News and Notes
The Gasoline Age
In The Gasoline Age, F.M. Cornog (East River Pipe's lone member) has crafted a melancholy collection of haunting pop songs, many of which touch on automotive themes. From the simple overtures of "Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile" to the driving, insistent "Down 42nd Street To The Light," Cornog has created a quiet, yet cohesive evocation of everyday life on the road.
You probably didn't even know his name. But chances are, you hate William Atherton's guts. Don't worry. It's perfectly natural. In film after film, he plays the smarmiest, weaseliest, oiliest guy on screen. But that's what makes him so much fun to watch. Though he began his career as a leading man (Sugarland Express, Day of the Locust), Atherton soon found a niche playing brainy bad guys and unctuous jerks (Ghostbusters, Die Hard). People might go to the movies to see big stars, but it's the character actors like Atherton who keep things interesting.
The Twelve Caesars
first century, A.D.
No sweeping history of Rome, The Twelve Caesars is a focused study of character and action, offering the outrageous lives of the first-century Roman emperors in all their racy detail. After reading about Tiberius's sexual improprieties, Caligula's orgies, and Nero's gross extravagances (not to mention innumerable vicious murders), you may view our current leaders' peccadillos in a whole new light.
[Editor's Note: This volume was translated by Robert Graves, who also wrote an excellent collection of Greek myths.]
Peter Sellers gives a nuanced and moving performance as a childlike gardener who inadvertently becomes a Washington insider. Jerzy Kosinski's adaptation of his own novel touches on themes of death and rebirth, the emptiness of political rhetoric, and the power of television. This sad and funny movie serves as a fitting coda to the career of its star, who would make just one more (sadly forgettable) film before his death the following year.
The Complete Johnny Mercer
Full of June moons and crooned tunes, this three-disc set is an excellent introduction to one of the most prolific songwriters and lyricists of the twentieth century. Here are standards that everybody loves to swing to and sing along to, from Billie and Ella to Bing and Bird. The first disc, Blues in the Night, highlights Mercer's melancholy side, Trav'lin' Light takes a more upbeat path (don't miss Sarah Vaughan's luscious "Moon River"), and, finally, Too Marvelous for Words offers joyous instrumental confections that seem to melt in your mouth.
"Lost in Translation"
The poem "Lost in Translation" is a distillation of all the virtues of James Merrill's work: density, brilliance, and eloquence. It's about a lost translation, loss through translation, loss, and translation, but it's also about the loneliness of a little boy whose parents are going through a divorce. I've read this poem a dozen times, will probably read it a dozen more, and never tire of it. The verse was first published in Divine Comedies, which also contains "The Book of Ephraim," and while it's currently out of print, the collection is well worth tracking down.
Since the late '60s, Joey Skaggs has been perpetrating elaborate hoaxes on the media. Take 1976's "Cathouse for Dogs," where it was rumored pet owners could bring their dogs for sexual fulfillment. After the hysteria died down, Skaggs calmly revealed the hoax, much to the dismay of the many reporters who had conveniently neglected to confirm the basic facts of the story. More recent Skaggs stunts include "Fish Condos" and last year's "STOP BioPEEP," which described a virus that could addict consumers to any product. Whether you love him or hate him, the self-proclaimed "media activist" inevitably makes you stop, take notice, react, and maybe, just maybe, consider the world a little more clearly.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon star as angels gone awry, heading for a close encounter with George Carlin as a New Jersey cardinal selling cut-rate Christianity. Add Chris Rock as an apostle named Rufus, Linda Fiorentino as a lapsed Catholic, and Bud Cort as God in disguise. It's Mall Rats meets Life of Brian meets Up in Smoke, but it's definitely not for devout Catholics or anyone who likes their humor measured, mature, or sanitized.
Previously unrecorded lyrics by Woody Guthrie are given new life (and new music) by British punk folkie Billy Bragg and American rockers Wilco. Though Guthrie himself was an advocate of musical simplicity, one can't help but imagine he'd be pleased with the textured full-band arrangements and the quieter solo tunes. In this disc and its follow-up, Volume 2, Bragg and Wilco honor Guthrie's talent and time without denying their own. (TR)
New York Press columnist Jim Knipfel has bad luck, bad eyesight, and a bad attitude. Thankfully, he's got a wry, direct writing style and the uncanny ability to simultaneously exude corrosive pessimism and basic likability. Slackjaw covers Knipfel's early years in Wisconsin, struggles in Philadelphia and New York, and his first grudging steps as a blind man.
What if the fate of humanity lay in the hands of a child bred to be a cold-blooded military leader? Card escapes from the mire of traditional sci-fi/fantasy with his portrayal of Ender Wiggin, a genetically engineered military genius, and Earth's last hope for survival. Card makes you forget that Ender is only a child, but he still captures the loneliness that comes with being exceptional, and the fear that precocious children inspire in their elders.
Too Long in the Wasteland
Songs about small-town drifters and getting drunk on Saturday night are nothing new, but James McMurtry's affinity for pathetic characters and ordinary life helps him avoid some of the usual cliches. Too Long in the Wasteland is a perfect album for driving all night with no particular destination.
Gene Hackman delivers a great performance as a reclusive surveillance expert who becomes obsessed with a conversation he has recorded. As he tries to uncover the full implication of the tape, his life slowly crumbles around him. Director Coppola (fresh from his Oscar-winning Godfather films) keeps the action one step ahead of the audience, revealing just enough material for the viewer to fill in the blanks. Finally, this film, unlike most current Hollywood movies, offers a pitch-perfect ending.
For God, Country, and Coca-Cola
From trademark and branding to shipping and distribution, Coca-Cola has led the way in nearly every significant trend of twentieth-century business. Pendergrast offers up tidbits such as the drink's original formula and the fact that once, yes, it did contain cocaine (though company representatives will deny it up and down), as well as a detailed exegesis of the New Coke debacle. It's an enlightening and entertaining chronicle of the company and its products, and a great book for those who (like me) know nothing about business.
Though frontman Alec MacKaye spent much of the '80s singing in Washington D.C. punk bands such as the Untouchables, Faith, and Ignition, the Warmers were the first group that also claimed him as guitarist. I just hope they won't be the last. The short-lived trio produced a sound that recalls Wire and Gang of Four: spare, tense, artful, and explosive.
In a style as languid as a summer night in north Florida, Dexter tells the tale of a family whose closet overflows with skeletons. Nineteen-year-old Jack James is eager to help his older brother, a Miami Times reporter who comes home to investigate a murder case, but the truths they uncover, about both their town and their family, ultimately prove devastating. It's a wild read -- part pulp fiction, part southern Gothic, and completely riveting.
The Best of the Song Books
Undeniably one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, Ella Fitzgerald celebrated the greatest composers of American popular music with a monumental project that was truly worthy of her voice. Between 1956 and 1964 she recorded the songbooks of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. And while this collection is only the tip of the
Sam Brown draws simple pictures. Simple shapes. Simple colors. Simple, round-headed cartoon characters. Which is not to say that Sam's job is simple: He draws pictures, usually several per day, that somehow fit titles that strangers have suggested -- some poetic ("i opened my heart and there she was," at left), some basic ("i listen to records all night long"). In the end, the simple fact is that Brown's pictures and his audience's words are a rewarding combination.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
This slender volume contains three perfectly crafted short novels from the 1930s: Old Mortality is a tale of memory and deception in a glamorous Southern family. Noon Wine is a slow, unnerving story about a taciturn harmonica player who brings trouble to a South Texas farm. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a love story and a profound meditation on life, death, loss, and the will to live. All three are imbued with wisdom and compassion that are truly timeless.
Run Lola Run
A simple premise -- the need to acquire 100,000 deutsche marks in 20 minutes -- leads to a non-linear rhapsody on the nature of fate and the power of choice. Inspired solely by his vision of a woman running, Tykwer combines film, video, and animation to produce a terrifically paced, visually thrilling movie. It's all in the timing.
Joe Versus the Volcano
Most people didn't get this movie when it came out, and that's their loss. Expecting a goofball comedy starring Tom Hanks, the reigning king of goofball comedy at the time, folks instead got a truly odd road picture about the woebegone and dying Joe Banks and his mystical journey of discovery. This was, of course, the first pairing of Hanks and Meg Ryan, who plays three different roles here and had yet to succumb to terminal cuteness.
Music of the Swamp
Sugar Mecklin is a boy growing up poor in the Mississippi Delta, and the Delta, his father tells him, is "filled up with death." The pages of Music of the Swamp are filled up with drunks and dogs, child abuse and childlike wonder, but the darkness always spills out into reckless hope, freedom, redemption. The novel isn't perfect, yet it is transcendent in a way that many books aspire to, but few achieve. I urge you to satisfy your hunger for sadness and sweetness with this, or any of Lewis Nordan's books.