Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: The World is a Ball

Born in Ireland, John Doyle currently works as the television critic for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. Holding a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Anglo-English Studies from University College, Dublin, Doyle moved to Canada in order to pursue a Ph.D. at York University. Doyle writes about soccer for many publications and has worked on location at multiple World Cups and European Championships. In addition to The World Is a Ball, Doyle published A Great Feast of Light in 2005. Doyle has won two internal Globe and Mail awards for his writing.

Culture Soup

I've always thought it would be fun to attend a world event like the Olympic Games or a World Cup. The idea of a myriad of cultures converging on one city fascinates me. The sheer numbers, though, terrify me. I’m not a huge fan of large crowds.

Perhaps, for me, the World Cup provides the most intriguing spectacle. With soccer – the sport adored by the majority of the world, the world championship matters.

In The World Is a Ball, John Doyle explores this worldwide phenomenon. With a decade of soccer coverage for North American publications, Doyle provides a first-hand account of these tournaments and the convergence of cultures.

Watching Those Watching the Game

Interestingly, while one would think that Doyle would focus predominately on the tactics and analysis of the players on the pitch, he seems more interested in the fans. As the world watches the game, Doyle watches the supporters.

For ages, the media focus on hooliganism. With fear dispensed in small to medium doses, many foreigners avoid soccer matches for panic of fan-to-fan violence. Yet Doyle perceives these sporting events as moments of celebration no matter the end result.

On the field, Brazil plays with flair and beauty; in the stands, Brazilian fans act the same. On the field, Italy plays a slow, methodical game; in the stands, the fans are lazy and confident. On this principle, Doyle expands,

“That’s part of the complicated meaning of the World Cup. There is an elaborate synergy between the traveling fans and their country’s team. A nation projects itself, all its hopes and dreams and tangled histories, onto the team. And the team somehow embodies all the complex characteristics of the nation” (18).

Global Soccer

Moreover, views of nationalistic hooliganism fail in the face of globalized soccer. Where nationalism in the past existed with players remaining inside its countries borders, the new strategy for most national teams is to seek players and coaches from all over the world. Doyle writes,

“At the end, just before the Estádio da Luz erupts in colorful, spectacular fireworks displays, the TV commentator reminds viewers that the Greek coach, Otto Rehhagel, is German and Portugal’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, is Brazilian. The point is to tell us that, even at this intensely competitive, nationalistic level, soccer transcends borders and nationality” (132).

Field Notes

However, The World Is a Ball flows poorly. As the book details international soccer matches over the last decade, the stories become repetitive and resemble field notes for the stories Doyle obviously filed for his paid gig.

Additionally, Doyle romanticizes the notion of fan and team unity. While international matches of yesteryear exhibited teams with a national style and identity, modern soccer has found tactics to become increasingly crowd-sourced. Successful national teams blend the possession-style total football of the Netherlands with the defensive tenacity of Italy and the aggressive set play style of Germany. In other words, the way teams play soccer today is becoming tactically similar.

Finally, Doyle writes with basic assumptions about soccer. For those interested in becoming acquainted with the sport, Doyle’s writing will leave you dazed and confused. While no one suggests that a soccer writer must begin a book with a basic explanation of soccer, Doyle uses soccer-specific terms without defining them for a broader audience. Although I understood him, I don’t think his lexicon of terms allows inclusion of non-soccer fans.

A Tragic View of the Universe

Despite my reservations, Doyle contemplates some of the deeper meanings behind the joys of soccer. With low scoring games, spotty refereeing, and theatrical flopping, soccer is not an Americanized sport. Yet, these very issues point to core artistic values. Doyle pens,

“Soccer is a sport perfectly designed to reinforce a tragic view of the universe, because basically it is a long series of frustrations leading up to near certain heartbreak” (311).

This sentiments ring true with the observance of one game. A team can play the perfect game and lose. While a pitcher in baseball gains muscle memory with practice in order to throw the same pitch in the same location whenever he desires it, a soccer player relies on luck. The best for which he or she can hope is to create enough chances to get a positive result.

On the topic of poor refereeing – an experience that United States Men’s National Team fans know full-well with the disallowed goal on a phantom foul against Slovenia in the last World Cup – Doyle writes,

“Injustice happens, but time passes, the world turns just as the ball does during the game. The whole point of the game is that the ball turns, moves forward, much like we do” (315).

Although The World Is a Ball plods somewhat without much stylistic difference and mischaracterizes the connections between the styling of fans and national teams, I enjoyed the first-hand account of the World Cup. With a convergence of culture in one country, we see something bigger than a sporting event; we see a global culture. If you can get past the difficulties and understand the basic terms in soccer, The World Is a Ball is an entertaining read. Nevertheless, I suggest starting somewhere else in soccer literature.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Television Show Review: The Killing

PilotThe Killing: Season 1 developed by Veena Sud (Fox Television Studios, KMF Films, and Fuse Entertainment)

Starring Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Billy Campbell, Michelle Forbes, and Brent Sexton.

To Speak Frankly

Veena Sud, developer of The Killing, a U.S.-based version of the Danish series Forbrydelsen, needs to go away. In an article penned by Tim Appelo for the Hollywood Reporter, Sud responded to the significant critical and popular backlash to her show with the notion that the public does not understand her greatness.

Relating her show to The Sopranos, Sud proclaimed, “The fact that people love us or hate us is a beautiful thing. I don’t want to be kinda liked.” What is this backlash? Well, for most viewers, it began when an exceptional pilot devolved into a meandering mess of a first season. The only thing keeping the audience tuning in on Sunday nights was the understanding communicated from Sud herself that, at the end of the season, we would know who killed Rosie Larsen.

The House of Cards

Sadly and with a spoiler alert in full effect, the cliffhanger at the end of the season ensured that the one promise the viewers thought they had came crashing down like a house of cards.

The season depicts the murder investigation of Rosie Larsen. With each episode portraying one day’s time, The Killing resides in the procedural drama genre. Where CSI focuses on one investigation per episode, The Killing engages in one investigation over the entire season. Both in its season-long narrative framework and its setting in the Pacific Northwest, The Killing draws easy comparisons with Twin Peaks.

Writers: Killing Potential

Photo by Frank Ockenfels
Despite the near unanimous backlash against the show, it contained promise. First, the pilot episode really drew me to the series. With a dark sense of foreboding, dreary shots of the Seattle skyline, and space for character development, I thought The Killing showed the promise of a modern classic.

Yet, as the show unveiled, it became clear that the writers spent ages perfecting the pilot and had little sense of direction and character development for the rest of the season.

With continual red herrings and a refusal to dive into the back stories of central characters, the season plodded with no clear purpose and no characters worth following.

Where True Emotion Dies

Second, the show provided space to clearly depict a family suffering through the loss of the child. Too often in procedurals, the victim’s family plays a vindictive counterbalance. The murderer did something awful and the family depicts the rage of eye-for-an-eye justice.

The Killing, however, portrays the Larsen family on the cusp of comprehensive breakdown. For the mother, simple day-to-day tasks become unbearable; the father, a stoic external façade silences the inner despair of losing a child.

Yet, I can’t help but think that the Twin Peaks parallels provide a sense of guilt for the Larsen family. Despite the depiction of suffering, we know very little about the family. Given the cliffhanger at the end of the season, it is not out of the question to hear that Season 2 will exhibit the family as the mastermind behind the murder.

Two Thumbs Down

In the end, The Killing was incredibly disappointing. Part of me hopes that Veena Sud is the genius she thinks she is because the show still has the potential to weave a Lost-like story of character connection around a murdered teenager.

But the on-screen evidence suggests that Sud is self-deceived. Her writing staff is horrid and the deception around the season finale left her viewers somewhere between annoyed and angry. For these reasons, I probably won’t watch Season 2. If I hear some positive, critical reviews, I’ll contemplate watching. But for now, consider me burned by The Killing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Album Review: Strange Negotiations

Strange NegotiationsStrange Negotiations by David Bazan (Barsuk Records, 2011. 41 minutes)

A prolific songwriter, David Bazan began his career as the front man of Pedro the Lion and continued playing in the band The Headphones. Located in Seattle, Washington, Bazan currently works as a solo artist. Known best during his Pedro the Lion days for his theologically rich lyrics, Bazan’s time in The Headphones and as a solo artist depict a philosophical shift as his lyrics combat his problems with alcohol and Evangelical Christianity. Curse Your Branches – considered by many, including myself, to be a masterpiece, is Bazan’s first full-length record as a solo artist. Bazan lives in Edmonds with his wife and daughter.

A Complicated Relationship

I have a complicated relationship with David Bazan. On one hand, his mix of poetic lyricism, threadbare instrumentalism, and exposed vocals supply some of my favorite moments in music. On the other hand, I have reservations with Bazan’s highly publicized quarrel with the Almighty and his struggle with alcoholism. Yet, these inner demons provide fertile ground for profoundly well-written music.

Where Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s first solo effort, explores his fight with alcohol and the end of his relationship with the Christian God, Strange Negotiations projects Bazan’s jaded rancor outward to the rest of society.

Strange Negotiations

In perhaps my favorite tune on the record, “Strange Negotiations,” Bazan’s lyrics express his deeply held turmoil with himself and others. He sings,

“You cut your leg off to save a buck or two / Because you never considered the cost / You find the lowest prices everyday / But would you look at everything we’ve lost / Yeah it’s true I learned it from watching you / But now it’s you who doesn’t know what a dollar is worth / You got the market its own bodyguard / And all the people are getting hurt”

Typical of his lyrics, Bazan masterfully weaves an emotional story in his songs; he writes from a place of vulnerability. Listening to Strange Negotiations is like allowing Bazan to paint a picture in your brain.

Raw Energy

Musically, Bazan exchanges the acoustic guitar and occasional percussive rhythm of Curse Your Branches for raw, three-piece rock. When the first downbeat encounters the eardrum in the opener, “Wolves at the Door,” the listener understands that this record is extremely different. With an overdriven bass, a steady drumbeat, and lead guitar, Strange Negotiations rocks.

Although subtle, my favorite musical moment occurs on “Wolves at the Door.” When the energetic bass riff at the beginning of the songs shift down an octave a couple of bars later, the harmonic difference reverberates deep in my bones. Truthfully, the basic-yet-raw energy makes this record.

Vulnerable Honesty

Despite my reservations with Bazan’s strained relationship with the church, he churns out records with vulnerable honesty. Strange Negotiations is no Curse Your Branches. Not only are the records strikingly different, but also, Curse Your Branches signifies Bazan’s magnum opus. By default, Strange Negotiations fails to keep up.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoy Strange Negotiations and recommend it for anyone who enjoys thoughtful lyrics and simplistic rock music.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: The Spirit of Food

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward GodThe Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010. 284 pp.)

Residing on Kodiak Island Alaska, Leslie Leyland Fields and her family operate a commercial salmon fishing business. On top of the family business, Fields teaches Creative Nonfiction in the Master of Fine Arts program at Seattle Pacific University. She has written seven books and numerous essays.

Our “Thing”

When I was dating my wife, I would often hear the question, “What do you two have in common?” While we enjoy similar bands, movies, and comedians, we do not have a “thing” that defines us. Some couples’ “thing” is theater, for others, it is season tickets for a pro sports team. We, on the other hand, just enjoyed spending time together. Is spending time together a “thing?” Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather boring “thing.”

However, I loved cooking with Tara. We would find a recipe and spend our evening combining ingredients and hopefully presenting something edible at the conclusion of our efforts. In my mind, cooking was our “thing.”

The Depth of Food

Although I spent little time considering the deeper meaning behind our prepared meals, introspection tells me that our time in the kitchen provided valuable formation in our relationship. Simply put, there is more to cooking than assembling ingredients and eating them. The Spirit of Food offers answers to the deeper questions behind our food.

Photo by Sidious Sid
Throughout the book, authors inquire about the theological significance of food. Of course, at its basic level, humanity needs food for survival. But, could food function at a deeper level? Does it connect humans together in community and in communion with God? With chapters from novelists, theologians, poets, priests, chefs, and essayists, The Spirit of Food approaches this subject from diverse views and disciplines.

Beginning with gathering food, this book explores the significance behind preparing food, eating food, fasting, communion, and feasting. We read of the joy food brings, the depression of food disorders, and the unity around a communal dinner.

Food as Miracle

From the first chapter, The Spirit of Food suggests that a divine miracle occurs when a person prepares a meal. Essayist Patty Kirk writes,

“Just as God combined parts of his creation – lights and dark sky, dirt and breath – to make other things, we also combine things – berries and sugar and lemons and heat – to make other things and pronounce them good” (5).

As Kirk states, the central thesis of this tome orbits around the notion of food transporting humans into a closer relationship with God.

Food as Metaphor

Discussing hollandaise sauce, Chef Fred Raynaud suggests,

“In the first step toward making hollandaise, which is also the first step toward redemption, the shell is cracked and broken open, and the yolk is separated from its rightful place. The yolk is tossed into a cold stainless steel bowl. Lonely and isolated, with one mission in mind: the yolk must unite two substances that chemically cannot be united, our sinful nature with a Holy God. In order to do this, the yolk must endure terrible suffering” (86).

While in the kitchen, the actions we take in preparing a meal carry profound symbolism.  As a necessary part of daily life, the “breaking of bread” provides opportunity to understand the depths of spiritual analogy in our food.

Food Leads Us to Jesus

The Spirit of Food, also, contains the famous passage from For the Life of the World by Theologian Alexander Schmemann. In it, he writes,

“We offered the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to him” (207).

Food Can Be Inconsistent

Sadly, the format of this book leads to an inconsistent read. With each chapter penned by a new author, the quality of the content varies significantly. Also, I found a few glaring typos that missed the editor’s eye.

Nevertheless, The Spirit of Food suggests that our daily meal is a time to remember the life and death of Christ. Just like my wife and I found joy in cooking during our dating years, many people throughout the world understand a special connection between preparing food and the deeper meaning of life. Despite the inconsistency from chapter to chapter, if you are interested in diving into the spiritual aspect of food, I recommend this book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Album Review: Helplessness Blues

Helplessness BluesHelplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop, 2011. 50 minutes)

Based in Seattle, Washington, Fleet Foxes is a folk rock band lead by vocalist Robin Pecknold. In addition to Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, Josh Tillman, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Morgan Henderson comprise the full band lineup. Fleet Foxes released their self-titled, full-length first album in 2008 to much acclaim. Helplessness Blues is the band’s sophomore effort.

Hate the Art, Not the Artist

During my undergraduate years, I enrolled in a philosophy of art class. With a foundational principle based in the ad hominem fallacy, my time in this class reinforced the idea that one should never evaluate the merit of art through the life of the artist. In other words, Hitler’s paintings are not atrocious because Hitler was a mass murderer; they are dreadful because the quality of Hitler’s paintings is amateur.

While Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold has nothing in common with a megalomaniacal dictator, my relationship with him as a child was sour to put it nicely. We did not get along then; I am sure if I spent a day with him today, we would not get along now. Sometimes, people don’t relate well.

I mention my former acquaintance with Robin because it provides me with every reason to dislike his band. Since I had trouble relating to him as a friend, shouldn’t I reject his band in principle?

While negative interactions typically lead to full-scale rejection of someone’s professional pursuits, the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Fleet Foxes is a testament to the quality of the music. Even though I have every reason to ignore this band, the fact is: Fleet Foxes is really good.


Ultimately, Helplessness Blues is a record that I hope everyone buys. Yet, I find that the record defines the stereotypical sophomore release. When a band finds success with a debut album, the sophomore album becomes a rather difficult bump in the road to greatness. For many artists, the success of the first record demands that the second produce a similar sound. But, if the sophomore release is too similar, it suffers from unoriginality. If the record is too unique, it isolates the fanbase.

Helplessness Blues attempts to retain Fleet Foxes’ signature harmonies and acoustic-based instrumentation, but add deeper lyrics and a fuller sound. Although I appreciate the attempt, I contend that the second album falls flat.

Lyrical Identity

First, despite my reservations around the lyrics in the debut album, the lyrics on Helplessness Blues seem forced, as if Pecknold wants to be perceived as a deep thinker. Questions of purpose and the possibility of changing one’s life provide an underlying theme throughout the record. “Montezuma,” the record’s opening track commences with a big statement. Pecknold sings,

“So now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?”

The album’s title track, “Helplessness Blues,” echoes similar sentiments:

“I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking / I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me”

In both instances, Pecknold draws on a sense of regret, an idea that life is not what it seems. Whether questioning his age or his profession, Pecknold understands that life is more than an occupation.

However, I find his lyrics inauthentically deep.  Even though his poetry takes a step forward from the previous record, his observations could use some more artistry. Put bluntly, I find myself asking why these statements are important. To that question, I do not hear an answer.

Mourning the Musical Hook

Second, the instrumentation on Helplessness Blues takes a step backward. What made Fleet Foxes’ self-titled record a masterpiece was a devotion to melodic hooks in the music itself. As Pecknold’s voice floated around the instrument with unusual melodies, the instruments countered with hooks of their own.

With Helplessness Blues, the instruments replace melodic hooks with ambience and varied instrumentation. Where the self-titled release focused on clean, reverb-soaked guitar, Helplessness Blues finds dense sonic textures.

Although I appreciate sonic density, I believe instrumental melodies offer the bedrock of truly great music. Typically, it is easy to compose a song full of chords; it is difficult to write melody into the musical instruments.

Stated simply, I really enjoy Fleet Foxes despite not getting along with the front man so many years ago. Moreover, Helplessness Blues is a good record. Its lyrics and sonic textures, however, keep the record from shining as brilliantly as the debut. For this reason, Helplessness Blues offers a rather sophomoric second release for Fleet Foxes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 352 pp.)

Born in Chicago, Jennifer Egan spent her formative years in San Francisco. She majored in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, she accepted a fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Egan has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, became a feature film starring Cameron Diaz. Her latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award for Fiction, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction. Egan’s non-fiction has graced the pages of New York Times Magazine winning the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award and a 2009 NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn.

The Day the Music Died

1959 might soon become 1996. When Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, singer-songwriter Don McLean  pronounced that date as “the day the music died” in his popular tune, “American Pie.”

However, the day the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law might soon become the real day the music died. The law – which deregulated media ownership – allowed Clear Channel Communications to buy the lion’s share of the nation’s radio stations.

Showcased in the scathing documentary, Before the Music Dies, Clear Channel is arguably responsible for the decline of music in the last decade. Substituting quality for quantity, Clear Channel’s business model preached non-offensiveness. Instead of spinning the best tunes from the best artists, radio focused on keeping listeners tuned in long enough to get to commercials.

For this reason, commercial appeal replaced artistry. The music needed to have enough hooks to keep the listener from switching channels. Under this business model, legendary bands like Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd would have never grown in status since their work needed time to mature in the listener’s ears.

At the core, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, touches on the death of the music industry and the disillusionment of the book’s characters as they encounter uncertain futures.

Everyone’s Connected

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of connected short stories. Set mostly in New York but also California, Africa, and Italy, the book centers around music executive, Bennie Salazar.  Jumping between the current time period, the late sixties, and the near future, each chapter tells the story of a character connected in some way to Bennie.

Written in a style similar to Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, each chapter is devoted to another character in Egan’s imagined world. As the story progresses, characters develop in the periphery. While Rachman’s short stories and multiple characters orbited the newspaper where they work, Egan’s characters do not carry a central point of reference. Although Bennie Salazar seems to be the central character, not every protagonist from chapter to chapter knows him personally.

Questions of Art, Purpose, and Brokeness

Stylistically, A Visit from the Goon Squad inquires about the legitimacy of artistry. Does punk rock remain punk rock when it is commercialized? If art exists for the sake of money, does it cease to become art? Egan writes,

“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” (35).

Additionally, Egan suggests that the distance between success and failure or life and death is imperceptibly minute. Writing about Bennie’s long-lost and arguably more talented former band member, Egan pens,

“Things had gotten sort of dry for me. I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all” (71).

Moreover, Egan explores the brokenness of her characters. Those characters successful in business struggle mightily in their personal lives; the characters with stable personal lives struggle with finances. Throughout the story, the characters labor toward keeping their heads above water. Referencing a failed publicist, Egan elaborates on her attempts to make ends meet no matter the ethical consequences:

“When the first installment appeared in her bank account, Dolly’s relief was so immense that it almost obliterated the tiny anxious muttering voice inside her: Your client is a genocidal dictator. Dolly had worked with shitheads before, God knew; if she didn’t take this job someone else would snap it up; being a publicist is about not judging your clients – these excuses were lined up in formation, ready for deployment should that small dissident voice pluck up its courage to speak with any volume. But lately, Dolly couldn’t even hear it” (105).

PowerPoint: A Plot Device

Of course, any book review of A Visit from the Goon Squad must mention the famous PowerPoint chapter. I have heard some label this move as pure genius. Others perceive its use in questionable terms. Personally, I found it moving, unique, and a quick way to read 80 pages. Since enough ink has been spilled on this chapter, I shall only state that it is a unique and enjoyable plot device.

Where Characters Meet

While A Visit from the Goon Squad is an enjoyable read, I found Egan’s connections between characters to be slightly forced. Where a collection of stories that locates itself within a static community provides reasonable relational connections, Egan’s characters live, work, and play in separate spheres. Although some connections made sense, it felt like Egan – at certain times – inserted characters inorganically.

Nevertheless, A Visit from the Goon Squad carries dense themes and certainly requires a reread. As the music industry crumbles around us, Egan masterfully depicts characters simultaneously breaking down. Before the music dies, I recommend reading this book.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Album Review: Wasting Light

Wasting LightWasting Light by Foo Fighters (RCA, 2011. 48 minutes)

Foo Fighters are an American rock band formed by lead singer and guitarist, Dave Grohl. Established in the wake of Nirvana’s end, the band’s current members are Grohl, Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel, Taylor Hawkins, and Pat Smear. Of the seven studio albums released, six of them have been nominated for a Grammy Award and three – There Is Nothing Left to Lose, One by One, and Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace – have won Best Rock Album awards.


As a junior high student learning guitar, I enjoyed spinning my portable CD player with headphones enveloping me like ear muffs and imagining that I was playing in a band in front of all my friends. Every night as slumber quietly arrived, my eardrums bounced to the melodies of my favorite bands. Though my comrades never knew it happened, the guitar riffs impressed them – I’m pretty sure.

As my mastery of guitar increased, my stage presence in my dreams took the performance to another level. In two words, rock star. In order to achieve maximum rock-star-ness, I needed to spin upbeat records with loud guitars. Sadly, the Foo Fighters’ new record, Wasting Light did not exist in my teen years.

With solid songs and high energy, Wasting Light is an enjoyable record, but, to me, it feels like an album I would have enjoyed more as a teenager.

Life and Death

Focusing on the theme of maximizing the time left on earth in the face of death, Wasting Light gives the Foo Fighters another well-made record.

Despite Dave Grohl’s questionable use of cliché in his lyrics, the content on the album neither adds nor subtracts from the listening experience.

“Rope,” the first single on the record, illustrates both the clichés and the themes of wasting life as death awaits.

“This indecision got me climbing up the walls / I've been cheating gravity and waiting on the falls / How did this come over me, I thought I was above it all / Our hopes gone up in smoke, swallow your crown.”

In the closing track, “Walk,” Grohl switches lyrical direction. Where the first ten tracks focus on impending death and fear of misusing life, “Walk” triumphantly proclaims the trampling of death. Grohl sings,

“Now! / For the very first time / Don't you pay no mind / Set me free, again / To keep alive, a moment at a time / That's still inside, a whisper to a riot / The sacrifice, the knowing to survive / The first decline, another state of mind / I'm on my knees, I'm praying for a sign / Forever, whenever, I never wanna die / I never wanna die / I never wanna die / I'm on my knees, I never wanna die / I'm dancing on my grave / I'm running through the fire / Forever, whenever / I never wanna die / I never wanna leave / I'll never say goodbye / Forever, Whenever / Forever, Whenever.”

While the rest of Wasting Light focuses on fear and regret, “Walk” tauntingly suggests that the future is a brighter place.

This One Goes to Eleven

Musically, Wasting Light is a guitar record. From the very first aggressive riff, it is evident that Grohl’s many collaborations with rock n’ roll’s elite have influenced his songwriting. In fact, “White Limo” sounds as if it fell out of the Motörhead song library.

In terms of songwriting, Pitchfork Media suggests – and I couldn’t agree more – that Dave Grohl is the modern rendition of Tom Petty – churning popular working-class rock tunes.

As I mentioned earlier, my teenage self would have eaten this album for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The guitar riffs are aggressive, but, not too technical. And most importantly for a young guitarist just beginning on the electric form of the instrument, the tunes consist of plugging in the guitar and playing. Aside from some tremolo opening the song, “Rope,” Wasting Light turns the amps to eleven and lets the chords ring.

This Foo Fighters’ release provides another consistent staple in their discography. The songs are listenable and the energy is infectious.  However, the simplicity in the lyrics and musicianship keeps this record from true greatness. While Wasting Light does not offend me in any way, I find it difficult to recommend.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange: Play with MusicA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962. 220 pp)

Born in 1917 as John Burgess Wilson, this English author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator, and critic published under the name, Anthony Burgess. Though he dismissed it as a lesser work, Burgress is best known for A Clockwork Orange, more than likely due to the controversial Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. In his youth, Burgess attended Xaverian College and later studied at Victoria University of Manchester receiving a B.A. in English. In addition to his publications, Burgess composed many musical pieces in his free time. During his career, Burgess was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and earned honorary degrees from St. Andrews University, Birmingham University, and Manchester University. He died in 1993.

What Fried Chicken and Shepherd’s Pie Teach Us about Free Will and Determinism

What is for dinner tonight? Suppose I gave you two choices: fried chicken or shepherd’s pie. For most people, the corresponding choice defines the philosophical principle of free will. You like shepherd’s pie, so you choose it. You are free to choose fried chicken if you are in the mood, but today, it’s shepherd’s pie.

Philosophers – pesky and annoying as they are known to be – might disagree with your assessment. To them, you choose shepherd’s pie not because you hold the freedom to make a decision between two options; instead, they argue that the rules of causation demand that you choose shepherd’s pie. In other words, your pre-disposed likes and desires created by a causal chain throughout your life lead to this very moment where shepherd’s pie is the only choice you could ever make.

Known as free will versus determinism, A Clockwork Orange explores this debate.

An Anti-Hero and His “Droogs”

Scene from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange portrays a dystopian England ruled by violence and anarchy. The main character and anti-hero in the book, Alex, conducts brutal acts with his “droogs” – a term referencing fellow gang members – on the streets of London. With no moral compass, Alex ruins the lives of many for the sake of temporary pleasure.

Leaning heavily on his linguistic virtuosity, Burgess crafts a unique dialect for his ruffians. Amazingly, this Slavic- and Cockney-influenced English can be followed with a slightly focused reading throughout the work. To get a sense of the dialect, here’s a passage where Alex and his “droogs” are torturing a victim:

“’It’s a book,’ I said. ‘It’s a book what you are writing.’ I made the old goloss very course. ‘I have always had the strongest admiration for them as can write books.’ Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ Then I read a malenky bit out loud in a sort of very high type preaching goloss: ‘ – The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen –‘ Dim made the old lip-music at that and I had to smeck myself. Then I started to tear up the sheets and scatter the bits over the floor, and this writer moodge went sort of bezoomny and made for me with his zoobies clenched and showing yellow and his nails ready for me like claws” (25-26).

Despite his ferocious nature, Alex contains one endearing quality: he loves classical music. While most teenagers listen to and enjoy technologically advanced music, Alex prefers the stylings of “good ‘ol Ludwig Van.”

To Choose Evil or Be Forced to the Good

As with most morally questionable actions, Alex must eventually face the repercussions of his sins. Faced with endless years locked in the joint, Alex – or 6655231 as he is called in prison – overhears discussion about a new psychological technique announced by the government, one that forces the amoral to always make ethical decisions. In Alex’s mind, freedom carries more importance than choice. The chaplain in the prison, however, disagrees:

“It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him” (106)?

Determinism vs. Free Will

At the core of the novel resides the question of determinism versus free will. Do humans possess the capacity to choose from right and wrong or are they merely a product of their surroundings? Personally, I argue for both. Yet, A Clockwork Orange frighteningly portrays the results of determinism.

To Redeem or Not to Redeem

My version of the book, interestingly, supplies the final chapter not originally published in the first U.S. edition. Where the U.S. edition and the Stanley Kubrick-directed movie conclude on a decidedly negative point, the original edition carries a redemptive storyline in the end.

With the last chapter offering a strikingly different ending than the original U.S. version, the obvious question becomes is it better to end on a redemptive note? From a literary standpoint, I can certainly see the cohesive and exponentially depressing organization of the shortened U.S. version. However, the redemptive thread in the last chapter of the U.K. edition suggests that no matter the nastiness of an individual, he or she eventually grows out of it.

Knowing that the ending is in debate, however, created a better read. A Clockwork Orange is frightening and unpleasant. It explores the centuries-old debate on free will versus determinism. Although I am grateful for reading the book, I find it difficult to recommend.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: God and the Evil of Scarcity

Albino Barrera teaches economics and theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to God and the Evil of Scarcity, he wrote Modern Catholic Social Documents and Political Economy (Georgetown University Press) in 2001.

It Begins with Malthus

For Albino Barrera, God and the Evil of Scarcity is essentially a response to the Malthusian understanding of theodicy.  While most consider resource scarcity and population control when Thomas Malthus comes to mind, Barrera explores Malthus’ foundational views of God that lead him to his conclusions on resource scarcity.

Simply put, Barrera understands Malthusian theodicy as a source for human mastery when he writes,

“Using natural theology, Malthus argues that God created a world of scarcity to provide people with reason and incentive to apply themselves in work and striving” (2).

In other words, the condition of scarcity – an evil for all intents and purposes – inspires the pursuit of good. Despite the insistence through Christian tradition that evil is an absence of the good and an occurrence resulting from our fallen nature, Malthus sees evil as a root cause that generates the desire for good.

Theodicy and Economic Scarcity

Rejecting this notion of theodicy, Barrera explores Thomistic and New Testament traditions seeking to better understand the reason for existing economic scarcity. For Barrera, God contains the power to provide humanity with everything it needs to flourish on earth.

Since humankind struggles with its allocation of resources, Barrera reasons that God must provide a good reason for the existence of such scarcity. Barrera notes,

“The economic statutes and ordinances that flow from such historicity become the means for God to proffer and elicit human participation in divine holiness, righteousness, and providence. Scarcity makes conformity to the Law that much more sacrificial, but that much more consequential as well” (199).

In other words, scarcity offers humanity the opportunity to sacrificially work with God in the world. As people encounter need, scarcity makes help sacrificial and more meaningful. Thus, the evil of scarcity exists not to require harder work from people in order to gain assets but to supply a cost for the apostolate work of giving to those in need.

Scarcity and My Pre-Conceived Notions

In all honesty, I found Barrera’s position on scarcity to be extremely refreshing. Before reading this book, my understanding of scarcity was exceptionally negative. At best, scarcity explained why some people owned much and others possessed little; at worst, scarcity is a deeply engrained selfishness that limits the ability for the poor to survive in a harsh world. By reframing the discussion, I found it encouraging to consider scarcity as a way for sacrificial giving to truly have meaning.

What About Excessive Population and Sustainability?

Nevertheless, Barrera’s thesis is lacking in one critical category. Whether or not Malthus carried erroneous assumptions about theodicy, the damning portion of his thought in modern life is the effect of population on the environment. With fewer people, the allocation of resources is out of mind and out of sight. However, exponential human growth requires a similar growth in resource usage. Since the earth is finite, no matter the theological value of scarcity in sacrificial giving, an unsustainably large population incurs an enormous burden on scarce resources.

While most of God and the Evil of Scarcity ignores the role of population in the discussion of scarcity and sufficiency, Barrera attempts to answer the critique in an appendix to the book. He writes,

“The universe cannot reach its external end in God if its parts (humans, in this case) are unable to operate according to the nature of their being for want of material nourishment and the other means necessary for their full actualization” (234).

In simple terms, God will not allow a population to balloon in such a way that it debilitates humanity and creation.

Sadly, such a position ignores the fact that sacrificial giving to the world’s poor will greatly burden our access to scarce resources. Moreover, this position ignores the crucial work of sustainability experts who are reconsidering humanity’s relationship with resources arguing that consumption is possible without deteriorating resources (See William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

Scarce Words

Despite my gratitude for the new perspective Barrera offers on scarcity, namely, its existence for the sacrificial giving of resources to others, I find both the population problem and current sustainable considerations for resources help to render Barrera’s thesis problematic.

Likewise, this book feels like the reworking of a dissertation. Each page contains excessive citations and footnotes which provide clear evidence that Barrera completed his homework, yet, it creates difficult reading throughout the work.

If you are interested in the intersection between theology and economics, God and the Evil of Scarcity offers a unique perspective. However, for most people, I would not recommend this book.