Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 272 pp)                                                                                                                        Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Sarah Vowell is an author, journalist, and social commentator. She earned her B.A. from Montana State University and an M.A. in Art History from the School of Art Institute Chicago. Having written six nonfiction books, Vowell brings a witty voice to her historical topics. She has also been published in The Village Voice, Esquire, GQ, Spin, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and SF Weekly. She serves as the president of the board of 826NYC, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for young students.

The Next Sedaris?

I have read in multiple places that Sarah Vowell is a female David Sedaris. Considering my borderline obsession for Mr. Sedaris, I bookmarked Vowell’s work for further consideration. Well, The Wordy Shipmates became my passageway into this highly touted author.

First off, Vowell and Sedaris are about as similar as a crocodile and a salamander; they exist within a generalized group in the animal kingdom but act in completely different ways. David Sedaris takes a memoir-based approach to humor, citing events in his life to comedic perfection. Vowell, on the other hand, utilizes sarcasm to share history.

The Wordy Shipmates reads like a humorous term paper.

A Puritan Nation

In this tome, Vowell waxes poetically on the Puritans who found political asylum in newly settled America. Reacting to the basic cliché that modern America is a Puritan nation, she explores the lives of the Puritans hoping to truly understand what such a phrase means.

Puritanism means a break with an England that previously broke with Rome:

“So an English subject of Henry VIII who already had a soft spot for the innovations of Luther rejoiced at the king’s break with Rome (while trying not to picture Henry and Anne Boleyn doing it in every room of every castle). That is, until the Protestant sympathizer went to church and noticed that the Church of England was just the same old Catholic Church with a king in pope’s clothing. Same old hierarchy of archbishop on down. Same old Latin-speaking middlemen standing between parishioners and the Bible, between parishioners and God. Same old ornamental gewgaws. Organ music! Vestments! (It is difficult to understate the Puritan abhorrence of something as seemingly trivial as a vicar’s scarf.) Same old easily achieved, come-as-you-are salvation. Here’s what one had to do to join the Church of England: be English. But we want getting into heaven to be hard! Said the Puritans. And not for everybody” (7)!

The Puritanism that Vowell uncovers looks little like the hyper-conservative Christian right. Referencing John Winthrop, a leading figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vowell writes,

“Because of the ‘city upon a hill’ sound bite, ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ is one of the formative documents outlining the idea of America. But dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada” (38).

To Save or Kill

Sadly, the Canadian ideal espoused during the gestational period of the puritan colony fizzled. The native population – once a focus of targeted proselytizing – became an enemy.

Speaking of the conflict between the colonists and the Pequot Native Americans, Vowell states,

“Winthrop’s journal records with delight that the men ‘came all safe to Boston, which was a marvelous providence of God, that not a hair feel from the head of any of them.’ Not only that, but on their way home, they were accompanied by a Narragansett interpreter who killed a Pequot in a swamp along the way and ‘flayed off the skin of his head,’ i.e., scalped him. So: bonus” (184).

Predestination: What Foreknowledge

Despite her humorous take on history, I found The Wordy Shipmates far too one-dimensional. First, Vowell describes Calvinist theology behind the Puritan ethic in simple terms. She contends that the strict and joyless adherence to rules and regulations in Puritanism is a result of the Reformed view of predestination (the belief that God knows who is and isn’t saved before time began). For Vowell, the Puritans were strict because they didn’t know if God had saved them.

The point behind the doctrine of predestination is assurance. Reformed theology offers predestination as an explanation of a consistent God; it allows humans to know that their beliefs have saved them, not by works.

Sadly, Vowell’s mischaracterization of Calvinist theology casts a shadow over the rest of the book. Moreover, the book is dissertation-length when the subject matter feels thesis-length. Although Vowell writes strongly about the establishment of a Puritan colony, the last portion of the book reads like an unwanted endnote about other historical occurrences that have nothing to do with the rest of the novel.

On the whole, Vowell writes well and her humor gives vibrant life to some very stale topics. Nevertheless, her mischaracterization of Calvinist theology and the disorganized back half of the book makes it difficult for me to recommend The Wordy Shipmates.  For those less theologically inclined, it still might be a good read, as the humor is nevertheless entertaining.

Verdict: 2 of 5

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Album Review: If Not Now, When?

If Not Now, When?  by Incubus (Epic Records, 2011. 50 minutes)

From California, Incubus is a rock band comprised of Brandon Boyd, Mike Einziger, Jose Pasillas, Ben Kenney, and DJ Kilmore. With seven full-length albums, Incubus has reached multi-platinum sales and is arguably considered the most successful rock band of the early 2000s. Gaining prominence during the nu-metal trend of the late nineties, Incubus is often classified with Limp Bizkit, Korn, and P.O.D. Yet, the band’s style contains alternative rock, hip hop, jazz, funk, and metal influences.


After years of constant touring, Incubus faced a dilemma: either they continued prolific songwriting with diminishing returns or they take a break, fall in and out of love, experience life in all its dimensions, and return with songs that carry the terrestrial weight of reality.

If Not Now, When? is the culmination of the second route. With the prolonged break, the band found reflection in life outside of a tour bus. Additionally, guitarist and principle songwriter, Mike Einziger, went to Harvard and studied music composition. As a result, If Not Now, When? replaces the complexity of previous records with a newfound drive for simplicity.

Lazy Simplicity

Sadly, If Not Now, When? more often than not sounds like a lazy simplicity. It is said that the most difficult song to write is a simple one. Musicians always want to add sound to a composition – just listen to all the guitarists at Guitar Center! The difficulty, though, comes from finding beauty in the simplicity. Thus, beautiful but simple music is difficult because it forces the writer to concoct melodies with emotional pull.

Despite the push for simplicity on the new record, Incubus too often removes riffs and resorts to simple chord progressions. With work on excellent counter-melodies, If Not Now, When? could function well. As it stands, it is quite boring. Case in point, the opening track drags with a manufactured gravitas that plods boringly.

Aside from the first single, “Adolescents,” an upbeat tune that closely resembles previously work from Incubus, the album feels forced and boring.

New Is Not Better

Given the attempt to plug back into the real world to create more compelling content, I must say that Incubus failed. The record isn’t horrible; but it by no means represents their best work.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Guest Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 604 pp)

Born in 1952, Hilary Mantel is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Mantel began studying at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield where she graduated with a degree in jurisprudence. While employed as a social worker after her studies, Mantel began writing. After a decade of travel with her husband, Mantel published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, in 1985. On the heels of her first novel, Mantel found employment as a film critic for The Spectator. Over the course of her writing career, Mantel has won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Fludd, the Sunday Express Book of the Year for A Place of Greater Safety, the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, the MIND “Book of the Year” for Giving Up the Ghost, and the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. In 2006, Mantel was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Editor's Note: This book review functions as a second take to the perspective previously posted.

History Come Alive

The time of kings, frivolity, and large discontent is what inspired Hilary Mantel to pen her novel, “Wolf Hall”. Elegantly written, she plows through the controversy that is Thomas Cromwell, creating a believable and plausible tale of conversations that might have taken place.

Historical and literary works following Cromwell’s life generally portray him as a manipulative calculating individual, as opposed to the generally held “hero” of the time period, Sir Thomas Moore. Mantel, however, chooses to flip the roles, and portray Cromwell in a kinder light, though she still portrays him as somewhat manipulative.

Unknowingly Evil

The Portrait of Thomas Cromwell
In one particular chapter of the book that stood out to me, entitled “The Painter’s Eye”, Mantel chooses to focus on a painting of Cromwell. Cromwell asks his son Gregory to review it. After Gregory silently judging the painting for some time, a conversation ensues. Cromwell laments, “‘I fear Mark was right.’ ‘Who is Mark?’ ‘A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’ Gregory says, ‘Did you not know’” (432)?

Cromwell, completely unaware of how he acts around others, surely was startled by this affirmation of his evil gaze. As this passage suggests, Mantel captures the heart of her characters impeccably. She perhaps managed to gaze into a past that no modern person will acknowledge: that perhaps Cromwell wasn’t as bad as he is historically painted. Maybe there is even a slight chance that Moore isn’t the saintly hero history has labeled him. Plausibility is what makes this novel sing.


Brevity isn’t Mantel’s gift. Wolf Hall is 532 pages in length, rivaling behemoth classics in scope and substance such as The Grapes of Wrath (619 pages), or War and Peace (1,225 pages). The length would have deterred me if I was not reading it with a group of gentleman, and I love reading. So, I would recommend this book to those who have a large portion of patience, or an exceeding interest in the times of the Tudors. Mantel’s writing is amazing, with picturesque scenes of beauty, and horrific scenes of torture and death. But, it does go on. And on.


Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian Schoolin Bellevue, WA.  He holds an MM in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a BM in Music Education from the University of Washington.  He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Film Review: Paul

Paul directed by Greg Mottola (Universal Pictures, Relativity Media, Working Title Films, R, 104 minutes)

Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, and Kristen Wiig.

I Hated This Movie So Let Me Be Brief

I wanted to see this movie because I had faith in the duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Starring in the soon-to-be cult classics, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, these actors have blended comedy and social satire through an artful presentation. With the funding of a major studio, Paul ought to be even better with a larger budget. Wrong!

A Mandatory Plot Mention

Pegg and Frost play nerds on holiday in the United States. Having attended Comic Con, the duo travels the southwest encountering the classic UFO landmarks. After an unfortunate accident, the nerds encounter a pot-smoking alien named Paul. In a move that gives the movie a plot, Pegg and Frost agree to help Paul find a way back home.

Stay Away!

With lazy writing, poor acting, and a boring plot, Paul is a miserable watch. It strikes me as odd that such brilliant comedy in previous Pegg/Frost films vanishes in this movie. In my mind, the only explanation is that Universal Studios micro-managed this plot into lowest-common-denominator humor. If you are into physical humor and an obvious joke, there might be something worth salvaging. For me sadly, I wish I had avoided Paul.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood: A NovelThe Year of the Flood: A Novel by Margaret Atwood (New York: Doubleday, 2009. 448 pp)

Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind AssassinDescription:, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.


Everyone knows Orwell’s 1984. The classic dystopian novel depicts the frightening consequences of an authoritarian state. Without removing much of its well-deserved praise, I wonder if 1984 remains a masterpiece not for its literary qualities but for its political commentary. Much like Animal Farm functioning as a satire against Communism, Orwell’s clear distaste of authoritarian government colors 1984. Moreover, the novel’s release during the beginning of the Cold War gave readers – whether valid or not – a tangible source illustrating the potential horrors of Communism.

Without a clear enemy, the dystopian novel becomes a difficult sell. If humanity does not perceive a threat, a story acting as a “what if” warning fails to convince. With Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, the enemy of humanity is not nation-states but trans-national corporations.

The Real Fear about Trans-National Corporations

Although admittedly, most don’t consider business a threat to civilization, Atwood paints a realistic portrait in Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood regarding what could happen. Simply put, if corporations seek profit above all else, what keeps them from inhibiting life in order to reap profit. For example, what keeps pharmaceuticals from developing diseases alongside antidotes? If people get sick, the company profits. Given the philosophical incentives taught in business school, such a result is certainly possible.

Fringe Religions

While book one of the trilogy, Oryx Crake, focuses on the complexities behind business starting the apocalypse, The Year of the Flood tells the same story from the perspective of an anti-corporation religious group.

In this work, each chapter begins with a sermon from Adam One, founder of God’s Gardeners, a religious group that blends evolutionary theory with creation care theology. At the end of each sermon, Adam One proclaims, “Let us sing,” and Atwood actually penned hymns that populate the liturgy of God’s Gardeners.

As a highlight of Adam One’s sermons, Atwood writes,

“The Human Words of God speak of the Creation in terms that could be understood by men of old. There is no talk of galaxies or genes, for such terms would have confused them greatly! But must we therefore take as scientific fact the story that the world was created in six days, thus making a nonsense of observable data? God cannot be held to the narrowness of literal and materialistic interpretations, nor measured by Human measurements, for His days are eons, and a thousand ages of our time are like an evening to Him” (11).

Moreover, the theology of the God’s Gardeners is apocalyptic. As with many sects that span human history, the community forms around an expectation of the end of days. Atwood states,

“According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future” (188).

Surviving the Waterless Flood

Aside from this religious institution, The Year of the Flood tells the story of two women associated with this fringe community. On one side, Toby found refuge in God’s Gardeners after her family deteriorated mostly due to nefarious corporate practices and her former job left her defenseless to an abusive boss. On the other side, Ren escaped the corporate compounds with her mother finding acceptance amongst the religious zealots.

With similar starting points, The Year of the Flood charts the different paths Toby and Ren take before the apocalyptic disease blots out most of humanity. Through serendipitous means, both women survive the “flood” as the Gardeners call it and unite to face the new, daunting world.

A Detailed Myth

 The Year of the Flood adds to the dark realism of the Maddaddam Trilogy. Just like Oryx and Crake outlines the plausible scenario of trans-national corporations ruining the world for profit. The Year of the Flood depicts a complex religion and liturgy surrounding the reality of this world. As with any occurrence, counter-movements inevitably spring up. Atwood’s fictitious faction, God’s Gardeners, provides an extensive theology that is plausible not only in her invented world but also in our world as it currently exists.

Dealing with Death

Of course, this trilogy suffers from a lack of real world analogy. Yes, corporations carry a lot of power. But, we do not consider them a threat. Should we? Perhaps. But for me, the big question with dystopian models is always how humanity deals with large-scale death. Atwood pens,

“Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy” (415)?

Thus, the dystopian novel portrays beauty through its relationship with death. We all wonder about death; we all will experience it. Art finds it through dystopia and thus we read. The Year of the Flood is well-written, fast-paced, and frightening. Start with Oryx and Crake, and then read The Year of the Flood.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: West of Here

West of HereWest of Here: A Novel by Jonathan Evison (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2011. 496 pp)

Born in San Jose, California, Jonathan Evison moved to Seattle and formed a punk band named March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Before writing professionally, Evison worked as a laborer, caregiver, bartender, and syndicated radio host. His first book, All about Lulu, garnered critical acclaim winning the Washington State Book Award. Evison was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation in 2009. Currently, he lives on Bainbridge Island in Western Washington.

Prior Tenants

Have you ever considered the history around the place you live? Since the earth is older than us (I know; strange right?), the land upon which we live knew other plants, animals, people, and structures before us. What did the prior tenants do in that apartment? Did the previous owner of a household struggle with addiction? Strangely, the places we know so well possess a past we can never truly grasp.

With West of Here, Jonathan Evison explores the history of the fictional town, Port Bonita (interestingly, Evison uses some interesting viral marketing for the book by creating a city of commerce website for Port Bonita) located on the Olympic Peninsula of Western Washington. The narrative splits between characters in a frontier settlement during 1890 and those in a fully developed town during 2006. Coupled with characters familialy linked between the centuries, West of Here discusses grand themes of development, environmental degradation, and exploration.

Dam Days

In 1890, the fledgling commonwealth at the edge of the world encounters the very thing it is trying to escape when Ethan Thornburgh sets his sights on building a dam. In 2006, Jared Thornburgh struggles with the last keynote address at “Dam Days” before the Thornburgh Dam gets decommissioned and torn down.

Speaking about Ethan and the drive for development, his love interest complains,

“How was it that destiny forever attached destiny forever attached itself to men? How was it that men presumed destiny to choose them? And what was the act of this presumption but to relinquish responsibility for their actions? And who was left to shoulder the burden, to suffer the consequences of these actions? While men carried on about putting the river to work and illuminating the darkness, what great destiny had attached itself to Eva, if not domesticity” (102)?

Not only does Evison address issues of gender in this new community, he also speaks about relations between Native Americans and the American pioneers. Referencing the building of the dam, the natives discuss,

“’If the river were meant to be stopped,’ she said, ‘then it would not be a river.’
George nodded his affirmation. ‘That is true,’ he said. ‘But a river is easier to stop than a white man’” (282).

Frontier Expeditions as Escapism

With the Olympic Mountains mostly unexplored, Mather begins an expedition into the great unknown. Meanwhile, the 21st century finds Timmon Tillman skipping parole and trekking the same path the first explorers undertook 100 years earlier.

Speaking of Tillman’s desire to escape, Evison writes,

“Surely, somewhere out there, on the banks of some nameless stream, at the foot of some nameless mountain, was a home for Timmon Tillman, two-time loser; a sun-dappled place where he could pass his days unencumbered by the existential hell of the other people, a place to be left alone, a place so remote that the smoke of a campfire would not betray his existence. No more offices, no more leering desk clerks, no more meaningless toiling in body shops or clam factories. No more Gooch, no more walls, no more cells. Just wide-open spaces and bountiful wilderness, a place where he could engage the circle of life, no matter how grueling the business of survival might prove to be” (188).

In short, these time periods reveal deep symmetry behind humanity’s actions.

Born Haunted

West of Here ultimately details the various ways in which humanity seeks escape. Whether by hiding behind machismo while conquering the great unknown, running from typical gender roles, escaping a dead-end job, or finding comfort in sex and recreational drug use, the many characters highlighted in Evison’s work labor tirelessly away from what is known toward what is unknown.

Evison eloquently states,

“’We are born haunted,’ he said, his voice weak, but still clear. ‘Haunted by our fathers and mothers and daughters, and by people we don’t remember.  We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. And even as our own flame burns brightest, we are haunted by the embers of the first dying fire. But mostly,’ said Lord Jim, ‘we are haunted by ourselves’” (465).

A big book focusing on the many facets of life, West of Here unites grand themes with a readable plot. With a masterful weaving between centuries, the reader gets a glimpse of how progress does not necessarily mean change. Such themes lend observations regarding how humans inevitably try to escape themselves. Set in the pristine forests of the Evergreen State, West of Here is an excellent book and highly recommended.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Album Review: Burst Apart

Burst ApartBurst Apart by The Antlers (Frenchkiss, 2011. 41 minutes)

The Antlers is an indie rock band based in Brooklyn, New York. The band is a three-piece outfit consisting of Peter Silberman, Michael Lerner, and Darby Cicci. Originally a solo project created by Silberman, the band formed after Silberman self-released two records. The best songs later became Hospice, an acclaimed record independently released by the band. After the success of Hospice, The Antlers signed with Frenchkiss Records. With Burst Apart, The Antlers look to build on the success of Hospice.

The Cultural Sensation that Was Emo

Before a careful evaluation of Burst Apart commences, we must begin by exploring the nature of emotion-based music. Rooted in the cathartic tones of Sunny Day Real Estate, “emo,” as it was coined, rose in popularity at the beginning of the “aughts.” Characterized first and foremost by the dark, depressing, and emotions-on-the-sleeve lyrics, emo music created an identity for many high school students who were convinced that they will be forever misunderstood.

While emo typically found its tuning in rock instrumentation, its little brother, “screemo” occurred partly due to the annoyance of shaggy bangs sliding down the forehead and inhibiting sight (Of course, this statement is in jest. Screemo bands didn’t form due to anger about long hair, they all just seemed to have long hair). As with emo, screemo communicated heartfelt lyrics through screaming instead of singing as if the louder decibels will form a better identity for this mistaken lot.

It’s dark; It’s Painful; It’s Almost Funny; It’s a Teenage Breakup

The genre’s genesis aside, emo lyrics conjured a life of its own as these emotional phrases took on a level of absurdity. Perhaps most famously, the lyricist in Taking Back Sunday once wrote,

“The truth is you could slit my throat and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.” 

It’s dark; it’s painful; it’s almost funny; it’s a teenage breakup.

Emo and The Antlers

What does emo have to do with The Antlers’ Burst Apart? Musically? Nothing. Lyrically? Everything. Not to say that Peter Silberman’s lyrics are as adolescent as Taking Back Sunday’s, but he has certainly created a niche in the indie music scene for overly emotional lyrics.

In “Every Night My Teeth are Falling Out,” Silberman sings,

“One dumb night I’ll make a point to take an old verboten route / And one dumb night I’ll take you out, to the bar we’ve both blacked out / One dumb night two bad decisions don’t divide to cancel out / You and I, divorced but not devout / Every night my teeth are falling out.”

Clearly, such lyrics might easily find themselves written on the wall of a brooding teenager. What makes these lyrics work, however, is the music that houses them.

Ethereal Ambiance

While typical early 2000s emo produced loud guitars and percussion behind a whiney singer, Silberman’s voice feels ethereal in the midst of spacious timbres and reverb soaked guitars. In the opener, “I Don’t Want Love,” The Antlers seek simplicity. With easy chords crackling under a whammy pedal and a 4/4 beat, the tune is catchy when needed and moving due to its production.

In short, The Antlers straddle the line between artful music and whiney emo. Were the lyrics placed in a worse setting, they would encounter derision. However, The Antlers painstakingly focus on music that creates a setting – a feeling that coincides with the lyrical direction. With such good production, Burst Apart is an enjoyable record. If you are interested in an album that encourages you to feel, check out Burst Apart.