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Summer Reading

As an English teacher, my earliest inspiration was my love of a good story. Summer is my time to approach literature as a lover of books rather than a scholar of them. While the two cannot and should not be totally separated, there is a difference in what, how, and how much I read during the summer as opposed to the school year. I also love to read good lists. I especially love lists which introduce me to something new or help me reconsider what I have dismissed, neglected or forgotten. One of the best listers of books I have found recently (and pretty damn good writer) is Michelle Kerns. Check her out at: http://www.examiner.com/x-562-Book-Examiner

In a similar spirit I offer my own summer reading list of books I have already read or plan to before September.

I love the mystery genre. I also like to start out my summer with books that are trashy, make few demands on me as a reader, and can be consumed in a few sittings. What I believe makes a good mystery novel is one centered around the pursuit of truth, understanding and knowledge. What makes a great mystery novel is one where the protagonist is deeply conflicted and flawed but a deeper, innate sense of integrity and decency overrides their flaws and allows them to struggle with good and evil in a fruitful manner. That is what is at the core of the human condition and by extension, it is at the center of the Resurrection–the greatest mystery ever.

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The Girl Who Played with Fire
The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest
Parts 2 and 3 in Steig Lasson’s trilogy. You probably won’t put these down once you start them. They are on the bestseller list for a reason. Worth your time.

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The Stranger Beside Me
Small Sacrifices
Ann Rule writes for bored middle-aged white women. These books are complete trash but you are lying to yourself if you don’t go immediately to the 10 pages of pictures in the middle. True crime, bad writing, too many words, fascinating stories. I confess.

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Echo Park by Michael Connelly
One of the better American mystery writers. He won’t insult your intelligence.

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Dog On It by Spencer Quinn
Fun. If you are a dog lover and a mystery lover it doesn’t get much better than a canine narrator who happens to be a police dog school drop out.

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The Indian Bride by Karen Fossum
She is my favorite Scandinavian mystery writer. And not just because she’s Norwegian.

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The Fourth Man by K.O. Dahl
Another Scandinavian (also Norwegian) mystery writer. This novel had a noir/femme fatal vibe going but seemed to end flat to me.

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Recommended to my by a mystery lover.

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Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Seriously, under no circumstances should you ever read this alone at night. I did when I was 19 and it has taken me this long to pick the book up again.

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The Road
Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy has become my favorite writer. I’ve recently been studying Flannery O’ Connor and the similarities in characters and the use of violence and the grotesque is striking. One difference is that McCarthy creates characters you really care about and then proceeds to let life and circumstances beat the shit out of them.

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Summerland
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
After avoiding Michael Chabon for years I finally was forced to read his collection of essays, Manhood for Amatuers and found myself laughing outloud at several points and nearly weeping at others. So I decided to give his fiction a shot. I started with Yiddish Policeman, got in about 70 pages and quit. It was too fussy and I wasn’t enjoying it. Summerland, on the other hand, had me from page one and I was once again in awe of Chabon’s ability to move a reader. It is allegorical without being pedantic, casual without being cheap, emotional without being overly sentimental. I’m not sure who his intended audience was (it is marketed for young adults), but the novel blends the fantastical and mythical in a way that is both dark and uplifting.

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Design and Truth by Robert Grudin
The newest non-fiction book by my favorite college professor. An amazing mind. I was overjoyed when my 18 year old son picked up American Vulgar read it, and said it was an outstanding and thought-provoking book.

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The Violent Bear it Away
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
I’m teaching a class on Flannery O’ Connor this summer. She is a remarkable writer. I’ve read her short stories too many times to count, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her novels. (She only wrote two). And like all her work it was disturbing, humorous, challenging, and left me haunted with images.

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Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein
I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain (another great book for dog lovers) so I thought I would give an older novel of Stein’s a shot.  (I thought it was newer until I actually looked at the publication date.)

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The Day Dreamer by Ian McEwan
One of my favorite writers.

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Oh Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him.

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I have been listening to a lot of violin lately. One of my current students is an immensely talented violinist and listening to her has piqued my interest in how this instrument is used in pop music. There are two contemporary bands I can think of whose prominent use of the violin significantly shapes the music’s emotional depth. One is Dave Matthews Band. I hardly think I need to discuss or introduce them. The other is Camper Van Beethoven.

They hailed originally from Northern California and performed in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They play everything. Rock, Country, Punk, Eastern European Folk Revival, and some songs that are all of the above at the same time. They opened for the Dead and R.E.M. Someone once described them as talented party animals with music degrees. The main violinist is Johnathan Segel. Technically he was a multi-instrumentalist and was largely responsible for their playful, eclectic sound. However, on their 1989 release Key Lime Pie, Morgan Fichter took over. She has a much warmer tone and the songs became darker. Key Lime Pie was released after the band had already started to splinter. And while the original band reunited in 2004 for an album and tour, they were never able to capture a huge following.  They continue to perform together occasionally.

The mix is made up of the following albums:

Telephone Free Landslide Victory (their first and truest “classic” album)
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I and II (their second album, folkier and less cohesive than their first)
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Camper Van Beethoven (The tour for this album is when I saw them for the first time. I was a freshman in college. They played at the U of O Ballroom and I can still smell the weed and patchouli)
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Our Bloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (The closest they ever came to a perfect album)
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Key Lime Pie (Their darkest, most serious album)
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LISTEN: 

DOWNLOAD:  Camper’s Best (a single mp3 file)

Serious Songs (kinda)
1. When I Win The Lottery
2. All Her Favorite Fruit
3. Pictures Of Matchstick Men
4. Borderline
5. Sweethearts
These first five songs are from the Key Lime Pie (mmmmm, pie) album. Pictures of Matchstick Men is a remake of a popular song from the 60’s. Around 3:00 min. into All Her Favorite Fruit, Fichter breaks out and you know this is a song about wanting what you can’t have.

6. O Death
An old folk song made hauntingly contemporary. It was performed acapella on the O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

7. She Divines Water
8. One Of These Days
These are my two favorite Camper songs and two of my favorite songs of all time. The violin carries both songs creating an ethereal, transcendent sound. These songs and number 6 and 12 come from Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

9. Good Guys & Bad Guys This one always makes me smile.

10. Still Wishing to Course
11. Sad Lovers Waltz

No Singing Songs
No, these are not Romanian Folk songs from 1925. But I do feel like a Gypsy when I listen to them. Except for number 12, they are all off of the first two albums.
12. Waka
13. Vladivostock
14. 9 of Disks
15. Payed Vacation: Greece
16. No Krugerrands for David
17. ZZ Top Goes To Egypt
18. Skinhead Stomp

Silly Songs (All from the first two albums)
19. Wasted
A remake of a 30 sec. punk rock song by Black Flag

20. Take the Skinheads Bowling “I had a dream last night, I forget what it was.”
21. Ambiguity Song
22. Tina
23. I Love Her All the Time
24. Where the Hell Is Bill?
25. Opi Rides Again/Club Med Sucks
(“Club Med sucks, authority sucks, I hate golf, I wanna play lacrosse.”)

How is it possible that so few Americans have heard of Paul Kelly? He has been called Australia’s Bruce Springsteen. He has also been called the greatest song writer you’ve never heard of. I haven’t coined my own clever moniker, but the breadth and depth of his work is on par with Springsteen. I was first made aware of him by an essay called Deeper Water by Brian Doyle from his book Spirited Men. I scoured the internet for free songs. I downloaded a couple and found myself unimpressed. A year later I had my ipod on shuffle and the following song came on.

If I Could Start Today Again

I was confused. I had never heard this song before. It was beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity. And it spoke deeply of regret without being maudlin. When I looked at the display and saw the name Paul Kelly I had no idea who the hell he was. So I got online and started looking him up. And then I remembered. I re-read Doyle’s essay. I went to Amazon and proceeded to order anything of Kelly’s that was used and cheap. (Much of his work is out of print in the States)

If you want to read more about him a link to Doyle’s essay is below:
Deeper Water

Below is a mix I have put together. Enjoy and consider buying something by Doyle or Kelly. A perfect place for Kelly is his greatest hits collection: Songs From the South Vol. 1 & 2.

Listen:

Download: Paul Kelly

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“Deeper Water”
Deeper Water

‘Where I’m going next, I’m going alone’

“I’ve Been a Fool”
Deeper Water
You could sell a poor man a bottle of air


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“If I Could Start Again Today”
….Nothing But a Dream
I know my prayer’s in vain/But for a second I’ll pretend/That I can start today again

“Midnight Rain”
…..Nothing But a Dream
But not too loud ’cause the neighbours complain

“Every Fucking City”
.….Nothing But a Dream
Now I’m in a nightclub in Helsinki/And they’re playing ‘La Vida Loca’ once again/And I can’t believe I’m dancing to this crap but I’m a chance here/Yeah, every fucking city sounds the same


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“From St. Kilda to King’s Cross”
Post
And all around me felt like all inside me


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“To Her Door”
Under the Sun
She said: ‘I’m not standing by, to watch you slowly die/So watch me walking, out the door’

“Bradman”
Under the Sun
Now shadows they grow longer and there’s so much more yet to be told/But we’re not getting any younger, so let the part tell the whole


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“From Little Things Big Things Grow”
Comedy
Vincent said ‘uhuh we’re not talking about wages/We’re sitting right here till we get our land’


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“When I First Met Your Ma”
Hidden Things
Then her dad came pounding and kicked me out of there/I walked two miles in Melbourne rain
I could have walked ten more/When I first loved your ma


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“How to Make Gravy”
Words and Music
And later in the evening, I can just imagine,/You’ll put on Junior Murvin and push the tables back

“I’ll Be Your Lover”
Words and Music
One day you notice a change/And then nothing’s the same


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“You’re 39, You’re Beautiful, & Your Mine”
Stolen Apples
You still take my breath away in the morning light


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“Beautiful Feeling”
Ways and Means
You’re the one that breaks me open wide

“King of Fools”
Ways and Means
But a fool always has a song

Sitting in the corner of a hilltop park
in Eugene, Oregon I am writing this poem for you.
The sun is setting in my eyes, the wind
is speeding across my face and through
my hair, dogs are barking at a siren
wailing in the distance, signaling that someone
is in trouble.

Sitting diagonally from me is a young woman
by herself, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts.
She is writing a poem for you.
The sun, the wind, the dogs, and the siren
are part of her poem too.
I am not sure if she’s in trouble.

As I write about her
She writes about me.

You might be sitting at a campfire in
The Olympic National Forest
reading this poem about a woman writing
as she watches the sun set over Eugene.
And if it’s cold
You might begin to feel warm
And if you’re alone
You might begin to feel less lonely.

As You read about her
They read about me.

Somewhere, perhaps on a farm in Massachusetts, sits a
person at a desk, in a study, early in the
in the morning reading a poem about a sun
setting, a cool wind blowing, some dogs barking,
a siren wailing and a young man
wearing a white shirt with black shorts
sitting next to his dog, writing.

Everywhere dogs are barking, winds are
blowing, suns are setting, sirens are
wailing; being written into new poems
Reminding us all.

Listen to:  Sea Of Heartbreak (Feat. Bruce Springsteen) by Rosanne Cash

The Crossing

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy is not a perfect book.  In places; however, it comes pretty damn close.

He came forward and hazed the animals up out of the river.  They clambered out along the gravel shore and blew and craned their necks.  The old man turned, his stick on one shoulder.

Esta lejoj de su casa? he said.

The boy said that he had no home.

The old man’s face grew troubled.  He said that the boy must have a home but the boy said that he did not.  The old man said that there was a place for everyone in the world and that he would pray for the boy.  Then he drove the oxen out through the willows and the sycamore wood in the new dusk and was soon gone from sight.

A nearly perfect song from Kris Kristofferson:

Listen:  https://toomuchidiotwind.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/1-01-sunday-mornin-comin-down.mp3

Download:  Sunday Morning Coming Down

Christmas

There is nearly universal consensus that Christmas is overly-commercialized.  Every year the same complaints surface, decorations are up too early, stores should wait until after Thanksgiving, “You Can’t Have Christmas Without Christ.”  However, the criticisms have become as tiresome to me as the commercialization and secularization of something sacred.  I am no more inspired to keep Christmas holy by shrill,self-righteous lawn signs than I am by the constant pressure to buy and consume in the name of December 25th.  Both miss the mark. Both are rooted in cultural norms far removed from Christ.

With that in mind I invite you to listen to the following Christmas songs that, for me, re-imagine, re-invent, and re-capture something holy, quiet and special.

Listen:

Download: (Imagine! Christmas)

Aimee Mann

Calling On Mary

Aimee Mann and Christmas would seem, on the surface, to be a toxic mix.  And yet her somber honesty makes her Christmas album one worth owning.  On this song she mourns for something lost that she never had.

The Staple Singers

There Was a Star

I don’t see this album included very often when people talk about the ‘Best Christmas Albums of All Time.”  It should be.  This had to be what the Three wise men were singing.

Dr. John

Il est Ne, Le Divin Enfant

Voodoo for Christmas?  Check your gris gris bag.

Sufjan Stevens

The Friendly Beasts

I am not sure if you have ever listened to Sufjan Stevens before.  I like what he does but many of his songs irritate me…especially in the car.  Some of his songs sound overly manufactured and cheesy in an un-ironic way.  But several of his songs are remarkable and unforgetable.  Much of his work injected with a distinct Christian voice and vision.   Joy and wonder permeate his Christmas album.

The Trail Band

Dancin’ Round the Christmas Tree

Remember Quarterflash?  This is what they are doing now.

Jack White

Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over

As I have said before, Jack White can do no wrong.  He is my vote for Artist of the Decade.  This gem comes from the soundtrack to a decent film adaptation of the “it’s too good to be a first novel” novel Cold Mountain by Charles Fraizer.  Buy the book and crank up the White Stripes as you read it.

Roger Miller

Old Toy Trains

Miller wrote this in 1967 for his son.  A beautiful and simple song.

Elvis Costello and the Chieftans

St. Stephen’s Day Murders

This is my favorite Christmas album.  It is the first one I play as we head out to get our tree and the last one I listen to as we put the decorations away on the Epiphany.

The Pogues w/Kirsty MacColl

Fairytale of New York

Shane MacGowan only made one more album with The Pogues after this masterpiece before he became a parody of himself.  “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last.” What a great line.

Ryan Adams

Hey Parker, It’s Christmas

I don’t have a link for this song.  It is another Christmas song about absence, about the yearning for what is missing.

Neko Case

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Her voice, his lyrics.  It doesn’t get much better.

Robert Earl Keen

Merry Christmas from the Family

For all of you with less than perfect families, this is a Christmas song for you.

Paul Kelly

Making Gravy

You probably have never heard of Paul Kelly.  It is a damn shame that he has not been able to cultivate an audience here in the states.  Sometimes referred to a the Australian Bruce Springsteen, he is responsible for a stunning number of exquisite songs.  This is one of his best.

Steve Earle

Christmas Time in Washington

I first heard this song ten years ago while listening to the Christmas edition of KFAT’s Chewing the Fat.  I didn’t like Steve Earle before I heard this song.  He is now one of my favorites.

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds

Christmas Song

It’s pretty simple:  Love.

Excerpt from As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

W.H. Auden was one of the first poets I ever “got”.   Lines from his poems run through my mind from time to time.  Lately I have been thinking about what a challenge it can be to love others…Love as a concrete action rather than an abstract feeling.  And I fail, miserably, every day.  I am judgmental, impatient, easily irritated, and intolerant.  And that is with my friends.

These lines came to me mysteriously last night as I was watching Son Volt perform at the WOW Hall.  I closed my eyes as they were performing Strength and Doubt and disappeared for just a moment.  Love Your Crooked Neighbor With Your Crooked Heart drifted through my mind.  It was a moment of unexpected transcendence.

Listen to: Strength and Doubt