Come See Me at HerdCon!

Next month, Marshall University in Huntington is hosting its (second?) annual pop culture convention, HerdCon! On March 14 the Marshall Student Center will be taken over with all kinds of vendors, presenters, and other folks.

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And, yes, I’ll be one of the vendors! I’ll be there with books, of course, but there’s also folks there with art, collectibles, and other neat stuff. In addition, there’s a day full of panels on a variety of pop culture topics, one of which is being done by my writer niece and her professor boyfriend (and two other people I don’t know) on “Loss of Body, Mind, and Spirit: Cultural, Familial, and Political Trauma in Japanese Manga and Anime.” I have no idea what that really means, but I suspect I’ll find out!

Come by and check it all out.

Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

FromHell

When The Gimmick Gets In the Way

Last year I wrote about some stories I’d come across that were told in a non-traditional that really worked well. I suppose turnabout is fair play – sometimes the gimmick just gets in the way of the story.

Daytripper is a beautifully put together graphic novel. In each chapter it tells the story of Bras, a writer (first of obituaries, later of novels), as he experiences certain turning point days in his life. It gets a little treacly and really hits you over the head with the “wonder of the everyday” stuff, but some of the individual pieces are good and the art is uniformly excellent.

Daytripper

Here’s the thing – at the end of every chapter, at the end of every vignette – Bras dies. Most of the time he does so in sudden, horrible ways, since they happen at all times of his life, from childhood on up. That’s an interesting way to structure a story, provided you do something with it. Creators Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá don’t, however. There’s no overarching fantastic of magical realist element that gives the repeated deaths meaning. Everything just resets and we get another version of Bras – one blissfully unaware of his prior fates – to live out another last day.

Without that, the gimmick overwhelms the rest of the book. As readers, we know what’s coming at the end of every chapter. It becomes a macabre game, wondering just how Bras is going to snuff it this time, with methods ranging from the mundane (traffic accident) to the ridiculous (murdered by an old friend living in a shack in the desert). Meanwhile, frustration builds as you wonder just what the point of all this, beyond the hammering home of the tired old cliché about living every day as if it’s your last.* This is clearly a minority view when it comes to Daytripper, so take it with a gram of salt.

My point is this. It’s possible to tell perfectly good stories in the traditional, third-person POV, past tense, linear kind of way (at least I hope it is!). It’s also possible to deviate from the expected in order to throw your readers off, make them engage with the story in a different way, or what have you. But the gimmick has to serve something. Making readers struggle through a non-linear story just because you can isn’t clever, it’s just mean. If I, as a reader, am going to have to put together the puzzle pieces, the final picture better be worth it.

* I’ve never understood the wisdom of this. If it was really my last day on Earth, I wouldn’t worry about mundane shit like paying bills or going to work. But if I lived my ongoing life that way I’d quickly be homeless, unemployed, and (I suspect) divorced. Recognizing this isn’t likely to be your last day and you need to plan accordingly is part of being an adult.

Decade – Favorite Books

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

Writers read. I’m always surprised when I find someone who writes who thinks that either reading in their genre is a bad idea or, in some cases, that reading itself just takes away from valuable writing time. You gotta do your own work, of course, but it’s critical for a writer to nourish their mind and soul with the works of others. Besides, reading is fun! So, naturally, I do a lot of it, although most of it these days is less “reading” than it is “listening” via audiobooks. Regardless, I’ve read some good stuff over the past ten years.

Here are the rules for this list . . .

1. Only works first published during the last decade are eligible.

2. Only one work per author on the list BUT (and it’s kind of a big one) I’ve included series, trilogies, and the like under one heading, so the list is actually more than ten books.

3. As with all the other lists, these are personal favorites. I don’t make any claim to these being the best, most influential, or what have you. I just really liked ‘em.

Saga (2012-present)
by Bryan K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

 

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A couple of years ago when I wrote about why you should be reading this science fantasy space epic, I called it “the apex of what comics can be.” That’s completely true – if you’ve never read a comic or graphic novel before, you could do worse than to start with Saga. But as I also said back then, you should read it because “it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop.” How could it not be a favorite?

Redshirts (2012)
by John Scalzi

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By now even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek know what it means to be a “red shirt” – an expendable character who gets sacrificed so the audience knows the peril our heroes are about to face (and escape, obviously). Is there something deeper there than just a cheap joke and internet meme? John Scalzi took the idea and ran with it, crafting a story about a group of low-rung characters on a suspiciously Trek-like ship who figure out the game. What follows is good fun and a meditation on what it means to live your own story and find out who you really are. Also, how can you not love a book with three codas?

The Master of Confessions (2014)
by Thierry Cruvellier

MasterofConfessions

Thierry Cruvellier’s book is not a history of what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia in the 1970s, nor is it a straight biography of Duch, the titular master of confessions. Rather, it’s a more freeform observation and commentary on Duch’s 8-month trial for crimes against humanity. As such, while it certainly talks about the brutal history of that era (and that place, Tuol Sleng, the former high school that still had blood on the walls when my wife and I visited in 2015), it also dives into the idea of confessions as legal proof and what happens when legal proceedings drag on an on, to the point where the defense team openly spars with each other.

I wrote a more in-depth review of the book which you can read here. Needless to say, it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.

Children of Time (2015)
Children of Ruin (2019)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you had told me in 2010 that one of my favorite books in the next decade would involve sentient spiders I would have rolled my eyes. But it’s true! Children of Time begins with a disrupted experiment on a distant planet which results in spider-like beings getting infected with an uplift nanovirus. In the eons it takes for humans to make it back there, we’re treated to the evolution of the spiders and development of their own space-faring society. It’s completely brilliant, outside the box stuff. The story continues in Children of Ruin, which is almost as good.

The Fifth Season (2015)
The Obelisk Gate (2016)
The Stone Sky (2017)
by N.K. Jemisin

Broken

I generally do not buy the hype. Almost never do I read, see, or hear something that is wildly praised and think it’s as great as all that. If anything shouldn’t have met my standards it’s this trilogy – a volume of which won the Hugo award for best novel an unprecedented three years in a row. Somehow, it managed not to disappoint. The first book, in particular, is utterly brilliant for the narrative sleight of hand it pulls off. The other two don’t quite match that high mark, but are both excellent and the trilogy tells a hell of a story overall.

The Mechanical (2015)
The Rising (2015)
The Liberation (2016)
by Ian Tregillis

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“Clockmakers lie.” Not such a big deal if they’re all making timepieces, but if they’re making scores of mechanical men? It could be a big problem, particularly if some of those “clakkers” start to think for themselves. That’s the thrust of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which is set in an alternate universe 1920s where the world is basically ruled by the Dutch as a result of their mastery of clockwork automatons. Only some, like the books’ hero Jax, aren’t content to do what they’re told. A great story set in a fascinating world that raises interesting questions about free will and such.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs  (2015)
by Johann Hari

Scream

I read this book along with Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, which investigates the origin of the current opioid crisis. Chasing the Scream goes back much further and investigates the origins of the drug war itself, back in the beginning of the 20th Century. It focuses particularly on a slimy shit named Harry Anslinger, who ran the predecessor to the DEA for more than three decades. He was the prototypical drug warrior, pathologically certain of his moral correctness and impervious to evidence showing just about every assumption he had about drugs was wrong. More than that, however, the book allows Johann Hari to look at various alternatives to our current drug war, almost all of which look more promising.

The Road to Jonestown (2017)
by Jeff Guinn

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I knew the basic story of Jonestown – the far out settlement in the jungle, the fateful Congressional fact-finding mission, the murder/suicide that ensued. What I never really knew is how things wound up that way. Guinn’s book is a fascinating and comprehensive look at a man who began life as a charismatic preacher and civil rights activist who slipped slowly into authoritarianism and paranoia. It’s frightening, yet completely understandable, how many of victims were drawn in by him and equally horrific the things so many of them eventually did in his name.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)
by Joanne Freeman

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I went into reading this book thinking that the incident pictured on the front – the beating of a northern Senator by a southern colleague in the Senate chamber on the eve of the Civil War – was a singular thing. I expected some interesting history you point to and say, “look out how uncivilized they all were.” Instead, I came out the other end thinking the age – which included numerous acts of inter-Congressional violence and at least one death – sounds an awful lot like ours. Given where it all led the first time, it wasn’t a comforting read.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)
by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington

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Radley Balko is best known for his work chronicling the rise of militarism in police procedures, but during that same time he’s done a lot of work on the hot mess that is forensic science in this country. In this book he, along with Tucker Carrington (of the Innocence Project), take one particular case study of this, chronicling the death investigation system in Mississippi. Thoroughly political and slanted towards the prosecution, it sends innocent people to prison – who then only sometimes get released, because the courts have problems dealing with stuff like this. It will make you throw the book across the room.

Decade – Favorite TV Shows

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

It’s not an original thought to say that there’s a lot of TV shows out there these days. Not just that – a lot of very good TV shows (along with a lot of dreck, of course – Sturgeon was onto something). With every streaming service and cable network producing original content, it’s impossible for anybody to keep track of it all. These selections are ones I was lucky enough to cross paths with (in some instances years after their original run) over the past ten years. Some other things to keep in mind:

1. These are just what I say they are – favorites. I don’t make any claims that these are the “best,” whatever that may mean.

2. I only considered shows that began in 2010 or later (but see below).

3. I didn’t limit consideration to only multi-season series, but the list wound up not including any limited run stuff (although, again, see below).

With that said, away we go . . .

Justified (2010-2015)

Justified

I’m a federal criminal defense lawyer. US Marshals are not my friends. So it says something that one of my favorite characters of the past decade is a Deputy US Marshal. That Raylan Givens is the creation of Elmore Leonard doesn’t hurt, but the way he was developed (and played by Timothy Oliphant) through the run of the show really brought him to life. That Leonard vibe extends all the way though the show, particularly in the very unusual for TV setting (hello, federal district next door to mine!) and the astounding bevy of supporting characters, all of whom are unique characters without being “colorful” (if that makes sense). I mean, Boyd Crowder (and Dewey Crow), come on!

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)

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This is one of those shows I knew nothing about until the wife and I started watching reruns on Cartoon Network (I think) several years into its run. It didn’t take us long to make first-run episodes part of our regular rotation, to the extent that Fox’s football programming makes regularity an option. It’s a funny show with just enough heart to make you care about the weirdoes on screen. And what weirdoes. I’ll just say that I think Gene Belcher is my spirit animal and leave it at that.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

GoT

I know, I know, they didn’t really stick the landing (it wasn’t as bad as lots of loud people thought), but as a fan of Martin’s books before the series began I was super pleased by the show. It’s also a fascinating case study in adaptation, since the show runners ran past the point where Martin had written fairly quickly. I’d also be lying if I didn’t appreciate how the show helped shove fantasy stuff to the cultural forefront. Plus, I got to discuss it in court!

The Americans (2013-2018)

Americans

If someone had told me, before this show premiered, that it was really more of a family drama than a high-stake spy thriller, I might have given it a pass. That would have been a big mistake because while that’s an accurate description of what transpired over six seasons, it also doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere the show generated with all the spy stuff (and excellent soundtrack choices). Once you’ve seen mom and dad stuff a dead body in a suitcase it tends to stick with you, you know? If Stranger Things (which just missed the cut for this list) is all about 1980s nostalgia, this series was all about the paranoia of the same age.

Fun fact – the children of the Soviet spies who were the inspiration for the show recently had their Canadian citizenship confirmed.

Bojack Horseman (2014-present)

Bojack

Comedy is tricky. As I noted above, you have to care about characters for a show to have legs, not matter how good the jokes. But in asking us to care, it invites the writers to go into more serious, less funny places. Bojack Horseman really straddles that line nicely, digging deeply into the title characters depression and substance abuse but never quite losing site of the fact that we’re watching a cartoon about half-human animal people in a place called Hollywoo. You could probably do “Death of a Salesman” in front of the backdrop and still die laughing. This is, after all, a show where an entire episode’s punch line is that the horse guy is bombing at his own mother’s funeral.

Oh, and it’s got my favorite theme song from any TV show in a very long time.

The Knick (2014-2015)

Knick

This is my overlooked/neglected pick for this list, which is a surprise given the pedigree involved – a period piece created/directed by Stephen Soderbergh starring Clive Owen (and a host of excellent character actors) promising a different spin on that venerable TV institution, the hospital drama. Maybe it was because the show sidestepped the usual focus on medical heroics to dwell in the underbelly of a hospital struggling to stay open in 19th century New York. Maybe Owen didn’t pull off the addicted genius asshole like Hugh Laurie did on House. Maybe the excellent, anachronistic electronic score by Cliff Martinez turned some off. Regardless, I loved both seasons and wanted more. Alas.

The Leftovers (2014-2017)

Leftovers

Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers is very good, a darkly humorous meditation on a world where a small percentage of the population just disappear one day. The TV series upon which it’s based, which covered the events of the book in the first of its three seasons, is completely brilliant. The vibe’s not quite the same as the book, but it doubles down on the sheer weirdness that a world like that would produce. I didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the show’s run and I still loved it. It’s one of those shows that you either loved or it left you cold. Count me firmly in the first group.

Better Call Saul (2015-present)

Saul

You’re probably wondering why this made the list and not Breaking Bad. Did you overlook the part above where I said I was a defense attorney? Saul Goodman is one of the TV patron saints of my profession (along with Lionel Hutz). More to the point, I think the slow transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman is a more compelling arc than what happened with Walter White. Walter was driven to do horrible things by circumstance, but he embraced those acts pretty easily. Jimmy has always tried to be better, to seek the approval of the establishment (in the form of his lawyer brother Chuck), and generally do right. That he continually fails and is drawn deeper and deeper into criminality is more tragic.

The Magicians (2015-present)

Magicians

Full confession – I was not a huge fan of the Lev Grosman books upon which this series is based. I read the first two and simply couldn’t come to grips with the main character, Quentin. There was just too much of him. Imagine my surprise when the show runners here apparently came to the same conclusion and made Quentin one of many lead characters on the show, almost all of whom are more interesting and compelling. Add to that some great batshit “yes, this is fantasy!” elements and a willingness to do just about anything (singing – I’m talking about singing) and this series is one of my most pleasant surprises.

Mr. Robot (2015-2019)

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A show about which I once said this:

MrRobotJoke

I never really loved this show until its last season. Up to that point I had been impressed by it, but something hadn’t fully clicked about it. I think what finally did it was realizing how amazingly Sam Esmail and crew used the visual language of the show, the odd camera angles and such, to give it a distinct look that could throw you off your feet. That made me reflect on the writing itself and I realized it did the same thing and that, at the end of the show, I was profoundly digging it. Slow burns are a wonderful thing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I had to have a pair of honorable mentions, just because they don’t quite fit the parameters I set when I started this project.

Archer (2009-present)

Archer

Archer would have been a shoo-in for this list, but for one fact – it premiered in 2009. In spite of that, I had to give it some love since it’s amazingly funny and still running into the next decade. I love the show’s willingness to take the characters and throw them into completely different settings from season to season (from the original spy spoof setup to drug runners, noir figures, and space farers), even if every attempt didn’t work out that well.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen

Watchmen isn’t on the list proper for a couple of reasons. First, it’s Damon Lindelhoff’s baby and he’s already represented with The Leftovers. Second – just what is Watchmen, anyway? If it’s really just a one-season-and-done situation, it may still deserve a spot, but since future seasons are a possibility I wasn’t comfortable putting it on. Regardless of how brilliant this season was, it could go completely downhill in the future. Maybe after another ten years I’ll come back and promote it to the big leagues.

NOTE: I put this list together before it was confirmed that Watchmen was going to be one and done. Rather than mess with the list, I’ll keep it here in its special place. Seems right.

Decade – Favorite Songs

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

As I said last week, I listen to a lot of music. in trying to process all the great music from the last ten years I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums (which dropped last week), one of favorite tunes. Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list. While there’s no hard and fast rule that none of the favorite album artists could appear on this list, too, it just worked out that way.

2. One song per artist. Some of these albums are full of good songs and there are other albums from this decade, too, but I had to draw a line somewhere.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

Got it? Good. Let’s rock . . .

“Starts With Nothing” from The Future Is Medieval by Kaiser Chiefs (2011)

It doesn’t start with nothing, of course, but with a synth pattern, some kick drum, and vocals. After a brief respite, the full band kicks in and things build from there to a titanic conclusion. In a list full of epic prog tracks, sometimes you just need a good rock tune. Kaiser Chiefs are kind of my go-to for that kind of thing – intelligent modern rock with just enough keyboards to keep things interesting. Yes, that is my final answer.

“King of Number 33” from King of Number 33 by DeeExpus (2011)

One of the great epics of the decade, it has a story that sounds too odd not to have some basis in fact. The “King” here is a mentally disabled guy who rides the same bus over and over, not hurting anybody, until one day he shows up with sword and starts demanding obedience from his “subjects.” It’s sad and tragic, but the music is really good, with lots of nice instrumental breaks. It leans to the heavier side of the scale (as lots of prog does these days), but it gets the balance just right.

“Titanic Calls Carpathia” from COMM by The Tangent (2011)

COMM, as you might guess from the title, is all about communication. It’s not surprise, then, that Andy Tillison would choose to root one of the album’s epic in the one of the first uses of wireless communication in history, the distress call from the sinking Titanic. The theme of distress runs through the tune, folding in everything from Apollo 13 to a lonely person with a cell phone. There’s a cynical streak, of course, Andy being Andy, with regard to what we do these days for “comm.” Musically, everybody in that version of The Tangent was on top of their game.

“Some Memorial” by echolyn from echolyn (aka “Window”) (2012)

I almost went with “Island,” the opening track on this album (echolyn’s best of the decade), since it kicks things off in such a dynamic way. At the end of the day, though, I had to go with the track that closes the first disc. I love the way it works through various moods, from detached and jazzy through angry and driving to the concluding “take a handful of seeds / and a mouthful of earth / lie down, become a garden” section. The strings are a particularly nice touch, contrasting nicely with Chris Buzby’s keys.

“Judas Unrepentant” from English Electric Part One by Big Big Train (2012)

I’ve written about this song before, the story of an art forger undone by the hints he himself left in his works. That’s great in itself, but the music has a bouncy, broad quality that sort of takes the piss out of the seriousness of the story. It’s hard not to love a song that allows you to loudly belt out in the car lines like “charged him with conspiracy to defraud”! Oh, and the guitar work from Dave Gregory, percolating in the background for the most part, is superb.

“Houndstooth” from Senna by Mahogany Frog (2012)

Mahogany Frog exist at the confluence of fusion-inspired instrumental prog, electronica, and jam bands. They’re amazing live (I had a chance to see them at ProgDay in 2010), but they’re equally good at putting the energy of live performance onto tape. This track (actually the first two tracks) from their latest (c’mon guys!) album distills all that makes them fun to listen to into under ten minutes. Wonderful vintage keys, thumping drums, spiraling guitars. Fantastic.

“I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” from The Unraveling by Knifeworld (2014)

First impressions are tough, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one than the opening track on Knifeworld’s 2014 opus, the first thing of theirs I heard. It’s all just slightly off, but in the best way. It starts off almost industrial, with just rhythm and vocals and occasional guitar, before it explodes to take in the kaleidoscope of sound that Knifeworld is. The lyrics are unsettling (the line “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” shows up as a song title later on the album). Seldom have I been so taken with a band so quickly.

“Remurdered” from Rave Tapes by Mogwai (2014)

Rave Tapes marries Mogwai’s usual guitar/bass/drum post rock with healthy dollops of electronics and synths. Nowhere does that come together better than “Remurdered” (what a great title for a song). It starts out with an insistent synth pulse with some spacey guitars before drums and seriously growly bass synth carries things away. It’s one of those songs that builds so well from sparse beginnings to thunderous conclusion.

“La Mitrailleuse” from The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)

It’s old hat these days for bands that have been split up for decades to get back together and ride the nostalgia gravy train. Less usual is for said bands to make and release new material that’s worth listening to and can stand up with their best earlier work. Since returning with 2010’s dancy History of Modern, OMD has been doing just that. On The Punishment of Luxury they channeled a lot of Dazzle Ships, nowhere more than this track which is just layered vocals and the sounds of gunfire. Chilling and effective.

“Everything Is Awful” from I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists (2018)

If there was ever a song for our times, this is it (no coincidence that it’s the newest tune on this list). What makes it work is, despite the sentiment in the lyrics, the music is upbeat and creates this weird dissonance in your mind. You want to sing along with how awful things are. It’s like laughing in the face of tragedy or maybe a campfire song for the end of the world. Sometimes that’s the best you can do, so why not have a good song for it (see also, 3rDegree’s “A Nihilist’s Love Song”)?

Decade – Favorite Albums

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

I listen to a lot of music. There’s no way I could narrow down a decade’s worth of stuff to ten albums, so I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums, one of favorite tunes (that one comes next week). Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list.

2. One album per artist. Some of my favorites have had very good decades, but I didn’t want to fill up on them.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

With those in mind, away we go . . .

The Long Division by 3rDegree (2012)

LongDivision

3rDegree had a really good decade. Either of their two Ones and Zeroes albums could have been the one I picked for this list since they’re great, too, but I keep coming back to this one. About half the songs are political, but not partisan, in that they cast a keen eye on our fucked up American system (sadly, it looks like they’ll remain relevant for years to come). The rest of the album contains what is perhaps my favorite tune by the band, “Memetic Pandemic,” and the wonderfully sing-songy “A Nihilist’s Love Song.”

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

ClockworkAngels

They say you’re supposed to exit on a high note. Rush did. Their final studio album was a return to their proggy concept album roots. Sprawling and epic, they used some strings very effectively (and even took them on tour). It’s my favorite thing they’ve done since Neal’s tragedies and probably since the 1980s (I like the synths!). The story is a kind of steampunk Candide, better on record than in writing.

Gravity’s Dirty Work by Darkroom (2013)

GravitysDirtyWork

If I had one word to describe my musical decade it would be “Bandcamp.” The streaming/downloading/artist portal website has changed the way I discover new music. The ability to hear about a band and just put their name into Google with “bandcamp” after it generally puts a lot of music at my fingertips. Such is the case with Darkroom, an ambient duo I read about in Prog magazine (I’m pretty sure). The music here is dark and dreamy, with equal parts thick layers of electronics and solo guitar that glides overtop.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches (2013)

BonesOfWhatYouBelieve

Modern synth-pop lives! I learned about this Scottish trio from Keyboard magazine. Not only did I really like what I heard, but I was stunned to find out they’re actually kind of popular. More than once I’ve heard Chvrches tunes on TV (or in a FIFA video game soundtrack) and turned to my wife, in amazement, to explain that I actually own this song. Anyway, all three of their albums released this decade have been great, but the first one holds a special place in my heart.

Execute and Breathe by Elephants of Scotland (2014)

ExecuteAndBreathe

If I had a second word to describe my decade in music it would be “ROSFest.” I saw lots of new (to me, at least) bands there before the fest moved from Gettysburg to Florida this year, including these guys. No elephants anywhere and they’re from Vermont, not Scotland, but their Rush-influenced (with more keyboards) prog is very good. My big beef with them at ROSFest was that they lacked a strong lead vocalist, but that’s less important for a studio record. I listen to this album a lot.

Live In America by Sanguine Hum (2014 – or maybe 2012)

LiveInAmerica

Speaking of ROSFest finds. When I saw this set in 2012 I had no idea who these guys were. By the end of it I was a huge fan. I even stood in the meet & greet line afterwards (which I never did), even though they didn’t have their new album for sale (got to talk to Matt Baber about the Rhodes he used, though, so it was all good). Another band that’s had a great decade, Sanguine Hum have cranked out a lot of great music recently, but this is still a favorite because it captures the experience of diving into the unknown and coming out the other end grinning like a loon.

The release date is a little confusing. I think it was released on Bandcamp in 2012 to those of us who preordered the DVD of the show, but that DVD (which came with a CD, too) didn’t arrive until 2014. Make of that what you will.

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

RaceForSpaceCCCP

Central to The Race for Space is a gimmick – taking dialogue and monologue from old films (usually propaganda and news stock) and turning them into lyrics for songs. Not just laying them over beds of electronics like folks have been doing forever, but actually trimming and manipulating them to work in the place of lyrics. That said, it’s a hell of a gimmick and works super well, whether it’s in the context of the slow building, brooding “Sputnik” or the infectious “Go!.” Musically there’s a lot of electronics, but a backbone of real drums (and even horns on one track) and some guitar that keeps things from getting too artificial.

Hand.Cannot.Erase by Steven Wilson (2015)

HandCannotErase

Like 3rDegree, Steve Wilson had a hell of a decade and I could almost have picked any of his albums for this list. I think this one – a concept album based on reports of a woman who died, alone, in her London apartment and wasn’t missed for years (not a typo) – brings together the various parts of Wilson’s style the best. There’s lengthy proggy instrumental stuff (the Minimoog solo on “Regret #9”  is almost worth the price of admission alone) alongside modern electronic-style stuff, and more direct pop songs. The concluding “Last Regret” is pretty straightforward, but heart breaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run by Marillion (2016)

FEAR

At this point, Marillion cranks out consistently good stuff that occasionally rises to great. FEAR is their latest great album, a sprawling epic of raw nerve feelings. A lot of it is political, at least in the broadest sense, and lands some punches (without them being as targeted directly as, say, “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made). At first listen those big statements were the ones I gravitated towards (particularly the last movement of “The New Kings”), but my favorite track has come to be “The Leavers” (which, in spite of the title and when it was recorded has nothing to do with Brexit), an ode to the push-pull dynamics of touring.

Say So by Bent Knee (2016)

SaySo

Another ROSFest surprise. Although I’d listened to their prior album (on Bandcamp!) before seeing them, nothing really captures this band like a live setting. They make the most out of wild dynamic swings, shifting from hushed, almost whispered vocals over piano to full-bore riffage in the blink of an eye. It helps that keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain has the voice to tackle both ends of the spectrum with ease. They’re a prog band, but thoroughly modern (one member just manipulates the other musicians’’ sound on stage with a laptop) and really exciting.

I could go on and on about all the great music that came out over the past ten years, but I can safely call these favorites. Go check ‘em out.

Some Festive (?) Winter Music

Every year, sometime around the middle of December, I think to myself that I really should make some Christmas music. Of course, by that time it’s too late, so I shrug and go on with things. This year, however, I got my shit together soon enough to actually make some tunes for the season!

Naturally, there’s a twist.

When looking for a holiday tune or tunes to adapt I didn’t want anything too obvious. One of my main gripes with Christmas music is that people pass around the same few dozen carols that constantly get reworked without either making something new or digging deep for more obscure material. Original wasn’t really in the cards, since I don’t write words and you really need words for a new Xmas song to make any sense. So I tried to find something different, or at least new to my ears. If it happened to be in the public domain, even better.

The more I dug, the more the “season” in question shifted from “Christmas” to “winter.” I got really into the idea of doing something about surviving winter. I know people for whom the short days and the cold really make life miserable. I’m not a huge fan of them, either. So I settled on two olde folk songs that fit the theme.

The first is “Drive the Cold Winter Away” (also called “All Hail to the Days”), an English song dating back to about 1625. It’s all about seeing through the long, cold nights with friends and others and invokes scenes of parties, caroling, and all that jazz. Naturally that’s too upbeat for what I usually do, but I found this downtempo version by Loreena McKennitt and took my inspiration from it.

The second is “The Winter It Is Past” (also called “The Curragh of Kildare”), an Irish song, parts of which date back to at least the 1700s. There’s at least one version that includes lyrics by my great-great-great-whatever (sure, why not) Robert Burns. It’s all about the return of spring as well as the departure of a lover. The bitter and the sweet, as they say. The melody here is more traditional and upbeat than the first part, so I hope it’s a nice contrast.

I needed a name for this amalgam and wanted to express a sentiment like “winter sucks, but it gets better.” Thankfully, everything sounds better in Latin, so it became “Hiems Sugit, Sed is Gets Melius.” My old Latin teacher would approve, I think.

Without further ado, enjoy – and Happy Holidays!

If you’re interested, I tackled the same basic idea (winter giving forth to spring) a few years back in an original tune, “The Ice, The Sun.” It’s more ambient and sprawling.

The Mobster and the Mediocrity

The movie begins with a long tracking shot, weaving in and out of the locale in which the story is set. The soundtrack plays out tunes appropriate to the historical setting of the story. The opening sequence comes to an end with an old man in an institution in a wheelchair. He wants to talk to you. He has a confession to make.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s latest then you know this describes the opening of The Irishman, his latest epic mob opus. The old man in this case is Frank Sheeran, a real person, playing by Robert DeNiro.

Sheeran

But if you think back several years, it might sound like the beginning of another movie. In that case, the old main the wheelchair is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. Rather than being in a nursing home in New Jersey, he’s in an insane asylum in Vienna.

Amadeus

The move, of course, is Amadeus, directed by the late great Milos Forman.

What could these two films have in common, made decades apart with settings separated by centuries and an ocean? More than you might thing (or maybe less than I might think).

Much has been written as to the historical accuracy of The Irishman. It’s based on a tell all book, where Sheeran admitted to his lawyer all the horrible things he’d done for the mob. As particularly relevant to the film, those include the murder of New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in 1972 and, most spectacularly, Jimmy Hoffa.

As this lengthy Slate article explains, all of that is pretty much bunk (one FBI agent quoted about the book upon which The Irishman is based called it “baloney, beyond belief”). Nobody involved in the investigations into the Gallo slaying and Hoffa disappearance think Sheeran did it, although he might have been tangentially involved with Hoffa. (The publisher of the original book responds here).

Amadeus isn’t the most rigorous piece of history either. There’s no evidence to support the takeaway most people have from the film (and the play upon which it was based), that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart, of course, died penniless and kind of disdained, but it was due to some kind of infection (a “severe military fever,” according to records), not murder.

What’s interesting in the Slate piece of Sheeran, and what made me think of Salieri, is his ability to escape saying specifically “I did it”:

another quick digression about something you may have noticed earlier—the weird way that Sheeran phrased his confessions to both murders. Specifically, his use of the passive voice. ‘Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range.’ ‘Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant.’

I wondered about that, too.

Near the end of the book, Brandt tries to get Sheeran to confirm, one final time, all that he confessed before.

‘Now,’ Brandt said to Sheeran, ‘you read the book. The things that are in there about Jimmy and what happened to him are things that you told me, isn’t that right?’

Frank Sheeran said, ‘That’s right.’

‘And you stand behind them?’

And he said, ‘I stand behind what’s written.’

Which means that even in his deathbed confession, Frank Sheeran never actually says the words, ‘I killed Jimmy Hoffa,’ or that he killed Joey Gallo, or anybody at all.

Let’s assume that Sheeran’s unwillingness to come right out and say “I did it” is less trying to shirk responsibility for crimes he personally committed. What if his confession is less about what he did personally, than what he was a part of? Likewise, what if Salieri’s is not about his personal guilt for murdering Mozart, but for the unprincipled role he played in the world that led to his death?

Sheeran, by all accounts, was in the mob. Even if you’re not a contract killer for the mob, if you’re in the mob, you’re in a world where violence and murder is part of the lifestyle. It’s sort of like being a football trainer – you’re not actually out there causing brain damage, but you’re part of a world where that kind of things happens all the time. Just being around that kind of milieu must take its toll psychologically. Is it so odd that someone adjacent to so much horrible shit feels guilty about it, even if he didn’t pull any triggers?

Salieri’s world, of course, was quite a bit different, but there’s no doubt the way the musical tornado that was Mozart changed it. Keeping in mind that Salieri was already the court composer and thus entrenched in a position of power makes his eventual “confession” all the more powerful. He had plenty of opportunities (so the film argues) to aid, or at least not actively hinder, his young counterpart as he spirals into debt and drink. Not only does he keep pushing him in ways that aren’t likely to help Mozart’s health, Salieri actively fucks with his career. None of this is the same as sticking a knife in his back or poisoning him (a once-popular theory), but neither is it precisely good behavior. Much like Sheeran, Salieri was an asshole in a milieu where assholes could get away with stuff.

There was more personal animosity to the Salieri/Mozart relationship than there was anything in The Irishman, of course. To the point that, at the end of the film, Salieri declares himself the patron saint of mediocrities. Sheeran at the end of The Irishman is more inward looking, guilty about a life not well spent. He’s not making bold proclamations (and, obviously, he’s not nuts).

In my legal work I deal all the time with people who confess to doing bad things, but mostly they’re doing that on their own. If they’re coming out of some particular environment it’s not usually because they’ve chosen that life. Sheeran, by contrast, chose to be a gangster. That he didn’t personally embody the worst of what that means didn’t mean he couldn’t struggle with guilt about the worst aspects of that life. Likewise, Salieri chose to be the shit he was, even if he didn’t go so far as to murder his rival.

But I also know that people confess to things they don’t do. Sometimes it’s because cops force them into it. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty personally, even if they aren’t guilty legally. The human psyche, and memory, can be an odd thing.

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

RavenTower

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

TheTerror

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

CalculatingStars

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

LastPolice

I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?