Thursday, December 17, 2009

favorite books of 2009

another year of steady traveling meant more time to read, which was fun. and for this list i don't hold myself to books released this year as i do with a favorite music list. sure it's arbitrary, but who really cares. so in no particular order i give you 10 books that i have thoroughly enjoyed this year.

- indignation by philip roth: i discovered roth for real a few years back (very late to the party, i confess), and always feel that i'm in good hands with his writing. how he maintains a level of quality and consistency year after year(he's 76 and seems to publish at least one novel a year) is remarkable to me. this book, set against the backdrop of the korean war, recounts the life of the character marcus messner, a jewish new jersey native who travels to ohio for college to escape his over bearing father. it's an off-kilter fish-out-of-water story that is both hilarious and wince-inducingly harsh, moving but not overly sentimental.

- the sacredness of questioning everything by david dark: david's latest is a grab-the-rails-and-hold-tight ride that synthesizes serious academics with keen insights into pop culture. in the book he celebrates the sacred process of questioning our assumptions about most everything: faith, religion, politics, commerce and underlying motivations. i would say that he asserts that an ongoing examination of all of these things leads us down a path of a more vibrant and expanding life of faith. many of the references are familiar to me (radiohead; william gibson; arcade fire; philip roth; johnny cash; etc.), and yet david's insights into these references are ones that i'd like to think i could have and explain as well as he does. i'm fortunate to know him, even at a distance, and am consistently inspired and challenged by his tough and gracious thoughtfulness.

- fool by christopher moore: one of my favorite writers tackles shakespearean dramedy with another cast of bizarre, profane and hilarious characters, including Pocket, the story's hero, a diminutive court jester, Drool, a bumbling, slow-to-think sidekick; a weakened King Lear and many others. as with all of moore's books, this is a fast-paced freak fest of episodic comedy with as many quotables as a classic bill murray or chevy chase movie, and research on the subject matter that also reflects moore's intelligence at melding post-modern sensibilities with respect for classic thought.

- gentlemen of the road by michael chabon: chabon may be my favorite writer alive right now. i was sickened to learn that he write his debut novel, the mysteries of pittsburgh, between the ages of 22-24, as i still wish i could write one sentence that measures up to his skill. he's only gotten better, imho, over time. what's been fun in recent years is the way that chabon jumps from genre to genre, and even mashed them together. a prime example would be the yiddish policeman's union, which combines an elmore leonard pulp-crime-noir murder mystery with philip roth's political what-if, a la the plot against america. in gentlemen of the road chabon tells a grand road adventure story set along the silk road of the 10th century, with swindles, cheaters, warring tribes and attempts at sex and love into a quick-reading 224 pages.

- christianity for the rest of us by diana butler bass: one of two books i read this year by diana butler bass (the other being a peoples' history of christianity). this one is a study of progressive mainline congregations that are growing and thriving, primarily by being present to their local communities and intentionally pursuing a variety of spiritual formation practices. what's more, many, if not all, of the churches she researched actively served and embraced marginalized communities and committed to being places where those communities were not only welcome, but cared for and embraced as part of a community. to be sure, many of these congregations experienced the pains of growing and changing, but the stories that butler-bass tells are not only encouraging, but prescriptive of what many communities in similar situations can explore for their own progression.

- falling man by don de lillo: de lillo is heralded as one of the finest literary novelists around, but the first thing of his that i read, the body artist, underwhelmed me and i struggled to finish it. a friend urged me to give de lilo another try, and i'm glad i did. this post-9/11 story follows a number of manhattan-ites whose lives were upended, and how a few of them connect with one another. recurring throughout the story is a performance artist who re-creates the image of "the "falling man", the iconic picture of a twin towers victim falling to the earth, and who continues to trigger memories, emotions and responses to peoples' experiences. the writing lays bare their emotions and moods without being voyeuristic or patronizing, and leaves them each in situations unresolved and intriguing.

- spook country by william gibson: gibson, author of neuromancer, tells another futurist's tale of spy culture and post-9/11 intrusion by the rich and powerful. what could be a litany of conspiracy theory type gripes displays a realists look at how technology can monitor the behaviors and actions of many, as a former indie rock cult hero-turned journalist enters an adventurous trek that, on the surface, is merely an interview piece of an artist utilizing new technology. it spirals into inclusion of crime syndicates, mysterious, eccentric millionaires and a culture of planned un-ease that keeps people from trusting one another. gibson sees the foreshadowing of how power reacts to progress and tightens its grip to assert control. realism without paranoia crafted by a fantastic writer.

- the medium is the massage by marshall mcluhan: mc luhan's prescient 1967 tome on how messages will be delivered through design is uncanny in its predictions for how technology will shape communication (commercial, inter-personal, cultural, etc...) as it progresses. correlations between the printing press and the internet are easy to spot here, yet remarkable in their ability to envision such a future. as music, publishing, tv and film are all undergoing their massive shifts, this is a fascinating read to spark more imagining for where we are headed.

-----alert: the next two are business books. some like 'em on lists like these some don't. you're now informed-----

- the designful company by marty neumeier: neumeier gives a timely reminder that how an organization is designed to work affects, and to large degree, dictates, how that organization functions, communicates, innovates and progresses. for me, this was an affirmation that all marketing / messaging starts from the design of what is being messaged. most everything else is cleverness and smoke and mirrors. but when intentional design is enacted, the rest of the storytelling flows from that. for anyone that thinks that that sort of thinking is too esoteric to work, neumeier has some things to say to you. it's a quick read, so take the plunge.

- what would google do? by jeff jarvis: jarvis, an avid blogger, reporter and media professor, delves into the core values by which google has built its web dominance. much of this comes as counter-intuitive thought to 20th century top-down, command and control thinking, and jarvis shows how this new model of doing business offers amazing opportunity and potential for those willing to look for the niche first, and then get deep and wide as required, with real-time feedback from customers. jarvis crafts what-if scenarios for how a google mindset would look in various industries (book publishing, automotives, telephone among them), and while it veers into fawning territory at times, the overall lessons are worth a read for anyone wanting an overview of how the web's most influential company is thinking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

2009 Favorites: Music

It was another interesting year in music, and for everything that i liked i know there were 10 more that i haven't yet discovered. despite the complaints that there isn't great music anymore, i have to disagree wholeheartedly. while fewer and fewer things are ubiquitous, the number of great releases in their niches is astounding. i continue to love amiestreet, the downloading service / community that, aside from word-of-mouth, continues to be my favorite place to discover and buy new music. so in no particular order, here are 10 of my favorites from 2009:

- St. Vincent: Actor. I was sold on the first listen of Annie Clark's 2007 debut, Marry Me, and feel no less emphatic about album #2, Actor. Smart arrangements, great personality in the vocals, and sharp-as-all-getout lyrics are the things that make me think that St. Vincent is one of the most compelling new artists around.

- The Veils: Sun Gangs. This was a record that seemed to be on everyone's Facebook status in the same week, and thanks to the early tip-offs i was able to get this one on amiestreet before it went to full price, though full price would have been well worth the price of entry. epic, self-serious stuff with heart and soul and great flexibility in vocals. it gives me the feeling of a collision with echo & the bunnymen, radiohead, and rufus wainwright, though rougher than all of them.

- Animal Collective: Merriwether Post Pavillion. After several years of hearing about Animal Collective, this was my first trip into full album land, and i have not been disappointed. freaky, rootsty, atmospheric, experimental - a great addition to mixes that can hold deerhoof AND fleet foxes together. and the cd cover's optical illusion is one of the cooler design gimmicks i've seen this year.

- The Mountain Goats: The Life Of The World To Come - i confess i'm late to the party on the mountain goats, since this is record #17. but wow. it's a beautiful song cycle that uses as titles various verses from the hebrew and christian scriptures, and launches into emotional territory that few religious artists come close to touching. the price of admission is justified by matthew 25:21 alone. mountain goats mastermind john darnielle creates a number of stories of peoples' passings set against the verse that reads, "His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’" one of the settings involves a story i later learned was based on darnielle's mother-in-law's cancer journey, and i cried like a baby remembering friends in years past who have succumbed to it, and then thinking of them in the light of that verse. every song has an illumination to it, and this one should probably top the list for emotional impact if not crank-it-up for repeated listens status.

- Deerhoof: Offend Maggie. i know, i know, it came out in october of '08, but i didn't buy it til '09 and i love deerhoof, so i must do something to spread the word. this band has become a favorite in the past 4-5 years, as they fly their freak flag, take big risks with noise and dynamics and generally keep my co-workers on their toes and on the lookout for noise bursts and unexpected twists and turns.

- Doves: Kingdom Of Rust. Doves are, to me, sort of like elbow, in that they have great success abroad, a low profile in the us, but continue to knock out consistently great albums with confidence. they have enough of a template to feel familiar, but take enough liberty to stay interesting and push their sound forward. so while other brit-bands can court tabloids and build empires, a band like doves can continue to grow a community that welcomes and keeps its members.

- Mew: No More Stories Are Told Today... and the rest of the pretentious and overlong title of the album can be read elsewhere. mew make unapollogetically dramatic music, bordering on pretentious, though i find it stirring and beautiful. how's that for borderline pretentious? but really, mew is music that creates an atmosphere that requires and creates space, something i have little of day to day, so perhaps i love this record because it takes me somewhere more open.

- Speech Debelle: Speech Therapy - my favorite hip-hop record from this year, though i confess i haven't had time to dig into mos def's latest, and i always loves me some mos def. this mercury prize-winning record from the uk finds the jamaican-born rapper in an amazingly transparent emotional space, all the while displaying a toughness that the hard-posturing caricatures that populate much of hip-hop can only aspire to. it's subtle, powerful and rewarding stuff from a voice that i'm glad amiestreet tipped me off to.

- Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - because they do classy things with pop music (pop in the traditional way, not american radio pop), and seem to be building their sound and following with each record. like doves, they have a foundation to build on, but keep taking risks, and aren't afraid to let us in on experiments like remixes and creative publicity-stunt-like performances that make them seem accessible and the kind of guys that would sit and have a drink after the show.

- Passion Pit: Manners - this one is a late entry to the list, but it's a synth-rock type of record that is just so much fun. it gives me the thought of human league, the noisettes and polyphonic spree all crashing into each other. there's joy, winking ironic-hipster stuff, but with conviction and skills. i'm glad i found this one and it continues to open up nuances with each listen.

there are many others that i liked as well but didn't get on here, so for posterity's sake i'll list a few more:

- deas vail - birds & cages
- monsters of folk - self-titled
- asobi seksu - hush
- muse - the resistance
- the xx - xx
- elle macho - !es potencial!
- au revoir simone - still night, still light
- arctic monkeys - humbug