Top 10 Books of 2008

4 01 2009

This was a big year for me. I baked my first Shrinky Dink, had my first SnoBall, made my first vegan cashew cheese, AND graduated from college with a Bachelor’s in English. That last one makes me feel pretty smug. Really, though, having a fresh new Bachelor’s in English means just two things: 1. I like to read; and 2. I have spent four years reading exclusively “classics” and “literature” and books which come with eight or more Cambridge or Norton or Otherwise Companions.

So with my graduation came a veritable deluge of reading-for-fun, which was a little like a doughnut-pizza-Doritos binge after ten years of following a vegan diet (I actually know what that feels like, too, so maybe my next list should be “Top 10 Most Indulgent Foods To Eat If You Have Been a Vegan For A Decade And Are Taking A Day Off”). It’s been all guilty pleasure lit., too: graphic novels, short stories, poetry, McSweeney’s releases, etc. I usually picked up tips from The New York Review of Books or the round-up section of The Week, so all my reads were, for the first time in my life, brand-spanking-new publications. And so, also for the first time in my life, I feel qualified to write a Top 10 Books list.

A brief note: There are no non-fiction works on this list. That’s not for lack of good publications this year (Michael Pollan wrote another stunner, and Barton Gellman’s portrait of Dick Chaney in the form of Angler is impossible to put down), but for the simple fact that I tend to read non-fiction books with a decidedly liberal slant, and I have difficulty deciding whether I like them because they’re brilliant or because they brilliantly propagandize. So instead of really thinking that through, I omitted nonfiction from my list (almost) completely (see Number 6).

All the titles link to an page where you can buy the books. And you absolutely should. Reading for fun is the most wonderful getaway in the world. Even if it does make you appear slightly anti-social.

10. Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball: This book follows the popular scrapbook style of novel-writing that appeals to the twentysomething New York writing set. The idea in this emerging genre is that you’re supposed to figure out the “plot” of the book about three quarters of the way through, after navigating yourself through all kinds of literary flotsam and jetsam, like you’re reading some kind of modern epistolary-fiction-poetry-hybrid genre. But “Dear Everybody” succeeds because Kimball doesn’t take too long, and leaves enticing clues throughout his work that push you to read emphatically. This book is not a particularly rewarding read (the end is sad and doesn’t live up to the rest of the novel), but it’s the most addictive one I read all year. And yes, I did read “Twilight.”

9. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: This is a complicated, full, and imperfect book, and it is not Erdrich’s best work, but it’s one of the most stunning pieces to emerge from 2008. The story spans three generations, and unravels a century-old mystery, which plays itself out through rich and diverse characters on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in the late sixties. Eve, the main character, is believably introspective and tough; beautifully obsessed with stories. The novel plays out a gorgeous if unsurprising symmetry, and leaves you feeling like you’ve gone on a journey — a quality I search for while reading.

8. The Umbrella Academy: Volume I by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba: It wasn’t the best year for graphic novels. Although I read every “Scott Pilgrim” volume this year, 2008 lacked a new release. “Y: The Last Man” had a new volume, but I was unimpressed. So maybe it’s sad that the lead singer of My Chemical Romance is an author who actually made my year-end list. But this book was fun and refreshing — it reminded me of “Cassanova Quinn” and at times “Fables.” The premise — that 47 babies were spontaneously born with magical gifts that would help them to one day save the world — seems to be borrowed from Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” but the art and occasionally-breathtaking wit saves the book from being boring or redundant. Honestly, I think Way missed his calling by ever joining a band. He is obviously graphic novelist material, and I’m sold.

7. Free-Range Chickens by Simon Rich: This collection of short stories and vignettes by former Harvard Lampoon editor Simon Rich is simultaneously delightful and frustrating. They’re short but somehow perfect; honest and funny for their youthfulness and simplicity. I bought this book and read it on one sitting — on the bus, no less (yes, it’s that short). I then promptly mailed it to my improv actor and sometimes-playwright best friend with a note that said something like, “Can you believe this guy makes thousands of dollars writing shit like this? You could have easily written this!” But that’s what’s so intoxicating about Rich’s work (and his debut novel from last year, “Ant Farm,” is no exception): he makes you feel like you’re in on his jokes; like he’s your best friend and he wrote the book just for you and your unique sense of humor. I guess that’s how you get a job writing for The New Yorker and Saturday Night Live.

6. State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: You have to give these guys credit: “State by State” was a really, really good idea. Weiland and Wilsey corralled a bunch of up-and-coming and full-fledged-famous writers and asked them to each write a piece on a United State. Indie Rennaissance man and Chicago native Dave Eggars penned a vignette for Illinois, the hilarious “Hey-Aren’t-You-The-PC-Guy-In-The-Mac-Commercials?” humor writer John Hodgmen crafted an unconventional piece for Massachussetts, and of course they got Jonathan Franzen to write for New York. But most exciting here are new writers who have fresh, understated voices and new things to say like Jacki Byden and Daphne Beal. And the portrait painted here is almost as diverse and interesting as the country which inspired it.

5. 2666 by Roberto Belano: Not putting this book on a year-end list of books would be like putting together a Best Albums of 2008 list without including TV on the Radio or Deerhunter. It’s an all-out masterpiece. It’s erratic and frustrating and makes you feel sometimes like you’re reading “Ulysses,” sometimes like you’re reading Proust, and always like you’re reading something so good and bound-to-be-classic that will be on college reading lists in a matter of semesters. Before you dive into this uncategorizable book (arguably centering around a horrific series of unsolved murders in Mexico), you should know this: It’s long. It’s almost 1000 pages. And some have argued that it’s not finished, as Belano died in 2003 before this book would ever see the light of the press room. But all of that brings out the brilliance of the diamonds in its rough, with breathtaking pictures of death which may defy anything that has come before them.

4. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: I want to be Sloane Crosley. She’s written a book that all post-collegiate female writers vainly wish they could write — a book of short memoirs which SHOULD be masturbatory and uninteresting by nature of the genre, but is instead completely funny, compelling and readable. Crosley tickles in a David Sedaris vein, but with her dry wit and unapologetic familial anecdotes comes a humanness and strength which really drives the series. She’s unflinching in ways we’ve all seen before, but her uniqueness comes from an honesty in her writing which is deeper than a mere desire to entertain.

3. Vacation by Deb Olin UnFerth: A triumph in the new-school hodgepodge genre of fiction described above, “Vacation” is a delightfully raw mystery which unravels quietly and neatly, and resolves itself with heartbreaking finality. The characters in this novel are quirkier than ought to be believable, and yet you sympathize with them and share their longings and impulses. The landscapes are sculpted from parts of the world we know must exist, but they still feel dreamlike and atmospheric. And there’s something comical in it too, although you can’t put your finger on it, as if the unending tragedy of life is inherently funny — if only because it is inevitable and humor makes it all less terrifying.

2. In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld: I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not a trendy book. It’s lovingly crafted around the field notebooks of eccentric birders, and builds familiar but distant relationships between husband and wife, mother and daughter, humans and nature. In the end, the triumph here is the intricate details woven between the field notebooks and the underlying implications about human relationships, understated with themes of family, love, and death. I recommend it to those who were disappointed by Mary Oliver’s latest book, or to anyone who finds herself happiest reading essays by Emerson.

1. Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly: When I picked this graphic novel up at Excalibur, I wasn’t really expecting all that much. I find many releases by Oni press hit-or-miss, but this looked beautiful and new, so I gave it a look. I was so pleasantly surprised by its understatedness; its return to the simplicity and artistic intricacy of the indie graphic novels I first fell in love with. It’s the story of a girl, Megan, who sets out from Portland to explore the country (and, presumably, find herself). She’s a good character for a graphic novel like this — a misfit, but decidedly likable and adaptable; adorably flawed and desperately searching. The series (because “Local” is, at its heart,  a series) is well-researched (I think the back of the book describes it as being “painstakingly” researched), with stories which gently rub up against their landscapes in American cities created with scientific accuracy. And I must say: the art is breathtaking. Really. It really is a must-read for the graphic novel connissuer, or anyone who is feeling a little lost in life.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

28 12 2008

After a WHOLE YEAR of deliberation, I bring you my decisive Top Ten Albums of 2008. I think. Maybe I shouldn’t be so decisive, because I’ve revised this about 15,000 times in the last two weeks. Let me just say this: It was a GOOD year for music. Things started to get really interesting in my two current favorite genres of music: hip-hop and Swedish pop.

Two notes:

1. Spin had a really interesting article (I know, I know: I shouldn’t admit that I read Spin. But I do. I read Spin and I love reading Spin. So whatever, I’m embracing it, let’s move on) about the current state of hip-hop in a world where buying a sample can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — on in other words, the entire budget of most (even many mainstream) hip-hop albums. So as a result, hip-hop takes less from its hey-day of adeptly mixing samples and rapping over them, and has evolved into a more “street” version of pop music. The result, I think, is really interesting, and I’m crazy about it: Ne-Yo, Beyonce, Ludicris, Jennifer Hudson and T-Pain all released great records this year, none of which fit the customary hip-hop model. On the flip-side, sample-happy Greg Gillis also put out another fucking awesome record this year, in the form of pay-what-you-will, so-infectious-its-masturbatory “Feed The Animals,” which alternately reinvents the genre. But none of those records made my list.

2. I think I might be a lesbian. I have such a freaking hard-on for female vocalists that it’s out of control. And I know it’s not really healthy and that I don’t really look at albums objectively because when a chick is singing I just like it infinitely better. I give you this caveat because my list is composed of 50 percent female vocalists, but the year-end list in my HEART would probably be more like 90 percent. So honorable mentions to Santogold’s self-titled (I listened to this on repeat for months while making bird collages), Kid Sister’s in-fucking-credible “Dream Date,” Love Is All’s “A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night” (for the Swedish angsty teenager inside of me), Estelle’s “Shine” (shameless Britpop), and Hello Saferide’s imperfectly beautiful “More Modern Short Stories From…” Cheers, ladies.


10. Kanye West – “808’s and Heartbreak”: Deeply wonderful for everything it is. I have been listening to this exclusively for the last few weeks… it’s the perfect break-up album (well, no. Kelly Clarkson’s Great Hits is the perfect break-up album. But this is the perfect break-up album for people who have pride). It’s weirdly upbeat and catchy; it’s meticulous and experimental and it works. Better than “Graduation,” which topped my list last year. I love that Kanye has eschewed this idea that he needs street cred in favor of the reality that he is the best fucking producer out there.

MP3: Kanye West – Paranoid

9. Ladyhawke – “Ladyhawke”: My friend Kim and I used to make these amazing dance mixes to dance to for an entire hour on Friday nights. The music — mostly Blondie, CSS, and Ladytron — was good enough that we didn’t need company or to be drunk; we just danced our brains out. If this album had existed when we used to do that, we wouldn’t have to make mixes; we could just dance to this all the way through. Every single track is fucking hit.

Mp3: Ladyhawke – Paris Is Burning

8. She & Him – “Volume 1”: It is not fair to the world that I love Zoey Deschanel as much as I do, because I know that my love for her and her little drippy outfits and her big deer eyes skews my judgement on her musical ability. Still, listening to this album makes me feel like it’s summer and I’m in high school and I’m reading Virginia Woolf for the first time and eating slow-churned ice cream. The cover of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is hypnotic, and a handful of the other ballads are impossibly heart-breaking in all the right ways. I listened to this too much last year for it to not make my list.

MP3: She & Him – Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

7. T.I. – “Paper Trail”: I am ready to say it: “Whatever You Like” is my favorite track of 2008. I just couldn’t overplay it. I drove around SEARCHING for it on the radio. If it came on just as I was pulling up to my house, I would sit in front of my house until it ended. Now, really, this is just a song about a glorified hooker. And to me, that makes it all the more endearing. Add to that the productive feat that is “Swagga Like Us,” the underrated “On Top of The World,” and the this-song-is-stuck-in-my-head-FOREVER song of the year that is “Live Ya Life,” and you have an album that competes pretty seriously with “Tha Carter III” for album with the most awesome and awesomely overplayed singles of the year.

MP3: T.I. – “Whatever You Like”

6. Los Campesinos! – “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”: It must be cool to be as prolific as Los Campesinos!. I was still spinning “Hold On Now, Youngsters” (which came out in February) when I was literally blown away by the British band’s November effort. It’s raw and bratty and upbeat but totally depressing at the same time. The haste with which this album was released translates into a beautiful, messy urgency, fueling many late-night painting sessions and cigarettes out on the roof. Also, there is a glockenspiel in this band. And it is played BEAUTIFULLY.

MP3: Los Campesinos! – Miserabilia

5. Why? – “Alopecia”: In many ways, “Alopecia” is a perfect album. The only thing is, Why? has this tendency to make perfect albums, so the surprise element is lacking here. See, I didn’t sit down and listen to this album and think, “HOLY SHIT! This album is FUCKING TIGHT!” I sat down and listened to it and thought, “Surprise, surprise: Why?’s latest is fucking tight.” It’s a lyrical masterpiece (as usual), it’s eclectic as ever, it transitions flawlessly between my I-hate-being-single lonely car rides and my I-am-so-happy-to-be-alive morning runs. More than anything, this album is always going to remind me of the happiest time of life — last spring in Walla Walla, perched on the end and the beginning of everything. The first half of the album stands out to me as everything a record could possibly hope to be. I just don’t understand why Why? lacks the kind of international fanaticism it ultimately deserves.

MP3: Why? – These Few Presidents

4. Lykke Li – Youth Novels: This is one of those records that is more like a painting to me than a collection of songs. I prefer to listen to it all the way through, maybe while on the plane or driving to Baton Rouge in my car. It has the ebb and flow of a meticulously-crafted mix CD, setting you up to feel AWESOME and then ten seconds later fall apart in a fit of tears. Gorgeous reinterpretations of jazz and synth and pop… it’s really just a fucking masterpiece. When I first heard this I thought to myself, “This could lend itself to some BOMB-ASS remixes.” Lo and behold…

MP3: Lykke Li – Dance Dance Dance

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science: Here is the truth about me and TV on the Radio: I don’t really like TV on the Radio. Or rather, I didn’t used to much care for them. It was one of those things where I respected the band (err, I respected people who loved the band), but like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, I’d just put on their records when someone really hip was over in order to earn some cool points. And then “Dear Science” came out and I didn’t listen to it. I read good review after good review and I didn’t listen to it and I didn’t listen to it. Until finally, on a total whim, I bought it from a record store in New Orleans that wasn’t selling anything else I particularly wanted to listen to. I put it in my DiscMan (yes, I still have a DiscMan) AND MY HEAD EXPLODED. I have no idea what kind of deal TV on the Radio had to make with devil in order to create a record that catered to every possible musical impulse a human being might have, but THANK GOD THEY DID. The best surprise on the album is “Family Tree” — the most perfect rainy day song ever written. “Stork & Owl” is likewise beautiful and sad, while “Halfway Home” can only be described as a fusion of awesome and awesomer.

MP3: TV on the Radio – Crying

2. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – We Brave Bee Stings and All: I picked up a copy of this haphazardly at the recommendation of Andrew Hall (a musical guru of sorts), and was instantly in love. I excommunicated every music crush I was currently juggling and gave all my heart to Thao Ngyuen, the talented frontwoman of this deeply underrated group. My favorite track on the album is the little-played “Travel” (I actually made a thrown-together YouTube project around it), for its perfect simplicity and succinctness. But the whole thing is wonderful, fun, and leagues ahead of Thao’s (also underrated) solo effort from x years ago.

MP3: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – Bag of Hammers

1. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III: For me, it’s personal. I am personally pretty in debt to Lil’ Wayne. He has earned me a lot of points with my New Orleans students, who love him the way I loved the Spice Girls in the 7th grade. Only they love him MORE. They have him tattooed on their bodies. And it’s every single student — male, female, uptown, downtown, fat, thin, whatever. And they can all sing every single song from this album. I have played this more times than probably any other single record in my personal history. For me, none of it has ever lost its luster. What I really realized about this record when I moved to New Orleans was how perfectly it reflects the Dirty Coast culture. It’s very real. Really breathes new life into a record that could have gone stale in August.

MP3: Lil’ Wayne – Mr. Carter

race race

22 11 2008

A national poll taken last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe that race relations will improve with Obama in office. And I don’t blame this majority for their optimism: after all, didn’t you see all those people — black and white alike — crying their eyes out in Grant Park on November 4th? Didn’t you read all those heartening quotes from the little old ladies who never thought they would see the day? At last, the Constitution has been ratified, more than a century after the fact. At last, we are learning the true meaning of equal rights.

I’m among those pessimistic liberals who sees Obama’s election as symbolic more than anything else. This is an unpopular camp to be in these days, at least in my circle. My friends, students, and family members alike have told me to give the man a chance. He really might be the change we can believe in. Well, I’m certainly glad about the victory — elated, even. And I don’t think there’s anything all that WRONG with electing a symbol. He’s qualified, he’s articulate, he evokes the kind of hero-worship celebrity that the American people hunger for. And more than anything, I hope he will inspire people. I hope he will drive people to commit acts of sacrifice and goodness that stretch beyond their own lives. In that way, I think he could significantly change the world.

But will Obama improve race relations? That’s an interesting question.

I remember the worry that surrounded certain black activists during the election season. They were scared that if Obama was elected, white people would say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve evolved to be a truly colorblind society.” And no one is saying that outright, but you can tell that people are feeling it. People are letting their guard down a little bit.

It’s not just white people. My (all African-American) students have been spending the last three weeks saying, “I don’t have to do what you say anymore; I’ve got a black man as my president.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the racism in the education system is about the fact that they are often 20 years old and for some reason cannot read on a first grade level. Is Obama’s presidency magically going to fix that? Of course not.

And it’s interesting. We hear all these stories about grown black men moved to tears over the election, and they make us feel good, we understand them, they give us hope. But we seem to pass over the deep red items that seem like they should have come from a newspaper in the early 1900s: The second graders on a school bus in Boise, Idaho who were heard chanting “Assassinate Obama” over and over again; or the African-American church in Massachusetts that was burned down hours after Obama’s election.

In fact, worldwide, race-based threats and incidents have skyrocketed since the United States’ 44th president was announced. As reported in an article in the Times of London U.K.:

The phenomenon appears to be at its most intense in the Southern states, where opposition to Obama is at its highest and where reports of hate crimes were emerging even before the election. Incidents involving adults, college students and even schoolchildren have dampened the early post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, with some African American residents reporting an atmosphere of fear and inter-community tension.

But for me, the most frustrating story I’ve read was in the Times Picayune. It was nothing all that sensational or outwardly terrible. There are always going to be the ratty, nasty few who burn churches or hit people with bats; luckily, they are everywhere within the minority. I mean, the people who reported the story about the children chanting “Assassinate Obama” voted for McCain. Generally, we can tell right from wrong.

But in St. Tammany Parish, a small, mostly-white parish outside New Orleans (76 percent of the population here voted for McCain, and 13 percent of the demographic is African-American), frustrated teachers banned student from talking about the election. As the story reports:

In some cases, students said they were threatened with punishment if they talked about the election.

“She said that if we did talk about (the election) she’d write us up,” 14 year-old Briana Seals, who is black, said of a teacher at Slidell Junior High School.

In Covington, parent Dominique Elzy, who is black, said she complained to the principal at E.E. Lyon Elementary School after her 7-year-old son told her that he was made to stand along the playground wall after he shouted, “Obama won!” during recess.

I know it’s a small thing. But this is the kind of small thing that bothers me the most. Public school should be a place where students begin to understand the world around them. The students at my school should start to understand what it is that a president does, and the students in St. Tammany should be allowed to talk freely about what is going on in the world. I don’t care if discussions like these might make some people upset. That’s what this country is all about, after all: we talk about our differences, we discuss our options, we give each other the freedom to believe what we believe.

Places in this country that are stubbornly conservative have stayed stubbornly conservative, despite the overwhelming shift to the left sparked by this election. I think we ought to be wary of celebrating too soon. It is desperately important that we continue discussions on race, class, politics, what is going on in the world. This country is still so young, and it is going to take a long time to get to reach some kind of nationwide understanding as to what it all means.

I was pleased to hear Cornel West on Democracy Now last week talking on this issue in particular. On a the new presidential elect he had this to say:

Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. …But can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.

Seconded. I am interested in the forward motion of this country. I want the newspaper to make me happy. I want to see our school systems truly integrated, I want to see our laws fairly enforced, I want to see children whose opinions have stretched to outgrow the opinions of their parents. That’s the future of America. That’s what I have faith in.

prospect 1

2 11 2008

Yesterday New Orleans unveiled what might be the most amazing art exhibit the United States has ever seen. I know that I’m a bit young and naive to be making this statement, and I’m not even that immersed in the art community. I’m one of those art-posers, you know? I have some art books; I once dated an art major; I like to go to museums casually, so on and so forth; but I don’t subscribe to CMYK Magazine and I have never paid thousands of dollars for a tiny little thing in oil. But I stand by my statement, as enormous as it may seem.

Prospect.1 is a biennial. If you have never heard of an art biennial before, that’s probably because the United States has never really had one — at least, not one like this. A biennial, of course, is any event which is held every two years. So the art exhibit — billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever in the U.S. — will only gain strength in the future.

The map of the event in of itself is amazing. It’s huge. You look at it and you think, “This city is big. And there is art all over it.

In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” exhibition curator Dan Cameron said that he was disappointed with the way visual artists responded to Hurricane Katrina and he wanted to do something about it. Musicians, writers, filmmakers, poets — everyone, it seemed, but visual artists — responded in some way to the devastation of the storm. So Cameron sought to change all of that in a big way, and Prospect.1 was born. Two years in the making, the exhibition brings together work by more than 80 artists from around the world (including dozens of local creators) to over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space all over the city.

Mostly, though, the work is in the French Quarter (taking over the entire Lousiana Museum at the Mint Building, the Contemporary Arts Center, and a huge chunk of the NOMA), and the Lower Ninth Ward.

Everything about the exhibition is fascinating, from Cameron’s vision to the stories of the artists to the individual stories of the works on display. But what struck me about Prospect 1 more than anything else was how deeply unpretentious it was. The work is painstakingly created; it is meticulous and time- and labor-intensive. The themes are all there as you would expect them to be: the corruption of the government, the horror of poverty, the unseen faces of crime, the lost voices of the dead, the tremendous power of nature, the depth of the human heart, etc. etc. etc. But it is all done with an air of selflessness. It is all done without the intention of achieving greatness, but of honoring something deep and solemn. As Cameron put it in an interview with The New York Times:

“It is American, but it’s no longer what we think of as American — it’s drop what you’re doing and go do what your neighbor’s doing.”

In other words, this is the kind of art you can bring your kid to, or your grandmother, or that guy who thinks Picasso and Pissarro are the same person. This is the kind of art that brings people together. It is a little like going to church, but somehow friendlier, and more holy.

That’s why I can say that this is the greatest art exhibit ever to hit the United States. It’s conceptually, contextually, and craftily brilliant.

I thought about writing about the individual works which reached me most deeply, but I realized that would be beyond the point. Prospect.1 is a single work more than it is anything else, and it reminds you why we create in the first place: to explain in some way, shape or form our own humanity.

old news

18 10 2008

On Xark! this week, eloquent media blogger Dan wrote what I think is the best article yet as to why the business of metro newspaperin’ is soon to be obsolete.

I remember attending convention after convention in the wake of the brand new brand of journalism: The Weblog. Frantic press junkies asked the same question over and over again: will The Newspaper as we know it die?

At the time, the answer was a resounding no. Popular politics blogs like The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post didn’t give readers everything they wanted, said experts, and besides, what can replace the feeling of holding a newspaper in your hands?

But they were wrong, and the newspaper is today being all-out slaughtered by online media. At first, I was grief-stricken over this reality, as I’m that staunch subscriber who won’t give up her morning-paper-and-a-cup-of-coffee routine without at least a small fight. But it didn’t take long before I, too, saw the potential in the reinvention of news media as a powerful online force which could provide accessibility to more people, and painstakingly updated to-the-minute briefs on What’s Happening Now., Homepage to so many of us, is a perfect example. The New York Times has truly perfected what it means for a newspaper to make the trek from tangible to technical, and for that they deserve all the credit in the world.

But Dan is right: almost everyone else has failed. And when Spokane’s The Spokesman Review announced they would shave off 27 jobs last week, it was only more concrete evidence of the start of a mass extinction that began a few years ago.

The points I particularly liked in Dan’s article are these:

Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants. The newspaper dilemma: Change the product in hopes of attracting new readers and you piss off your loyal core. Do nothing and you’ll watch your circulation drop every day on the obituary page. All too often, newspaper management responds by promoting bizarre changes that don’t attract new customers and alienate existing ones.

It should be simple: Keep your printed paper in low circulation and let it remain a classic broadside with all the expected sections. Then get someone young and hip to design a Web site that combines the simplicity of Apple or Clinique (lots of black-on-white, sans serif, spaced out founds) with the tech-savvy of Slate or Gawker. But noooo.

No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway (Hey news executives! Try this newsroom pop quiz: Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they’re doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link. If most can’t, you’re not spending enough on training. If anyone in your management team can’t, you’ve got a crisis). It’s also a sign of a dirty little secret: Many papers gave up on staff development several rounds of budget cuts ago.

At the two metro papers I worked at, I was never trained at all. In fact, my Adobe “expertise” and knowledge of this cryptic CSS Code we hear so much about was treated like a godly gift.

Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise (programmers, database/mashup designers, XHTML/CSS coders, video editors, Flash animators, graphic communicators, etc) to constitute a viable tech infrastructure. Instead, most newspaper payrolls are bloated with pluralities of resentful Luddites who struggle with the complexities of e-mail.

See above.

Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse — the essential element of social currency — takes place on the Web. Print (and televised) political coverage is now but a pale shadow of the real action online.

During the presidential debates I was wired into six separate political blogs who were each live-blogging the event as it went. By the time the editorials and newspaper articles came out the next day it all felt redundant. So instead of finding new angles (or, I don’t know, live-blogging on their own news sites), everyone decided to research Joe the Plumber.

Newspaper companies hate modern journalism. Yes, that’s an enormously over-broad tarbrush, but this is a message I want to deliver via 2×4: Newspapers companies will not survive the transition to the multimedia future so long as the people within those companies oppose the rules, conventions and culture of that future. You’ll never successfully reinvent your company if you’re punishing the innovators, killing the messengers, rewarding the political infighters and sneering down your noses at the “pajamas-clad rabble” you blame for your troubles.

Thanks for calling it out, Dan. I agree whole-heartedly.

The one thing I disagree with Dan about is that I think that newspapers tend to understand that this Web transition is happening, but they don’t really know what to do about it. New Orleans, for instance, has a deeply relevant (and comparatively successful) local paper. It’s a money-maker because New Orleans has such unique and pertinent local news that most locals can’t get all their information from the national dailies. And yet The Times Picayune, for all it has going for it, doesn’t have its own Web site. They think it’s trendier and hipper to combine their Web news with (terribly difficult to navigate and visually unstimulating) because it appeals to the U.S.A. Today FULL COLOR CUT-OUTS! sensibility. It appears to be flashy and all-encompassing, but the site is truly just a sad reflection of how an out-of-touch forty-something with cursory HTML skills perceives the MySpace generation.

And The Times Picayune isn’t the only paper who does it. My home newspaper, The Oregonian (which has been drastically losing revenue for years) links its readers to Boooo.

I don’t think adults realize that the Web can be a classy place. It doesn’t have to be garish or awkward and overachieving. It can give us information without blinking avatars or colored hyperlinks. Successful news blogs today are just as careful with their design (if not more so) than the most award-winning works in print journalism have ever been.

The danger in letting the metro newspaper die is that such a massacre will allow the issues of accountability and objectivity to become relatively irrelevant. Fact-checking will become an afterthought at best, and reliable sources will grow more and more questionable. We need good, solid news groups to ensure that journalism remains fair and balanced; if the twenty-somethings with neon blogs earn more readership than, say, the Seattle Times, we will all be at risk of turning into the blind leading the blind off cliffs of untruth.

missing in action

28 03 2008

I kind of dropped the ball last week, and I’m sorry. There are many perfectly good reasons for it, though, and I thought I might detail them for you so you can feel like you’re more involved in my life.

My life mentor, Salim Muwakkil, came to speak at Whitman this week, which was a big deal for me. Sometimes I wonder if I have opinions of my own or if I just steal all of my ideas from Salim’s columns. Here are a few of my favorites:

+ Nas: Whose Word Is This?: I think the best articles Salim writes are about hip-hop. Here, he writes about Nas’s crusade to reclaim the n-word, which Salim backs up:

Those who use the word with malicious intent may still be able to inflict pain, but they are brandishing a weakening weapon. The word is being so relentlessly denuded it may one day be effectively defused. Nas’ album continues that process.

+ Throwing Away the Key: Perhaps Salim’s biggest crusade is the institutionalized racism inherent within the American criminal justice system. The insane disproportion of African-American men in American prisons (when compared with the racial demographics of the population as a whole) is, as Salim pointed out many times, something the United States will one day look back on with shame. Although many political writers touch on this subject, none do it with Salim’s passion.

+ Paying Back The Slavery Debt: This is the most compelling argument I’ve ever read in favor of slavery reparations, which was a hot topic almost a decade ago. Unfortunately, the conversation has practically become extinct, despite the coherent reasoning backing the idea (Salim wrote about it again in 2006 as a means to fund the horrific disrepair left by Hurricane Katrina, but to little dispute or rise.)

+ Katrina’s Racial Wake: Written in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Salim tells us what we all know now about race in America. If only it hadn’t taken a devastating storm to teach us that. Almost three years later, we still haven’t rebuilt what was once one of America’s greatest cities; FEMA continues to screw up, lacking any real or drastic solutions; and so many people who lived in The Big Easy have not moved back home.

Salim’s talk last week was about Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, which Salim pointed out was probably the most groundbreaking speech on race made in the last century (John Stewart said as much when he told his audience in a state of make-believe shock that a politician had spoken to the American people about race as if they were adults). For those of us who had felt Obama had grown perhaps a bit spineless in the bright lights of the presidential election, the speech was a breath of fresh air which addressed the racial purple elephant legitimately for the first time. Finally, we can take a step back and recognize that a black candidate for president does not mean we leave in a post-racial society.

You Ain’t No Picasso posted a link to the entire downloadable Ghostface Killah remix album. And it’s sick.

MP3: Ghostface Killah: Charlie Brown (DJ Medhi Remix)

I don’t know if you know this, but I’m the president of the Whitman branch of Action for Animals. I know. I’m a pretty big deal. And this week, adding to the excitement of Mr. Muwakkil’s visit, was Veggie Week. So here is a veg-friendly Albert Einstein quote (he was vegetarian btw) and a recipe you might want to try out.

Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

If you haven’t visited the Post-Punk Kitchen online yet, you have to. It’s really, really good. The writer, Isa Chandra Moskowitz should probably be enshrined for proving that vegan food is often better than non-vegan food. If you don’t believe me, check out this cupcake recipe. I’m not kidding when I say that you will have a food-related orgasm (FRO).

RECIPE: Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemony Frosting

more quotes.
ALSO this week, my boyfriend Alex Kerr turned 21 this week. So in honor of the biggest Rolling Stones fan I know (Alex), an excerpt from Wednesday’s interview with Keith Richards posted on golden fiddle. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever read.

Q: You should sell your body on eBay.
Yeah, I think so. Apparently, I do have an incredible immune system. I had hepatitis C and cured it by myself.

Q: How?
Just by being me.

Q: Do you regret not moisturizing your face?
No. I leave that up to other people.

Q: Ever think about getting Botox?
No one’s ever talked me into doing that. You’re lucky if you walk out of there alive. God bless you.

Q: Are you still cutting your own hair? You’ve done that all your life, right?
Yes. I did this bit here yesterday. [holds up a few strands on the side of his head] Also, I’m letting the dye grow out, since I’m not on the road. If the wife likes it, I’ll keep it.



media war on war

17 03 2008

The danger of a presidential election as monumental and central as the 2008 presidential election is that the American public loses sight of everything else going on in the world. The Iraq War, for example, was on everybody’s radar just a year ago — the annual anti-war rally I went to in Portland, Ore. last year was attended by 15,000 people. Although no numbers have come in yet for this year’s rally, I can tell you the numbers didn’t come close to last year’s. And this is the fifth year we’ve been at it.  

a peace rally two years ago

Of course, maybe it’s the five years that’s been the problem. Maybe we’re tired of protesting and we feel like picking a new political leader is the smartest thing we can do to actually make change happen internationally. I get that. For me, a peace rally is a symbolic motion. It’s really something you do more for yourself than to instigate active change. It reminds you, definitely, that you are not alone. It gives you a sense of the massive strength of a movement.But while the presidential primaries have eaten the national daily newspapers alive, even the subject we all swore was so important to us (the Iraq War) seems to have become clutter for the shelf.A Pew Poll released last week reported that public awareness for the Iraq War has not only dissipated in the past few months, it has practically dissolved:

Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August. Today, just 28% of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. As of March 10, the Department of Defense had confirmed the deaths of 3,974 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.       

That 28 percent is compared to 54 percent last August, and about half in 2004. This percentage is by far the lowest reported awareness since these polls were started in April 2004. To blame, of course, is the media, which feeds on the frenzy surrounding the current presidential election (84 percent of people in the same survey were able to name the talk show host who endorses Barack Obama). While conditions worsen and swell in Iraq, national newspapers appear to care less and less, reporting virtually nothing about the war in December, and even less in January.

If we claim to care about foreign affairs and say we want to fix the mistakes President Bush has made, we’d better know enough about those mistakes to tell our representatives what we want to change.