Recycling Old Facebook Notes #1: 15 Books in 15 Minutes

(Note: I mostly shut down my personal Facebook wall/timeline recently, and when I did, I noted some old lists or notes from early Facebook days that seemed to merit salvage. I’ll occasionally republish some of them here, as the spirit moves me, or inspiration fails).

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. List 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

1. “Engine Summer” by John Crowley

2. “Titus Groan”/”Gormenghast”/”Titus Alone” by Mervyn Peake

3. “Out of the Silent Planet”/”Perelandra”/”That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis

4. “Crash” by J.G. Ballard

5. “The Fellowship of the Rings”/”The Two Towers”/”The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien

6. “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

7. “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick

8. “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” by Philip K. Dick

9. “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass

10. “The Flounder” by Gunter Grass

11. “Fathers and Crows” by William T. Vollman

12. “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

13. “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

14. “A Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

15. “The Once And Future King” by T.H. White

Pleasure Avalanche

We are back in Des Moines tonight after a week-long Spring Break vacation with many, many moving pieces. Katelin and her housemates, Dan and Emma, spent the first half of the week in Toronto, Ontario — a birthday gift to Katelin from Marcia and I. Katelin then flew into Charlotte, was picked up by my mother (who lives near the Charlotte airport), and then driven up to Asheville, North Carolina, where my sister and her family live. Marcia and I hooked up with them all there — after three days on the road, including one night in St. Louis, and two nights in Nashville, where fun was had, and how. The full family unit was together for three days, then Marcia and I headed home (this time via Indianapolis and Peoria, where we spent an evening), with Katelin and my mom staying in Asheville for one more night, before a drive back to Charlotte together, followed by a flight back to Rochester for Katelin. Everyone is back where they belong tonight, but it was really great to have us all in one place for a few days, since that doesn’t happen very often. The next time we see Katelin, she will be graduating from college, whee! Here are some pictures of the trip(s), for posterity’s sake . . .

Katelin and her housemates -- Dan and Emma -- in Toronto, for Katelin's 22nd birthday trip.

Katelin and her housemates — Dan and Emma — in Toronto, for Katelin’s 22nd birthday trip.

Marcia offers an appropriately dour pose at the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.

Marcia strikes an intentionally dour pose at the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.

I have fallen and I can't get up . . . (public art in St. Louis, Missouri) . . .

I have fallen and I can’t get up . . . (public art in St. Louis, Missouri) . . .

The Gateway Arch really is one of the wonders of the modern world . . . but it's darned hard to get a photo of it, especially on a grey and cloudy day . . .

The Gateway Arch really is one of the wonders of the modern world . . . but it’s darned hard to get a photo of it, especially on a grey and cloudy day . . .

Marcia and I spent St. Patrick's Day Eve in an Irish Bar dancing to a U2 Cover Band in St. Louis. More fun than you might expect!

Marcia and I spent St. Patrick’s Day Eve in an Irish Bar dancing to a U2 Cover Band in St. Louis. More fun than you might expect!

Marcia becomes one with the (mid-century modern) furniture, St. Louis . . .

Marcia becomes one with the (mid-century modern) furniture, St. Louis . . .

President Andrew Jackson's tomb, at The Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee.

President Andrew Jackson’s tomb, at The Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee.

Marcia and I visited the Opryland complex in Nashville . . . and had a drink and some delicious tasty snacks while there.

Marcia and I visited the Opryland complex in Nashville . . . and had a drink and some delicious tasty snacks while there.

My sister keeps chickens on her Double D Ranch, in scenic downtown Asheville, North Carolina. This is Dixie Chicken and me.

My sister keeps chickens on her Double D Ranch, in scenic downtown Asheville, North Carolina. This is Dixie Chicken and me.

Wife, mother, daughter, sister. All the important and magnificent women in my life, seated at one small table.

Wife, mother, daughter, sister. All the important and magnificent women in my life, seated at one small table.

The Picasso on the Shelf

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) was a publishing house founded in 1929 by George Macy in the heyday of the private press movement. The LEC was dedicated to producing small runs of exquisitely made and finely illustrated books, some of them literary classics, and some of them important contemporary works. Generally, the LEC would issue a dozen books each year, with only 1,500 copies of each item printed. They were often signed by the artists, designers, authors, bookmakers or others associated with the titles in question.

Carl and Edith Weeks were charter members of the LEC, and they remained subscribers through 1954, leaving us with a rare complete collection of these important and beautiful books. Carl and Edith had subscription number 589, so almost all of their LEC books have a “589” hand-written in them somewhere, typically along with the autograph of the artists or authors.

Matisse's "Polyphemus" from LEC edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses." (click to enlarge)

Henri Matisse’s “Polyphemus” from LEC edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The two most-widely collectible and coveted LEC books in the Salisbury House library are a 1935 edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse (250 copies were signed by Joyce, but we don’t have one of them — a rare missing item in our otherwise magnificent Joyce collection) and a 1934 edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, illustrated and signed by Pablo Picasso.

Matisse’s illustrations from Ulysses do not depict James Joyce’s Dublin, but rather evoke Leopold Bloom’s one-day odyssey through that city’s streets by making explicit the subtle structural parallels that Joyce wove between Ulysses and Homer’s Odysseus. So while the section paralleling the Cyclops’ tale in Ulysses is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where Bloom is berated by an un-named, anti-Semitic “citizen,” Matisse illustrates the scene with a literal depiction of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus. It’s a powerful piece of art (click the image at left to enlarge it; each of the differently sized blue and yellow sheets are bound into the book), but personally speaking, I find that these images distract the reader from Joyce’s narrative, rather than supporting it. If Joyce had wanted his allusions to Odysseus to be so obvious, I think he would have written the book differently. I wonder sometimes if this is why Joyce did not sign all of the Matisse copies.

Aristophanes died some 23 centuries before Carl and Edith purchased their LEC copy of his Lysistrata, so there’s no telling what he would have though about Pablo Picasso’s illustrations therein — but I love them to pieces, and think this is one of the most gorgeous, well-designed, fully-integrated books produced by the LEC. I share some images below, including Picasso’s signature page. Do you agree that he got it right? (As always, click to enlarge)

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“AARP Go The Weasels”

In 1995, I started working as a music critic for Albany, New York’s alternative newsweekly, Metroland. I would stop by the office once a week a pick up a pile of records (some still vinyl, some cassettes and some CDs at that point), a few of which would have elaborate press kits accompanying them, but most of which would just be sitting there, unexplained. In those barbaric pre-Google days, there was no easy way to find out much about the lower-profile artists who sent the fruits of their labor my way, so I’d end up listening to and reviewing many of their records in the dark, with no preconceived notions based on what I’d read before I spun the music.

AARP front coverAt the end of my first year with Metroland, I was asked to pick my ten favorite albums of 1995, and most of them were by artists with whom I’d been familiar when that fortuitous year had commenced. One notable exception, though: an incredible record called Leon’s Mystical Head by The Weasels. One of my fellow Metroland critics had reviewed the album earlier in the year, and her article had made me pull it from the big pile of mysterious, unexplained discs I’d accumulated, and it blew my mind: it featured extraordinarily well-written — yet often horrifically disturbing and politically incorrect — lyrics atop catchy and melodic jazz/blues based musical beds, delivered by an ace band.

Best of all, I learned from my colleague’s 1995 review that The Weasels were a national-caliber band of homegrown pedigree . . . I had no idea who they were, but it was nice to know that they were Albany neighbors, and they thus became the first locally-bred Albany band that made me actively contemplate the fact that world class music was emerging from what was then (to me) a largely undiscovered market, beyond early MTV favorites Blotto.

As it turned out, that geographic proximity resulted in me later doing freelance work with several members of the Weasels in the years that followed, as well as the opportunity to see them live several times. I caught their very last concert appearance in October 2000, at which point they turned into Albany’s version of Steely Dan, offering only occasional slabs of sardonic studio work fortified by performances by the region’s very best studio players. While their live appearances dried up, their studio work just got stronger and stronger, and it was a real treat to have a local insider’s view into their creative progress, which was truly formidable.

And so, while I no longer live in Albany, it is a particular delight to report on The Weasels’ sixth studio album, AARP Go The Weasels, which was released on Valentine’s Day, 2013. I’m pleased to write about it here not as a partisan former member of Team Albany, but as a music aficionado who values great songwriting and great performances, regardless of the cities from which they hail. This is a great album, by a great band, no matter where you live.

Core Weasel players and songwriters Dr. Fun and Roy Weasell (both members in good standing of polite Albany society, hence the pseudonyms, lest their Weasel activities interfere with their other jobs) are joined on the new disc by the best rhythm section they’ve had in their long career together. Bassist Jon Cohen has been an on again/off again Weasel since their earliest days, and he is supported on the back-line on this record by the legendary Alexander Kash, whose back story includes stints in Australian pre-punk pop titans Blackfeather, among many other bands. Weasell’s rhythm guitar and mandolin work perfectly anchor the new album’s songs, while Fun sings some of his best lyrics and contributes choice keyboard and alto saxophone parts to the mix. The core quartet sit strong at the heart of these new recordings, and their tight and tough playing really anchors the proceedings, allowing the album’s guest soloists to soar: guitarists Chuck D’Aloia and Eric Finn, keyboardists Adrian Cohen and Mike Kelley and tenor sax player Brian Patneaude all offer stellar spots throughout AARP Go the Weasels’ run. The Steely Dan analogy holds, with traces of Frank Zappa tossed into the mix for good creative measure.

As great as these performances are, they’d be squandered on inferior songs, but that’s never a worry on AARP Go The Weasels, as this long disc offers some of the group’s finest AARP backcreative moments. The album opens with the stellar “Father Weasel,” which updates Lewis Carroll’s classic poem “Father William” for the 21st Century: where Carroll worried about his aged protagonist’s penchant for headstands and somersaults, Fun’s Father Weasel offers his young interrogator wisdom about sexual potency among the elderly, along with tips regarding regular bowel movements and estate planning. “What Says Creep” and “Freemason Reese” update demo cuts from 2000’s Generation Xcrement album, while the closing pair of “Wailing Song” and “Doubting Thomas” stand tall among the Weasels’ most evocative depictions of the human (and post-human) experience. You could build a modern religion on the latter two songs, and it would be as compelling as many other creeds currently recruiting candidates in 21st Century America.

AARP Go the Weasels also includes the band’s politically astute 2010 single “Do The Teabag,” which offers a surf-rock synopsis of a particularly unfortunate modern right-wing American political movement, while “Zucchini Park” fairly takes a hammer and chisel to the left wing version of political populism, circa 2012. “Last Supper on Lark Street” provides a blissfully acute skewering of what passes for high cuisine experiences in many contemporary hipster dining establishments, as the mandolin-fortified “Invasion of the Body” turns an alien invasion scenario into something credibly mundane and real. There are over half a dozen other songs on this disc of equally revelatory and insightful quality, making AARP Go The Weasels a truly masterful snapshot of the political and popular memes that define our (sad and terrible) modern era. If you find yourself despairing at the world you live in today, this album provides a tremendous opportunity to skewer the unskewerable, with aplomb. You’ll be a better person for listening to it, carefully.

At bottom line, I don’t gush about this album as a former citizen of Albany, nor as a current Des Moines denizen. I praise it as an exceptional artistic statement for listeners of all stripes and from all locales, and encourage you to snap it up as essential listening from a truly great band who deserve wider acclaim than they’ve received to date. Here’s a link to the first of six planned videos from the new album, the media skewering “A Friend in Tweed.” If this isn’t the best antidote to “little man, big head” syndrome that you will see in 2013, then I can’t imagine what is.

Great music, great songs, and great social commentary . . . what more do you want from a great album in 2013? Watch for it in my “Best Music of 2013” list come December, likely near the top spot.