Friday, March 31, 2006

What I'm Reading -- A Big Update

I'm starting with Twilight, the first novel from Stephenie Meyer. This is great vampire/love story of Bella, who moves from Phoenix to Washington State to be with her father. She is not looking forward to the move and it becomes worse after she discovers Edward, who seems to detest her, and his odd family. Eventually Bella discovers that Edward is a vampire and they fall in love, bringing a healthy dose of both romance and action to the book. While there is much more mushiness than I would like, the book is excellent. Meyer’s insights transcend the horror/vampire/contemporary realistic fiction genres. Bella acts older than her age and struggles with concepts like how much of love is attraction and how much is just choosing to trust and love someone. Meyer also creates a cool gothic life for the vampires without any corniness.

Black Hole by Charles Burns is a good graphic novel, though I’m not into it myself. Black Hole takes place in Seattle in the seventies where sexual activity starts giving teens weird mutations, which range from strange and harmless to grotesque. Many of them become outcasts, though some try to hide their maladies and make due. This graphic novel is amazingly creepy. The art is in black and white, with very thick, dark drawings. Burns does not shy away from nudity and tons of eerie scenes of sex, violence, drugs and uncomfortable situations. There is some obvious (like AIDS) and not so obvious social comentary here. This is very well done and worth all of the acclaim, but it’s not my thing and gave me way too many nightmares. I’ve seen this compared to Ghost World and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, which are both good, but I think the depressing work of Adrian Tomine (like Sleepwalk) is a better comparison.

Mrs. Swanson got me to read this while we were on vacation and it was surprisingly interesting. Steven D. Levitt, who calls himself a “rogue economist”, wrote Freakonomics with Stephen J. Dubner. Basically Levitt uses his economic theories and applies to them to whatever he feels like. The book rambles from the different subjects he has studied which only occasionally relate to each other. The point here, though, is just to see his interesting conclusions like why abortion made crime rates in the U.S. decrease and what the economic realities of being a crack dealer entail.

Batman: New Gotham was written by Greg Rucka in 2001. The two and only volumes, Evolution and Officer Down, are from several sources, but mostly Detective Comics. These graphic novels show Batman as detective as he tries to discover how Ra’s Al Ghul is taking out mobsters in Gotham and then who shot Commissioner Gordon and why. The second book has the more solid plot, but overly bright and sloppy art. Volume one’s story is a bit convoluted at times, but the art is interesting. It’s mostly black and white, which each issue featuring one color like green or red to give each section a unique feel. It ends up looking a bit like Powers, though not that focused. These are both enjoyable Batman stories.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Music Reviews -- Cat Power and the Strokes

The Greatest by Cat Power is a sneaky album. The greatness here is so subtle it took me weeks to realize how much I liked it. Cat Power/Chan Marshall and her smoky voice saunters through these twelve songs capturing the sounds of folk, jazz and blues. She sometimes sticks to basic folksy story-telling, then throws you off balance with strikingly personal lyrics. On Islands she writes, “I want to rule the islands /and I want to rule the sea/But if you're not coming back/ I will sleep eternally.” The best artists can somehow merge longing and hope into one strange emotion and Cat Power does that here. This is a mellow, understated and alluring album. For fans of Iron and Wine, Pedro the Lion and Over the Rhine.

3.00 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this feels like you have walked out of the house and realized for the first time that the morning fog has descended upon your property and you must take a walk.

It’s album number three for the Strokes. I have mixed feelings about First Impressions of Earth. The music is solid, though the band has added a poppier edge to their tunes and some of the songs feel like caricatures of other Strokes songs. While I’m not as into this as much as their first two albums, the writing has definitely improved. The lyrics have become much more personal and penetrating than in their earlier work. The first radio release, Razorblade, is the standout here as Julian Casablancas croons, “Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours.” Overall, it’s a decent album and it will be fun to see how they grow between this album and album number four.

2.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The Third Brother by Nick McDonell

Warning: I'm going to ruin the end of this book and tell you too much.
This is the second novel by McDonnell, whose first book was the great Twelve, which garnered the author comparisons to a young Hunter S. Thompson. I enjoyed Twelve, so was looking forward to this book.

The first half is great. 19-year old Mike is going to work in Hong Kong for his father's friend. Mike is quickly sent to Bangkok, where he is expected to write an article with a senior journalist about drug-taking backpackers. Mike is quickly left to do everything alone and he meets a host of great, creepy, untrustworthy and confusing characters. Mike is also supposed to find his father's and boss's other best friend who disappeared in Bangkok years ago for no apparent reason. This part of the book is absolutely facsinating and intriguing.
Then, McDonnell moves the book forward a couple of years to 9/11 in New York. Here we find that Mike's mom went psycho, killed his dad and then herself. This makes his older brother go psycho and he burns down the house with his parents in it and then creates a fictional brother that he claims burned down the house and killed his parents. All of this make Mike go crazy and he starts acting creepy around everyone, especially when his brother freaks and flings himself off of an apartment building in NY.
So, basically this book started great and then decided to be completely depressing and stinky. This is a disappointing sophomore effort by McDonell.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Music Review -- Final Straw by Snow Patrol

This album is almost two years old, but it has officially earned status as one of Vin Swanson’s favorite CDs. I came to it late, only hearing it for the first time less than a year ago. Snow Patrol is a British band led by Gary Lightbody, who also plays with the Reindeer Section. The band balances itself between U2-like athemic rock, Deathcab-like emo pop/rock and shoegazer/singer-songwriter stuff like Starflyer 59. The writing is strong and raises Final Straw up as a great CD. On Tiny Little Fractures they sing, “Is there a T-shirt I can wear/ Coz I am soaking look at me/ What do you mean I don't love you/ I am standing here, aren't I/ Maybe you thought of it first/ Maybe I get all the praise/ Is there a place I can go/ Is there a light to get me there.” Obsession, the ups and downs of relationships and the attitudes of men are all covered here in mostly up-tempo tracks. Deathcab and Coldplay fans should get in to this. This is my favorite disc over the last couple of years and I’m excited that a new album is coming out in a few months.

3.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Music Review -- Year of Meteors by Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs has been around for quite a while, though Year of Meteors is the first time I’ve listened to her closely. It took quite a few listens, but this disc finally grew on me. The singer-songwriter writes a lot about loss and bittersweet relationships, using the ocean and water to highlight distance and loneliness. As Veirs herself writes, “I’m gonna dig/ for pretty and strange.” Veirs uses a full band on this album that is easily capable to back her solid voice. The result is collection of mid-tempo tunes that are occasionally edgy and surprising with extremely solid writing. Secret Someones and Parisian Dreams are a couple of my favorites. Followers of Beth Orton, Feist and Cat Power could be in to Year of Meteors.

2.75 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award for teen lit and is the first novel of NPR’s John Green. This is a decent coming of age story of a 16-year old who is sent to a boarding school for intelligent high schoolers. Miles quickly becomes friends with his roommate, a prankster nicknamed “the Colonel”, a rapping Asian boy and his new obsession, Alaska. There is some great writing here especially concerning the growing friendships of Miles, the Colonel and Alaska, who each subtly reveal what makes them tick. The book, however, grows to a predictable conclusion, then wanders aimlessly for dozens of pages more. This is a decent book worth reading, though I’m surprised it’s an award winner.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Foul Lines by Jack McCallum and L. Jon Wertheim

Foul Lines is a novel concerning events from the NBA, though its under the guise of the National Basketball Federation and teams like the Los Angeles Lasers. McCallum and Wertheim, both Sports Illustrated writers, tells the story of a pro ball club through the eyes of the Laser's veteran star, 18-year old rookie, 24-year old media relations director and the recently promoted reporter for the L.A. Times. Some of the main characters get enough depth to keep the book interesting. Much of content here is exaggerated and written tongue-in-cheek, but this does not detract from a well constructed plot. I've been a sucker for sports novels since I was twelve and apparently still am. This is a fluffy, though enjoyable read.