June Book Log

June 30, 2011

So far, so good with my summer reading goal. I soldiered by way through all 850 pages of An American Tragedy and got a few other books read as well. I expect July to be a bit easier as I’ll be reading something more contemporary, but I suppose we’ll see.

1. Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey (5/5) – A very short (50 pages) collection of poetry that won the Pulitzer a few years back. I found it entrancing. I haven’t read much modern poetry since I was an undergraduate, and I’m trying to rectify that. This was a lovely set of poems for that project. The poems are all very pretty while still keeping a foothold in the real. I’ll probably get better at talking about poetry as I read more of it, but for now, I’ll end by saying I haven’t enjoyed poems more than these in a long time.

2. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (2.5/5) – Another Pultizer winner (for drama), but I’m not as enthusiastic about it. The play and I differ philosophically, and that certainly affects my assessment of it, but beyond that, I didn’t really find any of the characters interesting or engaging. It was fine, but I didn’t relate to a thing about it.

3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (5/5) – This was the big project of the month and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a slog in spots. If this book were written today, it might lose half its length. That said, it’s still a masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said for Dreiser’s persistent realism and unwillingness to use summary. You get five or six years of the main character’s life given to you with an enormous amount of detail. So much so, that it ends up being possible to sympathize with a very unsympathetic character, which is, I think, the masterstroke of this work. It is an AMERICAN tragedy. Dreiser means to indite not the individual, but the society who produced him, and he does a wonderful job of it. Given some of the recent movements in American society, the subject matter feels more contemporary than it should (it was published 86 years ago). The thesis is that a society that values wealth above all else will become more and more self-destructive as time passes and the majority of the populace is left behind. I can’t argue with that point, and I think there are a few politicians who could stand to read this. Sadly, it would probably go over their heads.

4. The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl (4.5/5) – This was an incredibly odd play about five people, three of whom are in a love triangle. The oddness did not keep it from being very engaging. Ruhl’s characters are vapid and grotesque, but they are also dealing with very difficult issues. Watching the struggle goes beyond what I would call entertaining. I will have to read more of her.

5. The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett (5/5) – This book very quietly blew me away. I have read two of her novels now and  don’t understand why I don’t hear Patchett more frequently mentioned as one of the great writers of our time. The structure of this book is not unlike something Cormac McCarthy would write. The primary difference is that McCarthy’s books are often about Men being Men in the Wild and this is a book about women trying to survive in society. The pacing and flow of the language are very similar though, and Patchett tells an amazing amount of the story via dialogue that always sounds fresh and believable. This book is a wonderful work of literature.

6. Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood (4.5/5) – This was the first of Atwood’s poetry that I’d read. It is divided neatly into five sections. I found the third solid, but unfocused. The rest, however, was masterful. The poems about the death of her father are especially moving, thought-provoking, and evocative. There is room to breath in these poems that I have not seen in her fiction, and it was interesting to see this different, but equally impressive side of her.  I often find it difficult to believe a writer can be as talented as Margaret Atwood, yet she persists in existing.

Summer Book Queue Update:

  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Where Have I Been?

June 28, 2011

So, I know this isn’t the biggest blog in the world, but I also know I have readers and that I have been woefully absent from the blog these last several weeks.

There are a few reasons for this:

1. I have been finishing Lonely Human Atoms. Like, really finishing it. I will be done by the end of the week and then it will be sent out to a few places and we will see what happens. It’s been an oddly pleasing experience to sit down and read through a book I wrote and not have any huge issues with it.

2. I have been writing posts at Redleg Nation, which is, somewhat obviously, a site that covers the Reds. I have been writing in-depth statistical analysis of individual players who figure to be a part of the team for some time to come. It’s been a nice experience, and I hope I can continue to contribute to them on a semi-frequent basis after I finish this series of articles.

3. Holy crap, it has been way busy. We have had lots and lots of company and out of town visitors and so on and so on. We have been amazingly social people lately, especially by our standards, and there are other people we still want to see. Also, I had no idea putting in some bookshelves would be such a task.

4. Cate is pregnant. That hasn’t actually kept us busy (though she’s felt a bit nauseous at times), but it’s still worth noting.

I don’t know if things figure to really calm down any time soon, but I do know that once I put the 350 page novel to bed, my brain should feel somewhat unburdened and the blog will probably be more active. Either way, I’m still here.

Yesterday, Clarence Clemons passed away. His death alters one of the great American bands in a way only Springsteen’s departure could surpass.

Many people are, to put it lightly, not fans of what Clemons brought to the table. His saxophone playing has been described with every negative descriptor you can conjure. Cheesy, clichéd, overblown. Pick one. All of the people who used those words were terribly, terribly wrong.

The music of Bruce Springsteen has always been about being bigger than big. Its roots in the feelings common to every teenager from a tiny, crappy place. It is a rejection of the drudgery of the status quo. Clemons was vital to that.

The saxophone may be the most human of instruments. The most like the voice and the most able to summon forth the basic human emotions. The saxophone can whisper. It can scream and wail. That’s what Clemons did. He screamed and wailed. Springsteen, especially early in his career, was about raging against the machinery bent on pigeon-holing him. Clemons saxophone, once Springsteen found it, was what provided the appropriate backdrop to the overblown poetry of Springsteen’s words. That wail came from an earlier time. From the beginnings of rock and roll. It was the sound of the music of their parents. It was Clemons who provided the vital ingredient that allowed Springsteen to rail against an older generation with their own musical language. Clemons, more than any other band member contributed to the sound that made Springsteen unique. It’s possible that, without the Big Man, none of us would have heard of the Boss.

Audiophile Heresy

June 10, 2011

So, if you’ve been paying attention and care (I doubt either of those is the case), you’re aware of my recent personal research into the realm of CD vs. vinyl vs. mp3 and analog vs. digital in general. I have reached a conclusion and everyone is going to tell me I’m wrong.

First, let’s talk about the equipment and music.

The primary test subject is Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. I listened to other albums in both vinyl and various digital forms, but this was the definitive test subject because: 1. It is my favorite album and I’ve listened to it a million times, in different mixes, and can theoretically pick up small differences in sound and 2. I have both a good vinyl copy and a CD that uses the original mix.

Now, the equipment:

To play the CDs, I used our above-average Pioneer DVD player. It’s not the greatest thing on the market, but it’s very good.

mp3s (AAC files, actually) were played from my iPod, which was plugged into my stereo with standard AV cables.

Vinyl was played on my Dad’s JVC turntable. It is an old turntable, but has been well cared for, and when he got it, it was the best thing on the market (my dad is also an audiophile).

The stereos were my perfectly solid Kenmore digital stereo (with 5.1 and all that jazz) which is about 10 years old (college graduation present) and an excellent Yamaha vintage stereo that was rebuilt and given to me by a family friend who does that sort of thing as a hobby.

Speakers: the primary speakers were a pair of wonderful Realistic speakers that are almost exactly as old as I am.* I also included my supplemental surround-sound speakers at times.

The results:

I am going to be crazy and give each format a rating (from 1 to 10) on three categories: Convenience, Aesthetic Appeal, and Sound. Sound will count for double because we are talking about music here. The total score will give  you their overall ranking. From the bottom:

mp3, AAC, and the like: Convenience -10, Aesthetic Appeal – 0, Sound – 5 (times two). Total score 20/40

Comments: I love my iPod. When I was in college I used to take 20-40 CDs for the four hour drive home because I didn’t know what I’d want to listen to. The iPod does a great job solving that problem, and if I’m driving or mowing the lawn, I can’t really tell the difference. If we’re talk about dedicated listening though, it doesn’t hold up. Plus, no album art or liner notes or anything like that. To those who believe there is little sonic difference between the various formats and CD/vinyl, I refer you to this, and recommend a hearing test. There was a very clear difference (Cate listened with me and agrees). There are, of course, some digital formats that are indistinguishable, but they take quite a bit of memory aren’t readily available in many places. They also sometimes cost more, which makes them moot, if you ask me.

Vinyl: Convenience – 0, Aesthetic Appeal – 10, Sound – 6 (times two). Total Score: 22/40

I wrote a post a while ago about how I love the packaging and feel of a vinyl disc, so I won’t dwell on it here. What I will do is say that, even when I listened to good vinyl, the sound was totally acceptable, but not great. People love to talk about warmth, but frankly, I think they’re nuts. The warmth you’re hearing is distortion that mars the sound of the instruments, especially on the low end. Not to play the, “I’m a musician” card, but instruments don’t sound like that live. Most bands, I think, get a sound in the studio which they want to get down as close as possible on record. Vinyl doesn’t do that. I think the preference some people have for vinyl is the result of nostalgia and that nearly everyone gets most of their music from a recording and not a live performance. Thus, a distorted idea of what “real” music sounds like. Here is an article that fully explains why I’m right about this.

CD: Convenience – 7, Aesthetic Appeal – 5, Sound – 8 (times 2). Total score: 28/40

Comments: CDs sound way better. They just do. It’s much easier to distinguish the different instruments and there’s no mud on the low end. I do understand that there are issues with the loudness wars. dynamics are an important part of music, but failings there are the fault of the people, not the format. If you have a well-mixed album with full dynamic range, it will sound better (where better = more like the musicians likely intended it to sound) on CD than it will on vinyl. I listened for myself and I read up on the subject and both avenues of research tell me this. Also, Tom Dowd agreed with me when  he was alive, so there’s that.

Now, here’s the kicker. I also preferred my digital surround-sound stereo to the vintage one. It was a similar difference when comparing CD to vinyl. I know this is serious heresy, but it’s what I heard. I understand the appeal of analog, I do. I play guitar through a tube amp because I think it sounds awesome, but there’s an important distinction. I use a tube amp because I am trying to generate a certain sound. Once I have that sound, I don’t want recording technology to mess with it. the best way to keep it clean is to record it and play it back digitally through excellent speakers. Do CDs/digital recording techniques perfectly capture that sound? No, they do not, but they come a hell of a lot closer than their analog equivalents as I think anyone who’s spent time around a rehearsing band in a good sounding room will tell you. I’ll never play through a solid state amp if I can help it, but when you’re playing it back to me, keep it digital and don’t compress it.

*How I got those speakers is the best story ever: Once upon a time (1980), my dad had ordered some speakers from Radio Shack and sent my mom, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time, to pick them up while he was at work. The salesman was a phenomenal jackass and provided her with no help at all loading them into the car (they were, I gather, fairly hefty). She wrote a letter to the company complaining. A few months later, she received a response telling her to come down to the store and pick out whatever she wanted. On my dad’s advice, she got a pair of fantastic speakers. They are about three and half feet tall and still the best sounding speakers I have ever heard in anyone’s house. The sound is crystal clear, especially if you have nice wood floors.

Years later, my parents were having a dispute because my dad wanted to get rid of a hulking entertainment center which was handmade and very nice, but no longer fit their needs (changing technology and all). My mom had, for some reason, developed an aesthetic hatred for the speakers (they were too “big” as though that’s possible) and struck a deal with dad that she would agree to get rid of the entertainment center if he got rid of the speakers. Thus, the awesome speakers passed on to me where they will live until I die because Cate is sensible enough to know the importance of kick-ass speakers.

Apple recently unveiled it’s new cloud service. Google and Amazon did the same thing a while ago. It’s all pointing to a world where all media is stored in the aether and pulled down for us to use whenever we feel a need for it. I do not like this, not at all.

I will admit that the idea of all my music being accessible to me at all times is pretty appealing. Additionally, I have certainly been tempted by readers and the wealth of free classics available. I may, in fact, make use of some of these services, but I can’t imagine ever fully trusting them. There are two reasons for this.

1. If I can’t hold it, is it really mine? Most of the cloud services don’t require you to actually have things on a hard drive. Further, they often control what you can do with the file. Amazon has removed titles from Kindles before.  You can loan a book that you buy for your Kindle one time. Once. If you ask me, that means it isn’t really mine. Also, what happens if Amazon or Apple or Google goes out of business? Sure, they all look invincible now, but history is littered with invincible companies that quickly fell by the wayside. If a book or album is really valuable to me, I want a physical copy of it that cannot be taken away by some amorphous corporate entity.

2. The devaluing of art. There is something about digitization that makes people feel that art is disposable. Books, music, film, whatever. It doesn’t matter if we lose it or don’t ever give anything for it because it’s just a file somewhere. But you know, people put a lot of their lives into these things. Writing books is hard. Making music is hard. If we are moving toward a point where, as a culture, we start to view these things as having no real value, well, I’ll just get off right here, then.

Am I being ridiculous? That is totally possible. It may be that this is just a technological transition that I am already too much of an old fogey to understand or appreciate. It may be that we are going to find a new way to value art and artist. But I don’t see it happening and until I do, I’ll be keeping one foot out of the cloud and on the ground.

Note: You are totally welcome to read this post, you may even find it marginally interesting, but I am writing it primarily to hold myself accountable over the summer.

This summer is going to be a new experience for Cate and I. We are not getting married or having a child or buying a house. We might take a small vacation, but that’s it. In short, for the first time, the summer sits out in front of us like a vast plain of freedom. We are both looking forward to it. That said, I don’t want to just sit on my ass, so here are my summer goals:

1. Finish Lonely Human Atoms and send it out into the world. This novel should have been finished at least a year ago, but life is very good at intervening (and I can be lazy, especially when it comes to editing). I have one light edit remaining and then it should be actually, finally finished. We’ll see, I guess, but my intent is to spend a few hours on it everyday until it’s done. I’m guessing it will take about a month.

2. Read three very long books. I do love long books and I’ve had several sitting on my shelf for a while that I simply haven’t tackled because those 350 page books just look so much easier. No more of that. Correspondingly, I’m going to read one behemoth a month. This brings us to my long awaited summer book queue (to be completed by the start of school-ish):

  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

3. Really get the yard in shape. When we moved in, the yard was basically a disaster. All the previous owners had ever done was mow the lawn. We’ve been working, and it’s getting there, but there is still a ways to go. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, though.

4. Get prepared for my advanced writing class. I am very excited for this class, but I need to work to get myself up to date with playwriting and especially poetry. I currently have a stack of ten library books to this end. Mercifully, plays and volumes of poetry tend to be short and will nicely counter-balance the longer selections I’ll be reading

5. Write about baseball and music. Assuming everything turns out, I’ll be writing a series of articles on the Reds for RedlegNation this summer. I also intend to write various music-related posts for this blog simply because I like music, and don’t write about it enough.

6. Spend time with Cate and Simone. I’m listing this one last, but it’s the most important. The end of the school year is always a strain on my relationship with Cate, and the summer comes as a welcome reprieve. We need to stay up late and reconnect while we have the chance. Next year will come faster than we realize. I also want to make it a point to play with Simone a lot. I try to always give her my best, but it can be hard after a bad work day.

Today, my daughter turns two years old. That seems impossible. It was not that long ago, at least in my memory, that I was perpetually single. Being single, I should note, is not something I’m nostalgic for. But here we are. Simone is two.

Pretty much everything, I have learned, is different than you think it will be. Parenting lies at the extreme of this concept. There is an abstract idea in your head of what parenting will be like. It includes sleepless nights, but not sleepless weeks. It includes some discipline, but in this mental image, you are always able to maintain your sense of humor about your child dumping out the pet food and water.

The mental image includes hugs and a sleeping child, but it does not include the particular way she jumps up and down when you come home or how she’ll spin in circles for hours because it’s fun. It does not include the spontaneous kisses she will give you. It does not include the soft weight of her tiny body when you stand alone with her outside in the silent night rocking her to sleep and watching an airplane pass overhead.

Most of all, that image misses that this an individual you are caring for. You are the first person (along with your wife) to get to know her. She will surprise you in a way no one else ever will. She will walk early, but struggle with speaking. She will love reading in a way you never dreamed of and she will make bigger messes than you could ever imagine.

I don’t know about you, but taken together, it all makes me very happy. Happy birthday Simone.

Jay Bruce

June 1, 2011

New article on Jay Bruce up here (baseball/math nerd warning).