Archive for January, 2010

Reading notes, part two: Harrison and Denzel

January 18, 2010 1 comment

Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington are two of the good guys. They are good actors, of course, but they also are good people. They aren’t tabloid fodder, preferring not to live the fast-lane lives of many of their colleagues. This fact is reflected in two recent profiles.

The Jan. 10 issue of Parade magazine had a profile of Ford. Ford likes flying airplanes. He owns eight of them. He also walks his dog in the local park. At 67, he has older kids and younger kids and grandkids. He tries to be as much of a regular guy as he can reasonably pull off. Work of whatever kind is what makes him happy: “Where I find peace is where I find the most utility, probably on a movie set or in an airplane, not a place. I think I have to find peace in focused activity.”

Washington, profiled in the Jan. 8-10 issue of USA Weekend, seems to have a lot in common with Ford, including a drive to work and a sense of humility about his success. He’s been married to the same woman for 26 years and has four kids, all in college or beyond. “I’m a work in progress like everybody else,” says Washington, 55. “I’m just an ordinary guy with a great job. And, like any human being, I’m constantly trying to improve.”

Ford and Washington exemplify what can be achieved in the movie business while maintaining a semblance of a normal life and family.

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Reading notes, part one: Stephen Covey article

January 18, 2010 2 comments

The Jan. 15-17 issue of USA Weekend has an article by Stephen Covey, the business leadership guru, offering “seven new ways that each of us can bridge the gulf that separates us from our neighbors.” The premise is that Americans are deeply divided on many issues these days. Here, in a nutshell, is Covey’s advice:

1. “Really try to understand different points of view.” Good advice, but it’s difficult to convince an ideologue, which many people are these days,  to even consider another point of view.

2. “Come up with a third solution that’s better than those already proposed.” Another good idea. Hasn’t worked very well with health care reform, though.

3. “Model yourself after others.” He suggests striving to emulate the best traits of great people such as Abraham Lincoln,  John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Makes sense but hard to measure up.

4. Don’t let the quest for riches or bitter rivalries obscure who you really are or want to be. Sure. His example is the millionaire who quit the fast lane and started Habitat for Humanity. Great story, but most of us don’t have the income comfort to drop our jobs and pursue another dream. Still a nice idea that can be achieved on a smaller scale through various volunteering efforts.

5. Try new things to widen and deepen your perspective. If you think you hate NASCAR, for example, go to a race and find out firsthand what it’s like. This is the best one so far. It really works.

6. “Understand your audience.” In other words, take an interest in other people, so that you can do a better job of speaking to them about things they care about and perhaps persuading them to your point of view. Makes sense.

7. Laugh. “Is there a better way to break the ice and build a bridge?” Covey asks. He’s right, laughter is a good tool to bring people together.

Okay, so what’s the verdict? Covey’s advice is sound. But I’ve become cynical of late about the hardening of people’s political views. I see this in the e-mails and online comments I receive after my column is published each Friday. Things can swing back to more open-mindedness, but right now too many people are only hearing what they want to hear and not listening to other sides.

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My favorite CDs of 2009

When you look at 2009 best-of lists from the nation’s music critics, one thing you often find is an ability to recognize the merits of music from a range of genres. Eclectic would be the word. In addition, you often notice a desire to look cool in the eyes of fellow critics by listing CDs that nobody — nobody! — has heard.

I buy and listen to a lot of CDs in a year, far more than the average person. I also venture beyond my comfort zone, acquiring quite a few CDs by bands and musicians that are not well known. But because I’m not a working music critic, I don’t feel any particular expectation to sample CDs in genres I’m not particularly interested in. As a result, the following list very much reflects my musical interests and doesn’t attempt to cover the full spectrum of popular music produced in 2009.

Unlike some critics, I’ve chosen to include new studio albums, live recordings and anthologies all in one list. If it was released in calendar year 2009, it was eligible for inclusion here.

1. Neil Young, Archives Vol. 1

2. Leonard Cohen, Live in London

3. Drive-By Truckers, The Fine Print

4. Cage the Elephant, Cage the Elephant

5. Wolfmother, Cosmic Egg

6. Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid

7. Neil Young, Fork in the Road

8. Patterson Hood, Murdering Oscar

9. Lucero, 1372 Overton Park

10. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Live Anthology

11. Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream

12. Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan

13. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

14. Steve Earle, Townes

15. Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Songs from Kerouac’s Big Sur

16. Rosanne Cash, The List

17. Richmond Fontaine, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River

18. Lyle Lovett, Natural Forces

19. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

20. Drive-By  Truckers, Live from Austin, Texas

21. Cross Canadian Ragweed, Happiness and All the Other Things

22. Nirvana, Live at Reading

23. Arctic Monkeys, Humbug

24. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown

25. The Hold Steady, A Positive Rage (live)

26. Neil Young, Dreamin’ Man Live ’92

27. Heartless Bastards, The Mountain

28. Wilco, Wilco (The Album)

29. Son Volt, American Central Dust

30. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

31. Blakroc, Blakroc

32. Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky

33. U2, No Line on the Horizon

34. KISS, Sonic Boom

35. Justin Townes Earle, Midnight at the Movies

Disappointments of 2009

Some critics really liked a few of the following albums but I just couldn’t get into them. Others I had high hopes for but they just didn’t work for me.

– Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk

– Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures

– The Dead Weather, Horehound

– Mastodon, Crack the Skye

– Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Self-titled

– J.J. Cale, Roll On

– Levon Helm, Electric Dirt

– Sonic Youth, The Eternal

– Adam Lambert, For Your Entertainment

– The Derek Trucks Band, Already Free

– Ace Frehley, Anomaly

– Booker T. Jones, Potato Hole

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My year in reading

January 2, 2010 4 comments

So, here it is, my annual report on the books I read in the previous year. My total of 48 books is relatively low compared with recent years. But in my defense, I read some long books in 2009. In addition, it was a hectic year, professionally and personally, leaving a little less time for reading.

Fiction highlights: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser; Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead; The Signal by Ron Carlson; Dead Boys by Richard Lange; Inherent  Vice by Thomas Pynchon; The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; and The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter.

Nonfiction highlights: Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents by Mikal Gilmore; Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker; West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State by Mark Arax; 1969: The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce; Books: The Essential Insider’s Guide, edited by Mark Strand.

Book of the year (fiction): The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Can’t wait to read his next one, The Angel’s Game, which colleague Tod Goldberg says is even better. Runners-up: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon and The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter.

Book of the year (nonfiction): Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a great piece of literary journalism, one man’s story, both heroic and tragic, about Hurricane Katrina. Runner-up: Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce.

The complete list


Last Train to Memphis:  The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (nonfiction)

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby (nonfiction)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (fiction)

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré (nonfiction)


The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (fiction)

Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents by Mikal Gilmore (nonfiction)


American Gods by Neil Gaiman (fiction)

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (fiction)

Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald (fiction)

Falconer by John Cheever (fiction)

Nonconformity by Nelson Algren (nonfiction) (Kindle)

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker (nonfiction)

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (fiction)


West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State by Mark Arax (nonfiction)

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (nonfiction)

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly (nonfiction)


How the Two Ivans Quarreled by Nikolai Gogol (fiction)

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (nonfiction)

The Essential Marcus Aurelius by Marcus Aurelius (nonfiction)

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (fiction)

Blue Vegas (manuscript) by P Moss (fiction)

The Unquiet Grave by Cyrill Connolly (nonfiction)

The Voices in My Head (manuscript) by Danny Gans (nonfiction)

Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher by William Zinsser (nonfiction)


Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire (nonfiction)

The Poet by Michael Connelly (fiction)

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (fiction)

The Signal by Ron Carlson (fiction)

It Happened in Las Vegas (manuscript) by Trish Geran (nonfiction)


House of Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes (manuscript) by Douglas Wellman and Mark Musick (nonfiction)

The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan (nonfiction)

A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders (nonfiction)

Elric: The Stealer of Souls: Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Volume 1 by Michael Moorcock (fiction)

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway (nonfiction)


1969: The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick (nonfiction)

Dead Boys by Richard Lange (fiction)

The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors by Al Silverman (nonfiction)


Inherent  Vice by Thomas Pynchon (fiction)

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (nonfiction)


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano (nonfiction)

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce (nonfiction)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (fiction)


Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (nonfiction)

Books: The Essential Insider’s Guide, edited by Mark Strand (nonfiction)


Family Secret by Warren Hull and Michael Druxman (nonfiction)

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (fiction)

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta (nonfiction)

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (fiction)

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