Monday, July 24, 2017

Sleater-Kinney's Classic at 20

It's been a long time since I've posted -- a demanding job, a young(ish) child, and two cross-country moves have definitely hurt any sporadic groove I might have somewhat conjured up. Thought I'd return to mark the anniversary of Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out.

Years ago, in my rustic little shotgun shack in Sierra Madre, I popped a hand-made cassette into my pathetic little boombox. It was by a band I'd never heard of called Sleater-Kinney and the publicist had sent it to me because I'd written about someone -- Elliott Smith? -- and she'd thought I might like this new all-female trio from the Pacific Northwest. I'd love to say that I was instantly hooked, but I wasn't: The sound was strange and rough. The music felt like it was coming from the outer reaches of the moon. While I generally liked oddities, my reaction was a far cry from the lightning bolt that hit when I first hit play on Elliott Smith.

And so Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out, released two years later, nearly knocked me off my feet. The combination of Corin Tucker's punch-to-the-head delivery, Carrie Brownstein's fierce guitar work, Janet Weiss' blues-based drumming -- all combined to create an album that was incredibly intense and highly melodic. It was an absolutely unstoppable masterwork bringing together heart, head, and machine.

Photo by Robert Paul Maxwell.

Years later, the power of the album remains strong enough to earn its place as one of the '90s top albums and definitely an indie rock masterpiece. One of my regrets is not giving this record the four-star review that it clearly deserved. My original Los Angeles Times review of the record did not include the one-half star that Robert Hilburn urged me to add when he'd read it, but you can sense the enthusiasm here and in my review of their corresponding show at the El Rey

Every now and then Hilburn was right. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Exploring religion with Jack Miles

Recent events have made me think a lot about some of the highlights of the past couple of years -- and most of these peaks are strangely tied to religion and philosophy -- Buddhist, Christian, Jewish. It's probably tied to getting older, losing a parent, and dealing with the death of someone who shaped my childhood (RIP, Prince).

One of my favorite conversations of the past couple of years was with Jack Miles, a writer who probably makes me think more than any other -- aside from Shakespeare -- about life, death, and the mysteries of the universe. Full of wonder yet brilliant and highly rational, Miles was the editor behind the Norton Anthology of World Religions. I kind of wish I had this man on speed dial. Here is my interview with Mr. Miles -- is definitely in my lifetime top three interviews ever.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Changing the Complexion of YA

One of the biggest highs a school librarian can get is the charge that comes after pairing a student with the right book. Connecting young people – especially reluctant readers – with literature is a remarkable thing, potentially life-changing on many levels. In my library, kids who have spent their lives avoiding reading have come back for more after finishing novels like Tyrell, Snitch, Perfect Chemistry, and Tears of a Tiger. Even more exciting than the fact that they’ve actually read cover-to- cover is the obvious thrill they get when they see characters who talk like their friends struggling with familiar (if heightened) problems. Their enthusiasm -- and surprise -- is a wonderful thing.
Sadly, though, so many great YA books feature jacket covers that only represent a tiny fraction of the kids at my urban public school. If we want kids to read, we need books that reflect them. Again and again, I’ve found four or five books in my relatively current and well-stocked library that matched a newly-reading student's interests, only to come up short on the fifth visit. Four books? Is that the best we can do?
If we are going to boost literacy, we need to address this problem, as young adult writer Walter Dean Myers so eloquently states in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Tracking his own youthful reading, he describes how it felt to be in love with reading only to realize that reading was a window into a world, it just wasn't his world.  

"...there was something missing," remembers Myers. "I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine."

He implies that, had things been different, he might not have dropped out of school.
How can we lament the reading abilities of the kids in our public schools and not address this incredibly important issue? How many times can students read The House on Mango Street and Myers’ own Monster? The market, profit-driven and self-interested as it is, will not address this issue; publishing houses are focused on kids who are already reading (hence the disproportionate number of characters who are white and female). 
 As Myers states, children need to see themselves in books, but the books need to encompass a wide range of tastes – dystopian thriller, action-packed non-fiction, confessional memoirs, supernatural romance, and the more typical realistic dramas that the students at my school devour. We need tons of books for boys. We need 50 Coe Booths, 100 Matt de la Penas. We need foundations, grants, an infrastructure for Latino and African American young adult writers that will help them develop their craft and to survive doing it.
If we don’t find a way to put books that speak to our students in front of them, then we can only blame ourselves if our children can’t read -- or just don't want to.


Friday, February 21, 2014

The Strange Case of Boy21


As a school librarian, I have the bi-monthly pleasure of helping to select books for our book club. This month’s club was full of amazing discoveries: Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses; Teri Terry’s dystopian mystery Slated; and Rick Yancy’s twisted take on Frankenstein, Monstrumologist. There is always one selection in the batch that I think of as my baby, the one that I want all the students to read (and that –yeah, I’ll admit it – typically makes me cry). This month, my book club baby is Matthew Quick’s incredible Boy21.

With a backdrop of basketball and urban blight, Boy21 is a YA novel with amazing texture and unbelievable heart. Finley, a troubled narrator who barely vocalizes, nevertheless has a lot to say about human decency and loyalty. Russ, the deeply traumatized Boy21 of the title, a basketball wunderkind who introduces himself to Finley by saying “I have been programmed to treat all humans with kindness,” is bizarre and completely believable. It’s a tough trick, but Quick pulls it all off to create a realistic novel that crackles like a profound human connection.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tablets don't inspire readers

Everyone thought I was a stick in the mud.  Fellow students in my children's lit class (taken for a librarian degree) reacted with dismay when I said I wouldn't hand my young son an interactive e-book. Interactivity seemed like the last thing a burgeoning reader needed. Looks like the research is showing that to be true -- at least according to an Atlantic article.

The research stats are pretty damning. The conclusion drawn --

A touch-screen device makes it all too easy for a child to dismiss reading as boring or “flat” in comparison with the instant gratification of games and apps. There are simply too many distractions just a click away. Children are most likely to engage with stories in the right environment and context, and that means away from a screen.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Reading slowly, reading alone

In yesterday's New York Times, Colin Robinson discusses the vanishing network of professionals that used to support readers. One topic -- the loss of librarians as guides.

This variety of channels for the expert appraisal of books has been replaced with recommendations thrown up by online retailers’ computers. But as with so much of the Internet, the nuance and enthusiasm of human encounters is poorly replicated by an algorithm. For more personal interactions, many have turned to social reading sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing.


The day before that, David Mikics wrote about the importance of offline reading in developing a sense of self --

The digital world offers us many advantages, but if we yield to that world too completely we may lose the privacy we need to develop a self. Activities that require time and careful attention, like serious reading, are at risk; we read less and skim more as the Internet occupies more of our lives. And there’s a link between selfhood and reading slowly, rather than scanning for quick information, as the Web encourages us to do. Recent work in sociology and psychology suggests that reading books, a private experience, is an important aspect of coming to know who we are.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

The library as refuge

Henry Rollins seems to be following me through every stage in my life. First, in middle school, the moment I spied an incredibly tall eighth grader with spiked hair and a "Black Flag Roach Motel" t-shirt was the moment that I realized that the age of ELO and bland suburban innocence was over.
When I was a rock critic, I was sent to review one of his stand-up routines (I was unimpressed).

These days, I'm viewing Rollins as one of the reasons to love Los Angeles. His KCRW radio show is the best thing on air and I am both shocked and relieved that it's still on.

Now, in this LA Weekly column, he pops up as a passionate supporter of libraries and librarians.

No longer tethered to a space, a library is still a sacred haven for certain kids -- the ones who don't fit in, are bullied, and are seeking a sign that, one day, things will be different.

Here's Rollins on his own experience:

"I preferred books over people. They didn't beat me up or take my bike. There was something very empowering about walking into the building, past all the adults, and realizing that I could pull down any book I wanted to and just start reading. I don't know why but it was a huge deal to me."

I know why -- the library is an offering of what is out there in the world, and it's a chance for confused, alienated kids to take that piece of the outside world and bring it in. It's a chance to have a choice about what they experience.

In the conversations about why libraries matter, the idea of the place as a safe haven or sacred space for kids who need one the most rarely comes up because we have moved beyond the limitations of brick and mortar. The kids in the library know that, quite often, it's still a library's most important role.