Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Powerfully Adorable: A Review of the Sharon Van Etten Concert

"It's really hard to sustain a note on a full stomach because I'm afraid I'll burp into the microphone," Sharon Van Etten said to a packed house of queer couples, single ladies in flannel button-ups, and groups of middle-aged hipsters at Neptune Theatre Sunday night.

Opening for the petite Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter with a booming, grainy voice was Philadelphia band War on Drugs - four gentlemen with a swarm of echoing synthesizer sounds that, combined with constant blue lights overhead, made the Neptune feel like a fish tank. Adam Granduciel (lead vocals/guitar) and Robbie Bennett (keyboard) sported trendy Jesus-length haircuts, and all four had a great sense of humor. Granduciel began to tease David Hartley (bassist) about his family in Seattle. "You're from around here, right? In Poulsbo?" he asked Hartley. The bassist (along with half the crowd) scoffed at Granduciel's geography skills. War on Drugs played for a good hour in their bizarre, aquatic way before Van Etten finally took the stage.

Apart from her intimidating vocal power, Van Etten is otherwise downright adorable. The 31-year-old giggled and palled around with her band mates and the crowd and, though she's been performing for most of her life, appeared almost nervous on stage. "Like I'm supposed to remember all my songs?" she joked when she forgot the set list three songs into the show. Her guitarist climbed over two amps to whisper the next title into her ear.

Van Etten's good-natured, awkward demeanor was endearing and instantly won over the crowd as she answered the questions folks shouted from the audience. For example:

Random person: "Do you like cats?"
Van Etten: "Cats? I love cats."
Same person: "I love you!"
Van Etten: "I love you, too, beautiful stranger."

At one point, a fan pushed his way to the front and set a flower onstage. Van Etten stopped playing to go pick up the flower and slide the stem through her guitar strings. "This song is now for that guy," she said before continuing with the swooning, mesmerizing voice and gut-wrenching lyrics of her latest album, Tramp.

Van Etten's drummer is the tallest man alive. Even seated, he towered over Van Etten's tiny standing frame. Part way into the set, her lead guitarist pulled out a violin bow and continued to play his guitar without missing a note. But the real treat was the lady sharing the stage with Van Etten, who switched from back-up vocals to guitar to bass to keyboard to the occasional tambourine, and the two fierce female voices took over the audience. Their harmonies swelled and swayed, particularly on songs like "Tornado" and "One Day." Together, they wooed the crowd long into the evening.

(My review also appears online at The Stranger.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Rosecrans Baldwin's "Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"

First off, I picked up this book and saw that the author's first name was Rosecrans. Therefore, the book couldn't possibly be bad, right? Well, I was partly correct.

Rosecrans Baldwin wrote a bitchin' debut novel in 2010 called You Lost Me There, about a baller Alzheimer's researcher named Dr. Victor Aaron who discovers that he and his late wife remembered their marriage very differently. The brilliant memory specialist must go back through his own memories to figure out what is real and what is make believe. The book won several awards and was on NPR's Best Books of 2010 list.

Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down is smart, funny, and engaging, but doesn't quite live up to the You Lost Me There hype. Paris describes Baldwin's true story of moving to his dream city with his wife, Rachel. The two Americans must endure the language barrier, the culture shift, the coffee, the streets, the driving, the rules about kissing, the cab fare, and more. Baldwin's voice is strong and he isn't full of himself. When he makes mistakes, he admits them. In fact, his minor (and major) screw-ups are what make the book so entertaining. One of Baldwin's most frequent mishaps is, of course, his struggles with learning French:

"You can also try rendering American idioms into French. Coworkers will stand flamingo-still when you so casually drop Moi, je ne donne pas une merde (I don't give a shit). Because other people might pass along feces as gifts, but never you, cool you."

His descriptions are spot-on and his adventures make the reader want to hop the next plane to France. The story is certainly genuine - it just lacks a sense of urgency, a sense of "keep reading," a sense of "Oh my God, I can't put this down." Perhaps the switch from fiction to non-fiction is what makes the book slightly less satisfying, or maybe You Lost Me There is simply too good to be topped just yet. Either way, Paris is worth the read, but isn't necessarily a must-read. An interesting connection, however, is the secondary story line in Paris. Besides battling the French culture, Baldwin was trying to get his first book published: You Lost Me There. The book-within-a-book thing is typically campy, but works well here.

Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down will be published on April 24th by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Q Review x2

The Q Review, a Chicago literary magazine, published another one of my essays in their March issue. Check it out here!

As an organization, The Q Review is a great platform for LGBT artistic community sharing. Their mission statement says it all:

OUR MISSION is to provide a platform for queer art and expression. We want to bring queer voices together as a collection of voices, as a deafening roar and unite LGBTQ artists under one title, one website, one letter: Q.

We chose “Q” because we aim to include everyone. “Q” literally stands for Queer, the all-inclusive identifier from the alphabet soup, LGBTQ. So whether you write poetry, or create graphic illustrations – gay, lesbian, or simply queer – your voice is welcome inside The Q Review.

We intend to bring the greater Chicago area and the rest of the world a formal, regular, and cohesive publication to spread queer thought, creativity, and to nourish the growth of the queer arts community as a whole.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Film Review: Paul Weitz's "Being Flynn"

When Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) walks into his deadbeat father's living room after not seeing him for eighteen years, Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) greets him by stepping out of the bathtub, baring his ass, and boasting about his manuscript. "Everything I write is a masterpiece," Jonathan continuously tells Nick during Being Flynn, which is based on Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir (originally titled Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. The title switch must have sucked as well). Both father and son are failing at life. Miserably. The latter is aware of this; the former is not. The movie is told from both perspectives - Jonathan spends the film talking about his novel, while Nick writes a novel about his father. Though broken and disgruntled, the men charge through their respective stories, reeking of cheap vodka and poorly made leather jackets.

The script is smart and quick-witted. Little direct dialogue is taken from the book, but the events - particularly the homeless shelter where Nick works - are still vividly captured. As characters, Nick and Jonathan make a great pair of stubborn relatives - both convinced that the other is the reason life blows in "suck city." As actors, Dano and De Niro are good together. Dano's gangly awkwardness is simultaneously comical and natural in contrast to the nonchalant De Niro. But Julianne Moore dominates. She plays Dano's badass single mom, and her performance alone is a reason to see the movie.

Being Flynn was directed by Paul Weitz and hits theaters this week.

(My review is also featured in the March 14, 2012 issue of The Stranger)

Photo credit: www.metrosource.com

Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: Donovan Hohn's "Moby Duck"

Writer Donovan Hohn uses Ernie’s Sesame Street “Rubber Duckie” tune in his latest, Moby Duck, to introduce a bizarre news event of 1992. In January, a shipment of toys was en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, WA when the ship was caught in a storm. Much of the cargo – including 28,800 plastic animals (most notably, 7,200 rubber ducks) – fell overboard in the accident. The occurrence was never reported (due to liability). Then, starting in 2003, rubber ducks began showing up on the shores of Seattle, different beaches throughout California, Alaska, and, somehow, Maine. One way or another the ducks not only survived, but ended up on beaches all over the country, then later, the world.

Hohn was a high school English teacher when he first heard about the rubber duck phenomenon. While he had never before worked in the fields of science, oceanography, or environmentalism (nor knew anything about beachcombers), Hohn became obsessed with the string of events that led to the rubber duck spill, as well as the accident’s aftermath.

He writes in both a fiction and non-fiction manner. On the one hand, Hohn explains the trials and tribulations of one wide-eyed explorer of the unknown, “a near-sighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary,” but also examines the intricate details of oceanography, polyethylene (the most commonly used plastic), and other chemicals that have slowly been poisoning the earth’s water supply.

The style and subsequent editing of the book is puzzling, however. In some ways, Hohn transforms an incredibly dry subject (for some) into a thriller, a mystery, and an action-packed drama. But his sentence structure is a bit like Yoda from Star Wars:

“I also liked them because I have since childhood found natural history more enchanting than nature, whatever that was.”

The book itself is also unnecessarily long. Hohn’s discoveries are interesting, and the reader appreciates a quick explanation of the fancy science jargon, but the story feels like Hohn never decided whether to write a book about his life or a book about neat scientific things. There is too much of both.

The quirky one-liners are worth it, though, and Hohn’s story is, of course, extraordinary. Plus, aside from the bizarre sentence structure, the man can definitely write:

“Wildly out of scale and dyed a lurid, maraschino red, the beaver seems altogether out of place in this menagerie, a mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip.”

More than, anything, however, Hohn’s story feels real. On top of the many complications he faced on his journey, Hohn was on the brink of first-time parenthood when he began his research. His struggles with parenting, paired with his fear of sharks and complete submission to the unknown, makes his writing relatable, as well as memorable.

Moby Duck was published on February 28, 2012 by Penguin Books.

Photo credit: www.brainpickings.org