Posted in Miscellania on April 10, 2008 by choclazz

 

 

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An Opinion About Almost Nothing, Exhaustively Expressed

Posted in Album of the Week on April 1, 2008 by choclazz

E. 1999 Eternal and The Downward Spiral, by Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony and Nine Inch Nails, are two of the greatest albums in music history.

Musically, you might debate me on this point, and you might win. I typically think I’m right about everything, but I have to admit my general opinions never feel as subjective as they do when I’m talking about music. In other words, music makes my opinions seem like opinions rather than facts, and I have a difficult time engaging in a spirited debate about a piece beyond the “this is good ’cause I like it” stage. On the surface, these two albums don’t put up much of a fight; neither one makes me feel anything in particular, both are difficult to sing or dance to, traditionally accessible “hooks” are few and far between, and I don’t know anybody who can personally relate to either one, thematically. None of this helps build my case.

All the same, I do love listening to these records. I don’t think rap vocals have ever felt more instrumental than they do on Eternal; Bone uses probably the most unique vocal delivery in hip hop, and their layered, fluid voices float and weave through every track to extremely pleasing effect. Spiral is much more abrasive, but every jarring, distorted interlude is purposefully crafted, textured, and nuanced (Note: I’m contractually obligated to talk about music as if I’m full of shit). And for every haunting moment (the screams and wails at the beginning of “The Becoming” are literally hellish), there is a delicate and even pretty moment (the piano/vocals of “March of the Pigs,” the final notes of “Closer” that return as the refrain of “The Downward Spiral”). There is also a surprising amount of melody on this album. The more I think about it, the less certain I am that you would win that debate, after all.

But whether you find either album fun to listen to or not is almost incidental to what I find so compelling about them. What interests me most, and what has led me to write about these two seemingly-disparate records together, is that there may not be two other collections of music that have so much in common with one another and so little in common with everything else. No mean feat, given they don’t actually sound anything like each other. But even more intriguing is the fact that what does unify these records also makes them unique, and I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever hear anything like them again. I think that’s the secret of their greatness, and it’s worth looking into.

The most striking common element of both these albums is that the content of each is extremely explicit. At the time of their release, the “Parental Advisory” sticker was roughly ten years old and gangsta rap was experiencing its golden age; we were all pretty comfortable with adult content at this point. And maybe that’s why the subject matter of these two was and is taken for granted: Rolling Stone said that Eternal “recycle(d) the usual fare of guns, drugs, and money” that typified rap of the era. While I concede that hip hop was generally a playground of violence, in this case I have to disagree with the modifier “usual.” Dre and Snoop may have been smoking endo, fucking hos, and occasionally 187-ing, but they didn’t have track titles like “Die, Die, Die,” “Me Killa,” and “Mo’ Murda.” Bone occupied a world where “even the bitches carry guns.” Drugs and money do feature prominently, but again, there is nothing usual about their inclusion. Very few rappers are turning down blunts, but not even Afroman raps about the herb with the emotion of Bone (see: “Buddha Lovers” and “Bud Smokers Only”), and that is to say nothing of their murderous cocaine-dealing. Similarly, rap’s obsession with money usually centers around excess; “1st of tha Month” and its celebration of a Welfare economy are decidedly unusual.

The Downward Spiral is a little subtler, I suppose, but not much. The album begins innocuously enough, but by track 3 (“Heresy”) Trent Reznor has made it abundantly clear that “God is dead, and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll (he’ll) see you there.” Strong words, whether you agree with the sentiment or not. The rest of the album is scattered with “crown(s) of shit” (“Hurt”), “precious whores” (“Reptile”), and the ardent desire to “fuck everyone in the world” (“I Do Not Want This”). But the centerpiece is the song “Closer.” Everybody knows the chorus (“I wanna fuck you like an animal”), and, even more than the words themselves, the ubiquity of these lyrics among rock listeners is the single most explicit thing about this album. I mean, this was a hit song. This gets played on the radio all the time, and when it does, everyone you’re driving in the car with breaks out into singing when that refrain hits (even my Mom and Dad). This is like the “Piano Man” of swear-songs, and everyone it touches becomes more explicit just by hearing it.

Of course, there a lots of R-rated albums, but the content of these two underpins a tone of voice employed by each that makes the experience of listening to them so similar, yet so uncommon within their own genres. Eternal and Spiral are affecting rather than merely shocking, emotional rather than visceral, because their profanity feels like it comes directly from the music. Their words seem to specifically refer to the sounds you hear, and this lends them a sense of necessity that other similarly-themed albums lack. Bone accomplishes this through the unique cadence and intonation of their voices; it’s more like they’re jamming along to the music than actually rapping. Nine Inch Nails pulls it off more traditionally by being very careful that the content matches the emotional quality of the song. It’s like the music itself is conveying all the meaning, and the lyrics are just a literal translation. And this is all reinforced by the fact that neither Bone nor Nine Inch Nails ever breaks character. There are no winks at the audience to let us know they are just posturing, no lighthearted singles or love songs to dilute the vibe, no distracting skits or breaks in the music to ease the tension. This focus also makes them more cohesive; they both operate as complete albums as opposed to just collections of songs recorded at the same time. The listener gets the most mileage out of these two by listening to them start to finish, without skipping tracks.

Traditionally “great” albums and artists usually seem timeless, and this gives them permanence. They also usually leave some sort of imprint on music history, either by changing the direction of a genre or impacting artists that follow them, so that whenever “now” is, you can feel the presence of that great artist. The Beatles helped create modern rock and influenced bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, who went on to become influential themselves. Led Zeppelin had a huge impact on heavy metal. “Dylan-esque” is an expressive, understood adjective (though I would never use it unless I was a total prick).

But Eternal and Spiral are great partly because they are almost exactly the opposite; they were hugely popular, but neither one truly has nor is useful as a point of reference. To me, they don’t fit neatly into a musical timeline or artistic progression, and even though they are definitely related to rap and rock, they don’t have many close relatives within those families. If they were biological specimens, their taxonomy would be very difficult to pin down. Rap of the time was gangsta, and it was East Coast vs. West Coast. Bone was gangsta in a way that other groups weren’t because of the tone of their content, and their delivery didn’t fit neatly into either coast’s camp. Rock was in the throes of grunge and alternative, but Nine Inch Nails didn’t sound anything like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or Pearl Jam and was only lumped in with them because of a conscious effort on the part of Trent Reznor to market to their audience (hence his appearance on 1991’s Lollapalooza Tour).

As for their legacies moving forward, it’s difficult to directly trace the work of almost any subsequent artists to these albums (This also includes the rest of the output from these two artists, by the way. And I’m not counting the work of the Mo Thugs Family, important as it was). As I’ve already said, there is just no one in hip hop that sounds like Bone, and their artistic gravitas kind of swallows up any rap that is held up to them, at least stylistically. Take the 1997 jam “Notorious Thugs,” for example. You know, the one that pairs up Bone with Biggie. This was actually a song from Biggie’s album, and even though he is one of the most influential and important figures in hip hop history, this song comes off more as a song on which he is the guest rather than vice versa. And Eternal was the reason; it’s the definitive expression of Bone’s style. As for The Downward Spiral, you could argue it paved the way for Marilyn Manson, and maybe the success of that album did make Manson more palatable. But most of the comparisons between the two stem from a lazy association rather than any specific musical bond. Some of Manson’s subject matter did overlap Spirals, but his costumed presentation made him seem more like a caricature of bleakness and disaffection, and his songs lack the conviction of Reznor’s. Nothing else in popular rock music is even that comparable.

When these albums were released in 1994 and 1995, they were wildly successful. Eternal was the number 1 album in the country and won a Grammy. Spiral peaked at number 2 and was named one of the 200 greatest rock albums of all time by Rolling Stone. But can you imagine anything like either one of them coming along now? Hip hop has undergone a huge transformation: it is far more mainstream and viable then it was a decade ago, and rap’s biggest stars are more empire-building businessmen than strictly entertainers and artists, and the themes of rap (money, cash, hos) mirror its ascension. Plus, it’s a lot tougher for Diddy to sell expensive clothes to the upper-middle class if he puts out an entire album devoted to murdering people. And what are the odds of a rock song with “I wanna fuck you like an animal” for a chorus hitting the Top 40 these days? I’d say slim to none, particularly if the artist was as deathly-serious about the sentiment as Nine Inch Nails was. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything culturally significant about the era that produced these two, but they are undeniably of their time, if only because they could never have come before or after they did. They were great achievements even though they lacked any discernible predecessors or heirs. Kickass.

I know I’ve taken this way too far. And truthfully, I like these albums because they are fun to listen to. But if I were to someday qualify that fun, it would most likely look like this. One of the great things about music is that the joy we derive from it can be dissected and analyzed and argued over and yet simultaneously expressed as an indescribable rush of feeling. It’s intellectual and emotional, depending on what we bring to the table and what we choose to eat when we get there. Just keep your fingers crossed that I don’t decide to break down my love of roller coasters. See you at the Crossroads.

My eMission Statement

Posted in Uncategorized on February 22, 2008 by choclazz

Sometimes, I’ll forget why I love music. That doesn’t mean I ever stop loving it; it just means that sometimes music exists in the background, and loving it becomes a given, an infinite state. I think this happens with anything that we habitually inundate ourselves with, and it’s probably natural. New songs, new cities, new jobs…these are all evocative things, but then we play the songs over and over, live in the cities for years, work the jobs every day, and they never look, feel, or sound the same again.

Well, almost never. About a week ago, I was sitting in my bedroom listening to the same music I have loved for years…and I was completely rocking out. I can’t explain why; I guess I was at the confluence of various moods, emotions, and nostalgia and I was absolutely juiced by the music. For not-the-first-time in recent years, I started thinking about how powerful beautiful things can be and how much I wanted to be a part of something so energizing, and this led me to the years when I was in a band. We were not even close to being famous, but I was very lucky to be surrounded by three very talented, creative musicians, and I’m exceedingly proud of how good we were and what we were able to accomplish and experience. It’s as close to generating that bedroom-rock-out feeling I’ve ever gotten.

But, as seems to be the unfortunate motif of my life, I never really threw myself into my band with reckless abandon. I can’t say exactly why; I usually felt that I was always miles away, talent-wise, from where I wanted and needed to be for us to be better. Maybe it was a simple case of being afraid of failure. But, for whatever reason, I do think that I always had at least a toe out the door, and sometimes as much as one entire foot. It was never a question of passion, because there is nothing that feels better than being blown away by something you’ve helped to create, and performing never ceased to be enjoyable. I just never fully reveled in that passion; I never really tried hard enough. And when I think of how much further we might have gone with the full compliment of my heart, I am a little regretful.

Strangely, I find that I have no concept of what my future looks like, but I think if I had my choice, I would be a writer. I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a while, and it sounds nice, but as of right this instant, I ain’t written shit. A few bits and pieces here, a poem there, and that’s it. Essentially, I’ve taken the same pussified approach to writing as I did to my band, with predictably similar results. Drewtopia is my effort at changing that.

Basically, once a week, I am going to post something that I hope other people actually want to read. I don’t anticipate too many “Here’s What I’ve Been Doing” posts, because I will be the first to admit that my life is currently uninteresting. Instead, I’d like to think of this blog as a repository for the essays, opinions, book and movie reviews, short stories, and poems that I’m going to start forcing myself to write. I’ve also felt that my ordinarily-sharp mind has begun to atrophy recently, and I’ve started to feel as if what I really think has been increasingly replaced by shades of gray. Hopefully this exercise will help me to think critically and rediscover what it is I actually believe. About everything. And don’t worry; I’m going to package it all in bite-sized (maybe lunch-sized) morsels for you.

I can only speculate as to why most people start a blog. I really have no idea, but this is my long-winded way of explaining why I’m starting this one. It’s my first stab at trying something. Your comments, criticisms, and praises (or lack thereof) will be a useful barometer for measuring my success or failure. Enjoy.

Books I Read in 2007: A List

Posted in Books Read in 2007 on February 14, 2008 by choclazz

I almost hesitate to add this to my blog, because who gives a shit? But since it’s likely that my entire blog will be perceived as superfluous, and since I really want to maintain this list going forward, I’m going to include it. And if one small boy in Kansas avoids reading any of the terrible books I read last year, then it’s all been worth it. So here is the list in the approximate order that I read them, with a letter grade and some of my thoughts.

1. Empire Falls – Richard Russo (C)

I’ll read most any book by an author that a lot of people are talking about. I read interviews with authors I enjoy, I peruse the New York Times book reviews, and I spend a lot of time at the “Paperback Favorites” table in Barnes & Noble. This book was all over those things and it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I gave it a whirl. It was perhaps the single most average book I read last year. The writing was technically sound but unremarkable, things happened but the story wasn’t compelling, and the characters were so cookie-cutter that they often felt like stereotypes. This was another in a long list of Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read that didn’t live up to the prestige of the award. Either that, or I am entirely mistaken about the value of the prize.

2. Next – Michael Crichton (C-)

I’m a big Michael Crichton fan, but this was the worst book of his that I have read. I’m perhaps being generous with my C-, but the book explores the implications of genetic engineering and globalization, and there are enough interesting ideas and psuedo-fact tidbits to tempt me to finish it. Still, if you read books to enjoy well-developed characters, plot points that add up to a larger whole, and satisfaction then just stick with Jurassic Park. You can’t miss.

3. How to Be Alone – Jonathan Franzen (B+)

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Franzen. He wrote a great book called The Corrections that I read in 2006 and would recommend to any fan of literary fiction (in spite of the fact that it’s a part of Oprah’s book club). How to Be Alone is a book of essays that he wrote about lots of interesting topics including his ideas about the nature of the novel, the condition of the Chicago postal system, and some reflections on American prisons. There are a few essays that didn’t grab me, which kept this from being a glowing success, but Franzen is generally creative, insightful, well-spoken, and erudite. Good stuff.

4. Drop City – T.C. Boyle (D+)

This was a book I picked up on the strength of the author’s reputation. He’s written a million books, and people tend to suck his balls in reference to them. Maybe I picked the wrong volume to start with, but this book was pretty awful to me. It’s the story of a hippie commune in California in the ’60s that decides to relocate to the Alaskan wilderness. It is largely a human story, focusing on a handful of commune members and hardy Alaskans. I actually know a few people to whom the book’s themes would be quite interesting, but I generally hated the characters, and the prose, though sturdy, was not sparkling enough to overcome my boredom and ire. Big fart noise on this one.

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon (B)

One of the various ways I select my books is to judge them by their covers. In addition to resting prominently upon the aforementioned “Paperback Favorites” table at B&N, this book boasts a flaming red cover with the silhouette of an upside-down dog. It also has a nice matte finish, which is attractive to me because I love to constantly shuffle a book in my hands as I read. So, I had to check this one out, and all I can say is that I was not disappointed. The story is told from the perspective of an autistic child who is attempting to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s murdered dog, which forces him to overcome many of his social and emotional limitations and leads him to discover some hidden aspects of his own family. When I say I wasn’t disappointed, that is literally all I mean. I wasn’t blown away, and it didn’t stick with me for days after I finished it, but I did enjoy it, and it was a quick read, so the reward matches the investment.

6. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut (F-)

Everyone loves Kurt Vonnegut, right? That’s all I ever hear, and yet, until last year, I had not read any of his work. This is perhaps not his very most famous book, but it was definitely famous enough that I had heard of it and that fans of Vonnegut count it among their favorites. I was actually excited that I wasn’t reading Slaughterhouse Five, because I thought I would get a chance to see what this guy was really all about. Quite simply, this was the worst book I have ever read, a list that includes The House of the Seven Gables. I was actively and intensely irritated, start to finish. I have an unmitigated hatred for this book, and it will take a monumental leap of faith for me to ever try Vonnegut again.

7. Life of Pi – Yann Martel (A)

This was the first really, really good book I read in 2007, and it was just in time, because I was seriously considering swearing off the written word. It was a great mouthwash for that Vonnegut puke taste. On the surface, it is the story of an Indian boy who, after a shipwreck, finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. This is an interesting enough idea, but there is much more to this book. It is wonderfully written, engaging, full of small poignancies, and, in the end, thought-provoking. I do know one person who walked away from this book mid-way through, and I can think of a few close friends who would get nothing out of it, but for the overwhelming majority of those who actually like to read, this is some literary fun.

8. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon (A)

Now, this is what I imagined a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel would be like, although the fact that it actually did win the prize must be a fluke given the turd-like quality of typical winners. This book is about a European Jew who smuggles himself out of Europe as the Nazis are tightening their grasp. He escapes to America, where he lives with his New York cousin, an aspiring comic book writer. The two create several popular comic book characters, and this book follows them over several years in the wake of their success. Chabon has amazing command of language, and even just the words of this book are fun to read. The story is epic, emotional, humorous, realistic, and has great depth (not in a blow-hardy way, either. It’s sincerely engaging). Quite rewarding.

9. On Writing – Stephen King (B+)

I was intrigued to read Stephen King’s account of the writer’s process, because he is the rare prolific, best-selling author that lots of people enjoy that I also enjoy. You summer reading-listers can keep your Sue Graftons and James Pattersons, but I’m with you on King. This was a satisfying little book that gave some genuine insight into how the Master of Horror works, how he got started, and how he would recommend all would-be writers approach their craft. The only thing that keeps this from the “A” range was that, at times, King seems to approach writing with cold dispassion and a series of mildly-arbitrary style rules instead of with heart and seat-of-your-pants exuberance. I suppose he knows what he’s doing. I must say that I distinctly remember reading this book during a shitty couple of days, and it made me feel better. That’s gotta count for something.

10. The Human Stain – Philip Roth (C)

This was another author I was checking out because of the ejaculation of praise that gets cummed upon him. This particular book is one of his more famous ones, if not the most famous. It’s the story of a disgraced college professor whose career was ruined when a remark he makes to his class is misconstrued as a racial slur. The novel relays the shocking details of his life against the backdrop of his semi-scandalous sexual affair with an illiterate female janitor. Sounds like a real page-turner, eh? It is obnoxiously pretentious, and if that sounds redundant, read a few pages. It is largely boring, long-winded, blow-hardy, and very far from the highly-touted novel it is heralded as. Still, every time I was about to diarrhea with anger, Roth would make some beautiful observation about life, or the plot would pick up by just a heartbeat, and he would compel me to carry on. I can’t say it is entirely without value.

11. Killing Yourself to Live – Chuck Klosterman (A)

This is just a great book that I think 90% of all people will really enjoy (I can’t say with confidence that Nate Duke will like anything. In fact, I’m sure he’d hate it). It’s a collection of nonfiction essays written about famous deaths in Rock ‘n Roll. Klosterman goes across the country, visiting the sites of famous rock deaths, wittily observing. All the essays are somewhat woven together by various details of Klosterman’s life, most pertaining to the current state of his romantic relationships. The writing is as clever, witty, and spot-on as I always believed I was until I read it. Check it out.

12. Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman (C)

If I’m forced to give a book a “C” grade, it’s usually because I finish it and my only reaction is, “Well, that was a book I read.” That’s really all I had to say about this one. It’s the story of a kidnapping told from seven different perspectives. As each different character tells his or her story, we learn about the various, sordid ways in which the characters’ lives are intertwined. If that idea is intriguing to you, read the book. There’s nothing wrong with it; I just didn’t love it or hate it. It was like lying in a pool of tepid water. But don’t take my ambivalence as gospel; I actually know someone who read, enjoyed, and was affected by this book.

13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – (A)

Obviously, if you follow the Harry Potter books, you’ve already read this one and your opinion is set in stone. What was really great about this installation in the series, which (perhaps controversially) I think might be the best one, is that it enhances several of the volumes that came before it. It does more than simply wrap up the saga; it takes details and questions introduced in earlier books and casts them in a new, satisfying light. I also believe that this could be the best of the movies (though I was disappointed to hear that they are making it into two movies, which is in-line with all the copping out this series seems to be doing these days) because it is action-packed, visually stunning (in my my mind’s eye), and relies less on acting than the other books (which is great, because by the time this one gets released, the 40-year-old actors will be struggling more mightily to play kids than they already do). Also, my sources tell me there will be deleted scenes wherein Dumbledore’s ghost makes out with Harry.

14. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs – Chuck Klosterman (A)

Another great Klosterman book. Just absolutely satisfying, for all the same reasons as Killing Yourself to Live, but possibly better because of the broader range of topics Klosterman turns his keen eye to. As someone who is toying with perhaps maybe becoming an aspiring writer, what impresses me most about this guy is his ability to turn a small opinion, observation, or personal vignette into a ten-page essay that is fascinating pillar to post. I disagree with some of what he says, but the arguments are so entertaining that it doesn’t really matter.

15. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski (C-)

The essential plot of this book was described to me a few years ago, and it was instantly intriguing…and then I forgot about it entirely until it began to appear on my friends’ bookshelves, much like doors and hallways begin to mysteriously appear in the novel’s titular house. Yes, in the bare bones, this is the story of a house that appears to be growing from the inside but not the outside and the implications of this creepy development for the family living in the house. In some places, House of Leaves is extremely unnerving and well-executed, but it’s more often difficult and irritating to read, both in terms of content and the physical layout of words on the page. If you can fight through it, there are rewards, but reading should rarely be work…except for publishers.

16. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (D+)

Every time I finish yet another acclaimed-but-average book, I’m reminded of the role of expectation in enjoyment. Upon reflection, I realize I’m trapped. If I set the bar of expectation too high, the book will have a difficult time matching my hype. On the other hand, if I even pick up the book in the first place, it’s because I expect it to be good, so the bar is inherently set high. I guess that’s why I end up being disappointed so often. I read Never Let Me Go because it was nominated for several awards, it’s author is critically acclaimed for both this and past works, and it had a premise that intrigued me (a woman genetically engineered so that her organs could one day be harvested reflects back on growing up among other clones. See? You’d read it, too). It was boring, it was written with what seemed to be affected delicacy, and it didn’t make me think or feel anything.

17. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl (A-)

I occasionally read this website called Salon.com. I actually stumbled upon it when I was looking for book reviews, and that’s still primarily the reason I tune in. That’s where I discovered this book, where it was warmly and, as it turns out, accurately, reviewed. It’s the story of an extremely intelligent high school girl who has grown up traveling from college town to college town with her eccentric, intellectual, professor father. For her senior year, she is rewarded with the promise of staying put for the entire year. She falls in with a crowd of popular friends that have an intense, somewhat-mysterious relationship with a young teacher whom they eventually find dead. Pessl’s writing style is both conversational and literary and is entertainment in and of itself. The story and characters keep things moving swiftly along to a very satisfying conclusion. This is a low-risk book for any on-the-fence readers.

18. Choke – Chuck Palahniuk (B-)

Palahniuk is one of those authors that is perhaps not widely beloved, but is intensely beloved by those that read him. I can’t really argue with that level of success, because it doesn’t imply that I am stupid or crazy if I don’t like him. This is, I think, the fifth of his that I have read, waiting and hoping for the match to strike, but it never has. This, the story of a sex addict who travels from restaurant to restaurant pretending to choke and allowing strangers to save him, is the closest it’s come. Like the rest of his work, Choke focuses on an unlikeable, seemingly-unredeemable character at the fringes of society. But instead of forcing the reader to wallow in the character’s shitty existence for 250 pages before pointlessly and meaninglessly grinding the story to a halt, Palahniuk allows Choke‘s protagonist to grow, learn, and change for the better. Crazy as it sounds, that actually makes for better reading. But only “B-” better.

19. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (B+)

John Irving is one of my very favorite authors ever. He creates absolutely wonderful, rich characters; he does such a good job, in fact, that you almost don’t care what kind of journey these characters take. You just love to watch them reveal themselves. Owen Meany is the story of a man reflecting on the remarkable life of his extraordinary best friend Owen, who believes that he is God’s instrument. The plot points aren’t spectacular, but the characters are great and you will rarely ever find more powerfully clear, crisp, quality writing. If you’re thinking about reading some Irving (and you should), start with The World According to Garp. I think that makes all the rest of his stuff better.

20. The Ruins – Scott Smith (C)

This is Smith’s second novel, and the first was A Simple Plan. I never read that one, but the film adaptation is a highly underrated, attractively disturbing movie. Add that to Steven King’s promise that The Ruins was powerful and scary and a 50-cent price tag at Goodwill and you have all the reasons I decided to read this one. It’s a horror story about some American travelers who find themselves trapped in the Mexican jungle by silent natives and supernatural forces. Boooooooorrrrrriiiiiinnnnnnggg. There is an element of garden-variety suspense that allowed me to get through this one, but all the characters are unsympathetic figures that don’t even like each other, making it impossible for me to care about them. Thus, any and all emotion is drained from the story, rendering me a mere dispassionate observer. Sadly, this story also lacks both visceral terror and compelling evil worth observing. But it is a bestseller, and they’re making a movie, so you might like it, you fucking jerk.

21. The Egyptologist – Arthur Phillips (D+)

I only have myself to blame for this one. This is the second Arthur Phillips book I have read and the first, Prague, was one of those maddening books that was well-written and intermittently compelling but ultimately and annoyingly disappointing. I shouldn’t have read this one, but as I was contemplating it in Half-Price books, some stranger noticed me and said “Oh, I really loved that one. Prague is so depressing, but this one is so different.” It was different, but worse. I’d give you a synopsis in order to be as helpful as possible, but I don’t know anyone who would like this book, nor do I want anyone to maybe, possibly be curious enough to pick it up.

22. White Teeth – Zadie Smith (A-)

I found out about Zadie Smith because Marisha Pessl (another author on this list) was compared to her. The comparison is apt, and Smith is great, but I’m still having a difficult time justifying the “A-” I feel this book deserves. I suppose the grade corresponds to the amount of enjoyment I got out of the book, but I have a tough time recommending this book because I can’t really think of an enticing way to sell it, and I’d hate for people to take my word entirely. It’s the story of a unique British family and a traditional Indian family living in Britain, following their lives over a period of years. There’s obviously more to the story, but that is the long and short of it. That’s not typically the kind of story I rally behind, but the writing is fantastic, not for any faux-artistic pretensions but because it is so controlled and intentional and smooth. If part of what you enjoy about reading is the interplay of language and a few well-placed observations about life, than take a chance on this one. Just don’t blame me if you find I’m wrong.

23. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (F)

What a bitterly fitting end to my largely disappointing year in literature. This one is also a Pulitzer Winner, and it sandblasted any of the lingering sheen right off the award. I simply do not understand how this can be critically acclaimed. I’ll tell you the entire novel: A father and son wander through a post-apocalyptic world in an attempt to reach the ocean. That’s fucking it. NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS. In fact, my description actually makes the book sound more interesting than it is. No lessons are learned. No thoughts are provoked. The world is described alternately as cold, wet, gray, black, and smoky without variation for the entirety of the book. I would call it boring and pointless if I didn’t feel that was being too charitable. It’s so minimalist that it makes Hemingway look like James Michener, and McCarthy has somehow convinced the entire world that it is a beautiful piece of art. There are a world of literary critics and readers out there who will pretend to disagree with me, arguing there are leagues of depth and that it is McCarthy’s “most moving and perhaps most personal”(L.A. Times Book Review) work. That line of thinking is insulting to me and to all the people who have been duped into reading this. What is wrong with everyone? I hate it and, by extension, every person who likes it.

So, that’s an annotated bibliography of everything I read in 2007. I know it’s excruciatingly long and possibly not-at-all interesting. But if you like to read and need some suggestions, I hope this is useful. I’m gonna keep it up for ’08, so keep your eyes peeled. Drop me a line if you’ve read anything on this list and you disagree with my assessment; I will, however, actually listen to you if you agree.