wilson Kittermaster, 1855]

STEPHEN BURT-“Suspense” after “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane

KEVIN MOFFETT-“Second Wonder”-a monologue that will air on The Organist.
I found this puzzling at best.

PATTY YUMI COTTRELL-excerpt from Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
I read this book not too long ago.
This except was about two young children who invented a game called “Confession” in which the boy confesses his real or imagined sins to his sister.


The comparison quotes are called Great Speeches from History vs. the Tweets of Donald J. Trump:  I can’t bring myself to write any of the jerks tweets.

Mahatma Gandhi from the “Quit India” speech, 1942 vs. a Feb 4 2017 tweet

Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address” 1863 vs. a Feb 18 217 tweet (about fake news)

Martin Luther King Jr from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” vs. Feb 21 2017 (crowds planted by liberal activists)

Frederick Douglass from “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” 1852 vs. Feb 6 2017 (negative polls are fake news).

Franklin D. Roosevelt, inauguration speech 1933 vs. Jan 22, 2017 (including all my enemies)


The bad thing about this issue is that the last four or five stories were all real downers, making it a pretty tough slog.  But I loved the idea, and I liked that they found the time and space to point out how stupid trump sounds and looks and is.

For ease of searching, I include: Cesar Vallejo


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SOUNDTRACK: ROY AYERS-Tiny Desk Concert #712 (March 1, 2018).

I hadn’t heard of Roy Ayers, although I imagine I’ve heard his work somewhere before.  I love the vibes so I was looking forward to his set.

I was a little bummed to hear him singing–I assumed it would be all instrumental. Especially since his songs aren’t exactly lyrically masterful.  But the jazzy funky solos were pretty great.

Roy Ayers [is a] 77-year-old jazz-funk icon.  He sauntered through the office with a Cheshire grin on his face, sharing jokes with anyone within earshot. Accompanying him was a trio of brilliantly seasoned musicians — keyboardist Mark Adams, bassist Trevor Allen and drummer Christopher De Carmine. Later during the performance, pride washed across Ayers’ face as his bandmates took the spotlight. (Be sure to watch as Adams woos not just the room but brightens Ayers’ face during his solo.)

The set began with one of Ayers’ more recognizable hits: an extended version of “Searching,” a song that embodies the eternal quest for peace and love.  The vibes solo at 2 and a half minutes is worth the wait, though.

The lyrics are essentially.  I’m searching, searching, searching searching. It takes over a minute for him to even get to the vibes!  It’s followed by a groovy keyboard solo that starts mellow be really takes off by the end.

During “Black Family” (from his 1983 album Lots Of Love), you’ll hear him call out “Fela” throughout. That’s because Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti was a huge influence on Ayers in the late 1970s; the two eventually collaborated on an album, 1980’s Music Of Many Colors. “Black Family” is, in part, a tribute to Fela, even if the original version didn’t include his name.

Again the lyrics: “lo-lo-lo-lo-long time ago” and not much else repeated over and over and over. But it’s all lead up to a great vibes solo (as the band gets more and more intense).  I love that the keyboardist has a keytar as well and is playing both keys at the same time–soloing on the keytar with an awesome funky sound.  There’s even a cool bass solo.

Concluding this mini-concert, Ayers closed the set out with his signature tune, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, a feel-good ode if there ever was one. The essence of this song flowed right through him and out to the NPR audience.

Another terrific vibes solo is followed by a keytar solo which is full of samples of people singing notes (they sound like Steely Dan samples)–it’s weird and kind of cool.

[READ: August 2017] McSweeney’s No 46

As the subtitle reflects this issue is all about Latin American crime.  It features thirteen stories selected by Daniel Galera.  And in his introduction he explains what he was looking for:

DANIEL GALERA-Introduction
He says it used to be easy to talk about Latin American fiction–magical realism, slums and urban violence.  But now things have expanded.  So he asked 13 writers to put their own Latin American spin on the crime story.

And of course, each McSweeney’s starts with


DANIEL ALARCÓN writes passionately about Diego Maradona’s famous “Goal of the Century” and how as a child he watched it dozens of times and then saw it thousands of times in his head.  When he learned of Maradona’s questionable “Hand of God” goal, his father said that his previous goal was so good it counted twice.  But Daniel grows sad realizing that the goal of the century also marked the beginning of Maradona’s decline.

LAIA JUFRESA this was a fascinating tale about a game called Let’s Kill Carlo that her family played.   It involves a convoluted history including her mother “inventing” a child in order for her husband to come to Mexico from Italy and avoid conscription there.  But when this child “Carlo” “came of age” they had to think of reason why he wasn’t there anymore–so they invented the Let’s Kill Carlo game.

YURI HERRERA waiting for a bus in New Orleans as a man lay in the gutter also waiting.

VALERIA LUISELLI her friend recently moved to Minneapolis with her nervous wreck Chihuahua named President.   He was diagnoses with terminal cancer and the vet encouraged all manner of alternative therapies.  This friend was a very sweet person and had many virtues. And yet perhaps through her virtue the alternative therapy seems to have worked.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN wants to know why immigration officers at Newark Airport are such dicks (and this was before Trump–#ITMFA).  He speaks of personal examples of Mexican citizens being treated badly.  He had asked a friend to brings books for him and she was harassed terribly asked why did she need so many bags for such a short stay.  Another time he was flying back to NYC with a Mexican girlfriend.   She went through customs and he didn’t hear anything for hours.  He didn’t know if she would even make it though customs at all–even though she’d done nothing wrong.   He imagines wondering how these officers live and what their lives must be like that they seem to take pleasure in messing with other people’s lives. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ARTISTS FROM THE “TAKE ME TO THE RIVER” TOUR-Tiny Desk Concert #692 (January 15, 2018).

This is a touring band playing classic soul.  But I found the modern updates to be unpleasant and almost undermined the tone of the show.  The blurb says:

“Take Me To The River” is a 1974 song from the legendary Al Green and guitarist “Teenie” Hodges. And though it wasn’t a big hit at the time, this song’s mix of religion and desire has become part of pop music’s canon.

Here at the Tiny Desk, some of the original players of this deep southern soul have come together to honor and update this tradition. It’s a celebration of Memphis soul old and new, with 13 musicians wedged behind the desk.

Some of those players of the old include singers Bobby Rush and William Bell; on the Hammond organ, Rev. Charles Hodges and LeRoy Hodges on bass. But it’s what’s new that makes this more than a look back – the addition of southern rappers Frayser Boy and Al Kapone – that truly puts this project on new musical ground.

But it is this update–Frayser Boy and Al Kapone who really ruined this show for me.

I’m not suggesting that the original lyrics to “Push and Pull” are profound.  They are not, but Frayser Bay’s rap is just up front and graphic whereas the original song is more understated (as much as something called “Push and Pull” can be).  Bobby Rush is a great singer and he looks spectacular in his sequined jacket.  Rush has a nice harmonica solo too.  That rap just seemed to come in and mess the whole thing up.

“I Forget To Be Your Lover” suffers from the same problem.  William Bell has a great sound–a cool rough voice.  And the original has this conceit: “I forgot to be your lover and I’m sorry.”  Al Kapone  comes in with a fairly explicit and hardly apologetic rap.  And what’s even stranger is that Rev. Charles Hodges who plays an outstanding organ throughout the show (I loved seeing the organ’s spinning fan that makes the great organ sound), plays really sour notes while Kapone is rapping.  Each verse has this weird nauseating sound. In every other section it sounds amazing, but during the rap it’s almost like he’s commenting on the rudeness of the rap.  The contrast is even more stark when Bell takes back the song mid way through and holds a high falsetto note for about 10 seconds–which really shows his power and range.

The backing vocals by Ashton Riker and Evvie McKinney are a nice touch.   Then on “Take Me to the River” Riker shares lead duties with Bobby Rush and they sound great together.  Riker hits some powerful high notes while Rush keeps it all together.  This is the song that really sells the show.  But look at how uncomfortable Frayser Boy looks during this song.

The rest of the band sounds just fine, playing quiet and understated:  LeRoy Hodges (bass), Edward Cleveland (drums), Andrew Saino (guitar), Jamel Mitchell (sax), Scott Thompson (trumpet), Martin Shore (percussion).

[READ: November 10, 2017] The Talented Ribkins

I saw Ladee Hubbard on Seth Meyers.  She was really interesting (and went to Princeton) and her book sounded fascinating.

On the surface the book is fairly simple, even fairly uneventful. Johnny Ribkin has to come up with $100,000 in a week because he has run afoul of a powerful man.

A few things separate this from similar books.  The first is that over the course of his life, Johnny buried various amounts of money and possessions in random places around the state of Florida.  He should be able to find the money fairly easily.  The reason why he buried all of this is part of the story.

Another thing is that he and his siblings all have special powers.  Not exactly superpowers, but certainly special powers.  And while these powers don’t exactly come into play in the quest, they are ever-present and unavoidable.

So what the heck is going on here? (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: JULIEN BAKER-Tiny Desk Concert #690 (January 10, 2018).

Julien Baker joins a handful of artists who have now made a second appearance at a Tiny Desk Concert.  (If they start inviting artists back regularly, they’ll never get ANY work done at the NPR offices).

I was quite enamored with Baker when I watched her first Tiny Desk Concert.  And I was totally smitten with her when I saw her open for The Decemberists.

Julien plays three songs here.  I’m intrigued that in the blurb Bob says “I reached out to ask if she would be willing to do something different this time around.”

It makes it sound as if she’s going to do some kind of dance/electronica show.  But I guess the difference is that last time, she just played electric guitar and this time she mixes up instrumentation and adds a violinist.

The first two songs, “Hurt Less” and “Even,” were accompanied by Camille Faulkner, with Julien on piano for the opening tune and acoustic guitar on the second.

If Julien Baker sounds delicate with just her electric guitar, she’s twice as delicate on piano.  But her voice sounds exquisite–powerful, honest and a little raspy, adding a slight edge.

I love seeing her sticker-covered acoustic guitar as she sings on “Even”:

Putting my fist through the plaster in the bathroom of a Motel 6 / I must have pictured it all a thousand times / I swear to God I think I’m gonna die / I know you were right / I can’t be fixed, so help me

She tends to play her guitar a little louder than the piano, so this one is a bit more dynamic.  The violin adds some aching sounds over the top.

I love that she plays each song in a very different style:

For the final song, Julien put together an arrangement of “Appointments” that begins on electric guitar, which then was looped as a backdrop to her on piano and voice.

It’s always fun watching someone loop guitar melodies.  And I like that she continues to loop long after it seems like the looping is done.  This allows for some of her gorgeous ringing chords.  They continue to ring out as she plays the piano.  It’s even cooler that she can stop parts of the guitar looping while she is completing the song.

All along her voice, which seems so delicate when she starts proves to be really powerful, especially during “Appointments” when she builds to a powerful high.    When I saw her live, she held a really long note that was quite impressive.  Don’t be fooled by the quietness of her music, Julien Baker rocks.

[READ: October 27,2017] Threads of Blue

This is the sequel to Beautiful Blue World, a book I really enjoyed.

In the first book, Mathilde’s country of Sofarende was being attacked by Tyssia.  She was sent to a special location to work on the war effort–they needed precocious children and she was picked for her empathy.  As the book ended, Mathilde followed her empathy and, while their encampment was under siege, released a teenaged prisoner of war because she felt that he was a good person who was just caught up in the war.

This act caused her to leave her group (and her best friend Megs) and to miss the conveyance to safety.

As this book opens, Mathilde wakes up on a boat that is bringing her to the country of Eilean.  She has secret documents and an order to be secretive.

The book picks up right where the previous one left off (I could have used a slight refresher, honestly). (more…)


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I got this Free Ep at a VoirVoir (not Voir Voir) show in Bethlehem.  This EP contains four songs.

Two of them are new and two are re-recordings of songs from their debut album.

“Quit It All” is a bit poppier than their debut album.  The 90s synth is a nice touch to this song which, make no mistake, still rocks.   The middle noise section (skronking guitar solo and great drums) is a highlight as are the catchy verses.  The band even submitted a video for the Tiny Desk Contest (I had no idea).

“Sides” is perhaps one of the best catchy alt rock songs I’ve heard in years and I am bummed that they didn’t get recognized for it.  It’s got a great 90s alt-rock sound and wonderful harmonies in the backing vocals.  There’s a video for this song as well.  You can also stream the song on bandcamp.

The other two songs, “Stupid for Now” and “There are No Good Goodbyes” were recorded at WDIY (Lehigh Valley’s Community NPR Station) in a stripped down format.  You can stream the songs here.  It’s interesting to hear them without the fuzz and drums.  The songs are solid and work very well although I do like the originals better.  The show also includes an interview with the three members who play the stripped down show.  The DJ asks their influences and while main singer guitarist Matt Molchany demurs,  April Smith says Built to Spill) and Josh Maskornick says Primus and Superchunk.

And if you can’t get enough (since they haven’t released that much) here’s a live show from Shards.

[READ: January 10, 2016 & January 10, 2018] Goldfish Memory

For some reason, I read this book back in 2016 and then didn’t post about it–I felt like I needed to read it again, and so I waited almost exactly two years and re-read it and enjoyed it even more this second time.  Almost like actual goldfish memory.

The back of this book made the stories sound really compelling:  “what does it mean to have a connection with someone? This is the question these brilliant short stories try to answer.”  The note said that this was the first translation of Monique Schwitter’s form-breaking work.  The translation was by Eluned Gramich.

I’m not sure how form-breaking these stories are, but they are certainly interesting.  They remind me in some ways of Julie Hecht–a narrator who is connected to people but very distantly.  But while Hecht’s narrators are critical and dismissive of everyone, Schwitter’s narrators just seem to be incapable of connecting properly.  You can feel the longing in the distance between them.  I also like how these missed connections cover all kinds of relationships–familial, sexual, friendship, professional, even passing acquaintances.

Few of the characters seem to be able to tell anyone else how they really feel–even when they are dying.  There is sadness at loss, but a kind of c’est la vie about it as well.  And all along, Schwitter’s writing is consistently excellent and the stories are really enjoyable. (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: THE WEATHER STATION-Tiny Desk Concert #689 (January 8, 2017).

The Weather Station played a show in Philly a while back.  I knew that Bob Boilen really liked the album, and I thought about checking them out live.  But things came up and I didn’t.  And now here they are at a Tiny Desk.

It was the first song here, that Bob especially liked:

It’s called “Thirty” and in less than four minutes and nearly 400 words, singer Tamara Lindeman paints images of joy intertwined with the awaking jolt of turning thirty.

The dollar was down
But my friends opened businesses
There were new children
And again, I didn’t get married
I wasn’t close to my family
And my dad was raising a child in Nairobi
She was three now, he told me

The song is a pretty, shuffling song (spare drums from Ian Kehoewith a speedy rhythm guitar (from Lindeman), a roaming bassline (Ben Whiteleyand some cool guitar licks (William Kidman) over the top (both of which are really lovely).

The musicians in The Weather Station underpin these words with delicate playing and by sitting quietly but poignantly under Tamara Lindeman’s beautiful voice. Her soft voice shifts pitch with a rapid flow in a Joni Mitchell-sort of way, never coming up in volume more than a quiet, table conversation level.

There’s a great (relatively) wailing solo that really pushes the song forward and which ends perfectly when Tamara starts singing again.

“You and I (On the Other Side of the World)” has a slow slinkiness that I rather like.  There’s also some nice, understated backing vocals (deep male voices under Tamara’s higher register).  I love the bass work at the end of the song, too.

Tamara’s voice sounds very much like someone else or maybe a number of people: I hear Laura Marling and yes, Joni Mitchell, but maybe Margo Timmins as well.  In other words, all good benchmarks.

In fact, the final song, “Free” has a real Cowboy Junkies feel with the big slow echoing rhythm guitar that opens it.

On “Free,” there’s some great lead guitar work once again as well as a wonderful bass line.

a song Lindeman describes as about being both free and not free at the same time, there’s restraint in the voice and a release in the powerful guitar chords. That tension and release is an essential element to The Weather Station’s sound and one of the joys I’ve found listening to their enchanting music.

Initially I wasn’t blown away by this concert, but I found myself hitting replay over and over, enjoying it more each time.

[READ: August 20, 2017] Fierce Kingdom

I read about this story on Skimm, a daily news digest that I have since read is geared to women (and according to some criticism, treats women like they are dumb.  I have recently stopped subscribing to it because I do find it rather dumb and subtly right-wing (how could a site for women not be pissed that Hillary lost? #RESIST).  But whatever, the book sounded interesting so I put it on hold.

The premise is fairly simple: a woman and her young child (4 perhaps), are in a zoo.  Right around closing time two gunmen enter the zoo and start killing people.  What will she do?

For some reason, the blurbs didn’t reveal that there were gunmen, just that “something” happened. Well, honestly what else could it have been but gunmen. So, perhaps I spoiled that part but it came out pretty early anyway.

The story begins with a time stamp 4:55 PM. The zoo closes at 5:30 and Joan and her boy Lincoln are sitting in their favorite spot waiting to leave the zoo.  As they head toward the exit around 5:30, she notices bodies on the ground.  She had heard explosions earlier but didn’t think much of it,  But when she sees the bodies, she quickly puts things together and takes off.

Now the blurb for the book on the inside cover says “an electrifying novel about the primal and unyielding bond between a mother and her son, and the lengths she’ll go to protect him.”  That’s not wrong exactly but I feel like that puts a weird focus on it being about mother hood instead of survival.  Must be some kind of marketing thing.  I didn’t get the sense in the book that it has anything to do with motherhood–I mean frankly any parent would do that for his or her child and I’m sure any person would do the same for anyone they loved.  The fact that the child is younger and doesn’t have the same cognitive skills make the story more compelling.

Because, frankly, as she hides in an abandoned animal enclosure, there’s no reason she would ever have to leave such an enclosure–she can’t be seen, she is well protected, and it is dark.  She even has her cell phone and she talks to her husband (I find it a bit hard to believe that the police wouldn’t listen to him if he has a text from his wife in the zoo, but that’s what happens).  The bad guys even come into where she is and don’t see her.

So, end of story right?  At least I couldn’t imagine why there would be more story when she is safe and the police are coming. (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: ‘TIS THE SEASON: Praise and Worship Christmas: A Collection of Inspirational Holiday Classics (2001).

s-l500This Christmas Collection came from Sarah.  As you can tell from the title and subtitle and sub-subtitle, this is a religious disc.  And as you can tell from the title and subtitles, they have gone way over the top.

The group consists of a bunch of performers and a choir from something called The Evergreen Community Church/The Rock.  Presumably not the actor The Rock, although that would be pretty cool.

As with a lot of contempo-Christian music, they’ve decided to add a rock flair to it.  So these are 13 songs sung very passionately and with little restraint.  Because if you can have an echo pedal, you should use it.  And for some reason, nothing says Christmas like alto saxophone.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” features that sax prominently.  Up next, I was pretty surprised to hear a rocking harmonica solo on “Joy to the World.”  For the most part the folkiness was okay until the choir at the end.

“Do You Hear What I Hear” has a solid drum machine and an excess of R&B vocals.  Up next, the music for “What Child is This?” is understated and pleasant.  Shame that the singer is shooting for the rafters.  Their version of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” is not gospel-tinged and, stranger yet, they changes the stress of the chorus to the “ow” of mountain.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” brings that saxophone back and back and back.   “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” has a quiet piano motif, but once again, it is oversung.

“We Wish You A Merry Christmas” makes excessive use of that echo pedal on the vocals.  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was pretty good.  No complaints.

But try to imagine just how over the top and ponderous you could make an a capella (plus echo) version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

“Silent Night” loses all of its power in this folkie rendition.  I’m noticing the fretless bass and cheesey sax rather that the echoed vocals.  Amazingly, “Amazing Grace” is understated musically with just an acoustic guitar but the singer overcompensates.

The disc ends on a high note (not literally).  On “Joy to the World” the folkie harmonica and guitar work nicely.

[READ: December 22, 2017] “The Christmas Banquet”

Once again, I have ordered The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This year, there are brief interviews with each author posted on the date of their story.

Hello. Welcome. It’s finally here: Short Story Advent Calendar time.

If you’re reading along at home, now’s the time to start cracking those seals, one by one, and discover some truly brilliant writing inside. Then check back here each morning for an exclusive interview with the author of that day’s story.

(Want to join in? It’s not too late. Order your copy here.)

This year I’m pairing each story with a holiday disc from our personal collection. (more…)


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