Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book twenty-five: The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse.

I heard an NPR interview with Brando Skyhorse, author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, that offered interesting insight into this book.  Although Mexican American, Skyhorse was raised under the impression that he was Native American.  He was named after Marlon Brando because his mother respected the actor for his refusal to accept an Academy Award, citing the treatment of Native Americans.  His mother also changed their last name to Skyhorse.

Knowing this makes the opening of the book more interesting.  Skyhorse precedes the novel with a story about events that inspired the novel.  I thought this was a bad idea.  But after reading the intro, I changed my attitude.  It's a charming story that sets the reader up for a different kind of novel.

Let me get this out of the way right up front.  I'm notorious for criticizing books written in first person.  And this book is written in first person times ten. That's because each chapter in the book is told from the first-person standpoint of a different character.  This should just annoy the crap out of me.  And at first it does. But once I accepted the writing device, it made for an engaging and challenging read.

I particularly enjoyed the literary nature of the novel, with themes and ideas that radiate throughout the novel.  There is the Madonna (the Virgin Mary), who appears as a reminder of powerful women who rely on tradition to build their lives.  There is Madonna (Like a Virgin) who serves as the patron saint of a new generation of smart, young women set on abandoning tradition (or are they?).  And then there is the endless blooming and fading of Jacaranda blossoms, tracking lifetimes of relationships.

The Madonnas of Echo Park is a timely and timeless read.  It's timely because it confronts issues of immigration that are fueling heated debates today.  It's a brilliant look at the lives of Mexican immigrants, and the hatred they face.  It also demonstrates the value Mexican immigrants bring to America.  The book is timeless because it reminds us how easy it is to marginalize whole populations of people.  Whether it's Italians, Irish, Jews, Mexicans, or even now Islamists, we can't seem to stop focusing our hatred and disdain on those we consider outsiders.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A new pair of art sneakers.

Remember when you were a kid and you got a new pair of sneakers.  And you were just sure they made it possible to run faster or jump higher.  Well I'm enjoying the same kind of excitement with the arrival of my new Keds.  Only instead of running faster and jumping higher, I'm expecting these shoes to make me paint better or write more brilliantly.  That's because these kicks are part of Keds Whitney Collection (as in the Whitney Museum of American Art).  And they are designed by one of my favorite artists, Jenny Holzer.  You may recall that not too long ago, the Whitney presented a show of Holzer's work.

As is usually the case with Jenny's work, the shoes feature words.  These words were taken from one of her previous works: "Protect me from what I want."  I read that originally Holzer wanted to use a different line from one of her art works, "The future is stupid."  But the marketers at Keds felt the line wasn't marketable enough.  So she opted for "protect me from what I want."  Is it just me or does the current line seem like a total comment on our consumption-based society and wouldn't Keds want to shy away from that idea.  I guess it just goes to show that maybe the future is stupid. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book twenty-four: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.

Not too long ago I finished reading Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters.  One of my friends read my blog post (thanks Jen, not many people actually read my blog), and left a comment that I should read another book Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace.  I downloaded the book to my Kindle but never seemed to have a break in my reading schedule to fit it in.  I finally got around to reading it.

This book simultaneously makes me feel smart and stupid.  I feel smart because it's obvious that Wallace is one intelligent guy and brings an intellectual attitude to just about any subject he tackles.  I feel stupid because there are whole swaths of this book that I'm pretty sure I didn't really understand.  And I wouldn't have made it through the book without the on-board Kindle dictionary. Because D.F.W. (he likes to use lots of unexplained acronyms) has an impressive vocabulary (although he also likes to make up his own words).

Many of these essays were written as assignments for major magazines.  And it's interesting to see how Wallace takes a basic, straightforward assignment and turns it into something more philosophical or literary.  A book review turns into an in-depth discussion about the value of grammar and "correct" language usage. An assignment to cover a Maine lobster festival becomes a rumination on sentience in the animal world.  And an assignment to cover presidential candidate John McCain on the campaign trail turns into an epic tale of American politics. 

This is a book for serious readers.  The writing style is modern and experimental.  And it's difficult to keep up with Wallace's obvious intellect.  Some of the essays are already outdated and so are nothing more than the author showing off.  But I still enjoyed the book.  The philosophical nature of many of the essays is rewarding.  And David Foster Wallace has a delightful, subversive sense of humor.  So I say you should consider Consider the Lobster.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Polaroid imposter.

Sadly, my recent plea to Lady Gaga for the opportunity to take a Polaroid went unanswered.  But that didn't mean the return of the FlirtCam wasn't a huge hit in Vegas. That's right, I was making new friends right and left starting at the Lady Gaga performance. There was Gideon to our right who drove in from Los Angeles with his friend. He ultimately suggested we should meet him after the concert at Krave (either because he loved the Polaroid or because his friend looked really grumpy and we looked like we might be more fun).

There was the older gay couple from Las Vegas on our left who were a little curmudgeony about the photograph until after I gave it to them and then they loosened up and started chatting.

Then, there were the French boys.  At first I thought they were brothers but as the show progressed, I couldn't be sure if they were related or if it was young love.  Felix said they were just "being French." But if that's the case, French brothers sure like to get cozy sitting on each other's laps. Whatever they were, they were positively charming and funny.  And they loved it when I gave them a Polaroid. While I didn't take a second photo of Gideon and the other couple, I did get one of the French boys.  So here it is along with a Polaroid of Felix and me at the concert.

And now for the last photo of the night.  If you can't get Lady Gaga to pose, why not get the next best thing: The Lady Gaga-inspired drag queen at Pirahna's after party.  Here then is Miss CoCo St. James performing as Lady Gaga.  I'm so happy to have the Polaroid back.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Going Gaga.

If you like your arena shows over-the-top with plenty of real pop talent, then get thee to a Gaga show.  I recently saw the Monster Ball Tour starring Lady Gaga at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.  And what a show it was. Flaming piano: check. Massive sets: check. Bleeding religious-inspired statue: check. Instant costume changes with crazy Lady Gaga outfits including a spark-shooting brassiere: check, check, and more checks.  Yes, this show pretty much has it all including a mythic story line that has Lady Gaga facing all kinds of tests including the Fame Monster to successfully make it to the Monster ball.

And the spectacle may not be the best part.  Because Lady Gaga has the musical chops to ensure that her talent isn't overshadowed by the flash. Her vocal performances are near perfect even when she's dancing, writhing, and be hoisted on the shoulders of her dancers her voice never wavers.  She's at her best during the most vulnerable moments in the show; when it's just Lady Gaga and her piano performing and brilliant song like Speechless.

It also seems to me, you can read this show on a deeper level.  Because in her stage performance, like in her music, Lady Gaga seems to take pop/literary references from the past 60 - 80 years and bring them together into something new and inspiring.  Sure that sounds like a lot of credit to give someone who may be just another pop fad.  But consider a few of the concert's themes.  There's the Tinkerbellian idea (yes I just intellectualized Tinkerbell) that you can make another's life better with a simple act of belief.  Or the Wizard-of-Oz-like suggestion that you can only find personal truths after you've gone through the struggle of losing yourself.  There are also bigger mythic literary themes, like the idea of confronting your fears in order to achieve a new level of enlightenment. I could even make comparisons to performance artists like Paul McCarthy or Matthew Barney.

I'm sure a lot of people who saw the show are reading this now and rolling their eyes. But I think Lady Gaga is trying to be bigger than just another top-of-the-charts starlet. Take the messages she delivers during the show, many of which concern gay rights.  I'm surprised that Lady Gaga can pull in such a main stream audience even while confronting controversial issues like gay marriage. It should concern conservatives worried about a shift in public attitudes towards homosexuality.  Because it's not liberal voters who will shift current attitudes.  It's not activist judges.  It's not even the gays and the lesbians themselves.  It's people like Lady Gaga and her fans who will eventually make it so uncool to oppose gay marriage, that few will continue the opposition. That's the kind of music-fueled, social change I haven't seen in a long time.

Enough of my academic thoughts on Lady Gaga. Let's get back to the pure, wild, fun-filled spectacle that is the Monster Ball.  Here are some pictures from the concert.

First, a couple of photos from before the concert as we wait for the mayhem to begin featuring Felix, James, Justin, and me.

You'll have to see the show in person to experience the dramatic opening; my camera just can't capture it.  But these photos give you an idea of what the early part of the performance was like.

From one of my all-time favorite Lady Gaga songs, Boys, Boys, Boys.

The transformation of Lady Gaga.

And a few random shots from the latter part of the show.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book twenty-three: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Here's what I liked about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: The action scenes are so intense that they're the literary equivalents of the best scenes in scary movies.  But instead of covering your eyes until the tension ends, you want to stop reading or skip ahead to ensure that everything works out in the end.  Accomplishing this trick was no small matter.  Particularly when you consider what I didn't like about the book.

The Hunger Games is designed as a young adult read that tells the story of Katniss, a teenage girl who lives in a dismal, post-apocalyptic world set sometime in the  future.  Each year, kids from each of twelve districts are randomly selected, thrown into an arena, and told to kill each other off.  Last one standing gets riches and bragging rights for his or her district.

Back to what I didn't like about the book: This is another example of a story written in first person that I think is worse for it.  Within in the first 30 pages of the book, you know what's going to happen.  Katniss will participate in the Hunger Games and she'll win.  What else can happen?  She's telling the story.  Is she going to sit home and watch the games on TV?  Is she going start the games, get killed half way through and the last line of the book will be, "I die"?  Of course not. 

Then, weakening the intrigue of the plot even more, (and this could be a bit of a spoiler) Collins changes the rules of the games about two thirds of the way into the book, eliminating one of the most intriguing plot questions: How will Katniss deal with eliminating the other kid from her district? This was a plot twist I was looking forward to.  But, oh wait, now if two people from the same district are still alive at the end, they both win.  So both Katniss and the other boy from her district will survive.

I also have to say that the brutality of the book troubled me a little, particularly since it's between children. Part of that's because I don't really like the whole post-apocalyptic assertion that humanity will always trend toward evil.  And partly because many parents I know would decry this violence if it were in a story targeted to adults. 

All that said, this book is written so well with so much excitement and tension, that I haven't ruled out reading the next book in the series. And you could do a lot worse for an exciting, fun summer read than Hunger Games.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dear Lady Gaga: Will you be in my next celebrity Polaroid portrait?

As I recently noted, Polaroid has introduced a new instant film camera.  And it's brought back all kinds of memories.  One of those memories involves the celebrity instant portrait.  Here are few favorites from my i-Zone collection.

For example, here are a few i-Zone photos taken at a Moby after party.  Moby wasn't thrilled with me and my Polaroid until I took a picture of him with a beautiful young woman and then it was as if I was the official Moby i-Zone photographer.

Here's Felix with Moby.

And here are a few photos of Moby's band. (Yes that's me getting all chummy with the band.)

Then there are the pictures of the Scissor Sister taken on their first visit to Salt Lake City.  I took these at Liquid Joe's at one of the funnest concerts I've ever been too.  Jake Shears was fantastic:

Baby Dady was his chill self, even when posing for a picture with Felix.

And the rest of the band from Ana Matronic to Del Marquis made for a great night.

And I ask you this: Who else has an i-Zone portrait of the elusive Ru Paul?

I've decided it's time for the return of the celebrity Polaroid portrait and I'm asking you, Lady Gaga to be the subject.  Oh you may say that you're at a level of celebrity far beyond the stars featured here.  But none of these stars is the creative director for Polaroid. I think that gives you an added incentive to make yourself available for an official instant portrait.  As an established celebrity Polaroid photographer, I'd be happy to take a picture or two. And as luck would have it, I'll be in Vegas this weekend at your concert with my brand new Polaroid 300.  Maybe you could spare a few minutes. Let me know.

Book twenty-two: Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron.

The second book in the book club sponsored by the HR department at my office is Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron.  I liked this book better than the first book probably because it felt different than most management books I've read (which isn't many).  Oh sure, the second half of the book devolves into prescriptive "do this, not that" guidance that makes up the bulk of "be a better manager" books.

So it's the first half of this book that I found most interesting. Here's a book that uses research to suggest truly successful corporations promote ideals such as love, hope, compassion, forgiveness, and humility. Those are words and ideas that seem out of place in a business book. Consider this passage: "Inducing positive emotions (such as joyfulness, love, or appreciation) enlarges perspectives and enhances the ability of individuals to attend to more information, make richer interpretations, and experience higher levels of creativity and productivity."  That's a sentiment that appeals to my nature.  The book even hints that organizations that worry less about profit and more about fostering a positive environment are more likely to succeed.  

Positive Leadership is a short read and may be the first management book I might recommend to a friend.  But then again, I'm one of those touchy-feely liberals, so your standard business conservative might not find this book as interesting.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen): The FlirtCam is back!

Everyone who knows me, knows that I love the Polaroid instant camera.  I've been taking instant photos since my early teens.  But my fascination with Polaroid really took off sometime in the late 90s with the purchase of my first Polaroid i-zone.  That was the birth of the FlirtCam.  I spent the next six or seven years hanging out at night clubs and taking i-zone pictures of late night revelers.  I gave most of those away, but I still have hundreds, maybe even thousands of postage-sized photos from those fantastic nights.

Even now, some of my best friends are people I met through the FlirtCam, taking their i-zone photo and handing it to them.  And it wasn't just the i-zone.  After it was discontinued I pressed forward with the Mio and the Polaroid 600.  

A Polaroid picture can do more to make a friend than just about anything I know. So you can imagine my sadness when Polaroid discontinued all instant film production a couple of years ago.

But now, I'm celebrating the return of the FlirtCam.  I just received my new Polaroid 300.  So look out ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen), because the FlirtCam is back.  And I'm looking to make some new friends.

Here's a picture of just a few of the i-zone cameras I own (including some customized face plates).
And here is my brand new Polaroid 300.  As is tradition, the first photo is a self portrait.