Elevator Music – Joseph Lanza

Picador, 1994
This looked like a promising book on Muzak, lounge music, and everything in between,
but I was disappointed in the end by it. Desperately in need of a coherent thesis and a discriminating editor, Joseph Lanza’s book is a bit of history here, some hagiography there, with one or two interviews thrown in because he could.
One main problem is that I don’t believe Lanza likes half of the music he writes about. Sure he probably likes Martin Denny and Les Baxter, but I don’t feel any passion when he’s writing about Mantovani. And it’s like he thought the former would be a great topic for a book, or perhaps Muzak (and aren’t they the same thing? I hear someone rhetorically asking), then set off to write. As deadline loomed Lanza discovers–gasp–he doesn’t really like 90% of this stuff.
Evidence of my theory is that he packs his hagiographies of these artists with ad copy quotes from the backs of albums. Instead of responding to the music honestly, Lanza tells us what some record company stooge in the ’50s told us to feel.
The initial history of Muzak is interesting, as the idea of music as crowd control is examined. But then follows a long section of musician biographies, none of which are particularly enlightening, or made me curious to hunt anybody’s work down in thrift stores. To me there’s worlds of difference between Peter Nero and Antonio Jobim–to Lanza there’s not.
Then the book looks around for things to write about. He spends a chapter on the Mystic Moods and 101 Strings orchestras, trying to make a case for their albums’ sonic playfulness. There’s a chapter on “space music” and Windham Hill that doesn’t tell me too much about the label and its impact (and isn’t that impact over?).
As this book is written in 1994, we get an interview with Angelo Badalamenti on his Twin Peaks music, but it feels out of place here. Lanza tries to make a case for his subject and overreaches:

“Demographics in the future will be defined less and less by sex, age, politics, or even income, and more and more by one’s taste for exotic locales or nostalgic situations absorbed from childhood television exposure–a social direction which gives background music an awe-inspiring role.”

You don’t actually believe that, do you?
Anyway, do we even have Muzak piped in buildings these days? Everywhere I go, they have bloody “lite rock” playing, supposedly soothing me with the screechings of Mariah and Whitney.

Pfaff’s Important Essay

Terrific and short essay by William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune. A friend of mine said yesterday, “I knew the Bush administration would be awful when they stole the election, but I never imagined it would truly be this bad. And for all you Bush supporters: you support this man, you support torture. And that’s not America, thank you.
William Pfaff: When laws get in the way of torture
By way of Hullabaloo.

The End of an Era

Can you frickin’ believe this? I was cleaning my glasses yesterday and the frames broke at the nose! I’ve had these glasses since 1997–they’re almost a part of my body. (Plus they were the only Armani I owned…) Now I’ve got to go through the expense of new frames, new lenses, and a trip to the eye doctor (the last one, fortunately, is insured…)
Again: F**K!!!!

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Vol. 13 – Chris Ware, Ed.

McSweeney’s, 2004
Chris Ware, possibly one of the finest comic artists of the last 20 years,
takes the editorial reigns for this issue of McSweeney’s, and turns it into a half-quirky, half-conservative survey of the State of the Art. Conservative in that very few of the artists are unfamiliar to me, and any fan of Fantagraphics Books and Last Gasp will know the roster: Robert Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Jim Woodring, Seth, Kim Dietch, Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry, and many more usual suspects. Quirky, because we also get essays from John Updike, Ira Glass, and glimpses of errata from Krazy Kat’s George Herriman and Charles Shultz. Those last two are not surprising if you know that Ware is also editing their collections. Most of these separate articles are by Ware as well, and his writing is scholarly and not snarky; if you were expecting the self-deprecation of his Acme Novelty Library text, it ain’t here.
There’s a slight thematic thread running through Ware’s selection, which is set up in an essay on Rodolphe Topffer, the “inventor of comics.” Topffer’s work, which is subsequently appropriated by the Americans (if not outright stolen) is a satire on a romantic, suicidal buffoon. It’s almost if the despair and self-loathing that infects most American comics is there from the beginning, like bad DNA.
Ware leads off with selections from the present and past, ones that play with the iconographic simplicity of earlier strips. Ware’s own work, a short two-pager about a collegiate romance (told from a female POV, a first), is typical of his spare brilliance. How he gets so much emotion out of tiny little ideographs is beyond me. Then follows Ware’s appreciation of artist Philip Guston, who is often called “comic bookish” even by critics who like him. Ware’s here to dispute it (which he does easily). Guston’s work, sampled here with three unnerving paintings, sets the stage for the uneasy middle of the book, with scary work from Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Richard Sala, and Art Spiegelman.
There’s a section on comics journalism (Kim Dietch’s Death Row piece, and a section from Joe Sacco’s Sarajevo tales, among others), then the final selection, closest to Ware’s heart, I believe, in which comics are used to bare souls (Joe Matt, Debbie Dreschler, Jeffrey Brown) and expand the medium into the complex levels of literature (no excerpt of the Hernandez Brothers can really do them justice, though). I love Ben Katchor‘s work in this compilation. His “Hotel & Farm” series belongs to a strain of American Surrealism that has brought us Lynch and the Coen Brothers, but has nothing to do with either of them. The stories, based around the city/country conundrum of the title, weave various strange narratives together like a fabulous tall tale. I want more of this. Adrian Tomine‘s work resembles a younger version of Raymond Carver or John O’Hara, of relationships falling apart slowly, inorexably. It’s too bad that many of the submissions to this issue come from already published work, though–it would have been nice to see how each of the artists dealt with a particular assignment. On the other hand, such plans often lead to weak work. Still, this is a large (265 pages) anthology, and Ware is to be commended for this overview.
And did I mention that the dust jacket folds out into a splendid Ware-drawn Sunday comic section doubletruck? It’s a lovely thing all around.

The New Seattle Library–a dissenting view

The Web is awash with starry-eyed reviews of Koolhaas’ new Seattle Public Library building, and how oh-so-high tech it looks. Bringing it all down a few notches is my favorite curmudgeon, James Howard Kunstler:

Eyesore of the Month: “Koolhaas has named this top floor salon ‘the living room,’ an interesing confusion of typology. Guess what? This is not your home. This is a place of public assembly. But guess what also? There’s only enough furniture for five people to sit down. It’s not a reading room (no chairs and tables). It’s not a lecture room (slanted atrium ceiling can’t be darkened.) What the fuck is it?”

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Harvest Books, 2002
A lot of my reading of “Life of Pi” was informed by my previous reading
of a compendium of shipwreck and survival-at-sea tales last year (see here for a review). That book scooted into the present day and skipped modern tales of being lost at sea, since, it informed us, modern lifeboats are so much more well stocked.
Indeed so. We get a good look at what’s in a modern lifeboat in Yann Martel’s novel, but that doesn’t stop the supplies running out and the despair and hallucinations from setting in. Much of the novel is set in a lifeboat shared by its title narrator and a fully grown Bengal tiger. Pi is a 16 year-old Indian lad who winds up in this predicament after the cargo ship, which was carrying his family, assorted members of his father’s zoo, and himself to Canada to emigrate, sinks in the Pacific.
Before then we learn Pi is a young lad with a passion for religion (he becomes, much to his teachers’ chagrin, a Christian, an Muslim, and a Hindu simultaneously, because he just loves God) and a knowledge of science (mostly zoology, learning in his surroundings).
I expected a religious fable, and while there are elements of that (much more than I’m interested in), the novel never stops being a boys’-own survival tale, with Pi learning to assert himself as the Alpha male on the tiny boat. Much is to be learned about big-cat behaviour, as well as how to kill and eat various sealife. I had also never heard about ‘solar still‘ devices to turn sea water into fresh, until this book.
Near the end, Pi goes temporarily blind, and the book gets weird (and very readable). He meets another lifeboat survivor, who comes to an unfortunate end. Pi lands on a floating island made entirely of fresh-water-making algae, who sole inhabitants turn out to be meerkats.
And the end, after being rescued, Pi offers the Japanese insurance investigators two versions of the same story, one with the tiger and a much more bloody version with nothing but humans. He asks them which story they liked the better, and is told the more unbelievable one, the one with the animals. “So it is with God,” he says. It’s an attack on dull reason (and bloody realism), but the book is at its best when combining the two. (Martel also offers, by doing so, an 11th hour twist that you can take or leave, the opposite of the narrative tactics of recent Hollywood thrillers (such as “Identity.”))
This book has been inescapable in and outside reading groups. Unlike The DaVinci Code, “Life of Pi” is charming and well-written, Martel is able to go with description, interior and exterior, that other writers would probably never consider (especially in the slow disintegration on the boat. I don’t believe Martel ever had to go through such an ordeal, but you believe his character did.)
Here’s an interview with Martel, if you are interested in a little more background.
The book also made me add Pondicherry to my list of future travel destinations, along with a stay at one of the many hill stations in the country.

A whole slew of links, including the G.I. Joe PSAs.

Oh yes, this is the link o’ the week, if we had such an award. The G.I. Joe PSA redubs are hilarious in a Sealab 2021 kind of way. Nicely surreal some of ’em.
Also, check out these awfully designed loony Christian ramblings. Purchase the whole set for $245 or so. At least Jack Chick gives his away…
Or you could always download huge scans of European art for your desktop.
You can view the video for Puffy’s Teen Titans Theme here. (You need RealPlayer). And no, I don’t mean P-Diddly-Ding-Dang-Dong-Doofus.
Bird Poops in Cyndi Lauper’s Mouth. Amazing.
More reasons that the web is great: The Lady in the Park!
And there can never be enough BULLDOZER RAMPAGES! I betcha that doesn’t happen in France! Go USA!
And finally: A delightful story about cat enemas.

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