Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend

by Patton Oswalt

I never wanted to be a standup comedian. Too introverted. Which is good because I’m also not that funny.

But after reading Patton Oswalt’s memoir of his early years as a standup, mostly in California, now I’m even surer that standup comedy is never a profession I would pursue. (Sorry, Midlife Crisis. Maybe there’s an over-the-hill grunge cover band you can try out for.) And I’ve also learned that I never want to be a film addict, what Oswalt calls a sprocket fiend and what I would probably call a cinema snob: someone who’s seen every movie starting with the 1920’s, only watches them in the theaters, prefers French and Swedish existentialist cinema, and knows the genesis of every film, the backstory of every director, the influences of every nuance. Someone who would tell you that Bruce Willis’s movie Last Man Standing is basically a remake of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, which are basically remakes of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which are based on a novel that nobody has read. Except that guy.

You know that guy?

Patton Oswalt was that guy. The above paraphrase is actually from a conversation he relates in the book.

But here’s the thing: That Guy is generally insufferable because he believes that everyone else thinks like he does, or at least should; he can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to know the reason why a movie uses certain angles and certain shots, why certain lines are delivered in certain ways: he can’t imagine just wanting to watch a movie and enjoy it. And while Oswalt was that guy for a while, he actually recognized that it wasn’t a good thing. He describes his film habit as an addiction, and the description is apt: it was taking over his life, ruining his relationships, everything that an addiction does to a person while they are in the throes of it and sinking towards their bottom. He got into it with good intentions: he was going to become a director, a brilliant filmmaker, and he wanted to study his craft before he dove into it. But very quickly, it went too far.

This memoir is about that addiction. It is also about the other side of Oswalt’s life, becoming a working standup and then a television comedy writer during the 1990’s. And honestly, because I am neither a standup nor a sprocket fiend, there was a fair amount of this book that I couldn’t relate to. I don’t understand the experience of doing a good set of comedy and making an audience laugh; I don’t understand the pleasures of finding a new and different way to perform that doesn’t necessarily wow an audience, but impresses the hell out of the other comedians watching you. But it was nonetheless interesting to read about those experiences, as well as the life of a creative person, and about an unusual form of addiction – but still a harmful one.

My favorite aspect of the book was this wonderful analogy that Oswalt uses: the Night Cafe. The Night Cafe is a piece by Vincent Van Gogh, and for Van Gogh, it represents the beginning of his transition from talented painter to mad genius: and the beginning, too, of the madness that eventually destroyed him, while it produced some of the greatest art in history. Oswalt talks about the Night Cafe as a place that you can’t leave unchanged, that once you go in, once you see it, you cannot be the same person. He talks about the different Night Cafes he has experiences, at least three of which happen during the time period this book covers (He mentions two others, and references the final Night Cafe that we all enter but never return from, the clearing at the end of the path), and how those experiences jarred him so seriously that he changed the course of his life. I thought that was brilliant, and even if I couldn’t connect to the comedian or the sprocket fiend, I could definitely connect to the guy whose life was wrenched from one path to another by a single experience – and the guy who uses art to understand his world. I liked that guy a lot.

I liked the book, too. And I plan to give my copy to a young man I know who is already on his way to becoming a sprocket fiend just like Oswalt. Maybe it can be his Night Cafe.

Book Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

by Jim Butcher

I’m tired, now.

I’m not tired because it’s Monday (Okay, no, I am tired because it’s Monday – but that’s not the main reason.), but because I just got finished being dragged along, like a dinghy tied to the back of a battleship, in the wake of probably the best action writer working right now.

Jim Butcher.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first book in a new series, The Cinder Spires; it is science-fiction, and it is steampunk. It is set in a world where the people live in impossibly tall structures, called Spires, that stand miles into the atmosphere; people travel between Spires on airships that fly using electrical currents in the atmosphere which they catch with great webs of silken ropes, like solar sails. The main characters include the captain of the fastest air ship on the planet – which is not Earth; it seems to be a planet with a much denser atmosphere, as the ships are described as sinking down into the permanent mist, or sailing up out of it in order to navigate or to fight – as well as a pair of what might as well be called wizards, master and apprentice Etherealists with strange powers and the strange penalties that so often accompany power. There are also a selection of nobles of the main Spire in the story, Spire Albion; nobles both wealthy and poor, honorable and deceitful, beautiful and deadly. They duel, they backstab, they fight for position and prominence and power. There are several soldier characters, as well, as this is the story of a war between Spires, or at least the beginning of the war: and the first strike is not only the deadliest, but it carries deeper meaning, as well. There are wheels within wheels, here, and fires within fires. There are also some of the nastiest villains I’ve read in quite a while: an evil Etherealist and her bodyguard, and they are extraordinarily vicious and disturbing. All I’ll say is: their allies of choice are enormous alien arachnids that skitter up walls before they leap down and tear limbs off with their giant insectoid jaws, wrapping up their human opponents in strands of sticky web-silk. And those are the less-frightening ones.

But hold on: because all is not lost. As confused and desperate as these humans become – and the heroes really do sink pretty low, though I’ll spoil this: they don’t lose every fight – they still hold onto hope.

Because some of the characters in this book are cats.

That’s right: steampunk, airships, war, magic, battle, alien spider-monsters – and talking cats.

And because it’s Jim Butcher, the battle scene starts about a third of the way into the book: and then it. Does. Not. Stop. Even on the last page, we are finding out about new betrayals, new dangers, new challenges that face our heroes. It is enormous fun to read, because Butcher does it the right way: he has his characters face setbacks and surprises and even awful defeats; but then the right person with the right ability is in the right place at the right time, and out of that good fortune or good planning comes– victory. At least a small one. Sometimes a large one. And you’re cheering for them the whole way, because Butcher also writes wonderful characters, complex and intriguing and genuine, and of course, Butcher has that wonderful sense of humor, which sparkles through the whole book – particularly the scenes with the cat interacting with his human companions (and inferiors, as he sees them; he is, after all, a cat.).

It’s not flawless; the way the airships function was hard for me to follow at times, and the world is larger and more complex than could ever be covered in one book unless that book was nothing but history and atlas. This one isn’t, so there are things I want to know more about and things I don’t yet understand. But this was tremendous fun to read. And for the rest?

You’re durn tootin’ I’m going to read the next book to find out. And the one after that.

When I Was Homeless

I don’t actually know this woman personally, but we’re connected, connected enough for me to find this post, and connected by enough shared humanity (of which she has too much and I not enough) for me to want to share this. And I am disconnected enough to feel guilty about sharing it, because it’s not my story, not one I could live and not one I could write. But I’m sharing it anyway because this is a story I want to keep for myself, and to give as well. I don’t know what else I can gove in return for it.
I hope you all read it.

Beyond the Barbed Wire

By Cat Jones

I'm all right now, but this is a story about where I've been recently. I’m all right now, but this is a story about where I’ve been recently.

People who have never been homeless don’t know shit about it. And the real problem is, they don’t know that they don’t know shit. The ignorance around this issue has real and painful consequences for people impacted by poverty. This point has been underlined to me recently, with a spate of incidents and conversations involving friends of mine whose normally compassionate natures were suddenly and inexplicably shrouded by ignorance, entitlement, and lack of understanding when it came to people who are homeless (not to mention the ridiculous spectacle of a couple of New York senators making asses of themselves by insisting we need them to limit the ability of food stamp recipients to buy “luxury items” with their SNAP benefits, as IF that were even a thing). I’ve been thinking about this a lot…

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The Worst

You cannot appreciate light without darkness; you cannot appreciate Chris Cornell’s singing without hearing Neil Young whinge, and the tiny tickle as your eardrums begin to bleed. So as I have done four days of the best of music — and because good pedagogy tells me that teachers should give four positive comments for every negative comment — I have now earned a little negativity. So here it is. Times ten.

For this list, I’m sticking with singers who have longer careers, people who think they can sing even though they can’t. I have no doubt that there are nobodies out there, wanna-bes who won’t be, who have hyperinflated self-images and manage to record something; this is the reason YouTube exists. But for this, I’m strictly looking at successful singers who can’t actually sing. This means that all of these people have fans; usually of their music in general, but often of the singing, in specific. So I know that others will not agree with all of my choices.I sympathize, I really do. But I’m still right. These people really can’t sing. And this list is in order, with the very worst saved for the very last.


#10: Rebecca Black: I know, I know: it’s a cliche.  Everyone spent years ripping on this song and this singer. But as I have often noted, things become cliche because they are so frequently true that everyone makes the same observation, the same judgment, the same statement about it. An apple a day (Or at least regularly eating fruit) really does keep the doctor away. You really can’t buy love.

And Rebecca Black really can’t sing. It’s not just the song — though this might be the worst song ever written, and I’m including “Barbie Girl.” She really can’t sing.

I also realize I am breaking my own rules about people with longer careers and avoiding one-hit wonders who suck; so take this as the one who represents all of the people who become singers because they really, really want to be singers; not because they have a calling, or because they love music, or because they have real talent. They just REALLY, REALLY WANT TO. And their parents have enough money to hire a production company.


#9: Eminem: I said this before: Eminem is a brilliant rapper. I love his music, admire his talent and his honesty in his lyrics; the man has an incredible sense of rhythm, and a playful, innovative creativity when it comes to setting words to rhythm and rhyme. Amazing.

But oh my god, somebody tell him he can’t sing. Please? I mean, listen to this song. The rap in the verses is so smooth, so rapid-fire and yet soft and sensitive, as fits his subject, and he packs so many words in there, all in rhythm, all in rhyme, and none of it dropping back to the traditional filler syllables, like “Aw yeah!” or “Gangsta!” or something similar.

And then it turns to the chorus and he sings. And I want to run away and hide.



#8: Geddy Lee: This one’s more personal, and less likely to have other people agreeing with me. So the truth is, I really like prog rock. I’m a longtime fan of King Crimson, and I love Tool. I love the complicated rhythms, the musical virtuosity, the experimental weirdness that sometimes goes too far and keeps it from even sounding like music; I like all of that.

But I hate Rush. Can’t listen to them. Even though they are one of the premier examples of this genre: they are incredible musicians who do all kinds of weird, complicated stuff, ten and twelve and twenty minute songs, with (often pretentious, but that’s a side issue and not unique to Rush) lyrics that draw heavily from literature; all of it requiring great skill. I would love all of that. Except for this one, leeetle thing: I can’t stand Geddy Lee’s voice.

I can’t! Not even for a minute. Even as I write this, I’m listening to the song in the background, to make sure it is the one I want to use as my example, and yup: it’s driving me nuts. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. His voice is just too high, too squeaky, with absolutely no muscle behind it. I hate it. If only he had stood back and played bass and sang background for some other singer, I would probably love this band.

But he didn’t. I don’t. This is why.



#7: Bruce Springsteen: You know, I get it. I’ve known a lot of people who are Springsteen fans. He  writes good music — though it’s not really my preference, I can see the draw. And he does a great live show, sure, yes.

But the dude cannot sing. He can’t. He sounds terrible. He mumbles everything. He has to reach for every high note, and when he can’t reach it, he sings it flat and lets it trail off into silence like he meant it to sound like that. Listen: here he is butchering a U2 song. And just listen to how much better The Edge (You know, the guitarist? The backup singer in the band?) sounds than his lead.



#6: Fred Durst: This is a bad singer who needs no argument from me, other than this.



#5: Biz Markie: Worst rapper ever. Maybe that’s the gag, but it doesn’t make it any less terrible to listen to. And he sings, too.



#4: Willie Nelson: This one is a combination. I don’t like country music. I don’t like nasal singers. I don’t like singers who trail off and swallow all of their long notes. Any one of these things, I wouldn’t have much of an opinion: but Mr. Nelson is all three. Sort of the epitome of all three. (I will say that after listening to all of the other singers on this countdown, I suddenly don’t think that Willie is all that bad. I think my ears are crying.)



#3: Tom Petty: This one was tough to place on the list. Because I like a lot of his music. I sing along when he comes on the radio. But the thing is, I sing along loudly: because I can’t stand hearing his voice. I will never understand why people who have genuine musical ability, who write good songs, but who cannot sing, insist on being singers. I liked playing drums, but I was not good at it. So I stopped. I like playing basketball, too — but I don’t play that either. Because I suck. Tom Petty sounds like someone slowly opening a large, extremely squeaky door; and yet there he’s been, for thirty plus years now, squeaking and caterwauling away. Like this.



#2: Neil Young: Okay: Tom Petty I blamed for deciding to be a singer. I blame society for this one. How could anyone with functioning ears like the way this man sounds? I mean, for forty years, people bought his albums and went to his concerts! For this! FOR THIS!




#1 Bob Dylan: The granddaddy of them all. The reason, I believe, that so many bad singers think they can have successful careers if they can write well and perform well. And as I’ve been saying all along, I think the music is fine, some of it is great; but there is no reason — no reason — why any of these people decided they needed to sing. Why any of them could listen to themselves singing these songs and think, “Yeah — that song would suck if someone with a rich, full voice and a good tone were to sing it. What it really needs is a nasal whine, an irritating accent, and crappy enunciation. That’s the stuff!”

So thanks for that, Mr. Dylan.

Here: the top two together. I would advise you not to listen to this. Certainly not all eight minutes. It would be fatal.



And now, for the worst singer of all.




I rap badly, too.



We shall this day light such a candle that I trust shall never be put out.

Tired of these lists? Don’t worry: this one will be over quickly.

Because these are the best singers whose careers didn’t last very long.

Whether because of the breakup of a band, or the failure to recreate magic, or the tragedy of death, these are talented people who became essentially one-hit (or one-album) wonders. Their musical success was small and short-lived; yet they burned bright enough to leave a legacy. At least in my mind.

We’ll do this chronologically, starting with the most recent. Because that way, we’re going back to the good old days, and reliving the past glories. Seems appropriate.

Although looking up all of the dates for these songs is making me feel like an episode of I Love the 90’s on VH1. Jeeze. Should have just called this “My high school and college years.” Well, anyway, here they are — not all from the 90’s!


Los Lonely Boys (2003)

Loved this song. Couldn’t understand why these guys didn’t have a crapton more hits. Great voice, good music, and they’re actually a trio of brothers, so if they hadn’t killed each other within the first six months of performing together, then they’re like the BeeGees, and they can go until they die. But at least this is a great song.



Afroman (2002)

All right, this is a stupid song. I admit it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t catchy as hell, or that his singing isn’t good — because it actually is. He’s got an interesting voice and this one is quite well done. Plus, who doesn’t like Jay and Silent Bob?



Monster Magnet (1998)

This is still one of my favorite songs from the 90’s. I own the album, and the rest of it isn’t as good, so I never looked for more of their stuff — but damn, I love that guitar riff and the singing. The goofy lyrics are just a plus. (Wikipedia calls this band “stoner rock.” Which explains a lot.)



Sublime (1996)

This is one of the reasons why drugs piss me off: Brad Nowell. So talented. And he never had the chance to grow into it, and keep making music like this — and fewer songs like “Wrong Way” and “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” which are not as good.

Plus, there is nothing sadder than this video, his former bandmates catapulted to stardom two months after their frontman’s death trying to act like they’re not broken. And they put his dog in the video, too. Jesus wept.



Jeff Buckley (1994)

This is a singer I wasn’t aware of at the time of his life and death; but the song is heartache in musical form.



Izzy Kamakawiwoʻole (1993)

I will never remember this man’s full name. But I will never forget this song.



4 Non-Blondes (1993)

Everybody makes fun of this band. Everybody made fun of them when the song came out, too. But I loved this song then, and I love it now — and Linda Perry is one badass singer.



Crash Test Dummies (1993)

This is another one we all made fun of. But I always liked. This guy’s voice is just amazing. Though somehow, I have a memory of mocking this song, and still liking it, with my high school friends; are we sure that’s the right date for its release? Huh. False memory, I guess. Mmm hmmmmmm.



Blind Melon (1992)

Yet another drug-related death, another remarkable singer lost. I remember first catching this guy on the Guns and Roses song where he sings backup to Axl Rose, and sings even higher than Rose could. And then this song came out, and it was just so freaking awesome. Aaaaand then he died. Dammit.



The Verve Pipe (1992)

To be honest, I still don’t understand why anyone would write a song trying to justify sexual assault, or humanize the rapist’s experience. But I love the way this song sounds, and I love Brian Vander Ark’s voice.



Deeelite (1990)

I don’t understand why people don’t love this song. Though I admit it isn’t just the singing that put it on this countdown; it’s also that funky, funky beat. Though she does sing well — and Bootsy Collins, I mean, come on. It’s Bootsy Collins!


Sinead O’Connor (1990)

What a voice. And this song is magnificent — though the English teacher in me hates Prince for using “2 U” instead of the actual goddamn words. Oh — and she was always right about the Pope, and screw Frank Sinatra for bringing all of his weight down on her. Like that’s a fair fight.


Alannah Myles (1990)

I always felt like this video hit the “Ain’t I sexy?” a little too hard. I mean, come on — chaps? Seriously? But the song is cool and her voice is fantastic. And okay, she is pretty sexy. But that’s not why I picked it! It’s not!



Skid Row (1989)

I love this song. I loved it when it came out, I loved it when we all found out just what a tool Sebastian Bach is, I loved it when all of the band’s other music sucked, I loved it when they failed to make good music ever again, I love it now. I love this song. And I had one of the strangest dreams of my life about Sebastian Bach — who was, in the dream, in love with me and heartbroken that I did not share his feelings. And maybe that’s why I love this song so much. Though really, he does have a good voice, and it’s never sounded better than on this.



Ben E. King (1961)

No better way to end this than with one of the greatest songs in the history of rock, which has never been performed better than the original. This is kind of a cheat for the one-hit-wonder thing, since King sang with The Drifters who had many hits; but this was his only solo hit, and it is a masterpiece.