Friday, February 20, 2009

Sweet, But Not in a Cloying Way...

It has been a rough week. Between teaching and my dissertation (which is slowly but surely killing me), I've been feeling a little worn-down. However, on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site, their featured video for this Friday happens to be for "Pot Belly" from South Africa's Freshlyground. It is perhaps one of the sweetest love songs I've heard in a long time. Also, the video is adorable (but not in a saccharine/ Lisa Frank way).

What I really like about the video is the genuine emotion the two actors display. From the little dance the woman does when she gets the flowers to the guy's facial expression as he is trying on the shirt, it seems so genuine in regards to the emotions that people have during the first phases of a flirtation/ crush. I also love the ending, which illustrates the idea that, in order for a relationship to work, you have to accept that you can't force another person to conform to your preferences. Instead, each person must make the personal decision to participate in the true give and take that comes with a relationship.

Finally, on a more shallow note, kudos to the director, who managed to combine green and red without making it look like a Christmas display exploded.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Quick Update

While my semester has been in full swing for several weeks now, I've been pretty good about updating regularly. Unfortunately, my life is about to get a lot more hectic, so I won't be posting quite as often as I would like. Between fretting about my pilot study (which is supposedly next week) and looking for a job for next school year, I've been spending a lot of time dealing with real life. However, I hope to get my review of The Secret Lives of Great Artists up by the end of the week. Until then, you might want to check out the book's website, which has chapters, examples of the artists' works, and a lot more information that is not included in the book.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ahhh - Taxes!

I consider myself a reasonably smart person, and I've got a number of letters behind my name that indicate that I am, at the very least, literate and good at following directions. However, even I have to admit defeat. I tried doing my own taxes online, and the supposedly user-friendly software managed to completely confound me.

My white flag is up, and I've made my appointment with the good people at H&R Block. While the word online is that they are overpriced and use the same software that managed to eat up two hours of my time, the woman that I am seeing is very good and managed to get me a tax refund last year. Although I am a poor graduate student, I am more than willing to pay for a little peace of mind :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Love Songs I Like: Musical Theatre Edition

Despite my recent criticisms of love songs, I'm not completely jaded and heartless. I'm just very picky (my siblings will attest to this). However, there are some love songs out there that will make my heart grow three sizes whenever I hear them. Here are some highlights from the world of musical theatre. However, here is a fair warning: despite the saccharine reputation that musicals have gotten over the years, many of the love songs I like from musicals are not particularly happy...

"Hold My Hand" by Jeff Blumenkrantz

I came across this song on Seth Rudetsky's site, and I was completely won over by it. Although this number was cut from the musical it was intended for, it is so lovely and heartfelt that very little context is needed to enjoy it as a standalone song. While the singer was supposed to be a gay composer who is looking for love, the song speaks to anyone who is searching for love with very little success. What is particularly moving about it is that the singer isn't looking for a grand gesture or earth-shattering passion; he just wants someone to hold his hand, which is perhaps one of the sweetest sentiments I have heard in a long time.

ETA: If you like the song as much as I do, the sheet music is available at Jeff Blumenkrantz's website. You can also get the podcast where he performs and briefly discusses the song.

"Stars and the Moon," written by Jason Robert Brown, performed by Audra McDonald

Unlike the singer in "Hold My Hand," the singer of "Stars and the Moon" has a very specific paramour in mind, specifically one with a great deal of money. She refuses two men who offer her grand gestures (they both offer her the "stars and the moon" for crying out loud), marries someone who is very wealthy, and eventually realizes her mistake. Furthermore, the person performing this song is the awesome Audra McDonald. Quite frankly, Private Practice would be a much better show if they just featured Audra and Taye Diggs singing 75% of the time.

"I'd Give It All For You," written by Jason Robert Brown, performed by Jason Robert Brown and Shoshana Bean

I know that I'm laying on the Jason Robert Brown love a little heavy, but I adore this song. However, this song actually seems to end on a hopeful note. Unlike the woman in "Stars and the Moon," these two lovers, who apparently decided that they wanted something different from a relationship, are able to come to their senses and realize that all they really want is each other. Oh, what most of us wouldn't give for a chance to have a romance related do-over.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bad Love Songs, Part II: Songs That Are Often Mistaken for Love Songs

Given that most popular songs are about love in some form or another, it shouldn't be surprising that, when forced to select a song for a first dance or for some other place in a wedding, a couple defaults to a popular song that they think expresses their love. Unfortunately, popularity and a catchy melody do not always (or even usually) equal declarations of undying affection. In fact, in some cases, they might just mean the opposite of what a happy couple intends. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, "That song, I do not think it means what you think it means."

"My Heart Will Go On" - Back in the late 1990s, due to the immense success of Titanic, you couldn't get away from this song. As a result, it became a popular staple at weddings and proms. Unfortunately, unless you are in a very twisted relationship or unless one of the people in the relationship is dying, this song really has no business being any couple's love theme. Besides the fact that some of the lyrics don't make very much sense ("love was when I loved you" - huh?) and that you will be forced to endure Celine Dion for the duration of your relationship, the song is about how the narrator will survive even though the person she loves has shuffled off this mortal coil. While this sentiment might be true, I highly doubt that it is what most couples are going for when they select it as "their song." If so, they really need to rethink their relationship.

"I Will Always Love You" - In terms of lyrics and melody, this song, written by the awesome Dolly Parton, is far superior to "My Heart Will Go On." Most people tend to focus on the chorus, which is an expression of undying love. Sadly, these people also ignore the lyrics, which clearly show that the song is about a couple who are no longer together; despite the narrator's assertion that she "will always love" the person she is singing about, she is leaving him because she isn't what he needs. It is about the end of a relationship, which apparently has crashed and burned in a spectacular fashion. Unless you are planning on breaking up with your significant other or you are trying to express your affection for someone you have already broken up with, it is best to listen to this song alone.

"I Knew I Loved You Before I Met You" - I am embarrassed to admit that I used to like this song. The entire idea of love at first sight once seemed very appealing. However, the lyrics are more than a little disturbing when I take time to think about them. "I knew I loved you before I met you" - this could mean one of two things. One is that the song's narrator is crazy and is possibly stalking the girl he is singing to. The other is that the narrator is rather shallow. Either way, I want nothing to do with him.

"Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" - Honestly, Oscar Hammerstein II (the lyricist for such classic shows like The Sound of Music and Oklahoma!), you should have known better. The song is from one of Rogers and Hammerstein's lesser-known works, Cinderella, and takes the idea of falling in love based on appearance and kicks it up a couple of notches. In it, the singer asks the question "Do I love you because you're beautiful or are you beautiful because I love you?" While there are some benign ways of thinking of this song, I immediately default to the interpretation of "Do I love you because you're beautiful and I'm shallow or are you only beautiful because I love you?" This is not a sentiment a girl wants to hear, even if it is sung to her in a moonlit garden.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book Review: How to Read a Novel

At first glance, John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel did not strike me as a fun read. Looking at it in the bookstore, I figured that it would be interesting and (as a teacher) probably very useful, but I did not count on it being particularly enjoyable. Luckily, I was wrong. While How to Read a Novel does provide ideas and lessons on how to read fiction, its fresh perspective on approaching the novel and Sutherland's entertaining writing style help make it a (mostly) accessible and very enjoyable book for anyone interested in the ins and outs of the novel.

Rather than simply focusing on the novel's actual writing, Sutherland tackles all of the novel's components. Besides giving some background on the novel and why it is in no danger of extinction despite the use of electronic readers, Sutherland also discusses little-mentioned components of the book, such as the typeface, the blurbs, and the author's pictures often found on the book's back cover. While this might sound somewhat tedious, the information and analysis that Sutherland offers is very informative and entertaining. For instance, the chapter devoted to first lines discusses the role that first lines have for both the committed reader (a person who has already decided to purchase and read the book) and the bookstore browser. It ends with the assertion that first lines "should never be taken at face value" in terms of seeing them as a reflection of the rest of the novel, but Sutherland also acknowledges their importance in setting up the story's tone (if not the entire theme).

One caveat I will note is that How to Read a Novel is not a book that will keep you up past your bedtime so that you will get to the end. In fact, I found that I enjoyed the book best when I read it in short spurts. Not only do the brief chapters encourage this, but the amount of information Sutherland presents also makes it almost imperative to take time and digest the ideas before proceeding. The other limitation of this book (at least for some readers) is Sutherland's numerous references to both other literary works and to British cultural touchstones. While most of these references are easy to understand because of the author's pithy explanations, they occasionally serve as an unwanted and unnecessary distraction from the book at hand.

Despite these minors complaints, I highly recommend How to Read a Novel for you or for the bibliophile in your life. It is well-written and thought-provoking, a combination that eludes many guides to literature. Furthermore, Sutherland's text may help you appreciate aspects of the novel that you may never have considered or reconsider characteristics that you may have long forgotten.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bad Love Songs, Part I: Desperate & Needy Edition

A quick Google search for the "worst love songs" will bring up numerous hits for lists from sources like VH1 and Helium. As with many things regarding music, these lists are pretty subjective, and for every person who nods in agreement regarding some song's inclusion, I'm sure that there are many people who read them and think to themselves "How can Meatloaf be on that list! 'I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)' is a classic!"

Despite the subjectivity of musical tastes, I've decided that there are too many bad love songs too not do a post (or three or four) on them. Since there are a plethora of substandard songs, I'm going to do a series of posts on songs grouped by theme.

Today's theme is: If I sound really desperate and needy, maybe I'll win your love. After a bad breakup or watching the guy/ girl we like go out with another, we've all attempted to get the object of our affection to pay attention to us. For some of us, this may mean a maudlin love letter, a drunken phone call, or a desperate email (or five). Thankfully, we are not the writers or performers of the following songs, which are so desperate and pathetic that they make even the most lovelorn of us feel a little better that our sentimental ramblings or wretched pleadings were not preserved in musical form forever and ever.

"Hello" by Lionel Richie. Just listen to the open chords of this song - you can almost immediately tell that this song is not going to be a happy jaunt. The song doesn't pick up when Richie starts singing. With lyrics like "I wonder where you are and I wonder what you do," it isn't any mystery why the narrator doesn't seem to be getting any response from the object of his affection. Also, the video is so eighties and so cheesy that it is cringetastic. If you want another good laugh after watching that video, check out drag queen Varla Jean Merman's version of the song.

"It Must Be Him" by Vicki Carr. Sweet baby Jesus, words don't even begin to describe how utterly pathetic this song is. The song's premise is that a woman decides that she doesn't need a man to be happy. Her resolve lasts until the phone rings, which prompts her to jump and pray "Let it please be him... It must be him. It must be him." While I'm not a super-feminist by any stretch of the imagination, just hearing this song makes me want to find the person responsible for it and make him or her suffer by listening to this song on an endless loop until there is an apology to humanity for subjecting us to lyrics like "Oh dear God. It must be him. But it's not him. And then I die. Again I die." Rather than burning bras in the seventies, perhaps protesters should have burned copies of this song instead.

"Saving All My Love for You" by Whitney Houston. Despite my love for vintage (pre-Bobby Brown) Whitney, this song is just too desperate and needy. Whitney actually performs the song very well and the melody and the arrangement is beautiful. Unfortunately, the gist of the song is that a woman has fallen in love with a married man. She is apparently under the delusion that he is going to leave his family for her, and he is stringing her along by telling her that they will eventually "run away together." With such chestnuts as "My friends try and tell me/ Find a man of my own./ But each time I try/ I just break down and cry/ 'Cause I'd rather be home feeling blue," you get the feeling that our resident songstress is just a glass of wine or two away from putting her head in the oven or boiling someone's bunny.

"I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) by Meat Loaf. I actually feel a little bad about including this song since it gets so much flak, and lyrically it isn't even the worst song on this list. However, this song's excessive feeling of desolation goes beyond the seemingly nonsensical lyrics, the deliciously overwrought delivery, the completely insane orchestrations, or The Phantom of the Opera meets '80s freak-out video. It is, in fact, a perfect storm of desperation and neediness, delivered to us by the king of excess, Meat Loaf.

Before we even start with the lyrics, we should start with the song's arrangement. This song, which clocks in at twelve minutes in its unabridged form (the video is over seven minutes long), could be considered a bit much just based on the frenetic orchestration that apparently includes every synthesizer that was in existence in 1993. The song opens with the revving of a motorcycle engine and then immediately goes into some insistent chords played on the piano. However, nothing can fully prepare us for the epic insanity that starts after Meat Loaf sings the chorus for the first time. The band revs up, the frantic piano chords begin again, and the beat becomes more and more insistent. This is the musical equivalent of having a door slam behind you in a haunted house. You are now stuck in an acid-induced nightmare that includes a soundtrack played on an over-miked, 500 piece orchestra that sounds so feverish that even Celine Dion would tell them to take it down a notch.

Once you get over the orchestration (if you can - trust me, it isn't easy), you can then pay attention to the lyrics. Apparently, the speaker will "Do anything for love" including going to hell, staying until the final act, sealing a pact, and being honest (I guess this can be difficult when in a relationship). He prays to the "gods of sex and drums and rock and roll." Then he starts saying "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that. No, I won't do that." The sentence structure is an English teacher's worst nightmare and has led to many a debate regarding what the speaker won't do for love. However, according to Indy's Meat Loaf Fan Site, if you pay attention to the lyrics (a very difficult feat after a minute or two of this song), you can figure out what the speaker won't do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Heart Stephen King

Even though I'm not particularly a fan of the horror genre, I've always had a soft spot for Stephen King. Anyone who is self-deprecating enough to admit that he is the literary equivalent of Big Mac and fries is someone I have to admire. Besides his charming lack of ego, I also enjoyed King's articles in Entertainment Weekly and his appearance on "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me." Added to all of this, King doesn't like Stephanie Meyer's writing. He may just be new literary crush.