Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: Restaurant Man

Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich (New York: Viking Press, 2012. 275 pp)

Joe Bastianich (b. 1968) is a restauranteur and vineyard owner as well as a judge for the cooking show Master Chef. Son of famous restauranteur, Lidia Bastianich, Joe owns the New York City restaurants Becco, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, Lupa, Esca, Casa Mono, Bar Jamón, Otto, Del Posto, and Eataly among others. Bastianich has also established three wineries:  Azienda Agricola Bastianich, La Mozza s.r.l, and Trinono. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife and three children.

Fighting Destiny

I specifically have told myself in the past that I never wanted to direct choirs, work in a private school, date a freshman in college, or date a sorority girl. I am now an established choir teacher in a private school who is married to my college sweetheart, Brynn, whom I started dating her freshman year. She is a member of the Sigma Kappa sorority.

The moral of the story is don’t fight destiny. Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich chronicles his own fight with destiny. Steeped in the culture and lingo of New York City, Restaurant Man shares Bastianich’s adventures from his family’s first restaurant to his current chef enterprise of the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.

Born into the “Business”

A dish being served at Felidia
Bastianich grew up in Felidia, a restaurant in Queens owned by his parents. He served wine (even at the age of fourteen), waited tables, and learned how to cook. His mom, Lidia, spent considerable time in Italy, honing her craft of honest and authentic Italian food.
“She was a pioneer, bringing back wines that were mostly unknown outside their regions, and re-creating that authenticity in New York. That was the action—she wanted to be a gateway to Italian culture. Felidia was going to be about creating the experience of real Italian food, just like what you would have in Italy. She figured that everyone had had enough veal parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs for a fucking lifetime—that was the bet” (31).
Wine Lover

Bastianich joined the restaurant team (in many different positions) from an early age, and saw the pitfalls of the restaurant business. He saw the grueling work, the countless hours, the sweat and tears. He was busing tables, and working very hard. As his parents began really investing in wine, so did he. Nino, the sommelier at Felidia took Joe under his wing.
“He was always saying, ‘Hey, kid, check this out. This is a ’47, a ’51, a ’53...’ Even then I was drinking thirty- our forty-year-old wine, fifty-year-old wine, and I could tell the difference. My mother always said I was a born taster. Nino was just trying to take care of the boss’s son, but I was getting an accidental education” (46).
Tuscan Vineyard
But Joe didn’t want the education, and tried to flee. He went to Boston College, gained a degree, and left for Wall Street as an investment manager. Unsatisfied with his chosen career, he took his year-end bonus and traveled Italy to learn about food, eating, and working his way through countless vineyards and restaurants. He gave into destiny.
“When it was time to collect my end-of-year bonus, I just figured enough already. I tried to make it work, but fuck it, it was a big world, and I was going to get my ass the hell out of there. I remember I was just pacing around, and every half hour I’d go down to the ATM to see if my six-digit bonus had cleared—it was an obscene amount of money they were giving me, especially for someone who was about to leave their church. And as soon as it showed up in my bank account, I hit the ground running. See ya. No shit, I went right to a travel agent and bought a one-way ticket to Italy. Then I felt like I could breathe again” (67).
Upon returning to New York, Bastianich met Mario Batali, and they decided to open a restaurant together. The rest, as they say, is history. From there, the book chronicles the partnership between the two, as well as their adventures in the U.S. and Italy. Bastianich talks of his restaurant math and the business savvy he has to juggle to keep the restaurant empire afloat. For a mere two-hundred-odd pages, there is an incredible amount of content in the book. Not to gloss over Restaurant Man , but there is simply too much to mention in one review.

One Last Note

Plagued with language that would make your mother blush, the Restaurant Man reads like sailor talk. But, such is the restaurant world—it is crass and vulgar during the best of times. Restaurant Man serves as an incredible memoir of a man fighting destiny, but it also serves as an excellent guide for anyone wishing to enter the restaurant business.
  
The ubiquitous self-congratulatory tone present in the book is incredibly annoying at first, but after a while you realize it’s deserved as Bastianich is tremendously successful. If you want to enter the restaurant business, or enjoy books about food and wine, Restaurant Man is for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What are your thoughts?  Have you enjoyed any of the restaurants from Bastianich and Batali? Did you find the book to be too self-congratulatory?  Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Album Review: Fear Fun

Fear Fun by Father John Misty (Sub Pop Records, 2012. 41 minutes)

Father John Misty is the moniker of singer-songwriter and former Fleet Foxes drummer, Joshua Tillman. After dropping out of college, Tillman moved to Seattle and began recording demos. Damien Jurado, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter, discovered Tillman and took the budding songwriter on tour. Tillman has released 7 full-length albums under the name, J. Tillman. After four years of drumming with Fleet Foxes, Tillman has returned to solo work with Fear Fun.

The Marketing Narrative 

Sometimes, the marketing campaign surrounding a new album dives into the backstory behind said record. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver locked himself in a secluded cabin during a dark, Wisconsin winter to forge For Emma, Forever Ago; Bruce Springsteen wrote The Rising to cope with the September 11 attacks.

With a backstory, the listener finds context for the sonic textures and heartfelt lyrics. The songs become more than songs; they transform into a manifesto.

Why do we care about a backstory? Even more, how should we respond to a backstory when the album itself doesn’t seem to connect?

These questions populate my mind when I listen to Father John Misty’s Fear Fun.

Drug Tripping and Day Tripping 

For this album’s backstory, Joshua Tillman resigned from a successful position as the drummer of Fleet Foxes to focus on a solo career. Already prolific under the moniker, J. Tillman, he began a drug-induced expedition to California hoping to reinvent his sound.

Fear Fun and the new pseudonym, Father John Misty, is the product of his psychedelic journey.

Nothing in this album reinvents the wheel, but Fear Fun marks a change in Tillman’s previous brooding solo work. Tillman’s latest record is energetic and fun, carefully borrowing tones from classic bands such as The Beatles.

High in Hollywood 

Thematically, Tillman accentuates drug references and constantly reminds the listener of his Californian journey.

In the jangled single, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, Tillman sings,
“Jesus Christ, girl / I laid up for hours in a daze / Retracing the expanse of your American back / With Adderall and weed in my veins”
If the backstory wasn’t clear enough, Tillman ensures, with this song, you get the point: Fear Fun is a drug-induced record.



In terms of location, Tillman provides multiple references to California in the remarkably exciting country-twanged romp, “I’m Writing a Novel”. Tillman ululates,
“Now everywhere I go / In West Hollywood / Is filled with people pretending / They don’t see the actress / And the actress wishing that they could / We could do ayuhuasca / Baby, if I wasn’t holding all these drinks”
Lastly, Tillman goes self-referential with Fear Fun’s closing song, “Everyman Needs a Companion”. In the last verse of the record, Tillman ponders,
“Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones / Couldn’t give a myth / So I had to write my own / I got hung up on religion / Though I know it’s a waste / I never liked the name ‘Joshua’ / And I got tired of ‘J’”
Offering an explanation for changing his moniker to Father John Misty, Tillman expresses honesty regarding his search for meaning. He’s still looking for his name; he’s still searching for a religion. Isn’t a drug-induced trip a physical manifestation of these existential worries?

Non-Druggy Music 

Despite the thematic connections to Fear Fun’s drug-induced backstory, I thought the sharp production values and well-crafted compositions offered an argument against this fantastical story on the album’s creation. I credit the Pitchfork Media review for planting this seed of doubt.



Musically, Fear Fun is crisp and melodically rich—not a sound I would expect to emerge from such rampant drug use.

Songs like “Funtimes in Babylon” and “Nancy From Now On” offer complex melodies and unexpected chord progressions. The guitar riff in “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” sweetly settles in a composed and produced manner.

Additionally, Tillman’s smart and witty observations on global sustainability in “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” seem like the product of a well-researched songwriter, not a doped-out individual.

The back-story of Fear Fun holds some tension with the album I hold in my hands. If the story holds true, Fear Fun ought to sound sloppy. Aside from Tillman telling me about his drug use, I see no evidence of it in his sonic textures. Tillman wants us to view him as a 1970s-style rock star a moment’s notice away from his next score.

I don’t think Fear Fun requires such a story to sell records. It is enjoyable on its own.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

What do you think? Does Tillman's backstory increase or decrease your enjoyment of the record? Is there value in creating a backstory? Do you like Fear Fun?
Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: Gods Without Men

Gods Without Men: A Novel by Hari Kunzru (New York: Random House, 2012. 386pp)

Hari Kunzru (b. 1969) is a British novelist and journalist. He is most known for his novels The Impressionist, Transmission and My Revolutions. He holds a MA in Philosophy and Literature from Warwick University. He currently lives in East London.

The Beauty of the Desert
Dans le désert, voyez-vous, il y a tout, et it n’y a rien...c’est Dieu sans les hommes” (8).
Translated: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing...It is God without men” This quote summarizes the feeling of the novel. Kunzru sets Gods Without Men in the desert, and if you’ve ever spent time in one, you may understand why. Sitting alone in a desert, any desert—especially at night, it is easy to let your mind wander, to start to ponder the meaning of it all. There is something unequivocally poignant about the desert, something that makes you realize how small you are.

A Kaleidoscope of Characters

Gods Without Men brings the reader into the consciousness of several characters, spanning several timelines. The reader befriends a dissolute British rocker, a hedge fund executive, a UFO cultist, a homesick Iraqi teenager, and the historical character Honoré de Balzac, whose quote is above. Included in the list of characters is also a deity, Coyote, who is a prankster popular in many Native American Tales. Using this kaleidoscope of characters, Kunzru illustrates that both the universe and a narrative isn’t all about one individual, but rather about many. Juxtaposing the large cast against the desert, he certainly makes his point.
A Family Vacation

The Pinnacles (Photo by Tony Hoffarth)
The main characters, however, are Jaz and Lisa Matharu and their autistic, four-year-old son, Raj. The couple leaves their New York City home in the hopes of a vacation to the Mojave desert aiding their troubles. Jaz, especially, is in need of reprieve, as he has begun to have fantasies of casually killing their son. Fed up with his autism, endless bouts of screaming, and irritability, he’s reached the end of his rope.
“He picked him up and slung him under one arm like a parcel. Raj began to scream properly, the full amplified monotone. For a moment Jaz fantasized about throwing him into the pool, watching him sink to the bottom. His angry face disappearing under the rippling water, the silence afterward” (63-64).
While looking at the rock formation, Pinnacles, Raj disappears. The pinnacles have been known to exhibit strange phenomena, which is why religious zealots, UFO cultists, and Native Americans all paid close attention to the place.  

Somewhat miraculously, their son returns, after a long and chaotic search. The media begins paying attention to this little part of the desert, causing considerable hell to the now reunited family. Raj, however, somehow has recovered from his autism upon his return. Jaz can’t bear to not know what happened to his son and why he is better; he doesn’t believe it, and suspects foul-play. He wonders if Raj was abducted by aliens, or worse, something supernatural.
“‘I can’t put a finger on it. It’s as if—as if something’s wearing his skin’” (365).
Lisa however, is just happy to have her son back.
“The lesson she’d learned (this was another part of the work, to see what had happened as a lesson, as something from which she could gain, instead of a wound that went almost to the bond and would probably never heal) was that knowledge, true knowledge, is the knowledge of limits, the understanding that at the heart of the world, behind or beyond or above or below, is a mystery into which we are not meant to penetrate” (353).
A Larger Narrative

Photo by Kevin Dooley
Kunzru embraces a wide and diverse cast of characters in order to further the point that the focus isn’t the characters but rather the setting. Like an ancillary character says in the novel, the goal is
“to be part of something bigger than [oneself]” (161).
The narrative of a family losing and regaining a son is only augmented by the cast of characters. It shows that the anchor of the story is the Mojave, not the characters themselves.

Overall, I found the book to be exhilarating. At first, I found the large cast of characters to be incredibly confusing. But, once Gods Without Men got rolling, so to speak, the larger narrative was fascinating. It certainly helped that the backdrop of the desert was always consistent. Kunzru does a marvelous job of transporting you to The Pinnacles, and the vast expanse of the desert. He gives the reader an amazing experience, perhaps forcing them to ponder the meaning of it all. If you’re a fan of Jennifer Egan, or novels of the sort, you simply need to read Gods Without Men.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
What do you think? Did you enjoy the novel, or did you find the plethora of characters to be too confusing? Do you enjoy the desert? Does it make you feel small? Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson


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Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: The Big Idea

The Big Idea by Robert Jones
(Glasgow: HarperCollinsBusiness, 2000. 218 pp)

Robert Jones was born in Gloucester in 1957 and studied Philosophy and English at Cambridge University. He is a director with Wolff Olins, one of the world's most respected brand consulting firms, and has worked as a consultant in corporate communication for 16 years, with companies such as Andersen Consulting, Cameron McKenna, and the National Trust. He also lectures at Oxford Business School on the marketing of professional service firms.

The Shifting Foundations of Business 

Especially in the latter parts of the 20th Century, the relationship between business and customer circled around an economic exchange. Certainly, factors of quality contributed to purchasing patterns, but above all else, the consumer desired a deal. If two similar products differed by a dollar, you could bet the house on a customer buying the cheaper option.

However, a shift is occurring in the economic landscape. With the rise of the Internet and globalization, society is beginning to understand the overarching costs not present in a cheaper price tag. If a product carries a cheaper cost, the customer now holds reservations about the purchase because the societal impacts such as sustainable living wages influence decisions.

Photo by Paul Bica
However, the relationship between business and customer is changing. Customers do not want to be a number. Instead, they desire a relationship. If customers believe in the underlying values of a business, they find virtue in their purchases and become the marketing engine of an organization as they promote products to friends, family, and colleagues.

Therefore, Roberts Jones argues, in The Big Idea,
“[P]eople want the right product or the right service, but they want something else too: they want to know that there’s an organization behind it that thinks rather in the way they think, or even that’s ahead of their thinking. They want an organization that shares their worries, that stands for what they stand for” (30).
How does one move toward business as a shared community? Jones suggests this shift occurs through a big idea.

The Big Idea 

A big idea is not a product; it is not an advertising campaign; it is not a mission or vision statement. A big idea surrounds a worldview. Jones suggests,
“A big idea is, at least in part, a view of the world. The important thing is that it’s an inwardly felt view of the outer world. It has to carry inner conviction” (91).
The 21st Century customer resonates with inner conviction. If people have a choice between Apple and Microsoft, they will, to a certain extent, make a choice based on the company idea. If you approve Apple’s idea of usability, Apple is the clear choice. If you enjoy Microsoft’s idea of ubiquity, then Microsoft takes the lead.

In both instances, the choice runs deeper than computer specs and cost; it becomes a question of association. Are you a Mac person or a Microsoft person?

The Big Idea reads as an extended interview with industry leaders around the notion of a big idea. Jones splits his prose between quotations from Ikea, Orange, The Guardian, and Virgin, on one side, and philosophical ruminations on what a big idea could be on the other.

The Plummeting Height of the High Ground 

Photo by Kris Krug
While many organizations, to this day, remain leaders in this space of thought leadership, some organizational examples feel dated. More specifically, Jones promotes BP and Fannie Mae as moral paragons of the big idea world. As we all know, these companies have failed to live up to probus standards.

But, perhaps the fall of BP and Fannie Mae was a bigger deal precisely because of the big ideas behind each company. Jones writes,
“An organization that has attained the high ground, but then loses people’s trust, has a long way to fall. But that’s the nature of high ground” (154).
I appreciate hearing Jones mention this notion. When a company has a big idea and creates a community with its stakeholders, breaking that trust creates grave consequences.

The New Frontier 

The business world is shifting toward a new frontier where businesses need to operate under a “big idea” in order to connect with their customers. Without these connections, a business will find it difficult to survive as customers move to greener and more transparent pastures. Even though some of Jones’ illustrations make this book feel slightly dated, the principles still hold. If you run a business, The Big Idea is mandatory inspirational reading.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

How about you? Does your company have a big idea? Do your managers espouse that big idea? Do you agree with the premise in the first place?
Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Group: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005; originally published in 1971. 288 pp)

To Recap

The Bell Jar details Esther Greenwood, a college student who travels to New York to work as an editorial intern for a popular magazine. While she should be thoroughly enjoying herself, Esther feels dead inside, largely disconnected from the world. As she lives in New York, she begins to question her abilities as a writer and her future in general, which only causes her to sink into extreme depression. Esther wonders if she should be a typical woman and marry, or pursue a career instead.

Esther returns to the Boston suburbs, where she grew up, in the hopes to reawaken herself from depression. Soon, however, she finds she can’t, and the feelings she had in New York are all the stronger. What follows are suicide attempts, mental hospital stays, and unhealthy relationships. The only question is, will Esther make it out of the suburbs and out of her depression in time to start the next semester at college?

Parallels Between Fiction and Reality

Donovan: I found considerable resemblance between the author’s life and that of the main character, Esther. Did you?

Andrew: Yes. Plath wrote The Bell Jar as somewhat of an autobiography. Plath herself worked during college in New York City, and suffered depression. She also ended up in a mental hospital at one point. Plath eventually committed suicide in 1963, only one month after The Bell Jar’s initial publication.
What intrigued me was the lyrical prose Esther, the protagonist, uses intermittently throughout the novel. Mirroring Plath, herself a poet, I found this styliing to be an eye-opening experience into the inner workings of Plath’s mind.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another…” (85).
Andrew: How about you?

Donovan: Esther’s slide into suicidal depression elicits gloomy feelings in the reader since the plot resembles Plath’s real-life bout with depression and eventual suicide. Plath’s life evokes rumination considering her dramatic demise.

Understanding her life story, Esther Greenwood resembles Plath closely. As such, her constant desires to inflict bodily harm conjure deep fears in the reader.
“The interior voice nagging me not to be a fool—to save my skin and take off my skis and walk down, camouflaged by the scrub pines bordering the slop—fled like a disconsolate mosquito. The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower” (97).
As Esther devises new forms of attempted suicide, my heart broke for Plath’s family and the pain such portent, semi-autobiographical prose generates.

Let's Talk Culture

Andrew: In many ways, The Bell Jar serves as a cultural commentary of the time. How did you see this notion conveyed?

Donovan: For starters, Esther’s stay at the mental institution reinforces the horrors regarding how humanity dealt with mental illness less than 60 years ago.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream” (237).
Pages upon pages in The Bell Jar describe shock therapy and the painful ways in which physicians attempted to cure the mentally sick. These treatments—cutting edge at the time—remind me of the frailty of human knowledge. What are we doing these days that 50 years from now will seem brutally inhumane?

Andrew: I agree completely, and couldn’t have said it better. However, I think it’s also important to note, at this point, the importance a Bell Jar in the novel.
“I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” (207).
The bell jar, something which is generally placed over pastries to keep them fresh, symbolizes the inability to escape from depression, something perhaps more painful in Esther’s life (and vicariously Plath’s) than the ways in which physicians tried to cure the mentally ill.

A Proto-Feminist Work?

Donovan: Many literary critics suggest Plath’s depiction of Esther is a strong feminist viewpoint. Did you see this theme in the novel?

Andrew: The restricted role of women in 1950s America is assuredly something Plath intentionally included in the novel. Coupled with the realization that conventional expectations only provide emptiness, feminism is one of the more explicit themes in The Bell Jar. Esther observes a gap between what society says should happen and what she actually feels. As a result, she becomes alienated, and pulls between the desire to start a family and continue her English career. More to the point, she doesn’t fit in because of her individualism, something females weren’t necessarily encouraged to develop at the time.
“I was the only girl on the beach in a skirt and high heels, and it occurred to me I must stand out. I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on the silver log, pointing out to the sea, like a sort of soul-compass, after I was dead” (169).
Andrew: Would you agree?

Donovan: Certainly. I found Plath’s depiction of Esther to be a representation of a strong female fighting against the expectations of the dominant culture. Esther had the perfect education, the perfect internship, the almost perfect boyfriend, and the perfect life, potentially. But the notion of perfect coincides with the accepted virtues of the dominant culture. Esther had other plans.
 “What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort” (32).
While men slept around, Esther needed to remain virginal to attract the highest quality husband. These expectations, coupled with her desires to cast her line in the other direction, shepherd her toward mental breakdown.

Expressing frustration about unreasonable cultural expectations about marriage and parenthood, Esther proclaims,
“'What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb,’ I had told Doctor Nolan. ‘A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big sick, to keep me in line’” (221).
Not to say traditional roles are bad, I find the pressure for people with a myriad of personalities to fit into one specific cultural box to be problematic. Esther, and to a certain extent, Slyvia, do not fit the specific traditional mold. As such, the pressure to fit in became too much to bear.

The Final Word

Donovan: What’s your verdict?

Andrew: Much like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I found The Bell Jar to depict both teenage angst and depressive characters in a way that deserves acclaim. Perhaps Esther is the female version of Salinger’s Holden Caufield, the novel was assuredly written to challenge the populace and garner praise to help push the feminist movement forward. However, I found the book to be too simply written for the literary acclaim it has raised. Perhaps there is beauty in the simplicity, but I had trouble pressing on past it.

Andrew: And you?

Donovan: The Bell Jar offers good prose and an intriguing story. Had Sylvia Plath not mirrored her depressive character in real life, I am not sure if The Ball Jar would receive as high of praise. Whether good or bad, a dead artist intrigues the populace and I believe this effect to be the case in this instance. The Bell Jar is worth reading but I am unsure if it qualifies as a modern classic of literary genius.

Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5
Donovan’s Verdict: 4 out of 5

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932. She graduated from Smith College in 1955 and won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Cambridge. Her many books include the poetry collections, Ariel, Colossus, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, and The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Bell Jar is her only novel. She was married to the poet Ted Hughes, and together they had two children. She died in London in 1963.
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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Album Review: Beware and Be Grateful

Beware & Be Grateful by Maps & Atlases (Barsuk Records, 2012. 43 minutes)

Maps & Atlases is Shiraz Dada, David Davison, Erin Elders, and Chris Hainey. The Chicago-based band blends pop and technical musicianship into a unique flavor of indie rock.

In Praise of Songwriting 

A good song requires an interesting rhythm and melodically rich instrumentation. Even more, a song requires a catchy melody, which soars over the well-crafted music. Perhaps most importantly, the song needs to say something. “Doo be doo be doo” lyrics might have a catchy melody but they do not provide a modicum of lasting depth. If, by chance, an artist succeeds in all three categories, an impeccable song is born. Good luck writing 9 more of them.

For Maps & Atlases, musicianship has never been a problem. The guitars have always conveyed febrile tones while the bass and drums lock in a frenzied fever. The band’s Achilles heel, in previous works, has surrounded vocal creativity.

Luckily, Maps & Atlases have taken measures to right the proverbial ship with Beware and Be Grateful. With music complimenting lyrics and melodies instead of overpowering them the new album feels mature; it grows in richness with each listen.

An Album of Introspection 

To observe the band’s growth, look no further than the first single, “Remote and Dark Years”. The song expands upon motifs of introspection central to the album as a whole. The chords gently cascade creating a backdrop for the melody, while lead singer David Davison impressionistically reminisces on a failed relationship.
“I started thinking about myself like I always seem to do / I couldn’t stop myself from saying what might seem theatrical to you”
Davison’s repetition of the words “remote and dark years” carries dual meaning. First it feels like a plea for a relationship to replace time spent alone. Yet it also expresses the acceptance of a failed relationship as a remote and dark place.



Beware and Be Grateful expresses feelings on relationships with equal parts nostalgia and doubt. In “Old & Gray”, Davison croons,
“Somewhere there’s an orange on the table / Somewhere there’s a robe on the floor / And our writing on the wall is under three coats of paint in an apartment we don’t live in anymore”
Haven’t we all imagined the places where we once experienced joy? How have those physical spaces changed over the years?

Likewise, “Old Ash” looks back at similar agoraphobic neurosis that defined the relationship.
“We’re both afraid of public things / We’re both afraid of public things”

An Album of Virtuosity

Aside from these thematic jewels, Maps & Atlases maintains the musical virtuosity, which has likened them to bands such as Minus the Bear.

Of particular note, “Winter” explodes with jaw-dropping technical ability. While singing a gorgeous melody, Davison finger taps separate-but-simultaneous melodies (Check out the video below to see this technique in action) on his guitar much like Dave Knudson of Minus the Bear. The tune is a technically difficult but melodically rewarding listen and the perfect mix of matured production and Guitar-Center-show-off technicality.



Similarly, “Fever” illustrates the band’s virtuosity in its finest form while keeping the instruments subservient to the lyrical melody. A close listen reveals layers upon layers of musical complexity and yet the instruments never overpower the voice.

The Next Step 

Writing a good song is unimaginably difficult, but Maps & Atlases are perfecting the songwriting process. Where the band relied on musical talent in previous albums, Beware & Be Grateful is, to date, the closest thing to a complete album. The next step is writing the perfect record. Good luck.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

What do you think? What makes a good song for you? Are you a fan of Maps & Atlases?
Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: The Element

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (New York: Viking, 2009. 260pp)

Sir Ken Robinson (b. 1950) is the former director of The Arts Schools Project and Professor Emeritus of Arts Education at the University of Warwick. He is now an author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts.

Lou Aronica (b. 1958) is an American writer and Publisher, who primarily works in publishing science fiction works.  

The Audition

In the musical arts, it’s almost as easy to find out who is good at the subject right away as it is to find out who excels at math. As a result, music educators have developed the audition to keep students growing at the best rate possible. The audition comes with a price. Nervousness, or even failure loom in the distance as students frantically prepare for their ten minute slot of unencumbered stress. 

I’m never surprised in the audition process. Based on past experience with each student, I could have placed him or her into respective categories varying from supremely talented to abysmal. But I don’t. I want the students to see for themselves what they are good at, and learn from putting themselves out there. They improve by just forcing themselves to be open.

This raises the question, “why don’t we have ‘auditions’ for everything in education?” Moreover, why don’t we place students appropriately in every academic “core” class? Educators, falsely and perhaps brazenly, assume students all have the same intellect. All students must follow the same path to nirvana and education bliss. Ken Robinson, in his book The Element, tries to suggest a reform to education based on the fact learning is unique to the individual.

A Fingerprint of Intelligence
Sir Ken Robinson
“Every person’s intelligence is as unique as a fingerprint. There might be seven, ten, or a hundred different forms of intelligence, but each of us uses these forms in different ways. My ability involves a different combination of dominant and dormant intelligences than yours does” (50).
When we begin to explore preconceived ideas about our own individual intelligence, we can see how “smart” we really are in different ways. 

America’s educational system has been based around a notion of learning which Robinson argues is primarily based on reading, writing, and math skills. While these skills are undoubtedly important, we don’t equally possess them all. 

Yet, educators sometime scoff at the notion that a student is failing Language Arts or an Algebra class. Somehow as educators, myself included, we’ve decided on the “norm” of learning, even when each individual possesses something unique. Robinson proposes America’s educational system actually prevents people from finding their passion, and living in their “Element”.

Finding Your Element
“The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. What you’ll find in common among the people you’ve met in this chapter and the vast majority of the people you will meet in the coming pages is that they are doing the thing they love, and in doing it they feel like their most authentic selves. They find that time passes differently and that they are more alive, more centered, and more vibrant than at any other times” (21).
Robinson offers the example of Paul McCartney, who hated school, and only found his passion by not doing homework and focusing on the guitar. Gillian Lynne, who didn’t do well in school finding her joy in dancing, ended up producing shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac) also didn’t do well in school, and the numbers suggested he even lacked intelligence.
“‘I had a learning disability at school and still do. I had no understanding of math at all. None. I’d be hard pushed right now to recite the alphabet backward. I’d be lucky if I got it right going forward quickly. If someone were to say, ‘What letter is before this one?’ I’d break out into a cold sweat’” (27).
Mentorship and Education

Robinson then suggests the role of a mentor is needed to find these people who don’t naturally rise to “normal” academic prowess, and is needed to find their own element. The role of a mentor, as Robinson describes, includes four steps: Recognition, Encouragement, Facilitating, and Stretching. 

By assuming the role of a mentor, Robinson argues, we can improve education. Great teachers are great mentors, because they don’t rely on standardized tests and curriculum standards, but rather on their sole purpose: to help their students live up to the fullest potential.
“The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers. There isn't a great school anywhere that doesn't have great teachers working in it. But there are plenty of poor schools with shelves of curriculum standards and reams of standardized tests” (138).
As an educator The Element makes me think. Because I succeeded in academia, I often assume that my students should and will do the same. But, there isn’t a standard, as all students and individuals have different gifts. How can I best challenge people to live up to their fullest potential without relying on the standard norms of what is considered educated? If intellect is an individual fingerprint as Robinson suggests, education simply has to change. 

Focusing on making my students meet a set of standardized test scores would rob the world of the next Paul McCartney, Mick Fleetwood, or Gillian Lynne. If you’re curious about what education could look like, or what to change in your preconceived notion on education, you should read this book.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What do you think?  Do you disagree with anything Robinson says?  Do you think education is in need of reform?  Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson


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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey (New York: Reagan Arthur, 2011. 288 pp)

Born in a suburb of Philadelphia, Tina Fey graduated from the University of Virginia with a B.A. in drama. After moving to Chicago, she started her comedic career with The Second City, an improvisational group. Later, she joined Saturday Night Live, eventually becoming head writer and co-host of Weekend Update. Fey currently writes and produces 30 Rock, a sketch comedy series on NBC. She has also adapted the screenplays for Mean Girls and Baby Mama for the big screen. Fey has won seven Emmy, three Golden Globe, four Screen Actors Guild, and four Writers Guild of America awards.

Female Comedians 

“There are no funny female comedians.” Too often someone erroneously utters this phrase. However, the more opportunities women receive at the highest levels of the comedic profession, the more the previous statement exposes some deep-seated flaws in reasoning.

Look no further than the stars of Saturday Night Live in the last decade. Where Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell dominated the screen in the 90s, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey have been the defining comedic stars of the last decade.

A Comedy Memoir 

With a behind-the-scenes look at television and a transparent view on the way gender influences comedy, Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, defines the Tina Fey brand well. Equal parts snarky, honest, erudite, and ludicrous, Bossypants outlines Tina Fey’s life as she worked her way to the executive producer of a 30 Rock, a critically acclaimed series.

As a memoir, Bossypants is a collection of loosely related essays providing a biographical narrative. We read about Fey’s adolescent years; her reflections on her parents, husband, and child; her rise to notoriety in the comedy world; her views on gender politics; and a behind-the-scenes look at both Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

While Bossypants explores a wide variety of topics, Fey’s notes on gender and the inner workings of the television industry shine the brightest.

Gender: Corporate Synergy 

Tina Fey
Females in the comedy world find the path to success difficult. Since the women-as-not-funny assumption permeated the comedy world, women face an uphill battle. Fey admits her opportunity with Saturday Night Live might have arisen from corporate attempts to diversify.
“In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity” (119).
Once hired, Fey divulges the many instances where the women on Saturday Night Live were prone to viewing the other females as enemies instead of collaborators, reliving the typical tumultuous high school experience.
“Obviously, as an adult I realize this girl-on-girl sabotage is the third worst kind of female behavior, right behind saying ‘like’ all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster. I’m proud to say I would never sabotage a fellow female like that now. Not even if Christina Applegate and I were both up for the same part as Vince Vaughn’s mother in a big-budget comedy called Beer Guys” (40).

Television Requires Logistics

In addition to topics of gender, Fey unfolds experiences from her television shows. From passing on Lorne Michaels' management tips to exploring the logistical difficulties of including Sarah Palin in a Saturday Night Live skit, Fey unveils the proverbial wizard behind the curtain. She even admits,
“There is one other embarrassing secret I must reveal, something I’ve never admitted to anyone. Though we are grateful for the affection 30 Rock has received from critics and hipsters, we were actually trying to make a hit show. We weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong. You know those scientists who were developing a blood-pressure medicine and they accidentally invented Viagra? We were trying to make Viagra and we ended up with blood pressure medicine” (190).
In sum, Tina Fey exposes deeply held opinions and behind-the-scenes moments with alacrity. With a charming and witty touch, Bossypants exposes the flawed opinions widely held on both comedy and gender. Tina Fey is a brilliant writer, and her memoir reinforces the notion that she is a heavy weight in the current comedy scene. If you want a good laugh and an interesting look into the world of comedy, check out Bossypants.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What about you? Have you read Bossypants? Are you a fan of Tina Fey’s work with Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock? What are your thoughts on the role of gender in comedy?
Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Album Review: Neck of the Woods

Neck of the Woods by Silversun Pickups (Dangerbird, 2012. 59 minutes)

Silversun Pickups is an alternative rock band based out of Los Angeles. Formed in 2002, the band is comprised of Brian Aubert, Nikki Monniger, Christopher Guianloa, and Joe Lester. Neck of the Woods marks their third studio album.

Horror!

I’ve always loved when albums are albums, not single tracks put into a last-ditch mélange of sound. With Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups makes a whole album, in the classical sense, by playing on the listener’s sense of fear. When listening to the album, images of horror movie scenes overwhelm and attack, causing the listener to reminisce the adrenaline-pumping scenes of past.

After a listen, it’s understandable why Brian Aubert, the frontman for Silversun Pickups, likened the newest album to a horror movie. Songs such as the six-minute track, “Skin Graph”, offer a definite horror quality. The lyrics are deceptively sweet and introspective, but the pulsating, angrily strummed and percussed instruments convey creepiness.
“All I think about is why / the skin I’m in feels ordinary”
While “Skin Graph” could have been a sweet song by lyrics alone, the introspective nature and the mention of skin, inferring scalping, mass murder, and the like, makes the song one of the most unsettling tunes on the album.



Horror Vibes

To continue the Friday the 13th, Slasher-film vibe, “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” utilizes the often-used urban legend of Bloody Mary. Do you remember? If you say “bloody Mary” three times in a mirror, what happens?
“You can stay here long enough / We can play with Bloody Mary / Say her name into the dark / Activate our nerve endings”
Seemingly evoking the horror thrill, Brian Aubert seems to be explaining why so many enjoy the horror genre. When the adrenaline starts to pump, when one is scared, nerve endings activate and suddenly you feel the rush of horror. 


While perpetuating the horror genre with some fairly angry instrumentation, Silversun Pickups still manage to emulate eighties-sounding bands. In a listen to “Here We Are (Chancer)” you hear a drum machine, electronically murmuring straight from another decade. But, the gloomy, dark, and sinister themes in the songs keep the album together, not to mention a catchy melody.


Anticipation 

The last track of note is “Simmer”. A delay-enhanced arpeggiated guitar intersperses with fuzzy bass to open the song. The instrumentation gives the feeling of unwanted anticipation, as it’s scarcity leaves you expecting something more, but it’s not coming yet. It conjures the classic horror scene of someone behind the door, the audience knowing, and the obliviousness of the main character. Ghostly “ooh’s” permeate the background, infecting the atmosphere with horror.


While the band has seemingly stayed in their rock-out-in-the-nineties formula, I applaud them for using horror as a theme. It’s refreshing. It takes courage for a band to negotiate the waters of commitment and concept. All in all, the album doesn’t mark a huge debarkation away from the norm for the Pickups, but Neck of the Woods is a wonderfully executed concept.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson


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Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Review: The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement directed by Nicholas Stoller (Apatow Productions, R, 124 minutes)

Starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, and Alison Brie.

What Makes Something Good? 

Is a hot wing tasty if it is sufficiently spicy? Is a murder mystery novel good so long as the murder is mysterious? Is a comedy good if it’s funny?

My inability to answer this last question perfectly summarizes my thoughts on The Five-Year Engagement. Billed as a comedy, the movie executes; it is extremely funny. But is it good? I wish I knew.

Another Romantic Comedy 

As a story, The Five-Year Engagement arises from the romantic comedy cookie-cutter-plotline:
  1. Couple meets. 
  2. Couple experiences good times. 
  3. Couple hits a rough patch.
  4. Couple works everything out. 
In fact, on our way to theater, I mentioned to my wife, Tara, how we already knew the storyline since these movies fit the same mold consistently and without fail.

The High Point 

The Five-Year Engagement begins with the apogee of the relationship between Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) on a clear night in San Francisco. Somewhat awkwardly, Tom proposes to Violet on the one-year anniversary of their first meeting.

Upon affirmation of the proposal, the couple begins planning a wedding, only to find external circumstances push back the plans.

Tom’s best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt), impregnates and then marries Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison). After canceling plans to accommodate the shotgun wedding, Violet receives word of her acceptance to the psychology program at the University of Michigan.

Admitting the discord a similar long-distance move for professional reasons conjured in her parent’s relationship, Violet worries how such a move will alter her relationship with Tom.

The Low Point 

A sous chef and an emerging talent in the culinary industry, Tom isn’t thrilled with the move but recognizes the immense value of Violet’s opportunity. He also figures many culinary jobs will exist in Michigan.

While quitting his job, Tom’s plans begin to sour when he learns he was in line to become executive chef at a new fine dining restaurant. Nevertheless, Tom remains true to his word and ventures north to the land of ice and snow and no fine dining.

As Violet’s job blossoms on the campus of Michigan, Tom’s quality of life plummets as he recedes into a dead-end job. Tom and Violet’s relationship, in turn, begins to exhibit cracks.



The Five-Year Engagement then proceeds to unfold much like every other high-budget romantic comedy.

Does a Comedy Need Anything Beyond Humor? 

So is The Five-Year Engagement a good movie? I’m not sure. It is very funny. I found myself laughing at dialogue on a minute-by-minute basis. But, my mind also thrives on uniquely engaging stories. Sadly, The Five-Year Engagement utilizes story as a method of joke telling instead of story as an intrinsic good.

My favorite comedies mix humor with inventive storytelling. I loved Little Miss Sunshine not only for the humor but also for the inventive plot and complex characters. The Five-Year Engagement, on the other hand, only succeeds at a surface level. For all intents and purposes, the story in The Five-Year Engagement is meaningless.

Even though the movie entertained, I find it hard to give The Five-Year Engagement high grades. If you want to laugh for a couple hours, check it out, but don’t expect any depth.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

How do you like your comedies? Are jokes enough or do you need a story?
Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth (New York: Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins, 2011. 487 pp)

Veronica Roth (b. 1988) is from a Chicago suburb. She studied creative writing at Northwestern University, where she wrote her first book, Divergent. Film rights to the novel have been sold as of April 2012.

Vice and Virtue

So often we can unknowingly characterize ourselves based on our greatest vice. Perhaps we are too greedy, too slothful, too prideful, or even too malicious. 

However, we rarely think about what our greatest virtue is, and we even more rarely gravitate toward characterizing ourselves based on it. In a work of speculative fiction, Divergent by Veronica Roth imagines a world where society is broken up into factions based on their virtue of choice.




In a future Chicago, we meet a sixteen year old Beatrice, or “Tris”. Beatrice has never felt at home in the faction she was born into—Abnegation. There are five different factions in the city: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Abnegation. These factions formed decades ago in the wake of a warring world. Those who believed the world failed because of greed formed the faction of Abnegation, sworn to remain selfless and serve others. Those who felt aggression was the cause formed Amity, always seeking peace. Those who felt cowardice was the cause formed Dauntless, the faction of the strong and courageous. Those who believed the world’s failings were because of ignorance formed the Erudite, and consistently sought knowledge. Those who felt human duplicity was the cause formed Candor, seeking truth above all else. 
“‘Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality—of humankind’s inclination towards evil, in whatever from that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray’” (42).
Aptitude

At sixteen, much like everyone else her age, Beatrice takes a mandatory aptitude test, where she goes through a set of scenarios to show her strongest virtues. After the aptitude test, all the teenagers choose which faction they will devote themselves to for the rest of their lives, sometimes forsaking friends and family to pursue their chosen virtue. Beatrice carries immense fear regarding her test; She doesn’t want to leave her current faction, even though, despite her upbringing, she doesn’t naturally act selfless. At the end of her aptitude test, she finds out some troubling news.
“‘[Y]ou display equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite. People who get this kind of result are...’ She looks over her shoulder like she expects someone to appear behind her. “...are called...Divergent” (22).
The divergent, for an unexplained reason, are both incredibly rare and frowned upon. The test administrator, in an act of mercy, buries the results. Beatrice is then forced to choose between the three. If she chooses a faction other than Abnegation, she will be transported to the new faction’s colony, and will be unable to see her family ever again.

Beatrice, instead of siding with her birth faction, decides she would be better suited as Dauntless. Beatrice immediately begins initiation into the Dauntless faction, beginning with several acts of “bravery”, jumping off a moving train and a roof seven stories high.

Multiple Virtues

Chicago Metropolitan Area
Soon after arriving at the Dauntless colony, Beatrice, much to her chagrin, learns that there are only ten spots open for new initiates. She is forced to go through three stages of competition. If Beatrice doesn’t score high enough in competitions against new initiates, she becomes factionless, forced to wander the world with no home or community. Luckily, she scores highly during each stage of initiation.

Throughout the novel, Beatrice starts noticing the tensions rise between the factions. Erudite seems to target Abnegation, and cracks begin to arise in society, illustrating the inconceivability of the world Veronica Roth has created. Virtue focuses on the building of character. To focus on one virtue at the expense of all others creates an unbalanced character.

No human with their myriad of emotions could ever fully fling themselves into one single virtue, as we all display more than one virtue from time to time.  I have a hard time believing humanity could form a virtue-based society , even if the civilization was on the brink of an apocalypse. Conversely, that might be what Roth herself is saying. Because Beatrice is divergent, it shows that humans are perhaps only truly whole when multiple virtues are embraced.

The world that Roth has created isn’t without cracks or flaws. However, now that she has developed a back story to her characters and their virtuous society, there is room to grow the story into something special. Though I found flaws within the story, I was nevertheless caught up in great amounts of suspense. 

Divergent is a memorable journey, showing that coming of age sometimes means leaving your family and past behind and that virtues can be sometimes too highly praised. I, for one, have already picked up Roth’s next novel in the series, Insurgent, and will be reading it shortly.

Verdict: 3 out of 5
What do you think? Did you enjoy the novel? Does dividing the world based on virtue make sense? Share your thoughts below.
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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