Category Archives: Music

Digging a Deeper Hole

As a caveat to my previous post, which upon re-reading seems pretty thin and basically an excuse to talk about Billy Joel (weird), I do think there are ways of judging, critically, an artist’s overall worth over and above the visceral, first-time-emotional kick (hell, even the cheap emotional kick upon repeated listenings). Thematic heft, complicated, unexpected musical arrangement, even the juxtaposition of of a light thematic motif mixed with heavier musical accomponiment can be proof of a more seriuos intent.

Also, there is the body of work an artist presents. Smokey Robinson is a more profound artist than, say, El Debarge largely due to the volume of good songs produced, even though a toe-to-toe rumble between “Rhythm of the Night” and “Tears of a Clown” may yield a surprising decision. Smokey remained within a certain musical and lyrical tradition, but mined that tradition for all it’s worth, borrowing and achieving a depth that comes through in the songs themselves.

Of course, such considerations can lead a magazine like Rolling Stone to rank verifiable turds like last year’s Springsteen and U2 albums as the top two albums of the year. The flip side, that cooler-than-you pose can make claims just as dubious (TV on the Radio? Animal Collective? Shit, Radiohead since OK Computer?)

I guess I just want to try to figure out how to justify the candy-coated calories. Perhaps the secret lies in basic self-delusion. When Billy Joel comes on, I will tell myself it’s Bruce Springsteen. When I hear Ed Sheeran, it’s now Bruno Mars. Train is still Train; not sure how to deal with that…how about James Bay? James Blunt is now Linda Ronstadt.

Here’s the joke–it all sounds the same. Do what you have to do. I don’t believe that because music moves me too much and too much effort is put into making it move people like me. So I’ll do what I have to so can listen to as much as possible.

Shhh. It sounds the same though…

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I Wish Ed Sheeran was Someone Else, So I could Like his Music (a few words on shallowness)

Let’s start this post with two (or three) marginally unrelated stories.

In 2014 Nick Paumgarten profiled Billy Joel in The New Yorker. It’s a great piece, whether or not you like Billy Joel. It’s a much better piece, if you like Joel however, because if you do not like Billy Joel, odds are you freaking HATE Billy Joel. The piece does a good job of explaining why you might hate him, I think, in that even now he seems so insecure, so aggressive in his insistence on laid back cool, if that makes sense, in projecting the louche old rock star ethos, all the while disputing the claims of alcoholism, the bad behavior. He seems like nothing so much as junior high poseur that tells you all about bagging chicks during spring break (spring break with his folks, of course, because it’s junior high…) but who refuses to take off his underwear when he has to shower in gym class. He’s the rebel who still worries what his mother thinks of him.

He wants to be Neil Young, but is more like Neil Sedaka. He is most of us, in other words.

But most of us do not have thirty-three number one songs. Songs that have led Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau to call him “one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” Songs Bruce Springsteen himself says are “built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”

I don’t really know if Billy Joel wants to be Bruce Springsteen. I am sure, based on the comments’ inherent patronizing tone, that Bruce is happy being the Boss. Perhaps Billy Joel’s fans see them as equivocal. But they are not.

Yesterday I was in the car with my daughter. There was a slow-burn R&B ballad on our local Top 40 station. It sounded good. Good for Top 40. Hell, good for music. Had to be Bruno Mars. Maybe he wrote some bullshit cash-grab love groove for the new Insurgent movie or something. (I hate those movies. I’ve only seen 1/2 of the first. I hate them both. This information is relevant, I promise).

“This is pretty good,” I said.

My daughter was in the passenger seat. “It’s Ed Sheeran.”

We found something else to listen to.

This is a personal problem, I am aware. Billy Joel cannot not be Billy Joel. As much as he really, really wants to (Seriously, has any other major recording artist seemed so uncomfortable with being who he is? Maybe Garth Brooks. It almost feels like there is some sort of Quantum Leap thing going on and it’s actually Scott Bakula’s character inside Billy Joel’s body for most of the clips I’ve seen him in. He seems to always be asserting about how he’s a badass, but his hangdog expression…I can’t…I have to stop…this is another essay).

Ed Sheeran can’t not be Ed Sheeran.

Remember when you first heard “Blurred Lines”? Before the litigation? Before you got the creeps when you realized what it was about? Most importantly, before you realized it was by Robin Fucking Thicke? Don’t you wish you could have that back?

Of course, the enlightened thing to do would be to enjoy the song for what it is, give credit to the creator, and move on with my life. It’s three minutes, right? I often tell my students that life’s too short to feel guilty for what you read and watch. “Guilty Pleasure” is a bullshit dodge designed by hipper-than-thou’s to justify liking Train. It’s the musical equivalent of “hate-watching.” Own it, right?

“Guilty Pleasure” should be a term we apply to child pornography and dealing methamphetamine. It should not be something we apply to something as innocuous as a three-minute song on the radio.

But I am a hypocrite and I not only need to enjoy a song, I need to feel cool while I do it. And Billy Joel, Ed Sheeran, Train, Collective Soul, and James Blunt ( to name a few completely random examples I’ve totally never screamed along with in my car) do not make me feel cool. My wife justifiably accuses me of listening to essentially unlistenable shit as long as it’s by someone deemed artistically important, which is why I will subject myself to a full-length LP of Tom Waits throwing live chickens into a wood chipper before I’ll admit that I cranked “Jesse James” by Cher to full blast in my Kia minivan.

Novelist and Essayist Leslie Jamison wrote a piece on sentimentality: on spotting it, hating it, and avoiding it. Except, in her honest-to-a-fault fashion, she admitted that she could not really discern the manipulation. She did not understand how others, who apparently have a finer and more nuanced emotional instrument, were capable of dismissing some art as meritricious shit and lauding others as an honest emotional investment. Is it irony? Grit? Psychological complexity? What’s the fucking recipe?

And why are we (I) so invested in this idea of artistic authenticity, especially when most of the criticism is just short-sighted, self-deluding, goggled justifications for trying to feel cool? Why con’t I just listen and like?

Because I am pretentious and want to feel better than other people. I want to feel informed. And I’m insecure on how to do that so I swipe great big armloads of hip, critic-flavored rhetorical jabs (multi-influenced, emotionally searing, swagger, Big Star affiliated,etc.) and use them like ninja throwing stars.

And let’s not even get into the fact that the only artists I’ve mentioned (with the possible exception of Cher) are male. So Sad.

And so we return to music. I’m cutting out a lot of the reasons people dismiss musicians, of course: charges of selling out, over-popularity, media saturation, creative switchbacks and ox-bows, general R.-Kelly-Level-whackadoo extracurriculars. I want to focus on the fact that if a song sounds good to my ear holes, and makes me happy, why do I need to vet it like it’s running for office?

Who is this? Who? One Direction? Turn that shit off. (Except, of course, when I’m by myself. Story of my Life.)

 

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Twenty-One 2014 Moments (10 Weeks Late)

I wanted to work up lists for television, film, music and books. But I also wanted to blog this year, and with coaching baseball and moving that didn’t happen, so completing those lists would’ve just cemented how disconnected I was for most of the year. Instead, here are the twenty-one most profound things I’ve seen, heard, or read this year, in no particular order:

1. Ida

2. “Heal” by Strand of Oaks

3. Madison Bumgarner in the MLB Playoffs and World Series

4. Lego Movie

5. “Lost in a Dream” by The War on Drugs

6. Olive Kitteridge on HBO

7. Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mantel

8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9. “The Outsiders” by Eric Church

10. Broadchurch on Netflix

11. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

12. The first hour and forty-five minutes of Django Unchained

13. The Magic Flute by Mozart

14. Jason Isbell

15. Serial and Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcasts

16. Stories of Stefan Zweig

17. Doris Lessing (Specifically The Fifth Child)

18. The Prophet by Michael Koryda

19. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

20. Grandmaster Clash by Seth Stevenson from Slate Magazine

21. Frank Rich’s conversation with Chris Rock

One nice thing about putting this out so late, is I can look at all the award winners and feel unjustifiably pissed-off and maybe a little insecure in my choices. I did not like Foxcatcher, for example. I really, really did not like Birdman, and feel like it is an empty stunt (Mike Myers once said haggis was invented on a dare–Birdman is the haggis of movies). Not sure about the new D’Angelo album.

In 2014, there were a lot of naked emperors. Loads of naked people, as far as I can tell (Boyhood is, at best, Donald-Ducking it).

I have every intention of blogging again. Two or three a week, I hope. I am going to try and keep it focused on something I’ve read, seen, or heard. I might throw in something personal every now and again…

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For What It’s Worth (Belated October 5th Edition)

I’ve been AWOL the past week or so, and my computer was in for repairs, so this is a bit late…

Movies:

A couple classics.  If you have a Blu-Ray player I insist that you find Jaws.  It’s probably the first time I realized how different Blu-Ray looks.  Even my kids noticed and remarked upon the difference.  My five-year-old son says Jaws is his favorite movie now.  Not bad for an almost forty-year old movie.

Born Yesterday: Judy Holliday’s career was truncated, if not destroyed, by the Red Scare.  She isn’t known for much besides this movie, and it’s possible that she couldn’t play anything else, but that was enough, because she created an archetype.  Everyone from Marilyn Monroe to early Julia Roberts is indebted to her performance as a not-as-dumb-as-she looks girlfriend of a magnate in D.C.  William Holden and Broderick Crawford are in the movie too, but you won’t notice them.

Music:

I’ll be quick, because there’s been a bunch.  Mumford and Son’s Babel is good, if predictable, and its strengths are also the harbinger of the band’s limits (quiet-LOUD dynamics, an earnestness that threatens to harden into cant).

Mirage Rock by Band of Horses is a pleasant surprise, if ultimately forgettable.

The new albums by Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective suck, because those bands suck and I hate them and even if I finally liked one of their albums I would never admit it because their earlier work sucks so hard.

Is anyone else awed and possibly dismayed that the two nineties bands that are still seemingly vital (besides Radiohead and The Foo Fighters, I guess) are Green Day and No Doubt?  Did anyone see that coming?

Books:

Find and read the short stories of Brian EvensonFugue State and Windeye, especially.  He’s been compared to Peter Straub in that he is ultimately a writer of fantasy and horror, but I think the comparisons to Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme are more apt.  Funny, very readable, and scary.  All the while the meta-tricks and tautological loop-di-loops are profound.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: One of the things I constantly knock up against in my own writing is the word-count limits imposed by most magazines, whether online or print-based.  It’s frustrating, but whittling down my stories have never failed to make them tighter and better.  It’s obvious from this book that no one is imposing word-limits of Michael Chabon anymore.  When does that happen?  After a Pulitzer?  Anyway, all the eggshells that all of the critics are walking on about this book cannot hide these simple facts: there is no real propulsion driving this novel, there are no real stakes, and, most frustratingly, the combustible style Michael Chabon is known for has been used as a smokescreen for what is, simply, a collection of diffuse, fragmented, not-very-good-ideas.  And here’s the worst part: the style is so in your face, so thick, that it sounds less like Michael Chabon than a bad undergraduate’s fawning impersonation of Michael Chabon.

Television:

Elementary will probably be worth watching, if only for Jonny Lee Miller.  I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, but why not New York City, and Lucy Lui as Watson?  Besides Dracula, Scrooge, and James Bond, Sherlock Holmes is probably the sturdiest character we’ve been given in the past two hundred years, and it’s nice to have himm back in two new incarnations.

Tuesday night on Fox–Ben and Kate, The Mindy Project, New Girl—is funny and makes my week better.

Online:

Librivox is a free service that gets volunteers to read books in the public domain, which I can then download and listen to while I run and clean the house.  I’ve polished off a bunch of Dickens and Hardy, and now I’m listening to Middlemarch.  It’s sketchy sometimes—these are not professional readers, and at times not even native English speakers, and I sometimes I wonder if they are in fact prisoners on some weird work-release program because why would you volunteer to do this?—but it’s free.

Oh, and the Reds lost to the Giants.  I’ll never watch baseball again.  Until next April.

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For What it’s Worth 9/18/12

Wow—I must’ve had either the busiest or laziest week of my life last week because I can’t think of too many recommendations to share.  Let’s call it the busiest and leave it at that.

Movies:

We rented Snow White and Huntsman on Friday but I fell asleep (passed out, which is not the same thing, I’m told) about fifteen minutes in.  We got the BluRay, and it took me a half-hour to figure out how to update the software on the Playstation 3 so it would play.  After that I was exhausted.   I never had to update my VCR.  New tech sucks it.

Way too many easy jokes…

The Cabin in the Woods: Cute premise, fun movie that believes itself to be a little smarter than it actually is.  Richard Jenkins steals the show as one of the office drones/puppet masters.  As a comment on horror and violence in cinema, the film had my attention until the last ten minutes or so.

Carnage: Cute premise, fun movie that believes itself to be a little smarter than it…actually…is.  Oh.  Same diff.  Jodie Foster is histrionic.  John C. Reilly is overmatched.  The timing is stilted and it’s stagy and claustrophobic, and not in the awesome, Roman Polanski’s-early-films-like-Rosemary’s-Baby-or-Repulsion.  That said–and reviewing the previous lines it looks like I hated this film—it has it’s moments.  Christoph Waltz is fine, though he has a bit of trouble with the accent.  Kate Winslet is given a whole lot to do, but not enough of substance with which to flex her muscles.  The ending’s a bit pat. Maybe I did hate this movie…

Also Carnage, but not in the movie

Music:

No new music.  The only chance I had to listen to any thing was when I went shopping with my kids and had my iPod on shuffle.  Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” came on and my kids asked why the Muppet singing the song was so sad.

After that, a new cut by Bob Dylan started playing and they made fun of me for having pirate music on my iPod.  I felt like firing up Tom Waits and Nick Cave for the remainder of the trip, but thought better of it.  Philistines.

Books:

Finished a book of poetry by Forrest Gander called Deeds of Utmost Kindness.  I read ten or twelve books of poems a year.  I can’t remember any of it.  They go through me like lentils.  I’m surprised I remember the title and author.  Sorry, Mr. Gander.  You’re very talented, I suspect.  I am just a moron.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: I have it on good authority (a colleague who spoke with Diaz for all of three minutes) that Junot Diaz is a Class-A asshole.  If his stories are in any way autobiographical, it must be true.  I don’t put much stock in reading an author’s life into her stories, though, if only because I’d hate to piss anyone off with my own.  Stories have to be autobiographical, to a degree, right?  If only emotionally or intellectually or thematically autobiographical?  That said, there’s no need to get all “Dwayne-is-actually-Wayne-and-Stick-Cornhole-is-actually-Dick-Pornpole.” Anyway, the point is, that Diaz writes with electricity.  He manages to combine a Dominican street patois with an earnest, over-intellectual and even geeky joy, all the while telling tales of desperation and violence and sex and especially love in all of it’s spine-curving, head-exploding power.  Definitely the pop culture highlight of my week.

Television:

Wow.  Literally nothing.  Cincinnati Reds games, mostly.  Thirty games over five-hundred.  Keep rolling, Redlegs!

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For What it’s Worth 9/10/12

Pretty busy week last week, so there’s not a whole lot to recommend, but I want to do this every week, so here goes:

 

Music:

 Sun by Cat Power: I wasn’t a huge fan of her Jukebox albums, but I loved The Greatest, and this is a return to form, as far as I can tell.  She reportedly did the whole album solo and played all the instruments as well.

I know she’s had some personal problems, but I feel annoyed that every time she releases an album, the critical reviews always seem to regard it as some personal triumph, as if she’s some helpless, terminally damaged freak who can only get it together every three or four years to put out an album.  I hope it’s annoying to her too.

Tempest by Bob Dylan: Holy shit.  A couple of months ago a writer for The Guardian called out Bruce Springsteen as an artist in decline, as someone who serves less as a vital, contributing presence than as a revered albeit toothless demigod.  The article pissed me off, but I couldn’t argue.  Springsteen has put out one great album over the past decade-and-a-half; however, the songs that make up that one album are spread over five okay ones.  I thought, at the time, that Bob Dylan would be next in line for the same treatment.  His last very good album was Love and Theft, his last great one was Time Out of Mind.  His last album was shit.  My hopes were not high.  I was ready to scream out that the emperor was, at last, buck-ass naked.  Then he dropped The Tempest, his best album since Love and Theft and maybe since Time Out of Mind.

Is he still vital?  I don’t know.  Is this a profound and moving album that I will listen to for the foreseeable future?  Oh yes.

Television:

New TV is beginning soon, but nothing really to report otherwise.  Doctor Who is always worth checking out on BBC America…

Actually, check that—it’s the last season of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on The Travel channel (!), and I initially hesitated to mention this only because at this point, you’ve probably seen an episode (or thirty) and have already made your mind up about the show itself and Bourdain in particular.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been a fan since his book Kitchen Confidential in the late 1990’s, the show is terrific and he basically has my dream job.  If you’re still on the fence, try to find the episode where he goes to the Ozarks, eats squirrel and raccoon, arms wrestles (and loses to) a sixty-five-year-old woman, almost kills critically acclaimed author Daniel Woodrell, and sheepishly explains the best way to prepare duck breast to two burly mallard hunters in Dickies and hooded sweatshirts.  Great stuff.

 

Film:

Certified Copy: Abbas Kiorastami is an Iranian filmmaker whose films are typically love-it-or-hate-it.  I really liked this film, but I’m reticent about recommending it in that it’s still difficult and even boring for stretches.

It concerns a couple who may or may not be in love, who may or may not have just met.  It reminds me of some early films of Antonioni in its execution and disregard for whether you, as a viewer, are entertained.  I typically admire that kind of artistic attitude, though at times his insistence on long stretches of nothing can solidify into a kind of pretentious tic.

The Five Year Engagement: Overlong, and not as funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it has Emily Blunt, which should, at this point, be enough for anyone with two eyes and a heart.

Internet:

Longform.org is a digest of outstanding, longer magazine and newspaper pieces.  This past week, I read an excellent GQ article by Devin Friedman about Rick Ross, a Believer interview with Jonathan Gold (whose food reviews are worth checking out on their own), and a New Yorker article about the new film Cloud Atlas by Alexander Hemon.  Until this point, I relied on Arts and Letters Daily for this kind of thing, so it’s nice to have another option.

 

Books:

I’m plodding through a collection of stories by the canonical Indian author R.K. Narayan (The Grandmother’s Tale).  Every time I feel like chucking it, something in the book charms me and I keep going.  Narayan is considered by many to be a master of the form, and it shows, mostly, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that just as often as I’m interested in the stories, I’m distracted or annoyed by how precious his prose can be.

Enemies, A Love Story by I.B. Singer: Now here’s a short novel, by a famous, Nobel winning author, that won’t put you to sleep.  It concerns a Holocaust survivor, relocated to Coney Island and married to the gentile, Polish woman who kept him safe for three years in her barn during the war.  In addition, he’s conducting an affair with a Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz.  The his wife, long thought dead, shows up in New York.  Complicated, funny, thought-provoking, and nasty.  We often read accounts of the Holocaust, but I rarely, if ever considered the complications that occurred afterwards.  How do you live a moral, sustained life after surviving such an atrocity?  When does life become worth living again?  And how does one re-establish human connections when everything and everyone you depended on is taken away from you?  Finally, this profoundly cynical question: if you are a rat-bastard to those you love, in what way are your sins forgiven and forgotten if you also happen to be victimized by the most horrifying atrocity ever conceived?  Does it make you a better person?  Can it excuse you?  In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Singer writes “I never had the pleasure of being a guest in one of Hitler’s camps…”  A bark of laughter into the void if there ever was one.

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For What it’s Worth (September 4)

A nice long labor day weekend.  We even made it to church.  Here are a couple things to prop you up this week.

Movies:

A Separation: I thought about writing an entire post about this film.  We’ll start with the fact that it’s Iranian, and at times, it’s difficult to suss out the motivations (religious, personal, and otherwise) and bureaucracy the characters sift through to find justice (if that’s what you want to call it).  I hope the general hoopla about this movie is more nuanced than a general, xenophobic surprise that Iranians are like us and not just head-scarved, camel-riding zealotes bent on American amelioration.  The five major characters in this twisty domestic drama, which moves and looks like a thriller, are flawed and heartbreaking.  The subject matter, one could argue, is something found on Lifetime, but handled with the dramatic precision of Greek theatre.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits:  Slightly less serious but just as impressive is the new film from Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away).  Awesome to look at, each frame packed like a Mad Magazine cartoon panel, yet the humor is largely gentle and punning and mildly sardonic—very early Zucker Brothers, at their most random.  I worry that my kids will never fully shake the idea that Charles Darwin was a conniving idiot and Queen Victoria a sociopath, but we don’t live in England, so who cares?

Music:

The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers: Quieter than their previous, I and Love and You, and initially disappointing (where are the whoops and screams?), a second listen revealed the song craft, their strongest yet.  I love this band.

NPR Music App: Lest you worry that I ripped off the Avett Brothers and downloaded the album (Moi?  Non, non, non) before it drops on Sept. 11, let me introduce you to the free app from NPR and my new personal obsession.  The first listen option (currently you can stream the new Cat Power, Stars, Deerhoof, and a collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent, xx) is worth having it on your phone, but the podcasts, specifically All Songs Considered, are just icing.

Sweet Heart, Sweet Light by Spiritualized: I’ve never listened to Spiritualized, but after hearing snippets of songs on—what?–All Songs Considered, I snatched it up.  It’s the kind of album that makes you wonder why you weren’t listening all along.

Random: “I Love It” by Icona Pop (Swedish duo, though the “Swedish” part becomes obvious about two seconds into the song).  “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells (why haven’t I heard more about this group?  “Crimson and Clover”?  “Sweet Cherry Wine”?  Anyone else?), “The House that Heaven Built” by The Japandroids (makes me want to punch a hole in the ceiling of my car when it comes on—why does great music make me want to destroy things?)

Television:

Breaking Bad ended for the year with a good run, though at times I felt like there were some overly convenient twists and turns as the series draws to a close.

Copper: I’ve seen the first three episodes of this drama on BBC America, and though it’s not Deadwood, it’s a rowdy historical series that manages to meld the pleasures of a police procedural (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street) with the grimy “Five Points” period of Civil War New York.  The main kick of the show is the rather jaundiced view that the corruption and loose ethical guidelines of the police force exist because of the entrenched moral depravity of the upper classes, who use the lives and land of immigrants and minorities as there own personal playground.  The show was created by Tom Fontana, who made Homicide and Oz, and though it tries too hard, it’s settling into a groove.

Doctor Who is back!!  It’s kind of a BBC week…

Books:

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper: I finished Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy before starting this, and I worry that the Tropper suffered unnecessarily in the transition.  That said, Tropper writes casual, funny prose and witty dialogue, though the repartee can get overlong and tired.  He’s basically the kind of foul-mouthed, sadsack men’s author, like Nick Hornby or Mordecai Richler or more recently Chad Harbach, who writes books about and for guys but is read predominantly by women because guys don’t read.  It concerns the former drummer of a one-hit wonder, his crappy life and impending death.   The book is funny, though at times a bit too broad, and worth your time, tough it pales in comparison to his previous book, This is Where I Leave You.  Truth be told, you should probably read the Thomas Hardy.  Or About a Boy by Nick Hornby, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, or Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler.  Actually, just read Mordecai Richler—he should be mentioned in the same breath as Philip Roth.

 

Looking Forward to…

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

Mickey Mouse History edited by Mike Wallace

New Fall Television!

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