Firing the Canon: Read This, Not That!

I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:

The Wisdom of DonkeysInstead of the whiney tedium of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (William Morrow, 1974), read Andy Merriman’s The Wisdom of Donkeys (Walker & Co., 2008). I reviewed the latter a while back, writing,

Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

digging-up-motherThough it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!

Instead of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Vintage, 2001), read Digging Up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope (Da Capo, 2016), which I reviewed for Splitsider. I won’t ruin it for you. Mother doesn’t die at the end. She dies at the beginning. Do know this: Mother’s death was an inside job.

Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.

The Faraway NearbyIf depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.

Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.

Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.

Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:

We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.

Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

kSUncPXtE9k

I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.

Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?

References:

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

Writing Women: Don’t Care If You Like It

Sometime in the year since reading Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, I noticed that I’d been reading a lot of books written by women. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking back, it struck me as notable. But just as there are two kinds of racism, there are two kinds of sexism: noting the difference when it doesn’t matter and not noting it when it does. I love the writing of Rebecca Solnit, Chris Kraus, and Lauren Beukes regardless of their gender. I aspire to write like them because they are great writers. Several of the books I’ve been reading though tackle and twist ideas about feminism and femininity into new shapes for consideration.

Dare MeMegan Abbott already has another novel out, but 2012’s Dare Me (Reagan Arthur) is populated with the illest, fiercest, flyest cheerleaders you’ve ever seen. Chelsea Cain of The New York Times Book Review describes it as “Heathers meets Fight Club.” If that doesn’t sell it for you, then this might not be the book for you. These girls wield power that Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated (2005) calls “absolute” (p. 82). Describing the mise en scène of the halls of high school, he writes,

Girls, certain girls, dominate these settings because they are impresarios of an evolving social art. Propelled by incipient sexuality, yes, but across the whole range of its sublimations, they devote enormous energy to mastering an array of symbols and cues, an interplay of appearance, clothes, accessories, music, slang—a totality of customs that constitute their emerging world. And when they understand it well enough to play with it, improvise with it, innovate and disseminate, they take up their positions in that ruling clique and their authority will be recognized by all who know them. It will be their privilege to control the tones and terms that catch and shape the flow of days, and the long weekends. This clique of girls dominates because it presides over a Wittgensteinian language game—meaning, not just a language, not just the slang, but also the whole form of life that goes with it. Everybody who wants to be anybody must live by it, and they are the gatekeepers (p. 82-83).

Addy Hanlon, Beth Cassidy, Brinnie Cox, Emily, Mindy, Cori, Tacy, RiRi—the girls of Dare Me—are these certain girls. Untouchable, they run their school from a level above the workaday drama. To the common masses of lockers, duffel bags, and backpacks, their taut, tight existences carry nothing nonessential. No baggage to see or speak of—or so it seems from the outside. As Louis CK once puts it, speaking about his own daughters,

Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked-up. That’s the difference. Boys just do damage to your house that you can measure in dollars, like a hurricane. Girls, like, leave scars in your psyche that you find later… That’s the difference between boys and girls. And it becomes the difference between men and women, really. A man will, like, steal your car or burn your house down or beat the shit out of you, but a woman will ruin your fuckin’ life. Do you see the difference? Like, a man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river, but he’ll leave you as a human being intact. He won’t fuck with who you are. Women are nonviolent, but they will shit inside of your heart (C. K., 2008).

All of the musings of men above smack predominantly of one thing: misogyny. Louis is joking, of course, but the inherent irony of a joke is often lost in the laughter. Some of the female revenge stories (e.g., Monster, Hard Candy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo née “Men Who Hate Women,” etc.) may feel like they go too far, but there is rarely a point at which the righteous anger of a woman is not completely justified.

Tampa Turning the profile of the predatory pedophile on its head, Alissa Nutting’s newest novel inverts our gender-based perceptions of the perverted. Tampa (Ecco, 2014) tells the story of Celeste, an attractive middle school teacher who preys exclusively on her underage male students. Clare Swanson of Publisher’s Weekly calls it “Lolita meets American Psycho.” Only metaphorically feminist, Tampa is erotica wrapped tightly in satire, or possibly vise versa. Its critique turns on flipping gender expectations but also social mores; Nutting mixes gender-roles with sociopathy. “We can all tell when people have crushes on us, sexual or platonic,” writes M.E. Thomas (2013), “and we enjoy wielding that small amount of power over them. If anything, sociopaths are just a little better at it and enjoy it in a particular way” (p. 218). Always on the inside edge of getting caught, Celeste’s sociopathic obsession with young, male suitors never relents. Thomas explains the intersection of sociopathy and sexuality further as follows:

One of the manifestations of sociopathy in me is an ambivalence in regards to sex and sexual orientation. Sociopaths are unusually impressionable, very flexible with their own sense of self. Because we don’t observe social norms, we don’t have a moral compass, and we have a fluid sense of right and wrong… This extends, at least in some degree, to our sexuality (p. 241).

M. E. Thomas, a pseudonym used by the author of Confessions of a Sociopath (Broadway, 2013), evokes the prominent Victorian novelist M. E. Braddon, about whom Bruce Sterling says, “no one knew whether she was a man or a woman; she was passing for human” (quoted in Smith, 2014, p. 89). “Passing for human” might seem a sad phrase to use for escaping the trappings of gender, but it’s never quite so easy. “The problem isn’t so simple as a man-versus-woman frame,” Rebecca Traister writes in a recent piece for the New Republic. Citing an anecdote from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, 2011) in which Amy Pohler tells off her friend Jimmy Fallon (See “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” pp. 143-146), Traister concludes,

I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around—on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage—and go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

References:

Abbott, Megan. (2012). Dare Me: A Novel. New York: Reagan Arthur.

C. K., Louis. (2008). Chewed Up. New York: Showtime.

Cain, Chelsea. (2012, August 10). Bring It On: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. The New York Times.

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fey, Tina. (2011). Bossypants. New York: Reagan Arthur.

Nutting, Alissa. (2014). Tampa: A Novel. New York: Ecco.

Smith, Patrick, A. (2014). Conversations with William Gibson. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Swanson, Claire. (2013, August 22). Q&A with Tampa Author Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly.

Thomas, M. E. (2013). Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Broadway Books.

Traister, Rebecca. (2014, July 16). I Don’t Care If You Like It: Women are tired of being judged by the Esquire metric. New Republic.

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P.S. In the meantime, Lauren Beukes has written another outstanding novel. More on that one soon.

Slayer: Building Bridges With Fire

Opinions often vary widely on the most important bands and records of any era, but only a few dare dispute the reign of Slayer and their thrash watermark Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986). There has always been a weird rift between punk and metal, but thrash was the first sub-genre to draw heavily from both. The two major movements have since spawned such tributaries as grindcore, metalcore, murdercore, power violence, and various strains of post-metal. “What do you think would get a bigger reaction: a Minor Threat cover or a Slayer cover?” Tim Singer, of long-defunct Seattle metalcore band Kiss It Goodbye, asked me during the recording of their one full-length record, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not (Revelation, 1997). “Isn’t it weird that it’s debatable?”

Slayer
Fuckin’ Slayer.

As hardcore, post-punk. and new wave were expanding out of the punk explosion of the mid-1970s, thrash metal was also fomenting. Slayer and several other thrash bands helped knock parts of the punk/metal divide down during the 1980s. By decade’s end, there was a whole lot of genre trouble in heavy music. What exactly was Barkmarket? The Jesus Lizard? Helmet? Even Pantera, emerging from the most staunchly Southern forges, had sharpened its edges on something other than metal. Slayer was one of the early major bands to flaunt its roots in both genres, and Reign in Blood is clearly a blend of the best of both. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say it unified the metal and hardcore punk-rock crowds,” D. X. Ferris (2014) writes. “But no metal album did as much to open the channels between the two distinct cultures” (p. 6). Making those influences explicit a decade later, Slayer did a punk covers record called Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) that includes tracks from Minor Threat, TSOL, D.I., Verbal Abuse, Black Flag, and The Stooges (via Sid Vicious).

Reign in Blood: 33 1/3 Metal Hammer‘s recent Thrash issue names Reign in Blood #1 in its list of the top-50 thrash records of all time. Calling the album “perfect,” Dom Lawson writes, “Reign in Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity.”  There’s something about this half-hour slice of metal that no other band has ever come close to matching. It sounds as fast, as fresh, and as menacing now as it ever did. When I first heard it, I knew that things were different — for me, for metal, for music.” “It sounds like it’s ready to derail at any second,” Kerry King tells Ian Winwood, yet it sounds tightly controlled at the same time. There’s a tension, an anxiety to it that no one has touched in the almost 30 years since its release. Its terror so taut, its aggression so relentless, it’s focus so fierce, “It may never be surpassed,” Lawson concludes. He is not alone in this assessment.

It’s been a year since we lost Jeff Hanneman, and in the meantime, D. X. Ferris, who wrote the 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008), has cranked out another book about Slayer. Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years (6623 Press, 2014) is a highly readable rush job that fills in the blanks surrounding his 33 1/3 book. No one questions the fact that Slayer has done their best work as the classic line-up of Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Lombardo, and Ferris’s book is mainly about those times. After all, Reign in Blood was the first of what is one of the strongest three-album runs by any band in any genre: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). They remain the one metal band that punks who hate metal still revere.

Slayer: 66 2/3While Kerry King came up on traditional metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were the punks in Slayer. Hanneman was weaned as much on Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys as he was Black Sabbath. Thrash is as close to punk as metal got in its formative years. James Hetfield listened to the Misfits, and Dave Mustaine loved the Pistols. Others in the scene were into it, but Slayer was the only band actually jostling with the punks at the time, banging elbows with the likes of D.R.I., TSOL, Bad Brains, and Suicidal Tendencies. They weren’t burning bridges, they were building them with fire.

I saw the O. G. Slayer line-up live in 2009, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know, there seems to be this aura about Slayer,” King says, “and I definitely think our live performances have something to do with that.” No question. The show I saw was everything a Slayer fan wants from seeing Slayer: speed, aggression, evil, volume — classic thrash metal played with absolute abandon. And as much as I was looking forward to also seeing Marilyn Manson, no one can follow Slayer. No one.

They’re currently continuing without Jeff and Dave, and there seems to be no way to offer genuine support without sounding shitty about it. I have no doubts that Paul Bostaff and Gary Holt are holding down their half as they’ve both done with Exodus, who are widely considered the original thrash metal band. Regardless, Slayer will never be the same without the raw, punk aggression of Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo.

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Postscript: I interviewed Jeff Hanneman on the phone in 1996 for the August/September issue of Ride BMX magazine. A little while after the interview, I got a call from their publicist. She said Jeff and Slayer were so stoked to be in a BMX magazine that they wanted to send me something. In the weeks before the package arrived, I made a joke that Slayer was sending me something to show their gratitude. Friends speculated wildly. Would it involve blood, bones, body parts? It turned out to be a Slayer hat, which I still have. Rest in peace, my brother.

References:

Ferris, D. X. (2008). 33 1/3: Reign in Blood. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ferris, D. X. (2014). Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. Akron, OH: 6623 Press.

Lawson, Dom. (2014). Metal Hammer’s 50 Hottest Thrash Albums of All Time. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 100-105.

Mustaine, Dave. (2010). Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Winwood, Ian. (2014). Slayer: Reign in Blood. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 106-109.