Friday, December 31, 2010

"This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead"

The Song: "Why," Annie Lennox. Words & music by Annie Lennox. Track 14 of The Unplugged Collection, Volume One, 1994. (Also Track 1 of Diva, 1992, but I like this live version better.)
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1994.
Listen/watch here.

Annie Lennox takes herself very seriously, which is every artist's right but sometimes makes me a little impatient. Nevertheless, I forgive her everything for this song, which got me through a big chunk of the 1990s. It's a song about ending things and letting go, forgiving yourself and the person you thought you wanted.

The end of a year is a natural time to think about missed opportunities, wasted time, the choices we make that limit future choices, etc., etc. Putting together a "Best Reads of 2010" list was especially difficult. I probably did more reading for work in 2010 than in any previous year, and not all of that reading was good. Thus, when I read for pleasure, I finished only the books I really liked (with one notable exception, which I'll get to.) So this list could easily have been 20 books long, maybe even 30 books long. And I didn't read quite a few books I meant to get to, in some cases even books written by friends.

These were the best of the books I read instead, alphabetical by author. Not all of them were published this year, and most of them aren't crime novels. My list of favorite crime novels of 2010 is here.

Ten Best Books I Read or Listened to This Year

1. Paul Auster, SUNSET PARK. This book was billed as a genre novel, which I don't really understand; it is neither a mystery nor a thriller, but an exploration of the mysteries of the human heart. Miles Heller has been on the run for seven years, fleeing his guilt over a crime he was never accused of. He lands in Brooklyn, where his friend Bing has put together a household in an abandoned building. As the economic collapse of 2008 unfolds, Miles, Bing, and their housemates Alice and Ellen all find themselves living on the edge in more ways than one — as are Miles’ parents, as is everyone. This gorgeous, insightful book will stand as a snapshot of our time.

2. Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES. Thanks to Karen Olson for recommending this book, which had been on my to-be-read stack for years. In a dystopian future, adolescent children represent their territories in a battle to the death. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life while figuring out a way to save what she loves most.

3. Paul Doiron, THE POACHER'S SON. My favorite debut of the year, a book I've recommended far and wide. Rookie Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch knows his father is a bad man — he knows this — but goes to his defense anyway, risking his own career in the process.

4. Louise Erdrich, SHADOW TAG. A devastating portrait of the collapse of a marriage and destruction of a family, at times almost too intimate. SHADOW TAG confirmed all my deepest suspicions and fears about the dangerous idea of soul mates. I also loved her last book, THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, which I listened to at the beginning of the year.

5. Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE. Over the course of three novels, Tana French has created a completely believable fictional version of Dublin, inhabited by people I feel I know. This book is the story of veteran police detective Frank Mackey, who has spent more than 20 years believing the love of his life ran off and left him. When someone finds her suitcase in an abandoned building, he has to reconsider everything he thought he knew about Rosie, his family, and himself.

6. Robert Goolrick, A RELIABLE WIFE. I notice a theme emerging: quite a few of these books have to do with the terrible things people do to and for each other in the name of love. In turn-of-the-century Wisconsin, a young woman with a past arrives to become the mail-order bride of the town's wealthiest man, who is fleeing demons of his own. The story twists and turns, with that rarest of rarities, an ending that is both shocking and completely satisfying.

7. Jesse Kellerman, THE EXECUTOR. I've been surprised not to see this book on more "Best of" lists, because it might have been the most compelling thriller I read this year. Perpetual graduate student Joseph Geist answers an ad for a "Conversationalist," and seems to have his entire life solved for him. His patron, an elderly woman named Alma Spielmann, offers him everything he needs and wants — and sets up a situation that plunges Joseph into a nightmare he could not have imagined.

8. Mary Roach, PACKING FOR MARS. The author of STIFF and SPOOK, two earlier favorites, takes on the practical requirements of space travel, from the mechanics of every body function to the adaptations of Islam to a 90-minute space "day." A treasure box of fascinating details, random information, and the sheer joy of asking how things work.

9. Rob Sheffield, TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN. Nonfiction, but absolutely in the category of foolish things we do for love: a musical memoir of Rob Sheffield's teenage years, including every guilty pleasure and wild fantasy. Each chapter is an essay linked to an individual song, some of which were new to me. A joyful, rueful, magical book.

10. Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS. It's hard to describe this book, a nearly-mystical study of the emotional effects of financial ruin, in a way that would make anyone want to read it — but I read it in almost a single sitting, and did not want to let it go. Matt left a job in journalism to start "," a website that combined investment advice with literary insights and poetry. Bad idea or not — and Matt admits it probably is — he makes the leap at precisely the wrong time, and suffers the consequences. Not light reading, but it taught me things about myself and my fellow humans, and with SUNSET PARK, will tell future generations all they need to know about this time in our history.

BONUS: The Worst Book I Read This Year

I've gotten very good at setting aside books I don't enjoy. Life's too short and my reading stack is too tall. Foolishly, however, I promised Jennifer Lechner that I would read the Twilight books as her birthday present this year. She and our friend Anna called my bluff by sending me the box set for my own birthday. It took me — no exaggeration — six weeks to finish TWILIGHT, which sapped me of all desire to read any other fiction for the duration. Finish it I did, however, and therefore my Worst Book of 2010 award goes to:

Stephenie Meyer, TWILIGHT. The book has sold millions, the movies have made billions. It doesn't matter at all what I think of TWILIGHT. In fact, my reaction to it made me seriously question everything I do as an editor, reader and publicist. Not only would I never have accepted this novel for publication, I'd probably have passed around excerpts for my friends to laugh at. I might not even have taken it on as a freelance editing project. Bella, the main character, is a sullen lump with nothing interesting about her. Why in the world would she attract anyone's attention, much less that of a 100-year-old vampire? Beyond that, though, what's romantic or attractive about her decision to form a relationship with a deadly predator that prevents her from being honest with anyone else in her life? I'm not kidding, and I'm not overstating it: the message of TWILIGHT is that true love requires secrets, isolation, and the abandonment of one's essential self (i.e., Bella's very humanity). I can't think of a more dangerous message to give a preteen girl.

Worst of all, the book is boring. God help us all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Nothing feels better than blood on blood."

The Song: "Highway Patrolman," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 5 of Nebraska, 1982.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1982.
Listen to a live version here.

"Is your second toe longer than your big toe?" I asked Claire last night. This is something I should know, but don't.

"Yes," she said.

I nodded. "It runs in the family."

I believe in the widest possible definition of "family." Quite a few people in my life are family with no blood connection at all.

Over the past week, though, I've spent quality time with several branches of my vast blood-family tree, and it's hard to put the comfort of those connections into words. It's almost magical to notice my uncle's tiny hands, or my brother's unusually long torso, or my daughter's Morton's toe. These are things that run in our family — on both sides, as my parents themselves are distant relatives (we're not sure exactly how far back; far enough).

Growing up in the same house just intensifies that connection. My brothers and sisters and I laugh at the same jokes, argue about things that happened 30 years ago, quote the same movies and cook the same things for holiday meals. The other night I insisted my sister-in-law watch the movie Hollywood Shuffle because the Lamb siblings have been quoting from it since 1988, and Sara had never seen it. (Thank God she liked it, and now she too can laugh whenever one of us says, "I give this movie 'The Finger!'.")

This album was the first one I bought as a college freshman, at Olsson's Books & Music on Wisconsin Avenue the day it came out. I have owned it in one format or another for 28 years. Johnny Cash covered this song on his album Johnny 99. I would never say his version is better, but he makes the song his own. You can hear it here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"I'm sad to say I must be on my way/So buy me beer and whisky 'cause I'm going far away."

The Song: "Sally MacLennane," The Pogues. Words & music by Shane MacGowan. Track 6 of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985.
How/when acquired: Purchased LP, 1987
Listen/watch here.

A good traveling song, brought to mind by John Connolly's special radio show on the Best Albums of the 1980s this morning. (It airs again on Saturday afternoon, 4:00 p.m. Eastern time. Listen here.) While I'm plugging John's work — which he pays me to do, though I'd do it for free — I should add that anyone who received an e-reader for Christmas should download his short story "On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier," here. John wrote the story for a collection to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, and will donate 20 cents to Amnesty for every copy sold.

Anyway, The Pogues have been favorites of mine for — erk — going on 25 years, and this album in particular. It was one of the first I remember buying as a bona fide adult, someone out of college and living on her own. I remember hearing it for the first time in the apartment of my then-fiance's old housemate, 1st Lt. C.B. Stevens, and I remember dancing to this song at someone's wedding (Carmen's?) the following year.

Yesterday was too messy to drive, so I'm off to Northern Virginia as soon as the sun gets bright enough to melt what's left on the roads. Thanks to James and Sara for a wonderful holiday celebration, and for not minding that it lasted a few extra days.

For the longest time I was sure this song was about a wake:
I'm sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whisky 'cause I'm going far away
I'd like to think of me returning when I can
To the grandest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane.

Friends argued me out of it, and I later learned that "Sally MacLennane" is a brand of Scotch. Hmpf. I still prefer my original interpretation.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"I would walk 500 miles/And I would walk 500 more/Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles/To fall down at your door."

The Song: "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers. Words & music by The Proclaimers (Charlie Reid & Craig Reid). Track 1 of Sunshine on Leith, 1988.
How/when acquired: Gift cassette, 1989
Listen/watch here.

Dizzy loves live music, but rarely pays attention to recorded songs. This song is an exception. Something about it bothers him so much that he leaves the room when I play it, and NOT because I usually sing along. (Dizzy thinks I have a lovely singing voice. No, really, he does. It's one of the reasons I have a dog.)

Anyway, the sun's out here in Virginia Beach, and I may not have to walk to Alexandria. I'm going to wait another hour or two, to let the sun and the VDoT road crews do their work, and then I'm going to try to drive north. I'd be willing to walk the 200 miles, but I hope I won't have to. I have a lot of stuff, and didn't bring a backpack.

This cassette was a gift from my ex-fiance, after we broke up. I played it until it wore out. Now I have The Best of the Proclaimers on MP3, but it's missing some songs off this album. I should buy it again.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast,/May still be found haunting the kitchen."

The Song: "St. Stephen's Day Murders," The Chieftains with Elvis Costello. Words & music by Paddy Moloney & Elvis Costello. Track 3 of The Bells of Dublin, 1991.
How/when acquired: "Borrowed" CD, c. 1999
Listen to a sample here.

The Bells of Dublin is an essential holiday album, although I could do without the sanctimonious Jackson Browne track. This song is a gleeful fantasy of post-Christmas family violence.

I hasten to say that it has no relevance to me this year. No, really. My brother James and his wife Sara put on a fabulous spread, bringing together their vast blended family (18 people, if I counted correctly; math's never my best thing, and the wine was flowing).

Of course, today half a dozen of us are snowed in at James & Sara's as the Eastern seaboard gets a freak storm. The snow is falling wet and heavy here in Virginia Beach, which is not equipped for it in any way. Good thing we have plenty of leftovers. We'll be fine as long as the power doesn't go.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"You better not shout, I'm tellin' you why."

The Song: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Single, year unknown.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2009 (finally)

Better be good, for goodness's sake. Merry Christmas to everybody, peace and love and joy to the world. Hope your Santa hat is as cool as Bruce's.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"I make toys, but I've got aspirations."

The Song: "Elf's Lament," Barenaked Ladies. Words & music by Ed Robertson. Track 6 of Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2008
Listen/watch here.

The rest of the country may be in recession, but you wouldn't know it here in South Hampton Roads. Greenbrier Mall and its satellite shopping centers were jammed yesterday, and people appeared to be spending.

As usual, I wondered who thinks up some of the items for sale, and who buys them, and why. Who needs the life-sized cardboard cutout of Justin Bieber? What will happen to those cutouts three years from now? (Actually, by the year 2015, you'll see back rooms in bars papered with Justin Bieber cutouts, though no one will quite remember who he was or why he was famous.)

In this context, it feels sour and Scroogish to check the manufacturing information of the things I buy, and wonder what the Christmas season is like in the maquiladoras of Mexico, Honduras, Malaysia and China. Isn't it better that those workers have jobs? Yes, probably — sure — I don't know. But yesterday I passed three different enormous dollar stores (and yes, bought stuff in one). How can that be good? How can that be good for anyone? Who needs all this stuff?

I like giving presents. I like the thrill of finding a toy that's going to delight someone I love, or a book that will engage them, or a piece of music they'll listen to for years. I love having stuff that people gave me for Christmas years or even decades ago.

I'm reasonably certain that not one of those things came from a dollar store.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"2000 miles/Is very far through the snow"

The Song: The Pretenders, "2000 Miles." Words & music by Chrissie Hynde. Track 10 of The Singles, 1983.
How/when acquired: Cassette mix tape, c. 1984. Downloaded MP3, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

I'm not going 2,000 miles; more like 350 miles today, and another 425 or so tomorrow. But it probably will be snowing when I leave. At least, I hope it'll be snow; we're supposed to get ice up here in the afternoon, which means I need to get on the road by mid-morning.

Safe journeys, everybody. We'll be back by Christmastime.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"They're singing 'Deck the Halls,'/But it's not like Christmas at all."

The Song: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," U2. Words & music by Eleanor Greenwich, Jeff Barry & Philip Spector. Track 9 of A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 1, 1987.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2009
Listen/watch here.

This song may be not only my favorite Christmas pop song, but my favorite U2 song as well. (Okay, second to "One." But it's close.) It's worth clicking through to that video just to remind yourself what Bono looks like without sunglasses.

As usual, my travel plans have slipped by a day. Dizzy and I leave tomorrow for points south. It'll probably snow along the way; we'll just have to deal with it. The VW is not a bad car in snow, as long as the snow doesn't get deeper than about four inches (clearance is low).

I hear people say, "I just don't feel Christmasy this year," and never really know what they mean. They're anxious, of course; everyone is anxious, and this year more than usual. But I'm not sure what they mean by "Christmasy," or why they let the anxiety interfere with that.

What is Christmas supposed to feel like? It made me anxious even as a child. In a family of six kids, we never had a Christmas that didn't include someone melting down by the end of the day. More than one Christmas included a trip to the emergency room. I remember a few Christmas dinners in the Officers' Mess of whatever ship my father was serving on; that was always exciting, but stressful in its own way, as it involved dressing up, best behavior, and food we didn't always recognize.

That said, I've never stopped believing in magic at Christmastime, and that magic has never — never, in 45 years — let me down. It's true, it's one more illustration of my charmed life, but it's also all in how you look at it. When magic is what you expect, magic is what you see. When home is where you want to be, home is where you make it.

This year, "home for Christmas" is my brother James' house. But even if I were snowed in alone with Dizzy, I'd still be home for Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"I'm not a good shopper, I say it with shame."

The Song: "Get Drunk & Make Out this Christmas," The Dan Band. Words & music by Dan Finnerty, Jeremy Ruzumna and David Wilder. Track 4 of Ho, 2007.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007.
Listen here.

I have some pretty random holiday music in my iTunes library. The Dan Band is hit-or-miss for me, but this is one of their better tunes, managing to be both funny and sincere. Years ago, I knew a member of The Dan Band in weird circumstances - John K, if you check in here, Merry Christmas.

Anyway, I'm not a good shopper, and as usual I've left my Christmas shopping to the last minute. This year, as in the past, I'm mostly giving books. Which reminds me that it's been a very long time since I posted a reading list here — so here are a few highlights of the past six weeks.

Good Books I've Read Lately

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES. Yeah, I was late to this book. At dinner the last night of Bouchercon, the conversation turned to things that were both popular and good, and my friend Karen Olson made a pitch for this book, which she'd just read. It had been in my to-be-read stack for much too long, so I picked it up when I got home, and read it in two sittings. In some future version of the United States, adolescent children represent their territories in a battle to the death. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life while figuring out a way to save what she loves most. Brilliant. I haven't read the next two in the trilogy yet because I'm too afraid of being let down.

Dennis Lehane, MOONLIGHT MILE. Detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro return in this long-anticipated sequel to GONE, BABY, GONE. My friend Sarah Weinman said this book was like catching up with classmates at a high school reunion, and I can't improve on that insight. Good to see them, glad they're doing well, don't really need to see them again for another five years.

Beth Hoffman, SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT. What a nice thing it sometimes is just to read a good novel about good people. After the death of her bipolar mother, 12-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt moves to Savannah in the care of her Great-Aunt Tootie, and a new world opens to her. A lovely book, and all the more impressive when you realize it's a first novel.

Rob Sheffield, TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN. Possibly my favorite book of 2010; I've already given it as a gift, and will give it to more people in the weeks and months ahead. Rob Sheffield is my age, and this book is a musical memoir of his teenage years, which were mine as well. The book is a series of essays tied to individual songs; if I'd read it before starting this year's blog, I'd probably have chosen a different theme because he does it so much better.

Armistead Maupin, MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES. Another welcome return to a beloved series. Michael "Mouse" Tolliver is married to his partner and living happily ever after in San Francisco, decades after the HIV diagnosis that was supposed to be a death sentence. The years have taken their toll on the residents of Barbary Lane, but Anna Madrigal's still taking care of everybody, and the book made me eager to read the next installment, MARY ANN IN AUTUMN.

Vicki Lane, THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS. Another recommendation from Karen Olson, and another of my favorites of 2010. This remarkable book stands in the territory between Sharyn McCrumb and Daniel Woodrell, an epic that spans 80 years and two parallel worlds. The baby girl Least is born to a deranged mother, and against all odds survives to become a wise old woman — but the cost of her survival requires that she repay old debts, in the form of breaking some promises to save a boy in peril. This complex, thoughtful novel deserves far more attention than it's gotten.

Lawrence Block, A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF. I'll tell anyone who asks that series should have lifespans, and that too many authors need to let their series characters go well before the time that both they and their readers are tired of them. Lawrence Block is the exception that proves the rule. This book, due out next year, stands with his finest work. Matt Scudder tells a story from earlier in his career, not long after he'd quit drinking. A childhood acquaintance trying to make amends for his own drinking days is killed with two shots to the face. His sponsor asks Matt for help, and Matt struggles with his sobriety as he learns that not all crimes are punished.

Mark Billingham, BLOODLINE. Another fine entry in a long-running series. London police detective Tom Thorne investigates a series of murders that, impossibly, seem linked to a serial killer who died in prison years earlier. Twist follows twist; a very dark ending spares almost no one, but leaves a ray of light for Tom and his partner Louise. It'll be good to have this series back in print in the U.S.; Mulholland will publish it here next July.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Out of the cold, dark winter's space/We come together . . ."

The Song: "Don't Be Afraid of the Light that Shines Within You," Luka Bloom. Words & music by Luka Bloom. Track 8 of the 2009 Bar/None Records Sampler.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

I did something bad to my main computer on Monday, so am working on an old machine that holds some music I didn't copy over at the beginning of the year. It's an unexpected benefit of something that's otherwise kind of disastrous; I'm rediscovering all these songs I didn't remember I had.

It's tempting to see iTunes as a kind of magic oracle, giving me the music I need when I need it, a secular version of Bible-dipping. This song, at least, was exactly what I needed this morning.

One of the reasons I love Maine at this time of year is that people come together against the cold and the darkness. Christmas lights defy the planetary shift; so what if we're tilting away from the sun, so what if the sun sets at 4:00 p.m., so what if it's 18F out and snowing? We'll light things up. We'll decorate the evergreens with things that sparkle, and we'll gather in snug buildings of wood and brick to drink beer and eat onion rings.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The North Wind doth blow/And we shall have snow/And what will the robin do then, poor thing?"

The Song: "The North Wind," Elizabeth Mitchell. Words & music traditional. Track 14 of You Are My Little Bird, 2006.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2007
Listen here.

We're having very strange weather here, but not in the way that the rest of the country seems to be. In fact, for once Maine is Oppositeland (or maybe we usually are). Our current temperature is a freakishly warm 53F. It's pouring rain, and as windy as a tropical storm. It's washed all the snow away, and I had to bring the snow shovel in off the deck last night so it wouldn't become a flying projectile.

The idea that weather reflects human emotion is the definition of the pathetic fallacy, but it didn't (and doesn't) feel far wrong this weekend. On Saturday I was sure I was coming down with flu: headache, earache, sinuses clogged, so tired I could barely move. Yesterday was better, but still fragile. Today I am awake again and nearly frenzied at the thought of everything that didn't get done over the weekend.

It's a tricky time of year. The dark unquestionably gets to me. This might be the year I invest in a light-therapy box. It's money I can't really spare, but if the alternative is a winter-related malaise that interferes with my work and my life, it'll pay for itself. Does anyone out there have one, or have any experience with one? Suggestions, recommendations?

This song is a lovely short track off a CD that is theoretically for children but should be in any good collection of folk music. Elizabeth Mitchell, who also plays as part of the wonderful indie band Ida, put the record together for her own daughter, who sings on several tracks. My sister Peggy gave me the CD for my birthday, and I've since given it to a couple of friends.

I was especially pleased to find this song, which I'd been unfamiliar with before stage-managing a production of The Mousetrap in 2006. An eccentric character sings this particular snatch of song at a tense moment. Fortunately, our director knew the tune; none of the rest of us had heard it. I'm glad to have the recording as a memory of that play, and will never hear it without Lynette's and Peter's voices in my head, too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

"I'm afraid of people who like 'Catcher in the Rye.'"

The Song: "William Holden Caulfield," Too Much Joy. Words & music by Too Much Joy (Jay Blumenfeld, Tim Quirk, Sandy Smallens, Tommy Vinton). Track 3 of Cereal Killers, 1991.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1992
Listen/read here.

People he'd despise say I feel like that guy
I don't want to grow up 'cause I don't want to die
When I'm 31, and keep living on
For 50 more years

I don't like Catcher in the Rye, and never did. Somehow I was never the right age for it. I loved Nine Stories, and "Seymour: An Introduction" changed the way I understood myself, but I always wanted to give Holden Caulfield a good smack upside the head.

Still, if you follow the link above you'll read Tim Quirk's thoughts about the book and the song, and I can't disagree with any of that. The dramatic revelations of adolescence can be summed up in three basic truths:
1. The world is not as it seems.
2. The world is not as it's "supposed" to be.
3. Adults know this and have decided, for one reason or another, not to do anything about it; therefore, becoming an adult is about finding your own compromise with Truths 1 and 2.

Two weeks after my 15th birthday, a man who liked Catcher in the Rye reminded all of us of these hard truths when he shot John Lennon. He had a copy of the book with him, and said the book inspired him. I've blamed the book ever since, even though the book could not possibly have been the reason why. There is no reason why. These things never have a "why."

On the morning of December 9, 1980, my mother turned on my bedroom light, the way she always did, and said, "John Lennon was killed last night. Someone shot him." She'd been crying. She'd met him a couple of times; as an executive secretary for Capitol Records, she'd taken Cynthia Lennon shopping during their visit to New York in 1964. (Mrs. Lennon bought a pair of gloves.) They were the same age; John Lennon was seven months older than Mom. I was too young and too self-absorbed, at 15, to understand how hard his death must have hit her.

All day yesterday I thought it was weird that the 8th was the anniversary being marked, when it wasn't until the 9th that most of us woke up to a world without John Lennon.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you"

The Song: "Julia," The Beatles. Words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 9, side 2 of The Beatles (the White Album), 1968.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1980
Listen/watch here.

It's hard not to imagine what John Lennon would be saying and doing if he were alive today. It's hard to think about the fact that he was younger when he died than I am now.

This song, written in memory of John's mother, remains one of my favorites, and I quote this line all the time. It distills so much of John's public persona, I think. It was hard to know what he actually thought or felt, partly because he might not always have been sure himself; what he was looking for was engagement, for himself and the people around him. Even listening to his songs now we feel obligated to care, to pay attention, to think about things larger than ourselves.

It's work, of course. It's exhausting, which is why today's pop stars don't ask us to do anything more than raise our glass. Why so serious, Pink asks; what's the dealie-o?

Excuse me while I go yell at some kids to get off my lawn. Not that I have a lawn.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"You're making lists today of all the things you haven't done yet/You're driving everyone crazy, are you having any fun yet?"

The Song: "Simple Life," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & Music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 2 of Time*Sex*Love, 2001.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2001.
Listen here (might just be a sample).

I often feel I have no need to write or even say anything original. Instead, I could just walk around with an MP3 player loaded with Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, and play the lyrics as my side of any conversation. She too goes by her middle name, by the way. When I was in college, she played coffeehouses in the DC area, and I saw her several times at Georgetown before she was famous. I had a girl-crush on her then, and have never really gotten over it.

My favorite part of this song is the chorus, which says, "There's nothing wrong with you." That is kind but untrue, at least today. Everything is taking a good bit longer than it should, and I feel I am swimming through Jello. I'd try a nap, but I doubt it would help.

I live just about as simple a life as anyone could. I have no dependents but a dog. I own almost nothing. I make the bare minimum of money I need, most of the time (at least, I hope I do). And I still have days like today, where I'm half an hour late to everything and can't keep it all straight.

Time to take a breath and make another list. And have another cup of coffee. If that doesn't work, then I'll take a nap.

Monday, December 06, 2010

"Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts/Of unpublished rhyme."

The Song: "Hazy Shade of Winter," Simon & Garfunkel. Words & music by Paul Simon. Track 11 of Bookends, 1968.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

Today brought the first big storm of the season, interfering with my plans to go to a book fundraising event in Boston. The first big snow of the year, people always get a little crazy; we're not used to it yet, the plow guys need some warming up.

So I'm home, and should be working. Instead I feel restless and bored. I'd been looking forward to playing with friends tonight. If I lived in Portland or even in Brunswick, I could have made it to the party; according to radar, the snow line was just south of Gardiner. Yes, the point is obvious.

This is a great song off the second side of Bookends, which is a collection of good songs rather than a coherent album side. The Bangles made a fascinating cover of it in 1987 for the soundtrack of Less than Zero (evil book, stupid movie). I am not ashamed of liking The Bangles, who, as it turns out, still get together to play a gig once in a while.

Friday, December 03, 2010

"I wish I was in Tijuana/Eating barbecued iguana."

The Song: "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo. Words & music by Stan Ridgway and Marc Moreland. Track 6 of Call of the West, 1985.
How/when acquired: Borrowed CD, 2010
Listen/watch here.

My brother-in-law Scott was nice enough to share his music collection with me over Thanksgiving. We share a love of 1980s New Wave, but he apparently had more money to spend on music in those years than I did. I never owned this track, but when I listen to it now, I'm catapulted back to the basement of Healy Hall, right down to the unique fug of Georgetown's old, iconic Pub.

"Mexican Radio" is a track that shows up on a lot of one-hit-wonder lists, although Wall of Voodoo first came to my attention with their cool, spooky 1980 cover of "Ring of Fire." I also loved "Lost Weekend," another track on Call of the West.

Wall of Voodoo is still touring. They're returning to Iota in Arlington next April, the week before Easter, and I could probably get there if I wanted to. I don't know whether I want to. I've seen the bands of my youth in recent years, and for the most part they've been great; but I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago, I'm not doing the same things in the same ways, in principle I think I disapprove of anyone who is.

This summer my friend Gary gave me Squeeze's album Spot the Difference, a set of re-recordings of their greatest hits. They're basically covers, but the goal was to be as faithful as possible to the original sound. I love having this album, but it's a peculiar artifact I wouldn't recommend to anyone who isn't a hardcore Squeeze fan (which I am). While the songs sound great, part of me thinks they shouldn't sound so much like the originals; at some point, wouldn't you just feel like a rat on a wheel?

I digress. Today's quotation is because I've never eaten barbecued iguana, although I have had deep-fried alligator (yes, it tastes like chicken). I don't particularly want to be in Tijuana — I've been there, it was dirty and ugly and depressing — but since we're about to get socked with a big winter storm, I wouldn't mind being someplace warmer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"Bring me a day full of honest work/and a roof that never leaks/I'll be satisfied."

The Song: "Head Home," Midlake. Music and lyrics by Tim Smith. Track 3 of The Trials of Van Occupanther, 2006.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2007
Listen/watch here.

Home again, after a good trip, but horribly behind on several projects. This morning I have to do the usual errand-running after a week away (mail, groceries, etc.), which means I'll be working well into the night. Glad to have the work, though.

I was relatively late to this album, which friends recommended for months before I finally listened to it. Critics compared Midlake's sound to early Fleetwood Mac. I don't really hear that, but Midlake definitely comes out of that 1970s-era synth-pop tradition. I love the sound, and Midlake's one of my favorite bands of the decade.

It was a mild shock to wake up this morning and see the date "December 1" on the calendar. End of the year, end of the decade. I'm not ready.