Location, Location, Location

Why New Jersey rocks:

New Jersey’s small size has a lot to do with both its much-inflated deficiencies and its virtues. A lot is packed into limited territory. Urban squalor is squeezed up against dairy farms; picturesque villages right out of a New England landscape are a sneeze away from sulfurous factories and malodorous highways. For a lot of people, caricature of the state’s deficiencies is an efficient way to reduce its multifaceted nature to a clear meaning.

The jumble of contrasts is, on the contrary, the source of Jersey’s remarkable harvest of talent. It drives certain people to either build a unified artistic sensibility out of the divisions around them, or to create art unhindered by a narrow identity.

and why Billy Joel sucks:

I decided to make a serious effort to identify the consistent qualities across Joel’s “body of work” (it almost hurts to write that) that make it so meretricious, so fraudulent, so pitifully bad. And so, risking humiliation and embarrassment, I ventured to the Barnes & Noble music section and bought a four-disc set of B.J.’s “Greatest Hits,” one of which was a full disc of his musings about art and music. I must admit that I also bought a copy of an album I already had — Return of the Grievous Angel, covers of Gram Parsons songs by the likes of the Cowboy Junkies and Gillian Welch, whose “Hickory Wind” is just ravishing—so the cashier might think the B.J. box was merely a gift, maybe for someone with no musical taste. Yes, reader. I couldn’t bear the sneer, even for your benefit.

And I think I’ve done it! I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.

“The Good Rat”? Try “The Totally Freakin’ Awesome Rat”

I enjoy the heck out of Ron Rosenbaum’s essays and columns, but my track record with his book, movie, music recommendations isn’t great. Sure, he turned me — and a generation of readers — on to Charles Portis, and he also lightened my heart with Rosanne Cash.

But then there’s the Rosenbaum who contends that Domino “captures, purely with its look, the way we look” and “will be a cultural referent longer than many movies that make more money.” In fact, Domino is a terrible movie, the acid-green-iness isn’t very innovative, and it still doesn’t answer the question of whether Keira Knightley is hot.

And don’t get me started with the number of months my wife & I were sucked into the hypersaturated void of CSI:Miami on Ron’s recommendation. Sure, it was stupidly entertaining, especially with the Caruso-isms. But, dude . . . Zoroastrian undertones?

What I’m saying is, some of Ron’s suggestions are good, some are bad. And I’m telling you that he hit a home run with his recent praise for Jimmy Breslin’s new book, The Good Rat.

I downloaded the book shortly after reading Ron’s article, and I could barely put it down. I’ve gone back to reread chapters this weekend. It’s a fantastic non-fiction book about a career mobster who testifies against a pair of crooked (now retired) cops. Much of the book consists of the man’s testimony, balanced by Breslin’s wonderful interjections, his anecdotes about criminal New York’s past and dissolving present, character sketches, and his own past as a newspaperman, chronicling the city’s underworld.

The book is a sort of elegy for those early days, exploring the contradictions of the glamor, mundanity and evil of the mafia. The mobsters commit evil acts — the center of the book involves a heartbreaking story of murder-by-mistaken-identity — but they lead common lives, and Breslin is adept at drawing out these tensions. These men aspire to some sort of greatness, but they can never amount to anything more than elderly men trying to stay ahead of the feds. This may seem passe, post-Sopranos, but Breslin makes it a joy to explore this world.

Go get The Good Rat. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. (I count The Heart of Darkness as a novella, not a book.)

[As an aside, I should point out that the biggest tragedy in the death-of-the-newspaper phenomenon may be the loss of great city & political columnists like Breslin, Mike Royko and Murray Kempton (another Rosenbaum recommendation). I only read a few papers nowadays, but I can’t think of any newspaper writers working now who could reach their heights.]

Mental Health Day

I don’t really believe in the term, “Mental Health Day,” but this qualifies. It’s a gorgeous day, so I decided to take a vacation day, run some errands, hang out with Rufus, and otherwise not do any job-related stuff.

One of the errand-class activities was upgrading this site to WordPress 2.5. The new administrator interface is different enough that it made me averse to writing anything this morning, but I figure I oughtta post something on it before the dog & I head out to Ringwood Manor for a little meander (with cameras, of course).

Here’s a little double-whammy I’ve been waiting to post. I’m not getting anywhere in my ruminations on them, so I offer them up to you, dear readers. I hope they coalesce into a little something that you can share with me.

First, Ron Rosenbaum offers up some ruminations on Hiroshima in the 21st century. (Of course, Ron being Ron, it’s “what we talk about when we talk about Hiroshima.”)

Then, Steven Heller examines the history of the CND symbol, and how it may stretch back a lot further than its official 50 years.

I’m gonna head out with my dog; don’t work too hard.