Retroview: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

A few years ago, a friend let me borrow a CD. It’s cover was odd (below right), the band name–Neutral Milk Hotel–and title–In The Aeroplane Over the Sea–obscure. “But it’s really good,” I was assured.

And indeed, as I found after finally listening to it, it was. Surely the instrumentals were unconventional–bagpipes appear, as do many other sounds I don’t even know how to describe. And the vocal were as much nasally and grating as they were melodic and on-key. But on the whole, there was something about it. That something that folks might call “Je ne sais quoi;” I just like to call it “something.”

The lyrics too, which are probably the most important part of music for me, were obscure. Snippets certainly made sense, but if there was a unifying theme or idea behind the thing, I didn’t know what it was. Some lines were clever enough to stick, others would fade away, on the whole it was nice–possibly even optimistic–but was obscure enough to leave me wondering.

An example, from the song “Holland, 1945”:

Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart

There’s a certain nihilism there, sure, but to hear it put to music it sound more hopeful than hurt. Unlike so many songs, this one’s apologetic without forming an apology. It doesn’t long, wish, or despair. It just says it, whatever it is that it’s saying.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon this Pitchfork article. Pitchfork, for those uninitiated, is the center of the hip indie-music world. Whether or not that titles completely accurate and fully agreed to is unknown to me. I don’t spend enough time following music criticism or the indie rock scene.

But here’s the point, I realized that this wasn’t some random album that a friend pointed out. It was something emblematic. And then last week, I came across Taylor Clark’s excellent profile of the man behind the album, who he accurately calls “Indie Rock’s Salinger.” Though I’m no great fan of Salinger, there’s strength in the analogy. Both men were tortured, troubled, and left the scene for hermetic life soon after success. Both are also revered as “geniuses.”

The articles made another point, but one I’m not sure I want to spoil. After all, it was something of a postmortem revelation for me that I wouldn’t want to deprive you of. I’ll just say that (1) both articles make explicit and early reference to this fact I hadn’t known before reading them, and (2) it made the album make more, but not complete, sense.

So I guess the whole point is this. If you’re into indie rock and don’t own this album, get it. If you’re not into to indie rock but interested, get this album. Actually, if you’re breathing and have twelve dollars in your pocket, it wouldn’t be a mistake to buy this album. You should at least consider it.


Retroview: The Microwaved Quesadilla

Warning: This quesadilla may not have been microwaved–Photo by Borderline AmazingQuesadilla

There would seem to be two obvious ways of looking at the microwaved quesadilla: “sounds good” and “sounds gross.” When I was younger–around about 12–I was firmly in the “sounds good” camp. Recently, I was pretty firmly in the “sounds gross” camp. And then a few days ago, in a hurry and lacking a better idea, I tried one again. And so I’m now back in the “sounds good” category.

Before we get too far, an explanation. This is the most American of quesadillas. It’s essentially a tortilla-not-bread, microwave-not-griddle, grilled cheese sandwich. A white flour tortilla–always bought at the grocery store because I’m scared of making my own. And then grated cheese, I prefer Colby Jack. And then another one of those far-from-great tortillas. Microwaved for 45 seconds on medium high, and eaten soon enough that you avoid that rubberiness that accompanies anything that sits too long after emerging from the microwave.

I did my best to make it sound bad in that last paragraph, and even now I admit I’m hungry enough for it to sound delicious. Part of it’s that cheese–store brand Colby Jack–it’s got a great buttery flavor that is sorely lacking in even the least-sharp cheddar cheese I’ve had. And that butteriness along with the stark unhealthiness of store-bought white flour tortilla’s is reminiscent of all the joy such foods brought before I knew about calories, carbohydrates, the many types of fat, and the perils of sodium. Also before I ever had any notion that many people snub food made in the microwave.

There’s a time in every child’s life–for me, it was as I finished elementary school–during which the microwave is the magic wonder that proves that you can feed yourself. You’re no longer given the stark choice between eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–not that there’s anything wrong with them–and waiting for an adult to come home and cook you a snack. During those years, I probably ate far more microwaved quesadillas (and microwaved hot dogs) than is healthy for anyone. But I didn’t know and didn’t care about “healthiness.”

I’d be a liar if I said that part of the new-found appeal of the microwaved quesadilla wasn’t nostalgia for those times. But I’d also be a liar if I said it doesn’t taste as good as anything I’ve cooked in well over a week. If that’s because this quesadilla’s that good or because my cooking’s that bad is an answer I’ll leave for a different time and place.

big ideas, religion, retroview

Retroview: Happiness: A Guide

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is probably the most important book in my life. No work has ever influenced so many aspects of my life or caused me to see the world so differently. Were there only one book that I could take with my to a desert island, I think this would very likely be it.

All of this is not to say that the book is flawless. On the second reading, some parts of the book seemed superfluous. Most memorably, the results of scientific studies which Ricard dutifully reports are interesting, but not as good as much of the rest of the book.

All of this may lead to the most important question: what is this book about? And were I a more careful writer I would edit this to answer that question at the start. Alas, I am not.

The book is, as you can probably infer from the title, a how-to to happiness. As such, the label “self-help” could be applied to it, but that conjures up images of hundreds of unsavory hucksters and swindlers who claim that they’ll make your life better in a snap. This book does no such thing.

Ricard, as the spelling of his name signals, is French by birth. He’s also a Buddhist monk who spends his time between Nepal and Tibet, serving as a translator for the Dalai Lama. And though it would be reasonable to say that Ricard’s answer to happiness grows out of Buddhism, one needn’t understand the first thing about the practice to get something from Ricard’s book.

Many, upon first introduction to Buddhism, see it not as a religion, but as a philosophy or even a type of positive psychology. The fact that Buddhism takes no explicit stance on the existence of deities (or a deity) makes this interpretation easier. And though Buddhism can be endowed with as many dogmatic traditions as any Western religion, the parts which Ricard discusses are not.

For those doubters of Buddhism (and religions in general), Mr. Ricard does conveniently provides scientific evidence–that stuff I said was dull–that Buddhist practice can and does make people happier, more controlled, and peaceful.

All of this is not to say that Happiness is some extended argument for Buddhism as the happiest religion in the world. It is, at the most basic level, an introduction to what thoughts and practices have made Mr. Ricard “the happiest man in the world.” (It was, if you’re wondering, that article that led me to the book in the first place.)

This book didn’t by itself transform my thinking, but it clarified and made much more salient some arguments that I’d been hearing for sometime and not fully understanding. The triviality of difference. The merits of optimism. The way to value all time. The wastefulness of envy.

It’s very likely that you could read this book and recieve from it much less than I have. It’s even possible that I received from this book more than it endeavored to give. But I can say with firm conviction that this book could teach everyone something, and many a great deal. After two readings, I still look forward to returning to it again and again, getting as much as I possibly can.

personal, retroview

Retroview: Tacky the Penguin

Lacking anything terribly interesting to review, I’ve decided to write a retroview of a book I liked when I was young, Tacky the Penguin.

Rereading it today, I’m sorry that I didn’t notice it sooner. Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin is a rather unabashed reappropriation of the major idea in The Ugly Duckling. Sure, Tacky’s just an odd duck–figuratively, not literally–when the ugly duckling’s really a swan, but the moral is very much the same. Both attempt to say that what’s inside is far more important than what’s outside, and both do it relatively well.

Before we get too far into the comparison, we need a quick plot synopsis. Tacky the Penguin lives with a small group of other penguins, tellingly named Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect (remember that there’s no irony in books for five-year-olds). While the other penguins wear false collars and solid-colored bow ties, Tacky wears a flowered Hawaiian shirt and a plaid bow tie. While the others are staid and graceful, Tacky’s predictably clumsy and odd.

But when hunters unexpectedly arrive, it’s Tacky who saves the day. By being himself, Tacky manages to convince the hunters that he (and his hiding friends) are not penguins, or certainly not penguins worth hunting. They’re not graceful, they don’t dive well, and they sing terribly. The hunters run away. Tacky is then, predictably, welcomed and loved by the other penguins.

It’s easy to point to all the silly notions this book is built upon–that hunters won’t kill annoying animals, that penguins wear clothes, pass judgments on other penguins, and are all males–but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing to gain from that. After all, sometimes a children’s book should be judged as a children’s book.

Compared with The Ugly Duckling, Tacky may be a simpler and more straightforward validation of the inside-not-outside message. After all, the ugly duckling has to change to prove the point, Tacky only has to be his own clever self.

Tacky has a simple message that I grasp as readily now as I did when I was five: being different can be good. Does such a message vastly over-simplify life? Yes. Does it work well for five-year-olds? It did for me.

I would have a hard time recommending Tacky to anyone over the age of eight. The book itself is shorter than these few paragraphs have been. But for someone at least a little bit like I was at five, Tacky’s not a bad book to read.


Retroview: The Little Prince

An explanation of what a Retroview is can be found here, though it should be pretty clear from this text.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I think i was probably around 16. That’s pretty old for a book stereotypically for kids, but I’ve never believed in being held back because my parents didn’t know that there were better books out there.

I was actually reading it (in English) because we were going to read it soon in French class (in French) and I believe in having as many advantages as you can. But I was surprised by the book. In the best possible way. Though the translation was sometimes clunky, it was always charming in a way that made it clear that the original was too.

The story of the little prince is rather simple. A little boy leaves his home planet, of which he was the only inhabitant, except for his rose, and travels awhile before arriving on Earth and meeting our narrator, a stranded pilot, in the desert. It’s not the plotting of the book which makes it great though, it’s the quiet charm of the way in which it is told.

It begins with the narrator explaining that in his childhood, he was discouraged from drawing because he had no great talent for it, nor was there any respectable future in it. But this serves only as an excuse for the poor pictures that accompany the story.

Most notable though, are the little jibe against adults that pervade the story. The five men that the little prince meets on his journey that leads him to earth serve to remind all of us of our predisposition to self-importance, even when we lack any legitimate reason for feeling that way.

The narrator also subtlety suggests that all our values are wrong. That those of the little prince, of simple wonder at life, of the role of little things that are personally rather than publicly important, are far more worthwhile.

This is what I always have, and still do, love so much about the book. It offers an alternative to all the way that we can go wrong.

If one refuses the possibility that a child can be wiser than an adult, this book could become grating. But if you’re at least willing to accept the possibility, give this charming little book a chance.

big ideas, metablogging, retroview, review

Retroviews, An Introduction

A REtroVIEW (or simply retroview) is an idea I have been kicking around for some time. It is, at the lowest-level, a review of something old.

More importantly, it is a review of something old which has long-standing personal importance. That is, it’s a review of a book you always loved, a movie you always hated, or a thing that scared you when you were seven years old.

What makes the composition of a retroview different from that of a review is that a retroview both acknowledges and utilizes the personal meaning of the object in question.

Where in a review you are to make a judgment on the value of the work alone: how it exists in itself, without any attached emotional or personal significance; in a retroview you are freed from any such pretension. By acknowledging upfront that you have prejudices about the material, you are freer to discuss it honestly and less likely to come off sounding unjust.

Personally, one of the first books that I ever really loved intensely was The Little Prince. And as a blogger I may want to bring attention to said book by reviewing it, despite its age. Thus, I can write a retroview about the book acknowledging, both implicitly in my header and explicitly in my text, it’s past and continuing significance for me.

Retroviews are often done, but without acknowledgment of this inherent nostalgia. They are usually given other, but less useful, guises: as reviews of the new DVD release or the 40th anniversary edition. I’m not accusing such labellings of dishonesty, but rather an extreme lack of creativity in its titles.

If you doubt the substantial biases of retroviews, look at any reviews written of Citizen Kane, or a similarly old movie, written in recent time. You will certainly find in these reviews an undue tenderness for the review’s subject. One that is perhaps undue and certainly different from an initial or more immediate reaction to such a film.

Citizen Kane got notoriously bad reviews (especially, but not exclusively, from the papers of William Randolph Hearst) when it was released in 1941. Orsen Welles, the boy genius, had failed to live up to his own hype.

Yet reviewing this movie today no one, not even one working at a former Hearst newspaper, would dare to say a single bad thing about it. It would be bad for their reputation as a critic (the consensus is too well established), and to their fond memories of their first discovery of the film.

So whether or not you chose to use this moniker on your own REtroVIEWs is your own decision. But for me, that’s what they’ll always be.

And do expect the first one to come soon.