Tag Archives: culture

Yule gift guide, part 3: Things to Read

Today’s (VERY LATE) gift guide installment features books, glorious books! Not all of these were released in 2012, but they are all worth a look for your bibliophile giftees–or for yourself, if in the new year you’ve found that you need stuff to read.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman: I read this huge honker in a couple of sittings. Yes, it’s that interesting. Good for anyone who loves non-fiction, is not a Scientologist, and/or is thinking of majoring in Religious Studies.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres: More religion! Except this time, the subject is Jonestown. Journalist Julia Scheeres gets past all of the “OMG drinking the Kool-Aid” sensationalism surrounding the group’s mass murder/suicide, and in the process uncovers a fascinating story of people searching for meaning and peace–a search which ultimately led them to extremely dark places.

Sex & Disability, edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow: I reviewed this one for Bitch over the summer, but the quality of this volume is so good that I have no problem recommending at the drop of a hat (or drawers, really). Good for people who are into cultural studies, queer theory and studies, and/or (of course!) disability theory.

In the Peanut Gallery With Mystery Science Theater 3000, edited by Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba: Yes, it’s an academic anthology on MST3K. No, it’s not boring or tedious at all. This is a good one for media studies junkies, and/or people who have managed to sit through the very early KTMA episodes of the show.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: This was one of the funniest books that I read in 2012. The weird cover featuring a little taxidermied mouse dressed in a period costume is just the beginning–if you want to read anecdotes featuring a bathtub full of baby racoons, young Jenny accidentally running into a fresh animal carcass, and awkwardness at a weekend bloggers’ meetup, this is the book for you.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson: Probably my favorite book of 2012, and certainly one of the most impeccably reported. This volume of British journalist Ronson’s collects many of his strangest and most compelling pieces, among them an interview with Insane Clown Posse (which can also be read herecontent warning for graphic descriptions of violence), a report from a week-long cruise for fans of infamously brusque psychic Sylvia Browne, and an amazing investigation of predatory credit card companies in the UK. The balance of “serious” journalism here with Ronson’s more humorous pieces is excellent, and I highly recommend Lost at Sea if you are a fan of British humor, investigative reporting, or nonfiction writing.

Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood: Those of you who are underemployed, or who are currently experiencing the purgatory of a stream of low-paid temp jobs, are sure to find much of what Southwood says about labor, capitalism, and the exploitation of young workers familiar–and, most likely, spot-on. I know I did!

All of Us or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area by Lincoln Cushing: A beautifully designed art(istic) history of the Bay Area’s famous (or infamous) reputation as a hotbed for anti-oppression movements does not disappoint. The posters included here are not just presented coffee table book-style, however–the text that describes each poster and its significance is enlightening, informative, and interesting to read. Anyone who says that history is “boring” should take a look at this book.

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5 Things People Need to Stop Saying About Unemployment

I have a confession to make: I am one of the millions of people in this country who has struggled to find work, particularly in the past year. I have a Master’s degree that I obtained fairly recently, but like many people I am still stuck in the weird “qualified but unqualified” limbo that seems to be common amongst a number of job seekers in the U.S. I do have a part-time contract job that pays pretty well and that I enjoy, but I am still far from my goal of “finding a paying job with benefits that isn’t going to make me collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day, thereby making my health problems worse.” This may seem like a highly specific goal, and it is, but I have my reasons for it, mostly having to do with disability-related things (with which many readers of my blog will be familiar!). If that shakes up your image of entitled and whiny Gen-Y kids who just don’t understand that life isn’t fair, you may want to read on.

I know putting this on a public blog is risky, more so because there are employers out there who do things like specify that the unemployed need not apply to their open positions (WTF?). I am also, however inadvertently, inviting internet tough folks to clog up my comments section with “well-meaning” crap nuggets of advice about how I am Doing It Wrong with regards to looking for employment. I probably won’t publish those comments, though–not because I am “against free speech,” but because I have had EVERY THOUGHT you could possibly throw at me about those exact topics. Really.

So, in no particular order, here are five things that people need to stop saying about unemployment and/or to unemployed and underemployed people. Because seriously, it is getting old.

“Well, I was unemployed once, and I got through it.” [May come with a barrage of unsolicited advice on How to Find a Job that would have worked 15-20 years ago.]  I notice that this one is commonly used by Baby Boomers who may or may not just want people who can’t find jobs–particularly young people–to shut up. The youth unemployment rate in this country is incredibly high, and although I don’t want to be all MY GENERATION HAS IT THE WORST–because goodness knows that older people have to deal with ageism on the job market in a particularly insidious way, regardless of how much career experience they have–this piece of advice rings quite hollow after a while. We know you’re only trying to help us during a difficult time, but here’s how you could actually help us Gen-Xers and Millennials out: Know when to stop talking, or stop typing if you just need to comment on an article online.

And if we resist your “advice,” it’s not because we’re being rude or obstinate for no reason, or because we hate you. It’s because many of us have more than enough to deal with right now. Maybe we don’t want to think about how much it sucks to be un(der)employed right now, because we think about that all the time. Maybe we already spend untold hours on cover letters, targeted resumes, networking, and all of the things that we’re supposed to do in order to get a job. Many of us are doing all of these things (and more!) as it is. Empathy: Try it sometime!

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten a degree in Women’s Studies/English/Art History, then!” Sure, let me queue up my time machine, go back eight years to my first term of undergrad, and pick a STEM major! Never mind that I would be terrible at one of those. I had the audacity–as do many people–to pick a field that I was, and am, actually pretty good at, and that I enjoyed. I EVEN GOT A MASTER’S DEGREE IN IT, so clearly I am just a waste of space because of my stupid, useless degree.

Had I been a STEM major in college, I probably would have caused something like this to happen–which would have given me an entirely different set of problems.

I know people love to rain down the hate on Humanities majors for their lack of “practicality” for what the market demands, and my guess is that people in the so-called “soft sciences” such as Psychology and Sociology get a lot of this as well. And sometimes there are other obstacles to going into STEM fields, as this wonderful comment at Ask a Manager details. I would add that while you’re busy prattling away in comments fields about your amazing Electrical Engineering degree, we’re the ones who are doing some pretty important things that you don’t see. Who do you think writes that snappy content for your company’s website? Who do you think edits your memos, corrects the grammar and spelling of your scientific papers, or turns your vague and already-kinda-been-there ideas about web 2.0 into viable social media plans? If it weren’t for “creative” types in the arts and humanities (from a variety of majors), where the hell do you think all of your entertainment would come from?

Poster for the 2012 film "The Avengers"

The guy who wrote and directed this total flop got a “useless” degree in Film.

Where do you think media criticism comes from? Journalism, opinion pieces, magazines on a huge variety of topics (including tech, business and science)? Blog posts that you pretend not to read at work? Books? And yes, weird academic papers that almost no one reads, like my B.A. thesis on the Heaven’s Gate cult? (That last one may weaken my argument a bit, but still.) I can hear the cries of indignation now: ZOMG HOW COULD YOU HAVE WRITTEN SOMETHING SO USELESS? Here’s how: I know how to put sentences together and shape a bunch of those sentences into paragraphs that expand upon a substantial and cohesive argument, keep momentum going throughout long-term projects (even when the end seems as faraway as a spaceship containing friendly aliens that will welcome your earthly soul to their peaceful home planet after a short ride through the galaxy), and read, summarize and analyze a variety of materials from different forms of media critically. Useless.

“Just think POSITIVE!” Okay, Captain the-Sun-Shines-Out-of-Our-Behinds. Perennial awesome person/journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an entire book about this trend, and as I covered in my review of Bright Sided, she is much better at building an argument against “positive thinking” than I am, because I tend to get super wordy when this topic comes up. Because it is that goddamned infuriating, particularly when applied to a HUGE PROBLEM like mass unemployment that is closely intertwined with structural failures. With the positive thinking crowd, we see the mistake of depicting individual actions as the determining factor of whether someone will succeed or fail, even though that is not really how it works. If “just trying” positive thinking and affirmations alone could get me a job, I would have SO MANY JOBS, because I have tried it and the job of my dreams did not exactly appear from the heavens fully-formed.

“You can’t go get a job at McDonald’s/in retail? You must think you’re too good for those kinds of jobs.” Not exactly; there are so many people who need work right now that even temping, retail and yes, McDonald’s are not magical employment panaceas–there was, for example, that widely-reported story about old Mickey D’s receiving one million job applications for 62,000 job openings. Take a moment and think about those odds for a bit.

As for being “too good” for certain jobs: If, say, Sephora offered me a job tomorrow, I would probably take it because I need a job and am interested in makeup (and yes, I have applied to work there). It’s not that I think I’m too good for those kinds of gigs; it’s basic math, because a whole heck of a lot of people need work right now. Also, there is a little thing called being “overqualified,” which pretty much means that Sephora might not want a sales associate with a Master’s degree, much less a Master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies. Admittedly, the notion of a Women’s Studies nerd selling cosmetics and beauty products is pretty hilarious, but that seems a bit more suited for Alan Ball’s next black comedy series than for real life.

“You need to try harder to find any job that will take you.” Certainly, there are some good tips out there that job-seekers can follow to improve their candidacy for some positions (I quite like Ask a Manager’s many posts on searching for jobs). However, the continued emphasis on individual actions in the face of some pretty intense structural odds is extremely troubling, particularly because capitalism is a system that is designed to give a lot of privileges, legs-up and such to a relative few, while the rest of us are stuck being told that we need to think positive, try harder, and generally keep running on the rat wheel until our hard work rewards us, too–often while facing stagnant wages, non-existent health benefits, and/or unpaid internships cleverly marketed as “work experience” that will supposedly look great on your resume.

Those of us who can’t find work, or enough work, are always to blame somehow: too little education, too much education in a “useless” field, too little time devoted to networking and volunteering, too little pressure on ourselves to look positive, confident and not bitter to employers even in the face of seemingly endless rejection; we have the wrong outfit, wrong resume, wrong cover letter, wrong work experience, wrong attitude.

And once you get a paying job, there is zero guarantee that it will pay a living wage; recent statistics, furthermore, point to the chilling fact that less than half of all jobs in the U.S. currently pay over $35,000 per year. How ’bout that “invisible hand of the market” holding people down instead of taking care of everything, like some said it would? Whee, capitalism! Unfortunately, the response in comments sections all around the internet is usually something to the effect of “Who gives a shit about poor people, right…they should take responsibility and get off welfare! The wealth of the top 10% will trickle down, because Reganomics works! I’m not [middle/lower/working] class, so I don’t need to care about them.” often with a piping-hot side of “OMG ILLEGALS ARE TAKING OUR JOBBBBBBBS.”

Mitt Romney giving the thumbs-up.

In the time it took me to write the above paragraph, Mitt Romney most likely made more money than I will ever see in my lifetime. GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Being unemployed/underemployed sucks, and you most likely know someone who is in that situation. For the love of Cthulhu, please re-think what you say to your friends, relatives, and fellow internet denizens who are going through this. If it happens to you—and I hope it does not—you will be glad that you stopped saying jerky things and generally acting like an ass to people who really don’t deserve it.

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Maybe Not Quite The Worst Album of All Time: A Short Review of Lulu (2011)

Hi, folks! You may have noticed that I have not been around the blogging world as of late; the primary reason for this is because I am finishing my Master’s thesis and have not had much time to blog about anything important. Continuing this trend, here is a short review of one of the most polarizing albums of the year, the Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration Lulu. It is available as a two-disc album as well as a (rather perplexing) $120 special edition box set.

First, a disclaimer: I did not have high expectations for this album at all. Since I am probably one of the comparatively few people who still follows Lou Reed’s current output (un-ironically, I swear) and who also really, really liked 2003’s The Raven (because where the hell else are you going to get Lou Reed and Antony Hegarty collaborating on anything, and both Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe READING SELECTIONS FROM EDGAR ALLEN POE’S WORKS[!] on one record?), I was eager to at least give this collaboration a chance. I suspected that it would either be the best record of the year (HA), or the worst.

(The jury is still out on whether the album art is the worst of all time, however.)

There are a lot of things to pick at here: the ramrod guitar-bass-drum combo rockers that go on for six minutes; James Hetfield’s unfortunate backing vocals in many of the songs, which seem to signal that he is trying too hard; the creepiness of hearing a man who is nearing 70 years of age say, with apparent seriousness, “I am your little girl” (that would be from “Mistress Dread”; I know it’s a concept album, but come on); the fact  every song on the first disc could have been cut by a minute or so without any detrimental effect to the overall flow of the album.

However, there are a couple of songs that are at least listenable, if not great. “Iced Honey” is a fairly catchy, if somewhat standard, rock song. “Little Dog” is not terrible, either, save for the mention of the titular dog’s penis for no apparent reason. The album’s final track, “Junior Dad” is twenty minutes long and, strangely, is probably the best track on the album. Its length–and its interesting instrumental work–distinguish it from most of Lulu, if only because it is not (for the most part) yet another six-minute hard rock track that prominently features Lou Reed’s poetry read in a monotone and James Hetfield’s awkward backing vocals in all the wrong places. One wonders whether Lulu would still be a spectacular failure if Metallica and Reed had taken things in a more “Junior Dad”-esque direction. I think it would be a much better album if this were the case, but despite the album’s failures, I cannot call Lulu the worst album of all time.

No, my pick for the worst album of all time is still Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, which is an odd, somewhat overproduced collection of metal and rock covers from the conservative Christian crooner. It’s sort of like an alternate-universe version of the oeuvre of Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine, except Boone is — as far as I can tell — totally serious, whereas Richard Cheese and LAtM works really well because the audience is in on the joke. It seems that Reed and the members of Metallica are serious about Lulu also, but at least Lulu has a few things going for it (even if one of those things is TWENTY MINUTES LONG). You can tell that Reed and Metallica enjoyed making this record — even if the end result never quite comes together as a coherent concept album, or reaches the level of transcendent godawfulness that many of us expected. Maybe it’s one of those records where you either get it or you don’t. I, for the most part, don’t.

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Music Monday: Cover songs!

I find cover songs, on the whole, super-interesting; many of them are slices of various musicians and bands at their worst or most outright bizarre (see Nickelback’s cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” by Elton John) or their best (see below). Love ‘em or hate ‘em, covers seem to be a perennially-discussed topic amongst fans of music and popular culture. There is even a website devoted to covers.

This post collects just a few of my favorites, because a post of all of my favorite covers would be entirely too long. Lyrics for each song are linked via the song title.

Garbage did an absolutely stunning version of “Candy Says,” originally by the Velvet Underground, a while back:

Next up is Tori Amos, about whom I should probably just write a whole blog entry because she is so prolific with cover songs (TAKE NOTE, me). Anyway, she covered a bunch of songs written by men about women for her 2001 album Strange Little Girls, but two of the arguably best tracks from those recording sessions did not actually make it onto the album.

After All” (David Bowie):

Only Women Bleed” (Alice Cooper):

This doesn’t mean that Strange Little Girls was a bad album, however. Check out her piano and voice cover of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” — a searing indictment of traditional masculinity that is still pretty damn relevant in the present moment, even though it was recorded in the early 1980s:

Covers have also been a unique part of Tori’s live shows. I would be remiss not to include her absolutely gorgeous organ-and-voice version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” recorded in 1996:

Then there’s her version of Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” performed on tour in 2005:

Speaking of Radiohead covers, roots/Americana musician Gillian Welch has been known to cover “Black Star” in concert; in many ways, her version surpasses the original:

Again surpassing the original (which may equal blasphemy to some Dylan fans, I know): Nina Simone sings Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’“:

I am including Antony and the Johnsons’ b-sided take on Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” because it is so radically different from the original song (check those string arrangements), but still awesome:

Patti Smith’s album Twelve is a collection of covers; if you’ve ever wanted to hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” interpreted as a folk tune WITH BANJO, this is an album worth picking up:

And lastly, recently-departed R.E.M. once recorded an amazing cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” Michael Stipe’s quiet falsetto is, in many ways, an intense counterpoint to original VU vocalist Nico’s monotone:

Feel free, as always, to link your favorites in the comments.

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Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter: A short introduction

[Description: Black and white image of musicians Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher.] (Image courtesy of jessesykes.com)

So, as probably evidenced by the existence of this tag on my Tumblr, I am a huge fan of the alt-country band Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. I have seen them perform live several times (five or six, by now? I’ve stopped keeping track, truth be told); I’ve also met Jesse several times, and she seems like a pretty awesome lady who also makes amazing music (that sound you’re hearing would be my fangirlish squeal; my friend and occasional concert buddy Amy can attest to the intensity of my squeeage).

The band’s current lineup consists of Jesse Sykes (lead vocals/guitar), Phil Wandscher (guitar/vocals), Bill Herzog (bass/vocals), and Eric Eagle (drums/vocals). Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, the Sweet Hereafter’s musical style is distinguished by layers of eerie (yet catchy!) melody ensconced in drifting wisps of sound that seems — at least from a metaphorical standpoint —  akin in some ways to the layer of misty fog that is a near-constant in the Pacific Northwest.

From a less metaphorical standpoint, however, the music of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter is country — or, more accurately, alt-country — for people who wish that country music was less poppy. If you’ve ever wanted to hear more late ’60s- early ’70s psychedelia influence in alt-country music, you will probably find something to appreciate in this band’s oeuvre. Or perhaps you’re one of those folks who would listen to more acid-rock/psychedelic material, but you tend to enjoy great musicianship and vocal skills in addition to seemingly endless guitar solos. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter are a perfectly down-tempo combo of psychedelic rock, alt-country (complete with nicely utilized slide guitars), and atmospheric chill-out music. To some, this may appear to be (or sound like) an odd formula, but in the hands of these talented musicians, it is a successful one; they consistently manage to merge the otherworldly and dream-like with the down-home, and the results are usually spectacular.

Okay, onto the actual music! The selection of their stuff available on YouTube is decent (many of the songs I wanted to include here were not on YouTube); accordingly, I’ve limited the songs posted here to high-quality live performances and audio-only tracks. Lyrics for most of these songs are available at Always On the Run.

From Reckless Burning (2002):

The title track:

Lonely Still:

Doralee  (solo performance circa 2009, for French webzine Le Cargo):

From Oh, My Girl (2004):

Title track:

The Dreaming Dead (which you may have heard on HBO’s True Blood):

Grow a New Heart (Note: It’s hard for me to pick a favorite of theirs, but this one is consistently near the top of the list!):

From Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul (2007):

LLL (live at the No Depression Festival, 2009):

The Air is Thin (official video):

Spectral Beings:

Station Grey (live in Amsterdam, 2008):

From the Gentleness of Nothing EP (2007):

Be it Me or Be it None (also for Le Cargo sessions):

Gentleness of Nothing (peculiar pleasure):

And one non-album track, “The Sinking Belle” with BORIS and Sunn0))):

The band’s latest album, Marble Son, is currently out in Europe and France, and is due to be released on July 26 in North America. One of the tracks from the forthcoming release, entitled “Ceiling’s High,” is below:

If you’d like some mp3s to download instead of waiting for all of these YouTube videos to load, the band’s now-former label, Barsuk, has a couple of songs available for free, as does the live music website Daytrotter.com; their official website also has a few songs available for streaming (click “Listen” on the menu at left).

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Quick Signal Boost: BADD 2011

I haven’t been able to put together a post for Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) this year due to other commitments, but be sure to go check out the list of this year’s posts, compiled by Goldfish at Diary of a Goldfish. As with other years, I am sure that there will be many excellent and thought-provoking posts!

I’ve contributed to BADD in the past, so now may be as good a time as any to drop some links: a poem, a bingo card, the first bingo card (cross-posted at FWD; not for BADD, but perhaps necessary for context of card #2).

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Songs: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (2001)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (lyrics). I believe the above performance is from a French television show.

I am starting a new Tumblr/blog series for 2011! It is about songs that have somehow impacted my life, and why. I was going to write about entire albums, and then I realized that that would become a huge undertaking that I would end up never finishing. So: an intermittent series on songs, because many songs are bite-sized, aurally speaking, and manageable enough for me to write about and not feel like I’m giving other things (other tracks on an album, for example) short shrift.

I’ve been trying to write about this song, and what it means to me, for the past couple of days and have been mostly coming up blank. No More Shall We Part was the first Nick Cave & TBS album I bought, around early 2006 or so, after an internet friend, Sarah, had included “Do You Love Me (Part 1)” (which, strangely, is not on that album!) on a mix some years before, and I kept pressing the back button each time the track would end. I can’t remember the reason why I bought this album first; it may have been the first result on Amazon when I typed in “nick cave and the bad seeds,” or it may have had the highest rating on iTunes or something.

The “real” reason, though, is not important. Nick Cave’s music–despite the weird, sometimes off-putting reliance on the women-as-goddesses-or-evil-temptresses trope of some of his work (or, in the case of most of 1995’s Murder Ballads, as victims of homicide by men)–has meant a lot to me, and continues to. No More Shall We Part is my favorite album of his and the Bad Seeds.

I first heard this album–and this song, which was the one that really grabbed me–during a particularly difficult time in my life. Out of nowhere, I had started experiencing moderate to severe chronic pain and fatigue to go with it, and I had no idea what to do. None of the doctors I saw could figure out what was wrong with me. When I was tired or in too much pain to do very much (which was often), I would rest and listen to music. “And No More Shall We Part” was one of the songs that I listened to constantly; almost without fail, whenever I played it, I’d listen to it at least three or four times because it was just that affecting.

I don’t believe in God. Nick Cave, however, does, and is not shy about expressing this in his lyrics. “And No More Shall We Part” contains many references to God; though this specific aspect of the song did not grab me, something about the way he sings it absolutely did.

Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I’ll never be free
If I’m not free now

Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I never was free
What are you talking about?

I didn’t believe in God, then. I needed something, however, to get me through the worst of the pain, to remind me that I was going to be okay even if the doctors–if most people around me, to an extent–couldn’t see what was going on in my body. It’s hard to put into words, but Cave’s voice was that hand reaching through my headphones, assuring me that I would be okay, even if I felt alone and scared and hopeless and bad for having health problems–and, ultimately, even if I couldn’t see any answers on the immediate horizon.

[Originally posted on my Tumblr]

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