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Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Séan O’Hagan

January 28, 2023

I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave’s music for decades, since he was putting albums out with his band The Bad Seeds. But it wasn’t until he and his composing partner Warren Ellis started working on scores for movies that I came to appreciate the remarkable range of his music talent, from punk to piano ballads to orchestral scores to the complex, ethereal, atmospheric music he and Warren are putting out now, including their latest album, Carnage.

In 2019, I went to a Nick Cave solo show that was billed as “Conversations with Nick Cave: An evening of talk and music.” I had no idea what to expect. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences ever — Nick in conversation with the audience, an open Q&A about topics ranging from his music to his religious views to grief, death, drug abuse, the life of a touring musician and more. He spoke about the death of his 14-year-old son, Arthur, who fell from a cliff in 2015. He gave advice to young musicians and writers looking for a path forward. He interspersed the talk with songs, some by request from the audience, including a very sweet request from a father there with his young son, who listens to Cave’s “The Ship Song” every night before bed. The show was transcendent.

Cave stopped doing interviews with the press years ago, but in 2018 he started an online experiment called “The Red Hand Files,” where he invites fans to ask him anything. He spends a lot of his time writing long, thoughtful replies there.

These experiments — the Conversations tour and The Red Hand Files — are Cave communing with his fans in a way that most musicians, most celebrities, are reticent to do. It’s raw, honest, unscripted, messy.

Faith, God and Carnage is a continuation of this experiment. Over the past few years, journalist Séan O’Hagan held a series of interviews with Cave, ranging through all the topics that Cave has been open to discussing on the other forums.

Like those wide-ranging conversations, this book is all over the place. It’s both its strength and, depending on how much you know or care about Cave’s artistic endeavors, its weakness. Cave has thoughtful, nuanced views on all the big topics — art, religion, politics, life and death. Many of his views are a surprising mix, the brash confidence of a rock star, an insatiable creative drive, but also the humility, doubt and wisdom of a searching soul. He is an artist chastened by incredible loss and tragedy.

When O’Hagan asks him if he agrees that it’s intrinsically human to doubt, Cave replies: “Well yes I do. And the rigid and self-righteous certainty of some religious people — and some atheists for that matter — is something I find disagreeable. The hubris of it. The sanctimonious, it leaves me cold. The more overtly unshakable ones beliefs are, the more diminished they seem to become because they have stopped questioning, and the not questioning can sometimes be accompanied by an attitude of moral superiority. The belligerent dogmatism of the current cultural moment is a case in point. A bit of humility wouldn’t go astray.”

It’s these exchanges, where he’s thinking out loud through the complexities of belief and doubt and his own search, that offer the most unique, provocative moments. It embodies the thought that he offers in this video interview with O’Hagan, that the value is in the search, not the destination.

He also dives into relationships with his bandmates, the creative process on his recent albums, his creative habits, the sculpture project he started during covid, and a handful of other topics that might be of less interest to readers who aren’t as interested in Caves creative work.

This is not only a book for fans. But readers not interested in Cave’s creative endeavors will need to cherry pick and will find themselves skimming through sections. But for Nick Cave fans, this is a fantastic book, a really unique and delightful read.

A Self-Help Guide for Copywriters by Dan Nelken

January 23, 2023

“I wrote A Self-Help Guide for Copywriters to help myself.” Nelken writes what he was just writing the book he wishes he had at the start of his career—a collection of all the tools, tricks and tips he uses as an advertising copywriter to come up with headlines.

There are a lot of how-to books on copywriting, and a lot of memoirs about time in the advertising world. And there are some excellent books of advice about navigating the ad world (e.g. Luke Sullivan’s Hey Whipple, Squeeze This and Thomas Kemeny’s Junior). But this is the best, most practical book I’ve read on the craft of writing headlines. And a part of writing headlines is learning how to concept — to come up with the ideas for headlines.

I recommended this to all the students in the University of Texas’s creative program, where I currently teach. I give a lot of the same advice Dan gives, but it was great to read his spin on it. And I picked up a handful of new tips and new ways to structure the process, new ways to articulate what we do.

I stress to my students that it’s important to think about how we think. Because you’re going to spend your entire career reliant on a process that will remain, at least in part, a mystery. It’s always a little chaotic and random, and you’ll never have a complete grasp on how or when ideas come. This can lead to all kinds of anxieties. But if you can have a toolbox of reliable techniques and an overall process that you trust, that distracting chorus of worry and doubt gets a little quieter, and you can focus on solving the problem at hand.

I highly recommend this book not just for copywriters, but for any creative in the ad industry. I wish I’d written this book, but I’m really glad Dan did.  

2022 Movie List

January 7, 2023

Slow to get this posted, but here’s my movie list from 2022. Some groupings. Bold = good. I don’t watch as many shows, but those are at the end.

Best of the new movies

Released in 2022 or thereabouts.  

Top Gun: Maverick. Best movie-going experience of the year. Yes, far-fetched at times, but this is what going to the movies is about.

Nope. Big. Creepy. Such striking, unique visuals and high craft. Amazing that this is only Jordan Peele’s third movie.  

Licorice Pizza. Watched it four times last year. Love it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once. Mind blowing in many ways.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Most charming movie of the year.

Glass Onion. A worthy follow-up to Knives Out. Love the sensibility Rian Johnson has created with these.

White Noise. Love the ambition on this. Not fully successful, but a big swing at adapting the Don DeLillo classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front. Gritty WWI, with some of the same trench-level feel as Saving Private Ryan. Harrowing.

Lucky. A quiet, charming low-budget indy flick. Harry Dean Stanton’s last, with a fun cameo by David Lynch. From 2017, but I imagine most people haven’t seen it.

C’Mon C’Mon. Mike Mills directed, story about the ripple effects of mental illness and the power of family. Tender without being sentimental.

Hustle. I like seeing Adam Sandler in dramatic roles. He does on-the-edge, barely-holding-on well. In this case a pro basketball scout.

Jackass 4.5. Saw it in the theater. Every once in a awhile I like to see if farting, people getting hit in the nuts and slow-motion stunts gone bad will still make me laugh so hard I hurt. Still does.  

Best of the old movies

Most were re-watches that hold up, except the handful with * that were new watches for me.   

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

The Truman Show

Shaun of the Dead

No Time to Die*

Point Break

The Blair Witch Project

David Lynch: The Art Life

The Town

The Thing*

Saving Private Ryan

Seven

Apocalypse Now: Redux

Training Day*

The Endless Summer*

Michael Clayton

Stand By Me

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Napoleon Dynamite

Inside Llewyn Davis

Beasts of the Southern Wild*

Wind River

Robocop

All the others

Intolerable Cruelty

The Man Who Wasn’t There

A Serious Man

True Grit (Coens)

Hail, Caesar!

The Tragedy of MacBeth

This Much I Know to Be True (Nick Cave documentary)

Elf

Bullit

The French Dispatch

Bullet Train

Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro)

The Northman

Troll

Gross Pointe Blank

The Stranger

Cry Macho

Patience (After Sebald)

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Blonde

Gladiator

The Last Duel

News of the World

Singles

Lessons of Darkness (Herzog)

Predator

Big Trouble in Little China

Old School

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Adam Sandler 100% Fresh (comedy special)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Zero Dark Thirty

The Hurt Locker

Operation Mincemeat

Motherless Brooklyn

Spiderhead

Copland

Taxi Driver

Top Gun

Kill Bill

Kill Bill 2

Windfall

Atomic Blonde

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Don’t Look Up

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nightmare Alley

Starship Troopers

Family Movie Night

The Bad Guys

The Dark Crystal

Moana

Turning Red

Coraline

Spies in Disguise

The SpongeBob Movie

The Sea Beast

Max and Me (MST 3000)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Burton)

Guardians of the Galaxy

Encanto

Sing 2

Transylvania 4

Matilda

Jumanji

Little Shop of Horrors

The Three Amigos

Toy Story 4

Lightyear

League of Superpets x2 (avoid at all cost)

Clifford the Big Red Dog

The Corpse Bride

Shows

Five Days at Memorial

Blackbird

Train wreck: Woodstock ‘99

Stranger Things

Wednesday

Love, Death + Robots

Most looking forward to in 2023:

Oppenheimer

The Killer

Killers of the Flower Moon

Dune Part II

Indiana Jones / Mission Impossible (hoping one of these will hit — more likely Mission Impossible)

My 2022 Book List

January 1, 2023

Here’s my list of the books I read in 2022, what I thought about them, and what they made me think about. I would have written shorter reviews if I’d had more time? Maybe.

It was a good year overall. My favorite reads were the two Jennifer Egan novels and Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger. Those who know me know what a huge fan I am of McCarthy. This was a long-awaited novel and it delivered. I read it three times.

For nonfiction, a little scattershot. I think the most unique book I read was W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I wasn’t even sure how to classify it. Some other favorites listed below, if you just want the short list.

Looking back, it seems I grouped my reads in twos a lot more than I realized. I read Jennifer Egan’s two linked novels. Cormac McCarthy’s two linked novels. Emily St. John Mandel’s two linked novels. Two about the legacy of the Civil War. Two about authoritarian tendencies in America. Two of Chuck Klosterman’s. This wasn’t always intentional, but I did put some of those pairs together in the same review when it made sense.

This is my 23rd list. Thanks to my friend Greg for getting me started with this ritual. When I started 23 years ago, my reviews were a few sentences. I tell myself we just get more verbose with age.

And special thanks to my mom, who still reads every review and sends me typos and suggested edits, often leading to interesting (to us) sidebars on grammar rules.

Let me know what you read and what you thought of it. Happy new year, and happy reading in 2023!

The Full List

The Short List

Fiction                                                       

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Politics                                                      

Our Own Worst Enemy by Tom Nichols

Travel                                                        

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (travel?)

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Culture                                                      

The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman

Career                                                       

From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks

Essay                                                                                          

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry

The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman

January 1, 2023

My first drafts of any of my reviews are usually scattered notes and random half-thoughts, some unrelated to the book but brought to mind by it. How fast these drafts come is sometimes a good indicator of how much connection I felt with a book. For Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties, my first draft review was over ten pages.

This topic, the 1990s, was not just an interesting time culturally; it was particularly formative for me. I started high school in 1990 and finished grad school in 2000. These were good times, and eye-opening in many ways. So I came to this book as a fan of the topic, you might say. And it gave me a lot to think about — a mix of interesting cultural commentary, nostalgic warm and fuzzies, excellent music and questionable fashion. 

I enjoy Klosterman’s books. He’s a culture critic with a smart, funny style. His writing feels like a smart person thinking out loud, trying on ideas, seeing if they actually make sense. It’s smart and entertaining, closer to Rolling Stone than a college lecture. It’s appropriate for the decade.

A bad version of this book might read like extra verses to Billy Joel’s vapid “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“Grunge rock, selling out, What are those rappers mad about?, O.J. Simpson, blue dress, baseball lockout, what a mess, yada yada etcetera etcetera), but Klosterman seasons the stories with interesting trivia, snarky humor and provocative commentary as he considers why each of these moments matters.

This book might feel disjointed to some readers. It doesn’t ladder up to a grand unifying theory of the decade, but if you approach it with the expectation of it being more like travel writing, where there’s no pressure to sum it all up with a thesis, it’s an enjoyable trip. And there are some substantial takeaways. It might be trite to say the 90s changed everything (what decade doesn’t?), but the echoes of the 90s feel particularly significant 20 years out.

To Klosterman, the ‘90s started with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in September of 1991 and ended on September 11, 2001. Nevermind is more debatable as a marker, but the asymmetry of these bookends is appropriate for a book that rolls through the decade like a cultural street sweeper, picking up ephemera from the momentous to the trivial.

After reading the book, my take on the ‘90s is that it was the decade when culture turned in on itself. Became self-aware.  Not that every cultural artifact before 1990 existed in a vacuum, but in the ‘90s, self-referential became the dominant form of culture. (I don’t think Chuck says this, but I think he’d agree.) 

In the ‘90s, we were all about navel-gazing, about regurgitating, remixing, remaking, creating low-brow art that alluded to other low-brow art. Pop culture characters lived in our world of pop culture, consumed it, talked about it. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opens with a group of criminals discussing Madonna. Beavis and Butthead is mostly two losers sitting around watching music videos and cracking jokes. Hip Hop is a whole musical genre based on sampling and remixing existing music. That was all happening already, even before the Internet happened. Like we were mentally primed for what the Internet would do to us.

Depending on your age, you might have a different relationship to the decade. If you thought the ‘90s sucked, reliving it through this book probably isn’t something you’d enjoy. But if you, like me, enjoyed the ‘90s, then this book is a great romp. It was one of my favorite reads of the year.

Here are 14 things the book brought to mind for me. Some good, some cringy, in no particular order:

1. The Internet can mean only one thing. One of my favorite bits of writing in The Nineties is Klosterman’s entertaining and informative description of a dial-up modem’s audio sequence:

First, a dial tone, followed by eleven rapid beeps from an invisible push-button telephone. This was followed by three or four high-pitched electronic whistles, collapsing into a longer whistle resembling the flat-lining of a dying patient hooked to an EKG machine (this was the sound of the phone line’s echo-suppression being disabled). There were a few more beeps absorbed into the wall of white noise, and then the white noise abruptly doubled, meaning the receiving modem was now interacting with the calling modem. There was an instant where it sounded like something inside the computer had broken, spontaneously repaired by the digital interplay of two probing modulators, similar in pitch to a metal detector passing over a pocket watch. This was bookended by another fleeting second of white noise and then…silence. The wall had been breached.

Klosterman makes a point of distinguishing the ‘90s internet from how we think of it now, with social media, mobile apps, etc. This was Web 1.0, largely just a new channel for media consumption. There was no Facebook, QAnon, online bullying, or relentless self-promotion.

I got my first email account and my first taste of the Internet when I went to college. And it was instantly clear what access to this amazing connective technology meant for us: We could go to the computer lab, wait 45 seconds to download a low-res image of a naked lady, then use our print credits to make decorations for our dorm room walls. I know people who did that.

2. Selling out. The ‘90s saw a peculiar fixation with the notion of “selling out.” Successful people, particularly musicians, had to walk a nearly impossible tightrope of alleged authenticity that required any amount of success to be accompanied by a commensurate level of public self-loathing and disdain for the apparatus that brought the success in the first place, be it the record industry, the media, corporate hegemony or the capitalist system.

Artists wanted success, of course, but they had to pretend they didn’t actually want anything that came with it. They definitely couldn’t engage in the kind of selfie-fixated self-promotion that would be required a generation later.

“There was, in real time, an awareness that the whole idea of criticizing people for selling out was ridiculous,” Klosterman writes. “It was a loser’s game, but it was a loser’s game you had to play.”

And while much of the anti-success angst was performative — “By 1994, self-flagellation had become a kind of philosophical fashion” — it took on a darker tone with the 1994 suicide of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain. Apparently, his self-loathing had been authentic. It might be overstating the impact of Cobain’s suicide to call it a turning point in the public discussion of mental health, but it definitely called into question the dicey entanglement of mental health, celebrity and poseur-ism.

2.5 Being aware of who had and had not sold out. Even if you weren’t famous (and therefore at no risk of selling out yourself), you had to keep tabs on who had and had not sold out, because it could happen overnight and part of your own cultural cache depended on you not showing affinity for anyone who had sold out. I remember getting fairly roasted in a fiction workshop class for admitting I liked some band — Stabbing Westward or someone dumb — after their nanosecond had passed.

3. Grunge. Klosterman holds up the cult indy flick Reality Bites (also 1994, apparently the peak year for the sellout debate) as prime cultural artifact, a confluence of GenX slackerism, grunge music culture, and debates around artistic integrity. I think the exemplar should be Singles. The movie, which I re-watched earlier this year, is okay. But the soundtrack is one of the best ever.

4. Grunge fashion. Flannel, ripped jeans. I had some bandanas at one point. Never did get good boots or a cool jacket of any sort. Did grow my hair long.

5. The educational power of rap music. More than any other form of artistic expression, rap brought urban social issues to the ears of young suburban kids like myself. It simultaneously exposed us to stories of police brutality and the fact that “shake that booty” has nothing to do with pirates.   

5.1 I heard it on The Jukebox. We’d all grown up on MTV, and in the early 90s a new video jukebox channel called The Box showed up on our cable. The Box allowed anyone with a phone to call in and order up a video for $1.99. Like a jukebox in a bar, the video would then cue up and play on the channel for everyone watching. Thanks to, I imagine, a legion of local, bored, horny teenage boys, any new video with T&A would play on near-constant rotation for weeks at a time. Madonna got some play. Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” was a big one. But the highest rotation — at least in my very impressionable memory — went to videos from 2 Live Crew. Their lyrics were basically lyrical pornography, and their videos tried to provide matching visuals. 

5.2 Who’s Martinez? Everyone knows — definitely should have known by the ‘90s — that the best way to make teenagers want something is to tell them they can’t have it. A music group causing a well-publicized dust-ups with the decency police is like striking gold. In 1990, 2 Live Crew hit perhaps the greatest motherlode of controversy ever.

2 Live Crew had a couple of moderately successful albums, But they would have been a mere footnote in music history, a local South Beach novelty act known for dirty lyrics, had it not been a religious “family values” group convinced the Florida governor Bob Martinez that 2 Live Crew was a threat to something, and persuaded him to ban sales of their third album. This was followed by a highly visible obscenity charge against a record store owner for selling the album. Simultaneously, 2 Live Crew’s front-man, who went by the nickname Luke Skyywalker, was being sued by Lucasfilm.

The controversies were all over MTV News, and it elevated a juvenile lyricist to some kind of heroic defender of our Constitutional rights. 2 Live Crew named their next album Banned in the U.S.A. And they included a song to thank the governor for his help in making them stars. It was called “F*ck Martinez.”

The coda to all this is that all obscenity charges against 2 Live Crew were eventually overturnedand the group has sold over 3 million albums. The founding fathers would be proud to see free speech prevail.

5.3 There goes the neighborhood. Around the same time 2 Live Crew was fighting for constitutional rights on the east coast, bands out of south central Los Angeles started testing free speech in a different way. N.W.A. dropped their blistering “Fuck the Police” in 1988.

A few years later, the band Body Count appeared on the national radar. The fact that Ice-T, the lead singer, was a rapper fronting a metal band was overshadowed by the controversy around the song “Cop Killer,” a fictional account of a man fed up with police brutality. Whereas “Fuck the Police” came to our innocent ears largely without context (“Dang,” we thought, “these guys really don’t like the cops”) “Cop Killer” had plenty. Because in March of 1991, we’d all seen…

6. Rodney King. The grainy video camera footage of four LAPD officers beating Rodney King was everywhere. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine something like that not resulting in a dozen smartphone videos instantly uploaded. But at the time, it was shocking to see that video. I don’t even think I’d heard of the Watts Riot or anything like it by then. 

For a lot of suburban white kids like myself, who’d heard N.W.A. but had no context for any of the lyrics, we saw that video and thought, “Oooooh, that’s what they’re talking about.”

5.3 (continued…) “Cop Killer” ignited a political firestorm, unsurprisingly. Eventually the band pulled the track, though, as with anything, the outrage from politicians guaranteed its commercial success.

In 1992, I got my driver’s license and my first job. So I had a little money in my pocket and a means to go to the record stores (usually one of the three in the mall). I also had a younger brother and a couple friends who were more plugged in than I was. I remember driving with my white friends to, ironically, a Steve Miller concert, blasting Body Count’s “There Goes the Neighborhood” in my Pontiac 6000. One of those same buddies introduced me to Public Enemy, who I still think is the greatest rap group ever.

Side note: While the grunge music scene was the epicenter of the “selling out” phenomenon, hip hop seemed immune to it. My theory is that while commercial success was anathema to the grunge aesthetic, it is core to the hip hop aesthetic and message. Hip hop amalgamated two opposing cultures — the sagging pants and baggy jackets came from the world of prison and street-corner drug deals respectively — and the Cadillacs that came from wealthy white country club culture. The flaunting of material wealth and status symbols is a key part of the hip hop game. 

So although it became a meme later, it was generally acceptable (or at least didn’t damage the credibility) for hip hop stars like N.W.A.’s Ice Cube to play corn-ball comedy roles in mainstream films. Or for Ice-T, who penned “Cop Killer,” to repeatedly play cops in films and TV, including 20+ years on Law & Order: SVU.

5.4 The Tipper Gore seal of approval. For the final touch in counter-productive culture policing against bands like 2 Live Crew, N.W.A., and many other bands who later aspired to rouse some rabble… enter Tipper Gore. In response to all this controversy, she led an initiative called the Parent Music Resource Center, which slapped now-iconic, black and white PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICSstickers on albums with lyrics that were too violent, too sexual, too satanic, or whatever else. Earning this sticker was coveted by later musicians, as it virtually guaranteed multiples in sales.

7. O.J. Simpson. I remember standing outside the valet booth where I worked, watching the tiny TV showing the surreal low-speed pursuit of the white Ford Bronco carrying OJ Simpson. 95 million people watched that moment live on tv.

Klosterman goes into how this was a turning point for the sensationalizing criminal hearings. It was the televised descendent of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which makes it the grandfather of today’s true crime genre.

8. Be kind, rewind. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape is often credited as kicking off the 1990s independent cinema movement. Soderbergh was only 26 when he directed the film, with a tiny budget of $1.2 million. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and, more importantly, brought in an eventual $36 million in global box office. But it’s Quentin Tarantino that we think of most when we think of the rise of 90s independent cinema (Miramax, the production company of Bob and Harvey Weinstein also played a crucial role, but Harvey…the first line of his Wikipedia entry appropriately describes him as “an American convicted sex offender and former film producer.”) 

Tarantino’s path to revolutionary filmmaker is emblematic of the decade in terms of movies. He’d come up as a video store clerk.

It’s true that there were videotapes in the 1980s (the enthralling VHS vs Betamax war was decided circa 1987), but the ‘80s was mostly the cable decade. But by the early ‘90s, VCR prices had dropped, and video stores were everywhere. We had three video stores in my town—the local West Chester Video, a Blockbuster and a Hollywood Video. But you could also check videos out from the library or rent them at any of the grocery stores.

In our modern age of endless options on streaming, it’s hard to imagine how radical it felt to be able to walk into a store an pick from hundreds of films. We had the power to choose. And just as important was how most of us chose. Usually by walking into the video store and strolling the aisles, scanning dozens of VHS covers. Maybe we honed in on one section of the store — New Releases or Action or Horror or Documentary or Classics. Having all that choice didn’t mean that our taste was suddenly elevated. There was no special rush to watch the latest art film or check out Kurosawa’s deeper cuts. But it was available.

I started driving in 1992, which meant I could easily go to the movies with friends or, as important, drive myself to the video store. I remember the guy behind the desk at Hollywood Video recommending True Romance to me in 1994. I watched it the day after my senior prom and it blew my mind. Then a year later I was dragging friend after friend to see Pulp Fiction in the $2 second-run theaters.

Klosterman makes a big deal out of the impact of video stores, and I buy it. It opened my eyes to new genres, new directors. The video store also had an impact on a generation of filmmakers. Tarantino had an encyclopedic knowledge of both high- and low-brow film, lines he would blur in his own movies. But this democratization, or flattening of the perceived quality of films was literally, physically happening in video stores. 

The most interesting point that Klosterman makes about the Tarantino generation is what their films were built on. When Harvey Keitel first read Tarantino’s script for Reservoir Dogs, he assumed the writer had family members in the mob. How else could he portray criminals so authentically, with such convincing detail? The answer, though, was movies. Tarantino didn’t have mob ties. He’d seen movies. Klosterman argues that the most important aspect of Tarantino was not his style, but that he was creating films based on films.

In a way, there’s a parallel to westerns, which are mostly based on other westerns, many steps removed from any actual, factual history. Tarantino created fake universes based on other fake universes.

9. The blue dress. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Gross. I don’t remember paying much attention to at the time, but the Slow Burn podcast on it is great.

10. The home run race. Baseball had a rocky time in the ‘90s, with labor strife mid-decade (“millionaires fighting with billionaires”), followed by the titillating but, in hindsight, cringe-worthy steroid-fueled homerun race between Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa at the end of the decade. The uncomfortable truth, though, is that steroids made the game of baseball much more fun to watch.

11. Who’s #1? Klosterman has a funny section about college football, before the Bowl Championship Series, when the national champion was determined by multiple polls and ranking systems which didn’t always agree, leaving the answer to who was national champion a matter of many beer-fueled debates. Case in point, in 1997, Nebraska and Michigan shared the championship. What a dumb idea.

12. Da Bulls. I lived in Illinois for one of these dynasties, so I’ve always felt a right to be able to claim it, somehow. Regardless, it sure was fun to watch.

13. Ross Perot. I had no idea at the time how strange that man was, up on stage talking about chickens and holding up charts. The weirdest thing — he received 19% of the popular vote in 1992.

14. Alannis Morisette vs Liz Phair. Klosterman compares the two, but I don’t remember anyone doing so at the time. Yes, Morisette sold a gazillion more records, but is anyone really going to argue that she’s cooler than Liz Phair?

There are other topics, other angles in this book. It’s like riding along with a really interesting local as they give you a personal tour of their town, pointing out some of the spots and telling some of the stories known to everyone, but then mixing in their own personal anecdotes and questionable theories. At some point I’ll probably come back and read this again.

Keep Moving by Maggie Smith and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

January 1, 2023

I find with books that I think of as “self help” — books on spiritualism, psychology, meditation, presence, etc. — the form and voice of the book is make-or-break for me. I couldn’t stand the bestseller The Power of Now from Eckhart Tolle (despite reading it twice), yet Thich Nhat Hanh connects, even though they’re essentially about the same topic.

I prefer simple, plain-spoken, clear. If there are flourishes, I want them to be in poetics, not clinical jargon or hacky, illustrative dialogue. And so I’m pairing these two books about loss, acceptance, and moving forward, because for me, one delivers and one is, unfortunately, borderline insufferable.

Let’s start with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Radical acceptance is based on a Buddhist-like idea of accepting the world as it is, honoring pain, loss, failures and barriers as a fundamental part of life, and not allowing them to be a source of frustration, bitterness or self-doubt.

It’s a great message. I kept recalling a line from No Country for Old Men: “You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.” Don’t dwell. Accept, learn, move on. (The application of this advice is problematic in No Country, as the speaker then murders the person he’s talking to, but it’s wise advice nonetheless.)

But the language Radical Acceptance is bogged down in a mix of clinical and spiritual jargon. And it includes unbelievable but supposedly real dialogue to illustrate points. Just say it — we don’t need you to roll out the stock characters to act it out. It all feels very stilted and cold.

I was disappointed, because I enjoyed Brach’s interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast. So I’ll chalk this up to a problem in execution, not concept.   

On the other hand, I was really concerned by the format when I opened Maggie Smith’s book. It’s a collection of quotes about loss, acceptance, and moving forward, with some interstitial mini-essays. Each quote ends with the refrain, “Keep moving,” which made me cringe.

But beyond that cheesy decision, this book is rich in short, insightful, often poetic bits of wisdom. I highlighted or flagged something on probably half the pages.

I came to Smith through her 2021 poetry collection, Goldenrod, one of my favorite books that year. Even though Keep Moving is a very different kind of book, it is infused with the same warmth, humanity, vulnerability and sense of wonder as Goldenrod. The impetus for Keep Moving was her divorce, but the themes of dealing with loss, disappointment and an uncertain future are universal.

Keep Moving is structured loosely, but the cumulative advice is strong:

Don’t see change as disruption. Accept it as an inevitable, even essential part of life.

Don’t be afraid of struggle. Struggle is part of it.

Be kind to yourself.

Focus on taking one step forward. “Take one step toward making something real and lasting, something you can be proud of.”

Throughout this book, I felt a strong sense of connection with Smith. She is so open about her own struggles, but there are also lines everywhere that I connect with personally. It’s like having a conversation with a really wise, thoughtful friend. I highly recommend Keep Moving.

American Midnight by Adam Hochschild and Our Own Worst Enemy by Tom Nichols

January 1, 2023

How much can fear and anger distort our democracy? How willing are we to put political power of democratic principles? How committed are we, really, to the foundational ideals of the American experiment?

This book pairing was coincidental. I came to American Midnight through my interest in World War I. And I’m a fan of Tom Nichols as a rational, level-headed voice amidst all the noise of our political media. It turned out that these two books have a lot in common. They’re both about how the politics of grievance can lead to the rise of illiberal ideas and push a democracy toward authoritarianism.

One book focuses on 1919. The other is about now.

American Midnight: The First Red Scare, 1919

I’d always thought that the end of Great War kicked off the Roaring Twenties, like a decade-long victory party. In reality, the early 1920s was a nasty time for the United States. It saw unprecedented racial violence, xenophobia, fear mongering and a trampling of civil liberties. American Midnight is about this dark wrinkle in American history.

The end of the Great War simultaneously brought millions of American soldiers back home and ramped down wartime mass production. As a result, the number of available jobs declined rapidly.  

 Returning vets also found themselves in competition with immigrants from Eastern Europe and Blacks who had fled north as part of the Great Migration (written about beautifully in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns).

This economic competition stoked resentment among racial groups and socioeconomic classes. At the same time, organized labor was gaining power, putting workers in conflict with owners. And overseas, the Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia, which ratcheted up suspicions of the growing socialist movement and Communist Party in the U.S.

It was a powder keg that didn’t take long to blow.

The summer of 1919 was dubbed The Red Summer for the violence that broke out across the country as Black servicemen returned to their communities. After having just put their lives in peril for their country, they were less willing to submit to intimidation from whites. Race riots broke out in thirty-eight American cities, small and big. Millen, Georgia. Pickens, Mississippi. Bisbee, Arizona. Longview, Texas. Port Arthur. Charleston. Norfolk. Indianapolis. Knoxville. Syracuse. Austin. Philadelphia. Omaha. Baltimore. New York. Four days of violence in Washington, DC. Chicago saw over 1,000 Black family homes burned.

But The Red Summer was just a few months in a long reign of terror against Blacks by hateful white mobs. Hundreds of Black men, women and children were lynched between 1917-1923. Black homes, businesses, even entire Black towns were destroyed. The East St. Louis Massacre. The Elaine Massacre. The Ocoee Massacre. The Rosewood Massacre. The Tulsa Massacre.

Most of the violence against Blacks at that time was carried out by disorganized, impromptu mobs. But organizers of hate saw opportunity in the violence. Stoking fears about the dangers of integration, the dangers of Black communities, the dangers of Black men around white women, they presented a solution: the KKK. After nearly dying off in the decades following the Civil War, the KKK found a resurgence starting with the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the blockbuster film in which the KKK is literally the savior. Membership in the terrorist group grew through the decade; by 1924 it had reached 4 million.

World War I was also a time when labor created more organization and gained more power. Dependent on continuous production, President Woodrow Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918, requiring managers to negotiate with unions. But after the war, as the labor market shrank, this relationship grew strained.

Looking to lock in gains from the war years, organized workers went on strike in several major industries — steel, coal, meat, telephone operators. But it was poor timing for a strike. With high unemployment, plenty of Americans were willing to cross picket lines for work.

Employers and politicians played on rising suspicion of Bolshevism to paint the strikers as socialists or at least Communist sympathizers (the origin of the word “pinko”), and used the strikes as evidence that there was a massive Communist presence in the U.S. attempting to overthrow the government. This was not completely unfounded — there was a relatively small Socialist movement, a small-but-active Communist party (about 50,000 members), and proclaimed anarchists milling about. But the threat was hardly existential.

Still, politicians saw an opportunity to whip up fear for their benefit, and the government’s response was oversized and draconian. This first Red Scare led to a shocking crackdown on free speech and civil liberties, particularly among Italians and Eastern European Jews, including mass deportations, illegal surveillance, imprisonment and torture of Americans by the government, and the infamous Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920.

American Midnight is a cautionary tale. It shows a moment in our history when Americans let economic pressures, racial tension, fear and anger all get swirled together in a combustible cocktail that resulted in massive American-on-American violence, a repression of civil liberties, and a large-scale violation of the values our country was supposed to be modeling.

It pairs well with Our Own Worst Enemy because it is a case study in what we’re capable of when we let fear and anger drive us. Almost every war is accompanied by anti-democratic tendencies: rampant nationalism, crackdowns on civil liberties, persecution of minority groups, a rise in suspicion of The Other, whoever that might be. It’s not good, but it is unfortunately normal during wartime.

In Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols proposes that there’s evidence that this has changed. He sees a new willingness of large swaths of the population to embrace anti-democratic ideas without the war.

Our Own Worst Enemy: 2021

Nichols lays out a compelling case that the forces of illiberalism are coming from within the house. While in the past it required wars to stoke the fear, resentment, and mindless nationalism that led us to authoritarian behavior, our modern mix of political polarization, click-for-a-fix media models, narcissism and general ignorance seem to be doing the trick.

Nichols postulates that despite surviving centuries of conflict with foreign powers, democracy might be most vulnerable in a time of relative prosperity and peace.

There is a growing disillusionment with the world, with the “elites” that run it, with the immigrants that are ruining it, with the fools on other side of the political fence, with “the system.” This anger and resentment is stoked by politicians for their own gain, amplified by the media for profit, and exacerbated by technology. But it is from, for, and by The People.

“Liberal democratic government, with its notions of equality, tolerance and compromise, is under assault from political movements and ordinary citizens who believe their interests and their futures are being subverted by malign forces at home and abroad. These citizens are turning to illiberal and antidemocratic alternatives, including a gamut of aspiring demagogues whose appeals run from know-nothing populism to blood-and-soil nationalism.”

Nichols sees this around the world: Bolsinaro in Brazil. Erdogan in Turkey. Trump in the United States. Fueled by an angry and resentful populism, electorates are turning to increasingly authoritarian leaders. Importantly, this isn’t a reaction to foreign threats.

“The citizens of the world’s democracies now must live with the undeniable knowledge that they are capable of embracing illiberal movements and attacking their own liberties as a matter of their own free will, rather than as the result of disaster or foreign conquest.”

It’s not a left/right issue. He points out that the views of “enraged populists on the right” and “would-be revolutionaries of the left” are often indistinguishable. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren make populist appeals that, stripped of the context of political parties, sound like Trump.

It’s a politics of grievance. Of outrage. Of fear. Of misinformation. Where the main point of the news is not to create an informed populace, but an angry, embittered one. Someone is shafting you. There is a global cabal aligned against you. A system rigged against you. The world is in flames and about to get worse.

The big problem, regardless of the flavor, is that “populism is inherently divisive, as it singles out specific groups as distinct from the people.” Elites. Big corporations. Wall Street banks. Immigrants. Journalists. Intellectuals. The media. The Woke. Rednecks. Silicon valley. Academia. Globalists.

Once everyone is sufficiently riled up, and once they have an identified enemy. They just need a savior. A person who speaks their language, articulates their grievances. A person who is both animated and animating. A person who can lead them from the wilderness.

The danger is that this person can also be an ignitor. It doesn’t take much for that savior, once everyone is sufficiently riled up, to point a finger at the aforementioned enemy and say, “Get em!” Nichols asks us to consider that just before the 2020 Presidential elections, a third of Americans said it is justifiable to use violence to advance political goals.

He points to Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address as an example of an attempt to create a coalition of the aggrieved. Trump painted an apocalyptic landscape, (“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones”) despite the relative prosperity of the country. He blamed a “small group in our nation’s capital.” He told them he was coming to town to clean up the swamp and give them their country back.

I would point to his speech, four years later, as an even better example. In that speech, he would claim that the people had been cheated, the election stolen by “radical-left Democrats” and “the fake news media” and “big tech.” That “For years, democrats have gotten away with election fraud.” That the electoral system a “criminal enterprise” etc.

Nichols notes the “signs of a growing irrational and illiberal self-indulgence” among voters and the people they elect. QAnon members on ballots and in government. Legislators who have made multiple attempts to bring weapons onto the floor of the House. Officials who don’t just trample the norms of democratic ceremony, but are seeking to rewrite the rules of our democratic system altogether.

Very little of this, Nichols contends, is rooted in true grievance. It’s not an army of the poor marching on the Capital, women marching for the right to vote, or the Civil Rights movement. These are grievances largely “rooted in notional injustices and imagined dangers.” A rage that “comes overwhelmingly from cultural insecurity, inflated expectations, tribal partisan alliances, obsessions about ethnicity and identity, blunted ambition and a childlike understanding of the limits of government.”

This is an insightful and thought-provoking book. Nichols, a former Republican (who laments that the current party bears little resemblance to the conservative party he once supported and worked for), can come across as bit of a grump. At times a bit of a scold. But he’s level-headed. It’s hard to dismiss him as a Chicken Little.

Even as we’ve passed an election where QAnon candidates, election deniers and vapid celebrity grandstanders were pretty roundly defeated, we shouldn’t rest easy. Nichols calls the current variety of demagogues the “prototypes” and warns that they’ll be back. Because “they’ve seen a demonstrated market for what they’re selling.” As others have pointed out, Trump wasn’t the problem — he was a symptom.

“When successive generations in democracies across the world think it is less and less essential to live in a democracy, with the youngest citizens among us the least interested in democracy, that’s not just trouble, but trouble for the foreseeable future.”

To bolster our democracy, he offers a range of solutions, from how we define the role of our political parties, to the role of the military to the role of social media. It’s not enough to say this is an uplifting book overall, but it’s good to know we’re not totally hosed.

Hyperbolic statements about the end of democracy, the existential threats to the country, assaults on our way of life — they can help us head off trouble or they can be used to justify troublemaking. We should all be very wary of the finger-pointers, whether they’re politicians, bloggers, or a news media website where most of the stories are aimed to stoke culture wars. The more riled up The People get, the more susceptible we become to demagogues. The more likely we are to turn on our fellow Americans. And the more likely we are to discard the stated values of our democracy.

If American Midnight is a historical cautionary tale, Our Own Worst Enemy is a cautionary tale in real-time.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

December 31, 2022

I read White Noise in 2005 and enjoyed it (though in my review then, I said I wasn’t sure I’d put it on the list of 100 greatest novels). When it was published in 1985, it won the National Book Award and is one of the key books of postmodern literature.

I picked it up again in anticipation of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation for Netflix. It’s a great fit for Baumbach’s style of rapid-fire, dialogue, satirical humor and characters that tend to over-intellectualize everything.

The novel centers around Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver in the film). Gladney is a professor at a fictional midwestern university, and world-renowned for his pioneering work in the field of Hitler Studies. He is on his fourth wife (and he is his wife’s fourth husband), and the kids that inhabit the house are a mix from his different marriages. They’re all highly intelligent, yet are constantly spouting bullshit about every topic that comes up, as if they’re constantly competing to show who sounds like they know more (the family is, according to Jack, the “cradle of the world’s misinformation”).

In the second part of the novel, a train derails near town, spilling a toxic substance into the air and forcing a mass evacuation. It’s here that the novel’s tone starts to shift. While still absurd, the underlying theme, Jack’s anxiety about death and his general paranoia, moves to the forefront. As the story progresses, events conspire to continually ratchet up the unease, putting more and more pressure on Jack.

White Noise is a much funnier novel than I remembered. The sendup of academia is especially hilarious, and DeLillo’s rapid-fire dialogue between family members could have been written for Baumbach (whose films include The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, but he’s also written for Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox).

It’s also an incredibly prescient novel. Three decades after its release, its themes around consumerism, the media, misinformation, and existential dread feel highly relevant. Maybe the themes are timeless. Or more probably, the world has become a satire of itself. A bleak thought.

I wasn’t sure the film was going to work when I saw the first couple scenes. The dialogue is so elevated that it feels better suited for the stage than the screen. But it soon settles in, and the acting is superb.

I particularly love Don Cheadle’s performance as Murray Jay Suskind, Jack’s friend and fellow professor. A scene where the two of them give an impromptu, dual lecture on Hitler and Elvis, simultaneously, is fantastic.

I’d say White Noise is a particular kind of humor. If you like Baumbach’s other films, the film is worth checking out. The book is a little more challenging, especially if the DeLillo’s intellectual, satirical sense of humor isn’t your thing. The closest comparable authors I’ve read might be David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. But if that sensibility is your can of worms, definitely give White Noise a try.   

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers ed. By Mark T. Conrad

December 28, 2022

This is the type of book common in film and literary criticism, a collection academic essays from different authors around a common theme. How good the book is depends on the overall coherence to that theme and, obviously, on the quality of the articles themselves. Because these types of books cover the full body of an artist’s work, they can be uneven, depending on the merits of the individual works.

Here, for example, are essays on the Coen brothers films widely recognized as masterpieces (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) as well as their lesser films (Intolerable Cruelty). How interested you might be in any of these essays really hinges on how you feel about the film discussed.

The Coens are amongst my favorite directors, up there with P.T. Anderson, David Lynch, Denis Villenueve and Tarantino. But in this company, they are also the most hit-and-miss. No Country and The Big Lebowski are two of my favorite films (#1 and #3 on my list, respectively). But they’ve also made some real stinkers.

I’m not fully aligned with popular opinion on the rankings. (Actually, popular opinion is not really aligned. If you look up “Coen Brothers films ranked,” you’ll get some pretty varied lists.) I’ll include my list below. I make no apologies for putting Inside Llewyn Davis and Burn After Reading so high, nor for putting Raising Arizona and Hail Caesar! low on the list (overrated!). I did use the occasion of reading this book to also watch, or rewatch, all their films

That all said, these essays are interesting, often provocative, and elevate the rich subtexts underlying almost all Coen films. For a director pair sometimes criticized as having a nihilistic viewpoint or, worse, for being unserious about everything, Coen films are actually in significant conversation with philosophy, sociology, religion and pop culture, particularly film and literature. They are postmodern to the core, and although a knowledge of the larger cultural or artistic context isn’t required to appreciate their films, it certainly elevates their work. Even, I would argue, saves some of it — I found a whole new appreciation for Intolerable Cruelty, which I didn’t hate to begin with, after reading the essay by Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin about its themes on justice.

But the essays I enjoyed the most were mostly for the Coen films I enjoy the most. Douglas McFarland has two great essays in here, “Philosophies of Comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men as Moral Philosophy.” Richard Gilmore also has a great essay on No Country. And Matthew K. Douglass and Jerry L. Walls have an enjoyable essay about “Laziness as a Virtue” in The Big Lebowski.

Not that many other people are going to watch all the Coen Brothers films, but if you are, this book is a solid companion.

And now, my rankings of Coen Brothers films, best to worst.

  1. No Country for Old Men
  2. Fargo
  3. The Big Lebowski
  4. Miller’s Crossing
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth*
  6. Inside Llewyn Davis
  7. True Grit
  8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  9. Burn After Reading
  10. Barton Fink
  11. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  12. A Serious Man
  13. The Hudsucker Proxy
  14. Blood Simple
  15. Raising Arizona
  16. O Brother Where Art Thou
  17. Intolerable Cruelty
  18. Hail, Caesar!
  19. The Ladykillers

* I debated whether to include Macbeth or not, since it was only Joel Coen and not the two of them.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

December 28, 2022

This is a solid, conventional novel. And I don’t mean “conventional” as a slight. Just that this novel doesn’t pull any tricks, isn’t overly clever, isn’t trying to subvert expectations. It has strong characters, a plot that moves, some beautiful descriptions of landscapes, towns, characters. It’s a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve. It pulls at the emotions a little too consciously at points for my taste, but nothing too off-putting.  

The story takes place in the 1930s. Odie O’Bannion and his brother Albert are two Irish orphans, the only white kids at an Indian training school in Minnesota. They escape the brutal environment and steal a canoe, heading downriver toward the Mississippi, hoping to eventually find their aunt.

The book opens with a quote from the Odyssey (and Odie’s full name is Odysseus, in case you missed the connection), but it owes as much to Huckleberry Finn and, maybe a bigger influence, to Steinbeck. And if you told me a novel was part Huck Finn and part Steinbeck, I’m in.

There are also some interesting, well-research historical elements in the story – the Indian school being the most prominent. For centuries, religious groups and missionaries were paid by the U.S. government to set up boarding schools across the American West to basically “civilize” native children, giving them a white education while denigrating their native cultures. The schools were often brutal, abusive places, and many of the children had been forcibly separated from their families.

The school and the Great Depression play a backdrop as Odie, Albert and their group move across the landscape, a landscape that is almost a character in itself. Krueger’s descriptions of the natural settings, the rural areas, and the small towns the boys pass through are vivid and alive. And although I felt like he occasionally slipped in and out of a young boy’s voice (the story is told in flashback, so there’s a valid excuse), in moments of physical description the voice really comes alive, as when Odie describes a “woman of great age, a loose construct of folds and wrinkles, out of which two dark eyes studied me intently.”

It’s descriptions like this that draw you into every scene, even those that feel a little repetitive in the plot. The novel is cinematic, and the boys are mostly on the move, which keeps everything chugging along at a good clip.

Overall, a solid, classic American novel.