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Feb. 3rd, 2016

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

I queered "Jessie's Girl" this week.


And I started reading Jessa Crispin's Dead Ladies Project, and fell in love immediately. I mean, woman has mental breakdown, abandons her life and travels around Europe chasing the ghosts of dead lady artists, reconstructing what it means to have a meaningful life along the way? How could I resist?

Actually I fell in love before I even read the book; I came across an excerpt of the final chapter about surrealist artist Claude Cahun several weeks ago, a chapter that is also a little bit about Kathy Acker, as you will see.

Don't know who Cahun is? That's OK, almost nobody except people like me who spent way too many hours compulsively researching all the women Dadaist and Surrealist artists. (And, in a strange twist of fate, David Bowie, who called her a "cross-dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies" and curated a show of her work in 2007.) Not so hard; there weren't that many. But Cahun remains the most elusive. "[E]ven fifty years on she’s still the wild one, that after Cindy Sherman is turned into postcards and even my parents have seen the Marina Abramovic documentary, Cahun has not been incorporated." Cahun's gender-ambiguous name, and portraits, and art, have always held a special secret meaning to me. So I was ridiculously excited to read this essay -- and in the process, learn even more than I knew before about Cahun. "God save us all from identity politics. Cahun was exploding her identity, not defining it."

There are dead gentlemen in here too, notably William James. The book is also enhanced by the memories of my own small perambulations around Europe a couple decades ago, although I think Berlin is the only destination Crispin and I shared.

It's also a good opportunity to indulge in my fantasies of fleeing the country, which are rather complicated now by the inclusion of two biracial kids and a black spouse-to-be. Still, any place where the police force doesn't routinely carry guns around begins to look nicer and nicer as time goes by, just sayin'.

Jan. 27th, 2016

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

Grease is the word.


This week I am reading a giant pile of old Saveur magazines I found in the basement. They are so good, y'all. The current version of the magazine is so pallid by comparison. I mourn. I clip recipes.

Speaking of reading, I am finally running into that retail phenomenon where customers expect me to have read more or less everything in the bookstore, or at least everything on the NYT bestseller list. Nope, and no plans to fix that any time soon.

Jan. 20th, 2016

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

This week: Why Grace Jones's "Demolition Man" is my theme song.


Plus: cookbooks, cookbooks, thick yellow pop music books previously mentioned (Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!), books that are not cookbooks but are about food (Soul Food), and memoirs about women in music (I'll Never Write My Memoirs, Girl in a Band). I am a nibbler this week.

Jan. 13th, 2016

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

This week's Earworm Weekly is on David Bowie's "Young Americans." Why that song in particular? Read the column and see.


I've been reading "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!", the monumental history of pop by Bob Stanley. I am cutting Stanley a bit of slack b/c he's British, but this book is really white, y'all. And also heavily balanced toward the boys. It's completely an unconscious bias, I can tell, and Stanley *tries* to be fair and even-handed (and passes my litmus test of not dismissing girl groups in the early years of the 1960s, probably b/c his project is pop, not rock), and I'm still very much enjoying the book, but it's strange how glaring this is to me now.

Also reading cookbooks again, most notably Lucky Peach's first cookbook, "101 Easy Asian Recipes." They really are easy and more importantly completely unpretentious, and they basically just refuse to even address any aspect of the issue of "authenticity" on purpose. Instead, they write hilarious end notes to the recipes and design the book (fonts, photos) as if it was one of those 1970s Time World Cuisine cookbooks. I love it, I love it. I will be eating from it a lot and chuckling often.

Jan. 6th, 2016

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

This week's Earworm Weekly is on Mongo Santamaria's "Fatback." Never heard of Mongo Santamaria? Click on the link! You will also learn all about Valerie Capers, a blind black jazz composer who co-penned the song.

Besides, I will never beat the headline "Mongo Santamaria celebrates Thick Women and Good Cookin'."


Reading-wise, I whizzed through Nell Zink's Mislaid this week. The dry humor of the book was like catnip to me, and so, to an extent, was the setting; it begins at a Southern women's college in the 1960s with an affair between the resident gay male poet, faculty star, and black sheep of the local rich family, and a girl who dresses mostly in ill-fitting rugby shirts, wants to take his writing class but not his reading classes, and admires Anne Sexton because "she doesn't sound so good, but she's got something to day. I read Hopkins or Dylan Thomas and I think, these cats sound cool all right, but do they have something to say?"

After a brief, intense affair, he knocks her up. They get married and our female protagonist turns into a faculty wife to a gay poet who likes to entertain his old New York friends (and others) in a certain style. Needless to say, she is very unhappy. She has another baby, has a breakdown, and runs off with the younger child, a daughter, in tow; the older, a son, stays with his father. She steals the identity (i.e. obtains the birth certificate) of a black child who died at about the same age her daughter is and, being young, white, and crazy, figures it won't make that much of a difference. (She's wrong, of course.) She takes over an abandoned shack in the sticks and proceeds to raise her daughter under the radar in extreme poverty. Eventually she gets relocated into a housing project at about the same time as she starts dealing first mushrooms, then pot, and then harder drugs.

Meanwhile, her son is raised by his now unencumbered father and eventually gets sent to boarding school, then college. Her daughter is admitted to that same college (big prestigious state schools ftw). There's a big climactic collision of fate. And they all rediscover each other, reconcile, and live happily ever after. "He did not mention life goals again. Life has a goal, he noted, and harping on it is counterproductive." The end.

The last part was the biggest surprise. Another book would have punished these characters for their transgressions, and made it funny so we accepted it as their lot. A tragicomedy. This turns out just to be a comedy. In some ways, allowing the ending to unfold as it does may be the most transgressive part of the whole book. Because of the way things are coded in this world of ours, it initially made the book feel a little fluffy and unserious to me. But that's probably unfair, and as I sit and ponder I am more and more glad that Zink did what she did. Because it's not unserious at all; Zink takes risks with her material and never, ever goes for the easy joke. The jokes make themselves out of the absurdities of the setting -- that is, contemporary and near-historical America -- and the deformations of character they ask for. This was a hugely enjoyable read.

Dec. 30th, 2015

reading tiger

Reading and Listening

Once again, my reading and my music writing converge thanks to the death of Justin Chin, who left us Christmas Eve after suffering a stroke. I've been re-reading his poetry, and thus ended up with an earworm of "The Rose" thanks to a passage in his book-length work Gutted. Justin specified the Bette Midler/Wynonna Judd duet version in a footnote.

Read the column here.

The other earworm I have had all week is his distinctive, raspy, deadpan voice. I hear it every time I read his stuff, and, this week, at other times too, sometimes not even saying distinct words, just a cadence.

The story I've been telling about Justin this week is the one about when I went to see a performance of "These Nervous Days" in about 1997 at the SF Art Institute. I was pleased to discover that the text of the performance is reprinted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms, which includes the notes that "although Holy Spook is the most performed work, These Nervous Days is probably the most known work." And also, "in some versions of this show, there was a video projected on the rear wall. The video showed stuffed animal plush toys being abused and molested, interspersed with distorted (by being played at various wrong speeds and directions) clips of classic Hollywood movie "deathbed" scenes, and extreme close-up frame-by-frame shots of various eyes." That's the one I saw. This is the performance that ends with him drawing a syringe of his own HIV+ blood, injecting it into a carton of milk, pouring the milk into a glass (pink and white and swirled), and then drinking it. As I said elsewhere earlier, I can use this performance description as a litmus test. If you "get it," I want to get to know you better. The part I left out in my earlier retelling is that I also remember telling it to my Clarion class just a year at most after I saw it, and watching them all turn away in horror (except one, you know who you are). Maybe I shouldn't have told it over lunch, though.

Dec. 23rd, 2015

reading tiger

Reading and Writing

Except for my column and a single work shift at the bookstore tomorrow, I have the week entirely off from paid labor. So instead I am making cookies and

This week's Earworm Weekly is on my favorite Christmas song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. For the record, I never watched Letterman for more than maybe 5 to 10 minutes at a time when it was on the air, so this song came to me via the organic "I am obsessed with girl-group harmonies" route instead.


Readingwise, it's been mostly cookbooks as I figure out what cookies to bake and how to handle a split Xmas Eve/Xmas holiday with a work shift in the middle. I decided that next year, I'm making lasagna for Christmas Eve. This year is still up in the air. Christmas Day, though, the children will be at someone else's house and G. and I will split a roast duck.

So while I am here, let me recommend a cookbook: Ratio by Mark Ruhlman. Everything Ruhlman writes is solid; his Ruhlman's Twenty is already a standard around here, and he's also the author of the award-winning French Laundry Cookbook as well as the other two big books in the Thomas Keller Trilogy, Bouchon and Ad Hoc at Home.

I'd always heard good things about Ratio but I am not a math geek and not much of a baker, so I let it slide until I was looking for a solid sugar cookie dough that didn't use vegetable shortening. I picked up Ratio, and not only did he have the perfect recipe plus the perfect explanation of what it does and doesn't do well, he also had a very basic cookie dough recipe plus a zillion suggested variations. I used this dough last night for jam thumbprints, and I couldn't be happier.

So, Ratio! If you bake, you should get it! It's not just for bakers, though. You'll get cream sauces, custards, mayonnaise and its relatives, and even sausages. I am so sorry I ignored the bandwagon for this book for so long. No more.

Dec. 16th, 2015

reading tiger

Music and Books

1. In this week's Earworm Weekly installment, I call Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" a concern troll.


P.S. despite my cheeky lead-in, I'm once again a little perplexed that folks are talking about this column as a "takedown." On the plus side, I guess I can no longer be accused of only haterating along identity lines.

2. Reading this week: my backlog of "Hip Mama" issues. (I have a lifetime subscription.) Otherwise I have been too busy selling books to read them much, although I did also make some progress on some books mentioned previously in this space, e.g. Carrie Brownstein and Cheddar. Welcome to the winter holiday shopping season!

Dec. 9th, 2015

reading tiger

Reading Wednesday and Earworm Tuesday

I've been dipping into Carrie Brownstein's memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I like it, it isn't bowling me over. Portlandia fans will be disappointed and/or surprised; Sleater-Kinney fans will learn a bunch of interesting but not earthshaking stuff.

Next up, a bunch of comics: I brought Cleopatra in Space and Lumberjanes home from the bookstore the other day. The kids are probably already salivating.

Meanwhile, I wrote about Courtney Love and "Awful" for my SF Weekly column:


Dec. 3rd, 2015

reading tiger

What am I reading? And what did I say about the Beatles?

Some of my tongue-tied-ness yesterday may also be because a) I am on a massive deadline and b) I spent most of my morning before the San Bernardino news broke dealing with angry Beatles fans.

Tuesday's Earworm Weekly was about "Norwegian Wood" and how the lyrics can be easily taken to mean that the singer burned some girl's house down after she turned him down for sex.

Also, I called both John and Paul assholes and admitted that I don't worship at the shrine of Beatledom. All this was enough to precipitate a small Internet storm. Some of which I could avoid by, you know, not reading the comments, but some of which came looking for me as these things do nowadays.

If you would rather believe that the protagonist of "Norwegian Wood" lit up a joint in the morning, more power to you. If you'd rather believe Lennon and McCartney weren't assholes, I can't help you. But just a helpful reminder: I didn't say you couldn't like the song or shouldn't listen to it any more. It gives me the creeps, and and calling me names* isn't going to change that.

P.S. I didn't actually know that Rubber Soul's 50th anniversary was this week. Heh.

So, that's my week in music criticism. As for my week in reading, I just finished the Vermont chapter in Cheddar. I am also reading Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head to the kids; it's a new middle-grade book series set in Dumfrey's Dime Museum, a rundown little place in New York City that houses both inanimate objects and live-and-in-person residents including four scrappy kids with special abilities. "They're not freaks. They're marvels." It's a charming little book and we're all enjoying it. If you want the full publicity workup, you can click here: The Curiosity House.

* Most wackily, sneering at me because I am supposedly a "millennial," which has already happened often enough to become a theme. This is supremely amusing when I am in fact more in danger of aging out of pop music criticism entirely. I presume that it's a sideways attempt at saying "you don't know anything about the Beatles, you baby" or else the usual infantilizing of women writers, or both. So look. I was born the year the Beatles broke up. I have lived through at least two major revivals of their music. I remember playing "Beatles" on the playground when I was a kid. (I was always George. Now you know.) So please, if you're going to deride me based on my age, refer to me as one of those Gen X pissants who merely reflexively hate everything to do with the Boomers. It's still ridiculously inaccurate but at least it's chronologically correct.

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