Saturday, October 31, 2009

Checked Out: October/November

Items I borrowed from the library this month
By Brian Polk

Letting Go Of God
By Julia Sweeny
(Audio CD)
“All these people were walking to church, holding their Bibles,” says Julie Sweeny in her masterpiece monologue, Letting Go Of God, “and I wanted to roll down the window and say, ‘Have you read that book? I mean, really?’” In her provocative one-woman show, the former Saturday Night Live actress (remember the androgynous Pat?) depicts her journey from curious Catholic to unassuming atheist—all of which began innocently enough when she decided she was actually going to read the Bible for the first time as an adult. What she discovered surprised and frightened her: Apparently one can justify hatred, war, slavery, sexism, or any number of humanity’s worst ills by citing passages in the Bible. Want to rape your father? Well, if Lot’s daughters are your role model, you might as well. Want to murder your progeny? That’s what God demanded of Abraham; who knows when he’ll come knocking for you. Is your mother giving you problems? Tell her to fuck off—since, according to Sweeny, that’s exactly what Jesus did: “And then there’s family,” she says. “I have to say that for me, the most deeply upsetting thing about Jesus is his family values—which is amazing when you think how there are so many groups out there that say they base their family values on the Bible…[Jesus] puts his mother off cruelly over and over again. At the wedding feast he says to her, ‘Woman, what have I to do with you?’ And once while he was speaking to a crowd, Mary waited patiently off to the side to talk to him. And Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Send her away. You are my family now.’” After being appalled by all of the book’s crazy laws and unethical behavior, Sweeny eventually drops the bombshell on the Bible’s very premise: “Why would a God create people so imperfect, then blame them for their own imperfections, then send his son to be tortured and executed by those imperfect people to make up for how imperfect people were and how imperfect they inevitably were going to be? I mean, what a crazy idea.” And so, since she couldn’t find God in the bible, Sweeny embarks upon a mission to find Him elsewhere. She travels to the East to find God in Buddhism. She travels to the Galapagos Islands to find God in nature. Eventually she has an epiphany while scrubbing her bathtub: Maybe God is nowhere. Of course, her blasphemous conclusion has very real consequences with her parents and community, which Sweeny describes with her character wit and humor. By far the most thoughtful, beautiful, varyingly dramatic and hilarious sentiment on the subject, Letting Go Of God is commonsense atheism that adapts none of the dogma or smug self-satisfaction that’s commonly associated with mainstream non-belief. It’s a denial of God with compassion and contemplation. And that’s damn good news.

Youth In Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp

By C.D. Payne
The only thing that’s unique about Nick Twisp is his intelligence. That is, he uses polysyllabic words and breezes through his classes at his public high school. Everything else about Nick Twisp is pretty unremarkable: He’s an American teenager with a hard-on, a face full of acne, and an unrelenting obsession to raise hell and lose his virginity. He lives in Oakland, California, with his single, neurotic mother and a cavalcade of her replaceable boyfriends. His ultra-competitive, BMW-driving dad lives with his 19-year-old girlfriend across town. And along with his friend Lefty, Twisp seems to be in a perpetual state of boredom. And then fate intervened. When a business deal turns sour for Jerry, one of his mom’s boyfriends, Twisp accompanies his parent and her lover to a mobile home camp. There he meets a gorgeous young female intellectual named Sheeni. What follows is a string of events that are impossibly awkward, hilarious, and law defying. It’s a coming-of-age story that relies on all the tired contrivances of horny teenagers, but it completely redeems itself by refreshingly never losing focus of all of the inevitable clumsiness and embarrassing discomfort that comes with raging hormones. Although tortuous in length—the book is 499 pages—the soap-opera complexity and sheer ridiculousness of the plot coupled with the protagonist’s radical veraciousness completely consume its reader, forcing the increased fleetness of eager page-turning until the book’s unfulfilled conclusion. And apparently, the film version of this story stars Michael Cera and will be out some time in 2010. If they remain loyal to the novel, there’s a strong possibility that it could be palatable. Of course, that quite literally remains to be seen.

By Kurt Vonnegut
Walter F. Starbuck is a man who wears a lot of hats: he’s been a communist, Harvard student, Nixon’s special advisor on youth affairs, vice-president of the RAMJAC corporation, and of course, jailbird. His memoir, Jailbird, recounts all the details of his storied life, from his service as a civilian employee of the Defense Department after World War Two to his role in the Watergate affair (which was minimal to say the least). Though this political fiction is not one of Vonnegut’s more famous works, it ranks among his best. Dense in plot and heavy on details, the prose ties actual historical events—the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Watergate scandal—into greater themes of communism and the labor movement in typical Vonnegut fashion. Like just about everything else he’s written, Jailbird is enlightening, heartening, and a great way to spend a string of quiet evenings.

Are You Experienced
By The Jimi Hendrix Experience
This is an essentially unessential Hendrix album. (How many more times do you really need to hear “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” or “Fire?”) Still, like every “classic rock” band, the non-hits are still worth a listen. “Third Stone From The Sun,” is a sprawling, jazz-fusion tune replete with effects and sections of spoken word. “Can You See Me”—the titular track of the group’s first album—and the blues cut “Red House” similarly never received much airplay and are subsequently worth lending an ear to. Are You Experienced is a CD that I would never consider buying—mainly because I have all this material on vinyl, but more specifically because you can hear most of the songs on FM radio. Thank goodness there are still places to get free music legally.

Friday, October 9, 2009

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Checked Out: August/September

Items I borrowed from the library this month
By Brian Polk

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose is a brave man. First of all, he committed four months of his Quaker liberal life to attend Liberty University—a school founded and administered by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Second, he approached the semester with minimal trepidation and an incredibly open mind. Thirdly, he fit in seamlessly with the sober, virgin, born-again, mostly right wing student body. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface: He also sang in the choir at Falwell’s twenty-thousand-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, went on coffee dates with Christian girls, relentlessly prayed, and even interviewed the man himself, Jerry Falwell. Through it all, he comes to realize that born-again Christians (for the most part) aren’t the frothing-at-the-mouth, gay-bashing intolerants they’re portrayed to be. In fact, they were just confused kids at the end of adolescence trying to figure it all out. The Unlikely Disciple offers a sufficient introduction to the beliefs and habits of right-wing Christian soldiers in training. It’s always nice to get a dose of perspective—even if it’s a perspective with which you could never, ever sympathize.

What Would Jesus Buy?
Rob VanAlkemade (Director)
When I first saw a trailer for this movie a few years ago, I thought anti-consumerism was finally breaking into the mainstream. Of course as history has proven, the film didn’t make much of a dent—especially since our economy is still based on filling our unaffordable houses with unnecessities (just made that word up). What Would Jesus Buy? follows Reverend Billy and his activist troupe, The Church of Stop Shopping, as they travel around the country and enlighten American consumers about the “shopacalypse.” With the parodied ostentation of a Christian choir, the stop shoppers sing anti-shopping hymns to bewildered crowds of frantic bargain hunters. While its humor is biting, the guerrilla tactics probably end up alienating more people than they convert. However, the message is an important one—especially since anti-consumerists (myself included) sometimes need people like Reverend Billy to light a fire under their asses by reminding them to buy coffee from the corner shop instead of from Starbucks. Preaching to the choir has never been so much fun.

Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday
Kurt Vonnegut
For some reason, Breakfast of Champions never really had much of an impact on me—and Vonnegut is among my favorite writers of all time. Listen: Slaughterhouse Five, Timequake, The Sirens of Titan, and Mother Night are some of my favorite books. I’ve read them again and again. But Breakfast of Champions just never piqued my interest long enough for me to finish it. Even the author gave it a “C” when he graded it—along with his other books—in Palm Sunday. But since I listen to books on tape as a matter of course, I figured I’d give it another whirl. And this time around, I finally understood the underlying themes he attempted to convey: the randomness of racism, sexism, and homophobia, the relationship between a writer and his characters, and of course, free will—which is a favorite subject of the author. Still, even though I was able to identify its coherence this time around, I’ll probably file Breakfast of Champions away with other Vonnegut one-timers, like Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, and Hocus Pocus.

The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
(Audio book)
If you’ve been looking for a coherent rebuttal to every argument made on the behalf of God’s existence, scientist Richard Dawkins wrote a book for you. As you might have guessed, The God Delusion teems with scientific jargon aimed at disproving and ridiculing believers in faith. Reading (or listening to, in my case) the whole thing is a daunting task. However, Dawkins and his wife (who both narrate the audio version) intersperse the dry text with beautifully articulated theses against the delusional belief in God. If you’re still fighting the culture war (read: atheism vs. belief), arming yourself with Dawkins’ arguments is like bringing an atom bomb to a paintball match.

Travels With Charlie
John Steinbeck
Travels With Charlie delivers one of my favorite literary quotes of all time (and one that I felt compelled to put on my Facebook page under “Favorite Quotations”): “I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” For some reason I went on a John Steinbeck kick a few months back. And I’m glad I did. In Travels With Charlie, the great American author traveled the country with his dog Charlie to reacquaint himself with the pulse of America. It’s insightful, humorous, and a good read before bedtime.

Live At Shea Stadium
The Clash
The Clash is like a home you can always go back to. No matter how many times you foray into strange genres or listen to indie bands for months on end (for me it was Modest Mouse), these innovative punkers always seem to welcome you with open arms. “I see you’ve been listening to nothing but Iron and Wine and The Flaming Lips,” your Clash records tell you with an air of pity. “Why don’t you give us a spin and rejoice in your roots where you know you belong?” “Ahh, that’s better,” you think to yourself after taking your records’ advice. “I feel like my old self again. Thanks.” Needless to say, I love this CD.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Little Fyodor

Little Fyodor

Peace is Boring

“What the hell is this?” you’ll ask yourself upon slipping Little Fyodor’s latest effort, Peace is Boring, into your CD player. And it will take several listens before you finally wrap your head around what the hell is going on here. That’s because Little Fyodor perpetrates eclectic music that's reminiscent of awkwardly laughing your way through a really confusing acid trip. The lyrics address several pressing issues facing humanity, such as uncomfortable clothes, hairspray, and as the title suggests, the dullness of peace. The songs range from straight ahead rock to Devo-inspired electro—but they’re all deliberately offensive and strangely strange in that punk rocking kind of way. As a whole, Peace is Boring rails against a culture that takes itself way too seriously (you know, the kind of thing that punks used to be really good at). And Little Fyodor is a type of prophet with a simple message: Life is too short not to have fun. So why not write a song called “Fuck-a-duck-a-luck-a-luck-a-ding-dong?” At least it makes sense to him.

Definitely recommended.

CELEBRATE LITTLE FYODOR’S CD RELEASE PARTY! (The L.F. live show borders on genius.)

Little Fyodor is releasing Peace is Boring on Friday, October 9 at the Lion’s Lair. The Limbs and Ralph Gean are also playing. Go online for more information:

Little Fyodor and Babushka

Lion’s Lair