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books

IMG_1703I CALL IT MY STACK OF SHAME, this teetering pile of half-read and slept-on books by my bedside. Not finishing what I start is a habit I copped writing copy, a job that thrives on quick hits of understanding (both in and out). Now I second-guess the value of depth vs. speed in everything I do. As a result, I know very little about a lot.

But just as I adapt to being a shallow quitter, a new subgenre is rising from the pile—things I really finally finished reading. Here’s what’s moving from my Stack of Shame to the Shelf of Triumph:

Detriot: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff is a hard-living native Detroiter who, after covering war and politics for the New York Times, returns home to sort out the truth from the ruin porn. It’s not pretty: thieving and incompetent public officials, abandoned bodies, soul-crushing factories, and children in a daily life and death struggle. Over two years he takes some lumps, kicks some ass, and wins a little justice for the good people trying not to drown in the muck. Makes me grateful not just for journalists, but for decent public services, a functioning justice system, and an economy that isn’t stuck in reverse.

Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins. I’m a poetry rookie but I know what I like. Robbins mixes cultural arcana high and low with whiplash wordplay to create gems of reference and rhythm. They even rhyme sometimes. One of the book’s jacket blurbs namechecks John Berryman (whose unreadable Dream Songs is on my Stack of Shame), a writer who lived in the house next to mine until his untimely demise. Berryman’s disciple—just as fractured but less esoteric—is more my speed. From the poem Dig Dug:

Hold me closer tiny reindeer. They saw
Oliver Stone distribute juice boxes.
He counts the headlights on the highway:
one if my reptile, two if by foxes.
Slash is both sad and happy for Axl.
The nation’s pets are high on Paxil.

First & Fifteenth by Steve Powers: Powers a/k/a ESPO is a street artist from Philly who adapts the flat aesthetic of sign painting to self-reflection and gritty storytelling. First & Fifteenth is a collection of visual narratives, like a graphic novel but punchier (shallow reader’s note: this one takes about a 1/2 hour to read). See also ESPO’s “Daily Metaltations,” which you can follow on Instagram, graphic anthems of mind over modern grind. There’s kinship here to another one-panel hero, Raymond Pettibon, but Powers favors everyman truths over Pettibon’s mystical ambiguity. “Float like a check, sting like an overdraft.”

Bullet Park and Stories by John Cheever. I wouldn’t care to hang out with Cheever’s characters: bland suburban commuters, alcoholic socialites, indifferent husbands and wives. What I admire is how he writes about them. He’s a lucid, generous God ruling over a bunch of hopeless bores dealing (badly) with depression, alienation, jealousy and class anxiety, and seething beneath proper appearances. Some of it’s dated, sure, but you don’t meet prose craftsmen like him anymore.

North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. This hefty volume gives the play by play of how white people robbed, massacred and eventually evicted the native Sioux and Ojibwa from “our” territory through a combination of ignorance, greed and outright malice. The sordid legacy is still plainly visible today. Like slavery, this is the kind of historic wrong you can never really make right. I swear, my indignation made 1000 pages fly by.

>> WZRD – Live & Learn
>> Ty Segall – Booksmarts

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MY MIND IS UNUSUALLY SERENE LATELY (hardly cause for complaint, except that I blog best under duress). I’m furnishing that surplus mental real estate with reading: most recently a 1000-page novel about proto-scientists in the age of Enlightenment (oof; thanks, Kev!), a gift subscription to the New York Review of Books (best eva, Marc!), and, just this week, the revelatory rock crit manifesto I might have written if I knew 100x more (thanks for getting the hint, sis!).

It’s not just me. Sarah’s mainlining Self Help and alternative health books as Johanna inches toward that moment where she can pick up and read stuff unaided. Betting we’re obsolete by February.

In other timesucks, I’m compiling an unscheduled mixtape for my club, “FOLK-HOP,” a set of alternating rap and folk tunes that’s sure to displease fans of both. I’m also closing shop next week to chill and ski with the in-laws while jumping on all Happy Hour invitations until January.

How much leisure can one man handle? Here, I’ll show you.

Jo and Sarah churn out ultra-vivid monoprints at the Highpoint Center. Mine suffered from a lack of ink and inspiration.

The great-granddaughter with our beloved Nassif Matriarch, still a formidable bridge player at 89.

Lo, Jo, Louis, and Two Dads In Loungewear.

No idea what inspired this, but I’m adopting it as my 2012 mantra.

Paul’s Ai Wei Wei rubylith design, a leftover Make Sh!t project to bookend our first full year.

With no ice or snow, we’re running all over.

Catching yellow-hued views at dusk from the Guthrie.

For months, Sarah’s been saving “special” bottles for kombucha (a more vile beverage I’ve never encountered), only to have every last one freeze and break. Repulsion averted!

A modest wishlist posted to the front door.

Allison, newly 34 with Beef Bourguignon, at her second birthday celebration of the night. Steady there, sister.

A panda inspects the work of beavers on the East Bank of the Mississippi River.

I sit here so contentedly.

>> Redd Kross – Look On Up At the Bottom
>> Dylan – Watching the River Flow

NOTIONS I CLING TO IN SPITE OF THE EVIDENCE: That bureaucratic policies are rational and will be fairly applied (no Kindergarten can make room for my amazing kid? Lousy luck, I guess). That problems tend to solve themselves (not the case with dental work and plumbing, turns out). And that things eventually get back to normal.

I use this one as an excuse for short-sightedness as I wait for the return of some phantom equilibrium. But from when? 2002? There are no summer breaks, no going home to get yourself right; this wave is forever cresting. Devise and execute all at once. And savor fleeting forms of normal.

St. Paul’s University Avenue is completely destroyed as a new LRT line connects the downtowns. Getting psyched about urban planning this big requires extreme imagination.

Our friend Paula McCartney is exhibiting her latest photographs at the MIA, of ice, snow, and things that look like ice and snow.

This poor palomino needs to be put down (at Racho Allegre in Des Moines).

The natty MC of our Easter morning egg hunt.

Before the big kids left the little girls in a cloud of dust and pastel shells.

Hidden, found and rehidden.

Sudden hometown reunion (under a bridge, with beer, classic DsM). Steve Davis of Portland, left, happened to be in town doing something fairly awesome: a roadtrip with his dad to Harper’s Ferry, WV, following the path of the abolitionist John Brown before his historic flame out that sparked the Civil War (his passion for the guy is contagious, and I’m now slogging through a 600-page bio). Bryan Guise of Des Moines, right, is one of the world’s most prolific sculptors of bobbleheads. His empire has fallen on hard times, but it was gratifying to to see him back in circulation and talking about new creative ventures (and some parallel realities I couldn’t quite grasp).

Johanna explores walk-through art at the Walker’s “Spectacular of Vernacular.

The really excellent Domestic House Cats at the Triple Rock, a harmony duet that’s part Everly Brothers, part AM schmaltz pop.

At the hidden-in-plain-sight Coldwater Springs for Mother’s Day, an abandoned mining operation and sacred Native place. Sarah’s leading an environmental art project with high schoolers here this week.

We came for the nature, but stayed for the art.

What you miss when you don’t read the local paper.

>> Domestic House Cats – Bikini Gurl
>> Sun City Girls – Esoterica Of Abyssynia

SAN JUAN-BOUND IN 6 HOURS. BAM! We even get the satisfaction of leaving in a snowstorm. I barely jammed the cars into our ice-choked alley spot; we will avoid the season’s 8th snow emergency but may be clipped by a garbage truck. Jo’s down in Des Moines for a week with her grandma, including tours of a sticker factory and the A.E. Dairy. She probably thinks she got the better vacation.

Sarah’s completing her epic packing routine. I’m stress-testing my laptop bag with art supplies, SPF 110, and my backlog of half-read books.

From last Thursday, a linocut of Justin Bieber in progress. I have no special interest in The Bieb, but was inspired by the loving attention of this artist. The final design is very swamp monster, but it captures some of his essential creepiness. Paul made a cool cut of his dog.

We’d never done this with sleds before, but we’re bound to repeat it.

And a turntable reenactment to send us out. Hasta luego!

>> Twin Sister – All Around And Away We Go
>> X – We’re Having Much More Fun
>> Cambodian outro

I CHECKED OUT EARLY this afternoon to ski Hiawatha golf course (the South High Nordic team had the same idea) and do odd errands: get Jo at daycare, notarize an affidavit for a client (I do what I say I do, I swear), and drop by the former Amazon Bookstore on Chicago Ave to thumb their unusual second-hand assortment. Alone in their basement, I entered a hyper-niche publishing time warp.

I passed on all but the Minneapolis-St. Paul Epicure (1981, photocopied menus of long defunct restaurants) and a 1976 Doonesbury collection. Cat Dependent No More! is a self-help parody, but even as a “humor” title it struck me as the saddest book of all time.

>> Spaceheads – Angel Station

SPECIAL SCREENINGS OF HITCHCOCK are happening within walking distance, at the strange new Trylon microcinema and the Riverview, our ‘hood’s best bragging right. I’m a Hitch-lover, but I underestimated the charge of seeing “The Birds” in a crowded house—with buffs hooting and laughing beyond usual Minnesota decorum.

I found details I’d missed: Tippi Hedron’s green suit that stays unruffled through a half-dozen attacks, only to be pecked to shreds at the end (along with her steely demeanor); Suzanne Pleshette’s brooding, loser-ish existence that (I see now) marks her as a casualty even before the birds finish her off.

It even felt topical. At the peak of the berserk attacks, townsfolk are left wondering if they themselves are to blame for nature turning on them. Nearly 50 years later, there can be no doubt.

– + – + – + –
Nick Reding’s “Methland” explains the rural methamphetamine epidemic in terms of disappearing industrial jobs, shrinking wages, and an abundance of fertilizer, which contains a key ingredient for the drug’s production. Congress had a chance to shut down the source of ephedrine (another main ingredient) in 1985 and nip the problem in the bud. Instead they caved to the pharmaceutical lobby who cashed in on those who would crush up and cook the pills into a drug much more powerful and addictive than crack.

I have family in the immediate vicinity of Oelwein, Iowa, the town the book examines, and I live only 150 miles away. Yet I have no reference point for the “delusional violence, morbid depravity, extreme sexual perversion and almost otherworldly, hallucinogenic dimension of evil” meth has wrought in Reding’s description. Since reading “Methland”, I’m attributing people’s odd behavior to the drug: the woman clearly shoplifting at Walgreen’s who, when stopped for her receipt, abruptly hands her “purchase” to the cashier saying “just hold this while I have a cigarette”; The girl behind me at the coffee shop with the awful scabs on her face who struggled to pull her dollar out of her pocket.

Of course, you don’t know who’s a tweaker, who’s sick or who’s just unlucky (or maybe all three). It’s reassuring to think addiction only happens to people who’ve made lousy choices—people we’re separated from by good sense and propriety. But when it wrecks a whole region, we all share in the moral failing. That a drug can erode the humanity of so many people, families and communities and yet be invisible to those living comfortably nearby deepens the tragedy.