Michael Patrick Brady

Books

No Future for You: Salvos from The Baffler

August 22, 2014

baffler

My review of No Future for You, the latest collection of essays from The Baffler ran today in the Boston Globe.

It’s nineteen essays of highly literate doom and gloom from some of the left’s heaviest hitters, like Rick Perlstein and Barbara Ehrenreich, representing the best of The Baffler‘s new era. Now, a lot of people were probably introduced to The Baffler via Steve Albini’s epic “The Problem With Music,” but the article that made me a believer was Joshua Glenn’s “I’d Like to Force the World to Sing,” a fanciful, paranoid examination of how OK Soda was a CIA plot to instill conservative values in ’90s youth.

In their impossible quest to conjure up a cadre of conservative youth who’d rebel against a Sixties they’d never known, [William] Kristol and Co., the theory maintains, conspired to dose Generation X with the concentrated essence of what they called “OK-ness.”

Now, as ridiculous as this may seem, I was actually somewhat receptive to this argument. In 1993, I was 10 years old and had just gone to my very first Red Sox game with my father. On the way home, we stopped in a convenience store. The old man behind the counter greeted us and mentioned in passing that he had recently received two new beverages from Coca Cola that were being tested in the Boston market: OK Soda and Fruitopia. He offered me one of each, for free. Only after reading the essay did I consider the sinister undertones of this “free” gift.

Frutopia was fine, but I really took to OK Soda (despite the playground rumor that it was simply a mixture of the runoff of every other Coca Cola drink). I was very taken with the can art, which I would later discover was designed by Ghost World‘s Daniel Clowes. The whole marketing campaign was expertly crafted to appeal to little kids like me, who had an interest in the underground but were far too young to participate or even know where to begin. Hidden in Glenn’s inventive theorizing is a thorough dismantling of that marketing campaign, a great example of how you can effectively merge creative non-fiction and serious criticism.

Now, there’s nothing nearly that entertaining in No Future for You. The tone and style of the contemporary Baffler is much harsher and more downcast. But, you know, so are the times we live in. And the criticism in the book, of our mercenary media, of the Silicon Valley charlatans, and other guardians of entrenched privilege, is as incisive as ever. You can’t blame the magazine for not having as much of a sense of humor about it anymore.


Music

Reissue: Cover Commentary

May 20, 2014

I’ve taken my old article about the comment stickers from WZBC’s vinyl archive (originally published in Stylus Magazine) and given it the Medium treatment.

Hard to believe it’s over 10 years old. I’ve enhanced the article with the actual scans of the comment stickers described throughout, and added several bonus covers, including scans of the comments for Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and Daydream Nation.

Seemed like a nice way to breathe some new life into the piece and get familiar with the Medium platform.


BOSTON

Bridj to Nowhere

April 11, 2014

“Data driven bus service set to roll out,” writes today’s Globe. “Venture aims to predict rider’s needs.”

The story goes on to describe Bridj, a new private bus service that will ferry riders around Boston from point A to point B with no stops in between, for roughly $5 to $8 a trip. Its founder, Matthew George, says that he “considers Bridj a ‘relief valve’ for the MBTA, not a competitor,” but if that’s true, then I don’t think he’s considered the potential effects his project will have on the transit system and the people of this city.

The initial Bridj routes are planned to run express between the Hynes Convention Center and Harvard Square (the route of the MBTA’s #1 bus), and Coolidge Corner to Harvard Square (MBTA #66) or Kendall Square (Green “C” Line to the #1 @ Hynes or the Red Line @ Park).

I don’t know, that pretty much sounds like direct competition to me.

Let’s be honest about what Bridj is. It’s not a way to make transportation easier for Boston’s commutters. It’s a way to let a certain class of commutter, the kind who attend Harvard, or live in Coolidge Corner and the Back Bay, or who work for a tech company in Kendall Square, to get where they need to go without having to mix with the proles who live at all the stops in between. Because unless you’re one of those people, you’re going to have to take the T to get to a Bridj hub anyway.

And with Bridj’s initial plan taking a fairly big chunk out of some of the MBTA’s prime routes, that’s going to hurt the MBTA’s bottom line. Which means increased fares and cuts in service. If the MBTA begins to falter, is Bridj going to start picking up the slack? What happens to the people who pick up the #66 bus in Lower Allston? Will we ever get a direct Bridj route from Fields Corner to Kenmore Square, which might actually cover ground the MBTA doesn’t?

Honestly, I find the blithe way that the “no stops along the way” strategy is described in the article disturbing. “With no stops along the way, travel times would be faster on Bridj than on the T,” said George.

Yes, but for whom?

I’m reminded of a line from a Nick Kristoff op-ed in the New York Times about the money people are willing to spend on individual disaster preparedness, when they’d balk at supporting broader solutions through their taxes:

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

And to me, that’s Bridj in a nutshell. It creates a two-tiered system of transit and serves only the affluent, with no concern for the cascading consequences that will affect the people left waiting for a bus that’s never going to come. Or that they can’t afford to board.

The MBTA isn’t perfect, but it works in aggregate. It works for as many people as it can, and there’s some give and take in that. Some things suffer: some days you might wait too long for a bus, or the train breaks down, or you are victim of one of those “switch problems” that seem to crop up at the most inconvenient times. The MBTA could easily do what Bridj does; it would just have to stop serving the vast majority of Bostonians. If that were the case, the rides would be smooth, the seats could be comfy, and Wi-Fi would be plentiful. But it wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t be good for Boston.


Books

Bad Teeth | Dustin Long

March 25, 2014

badteeth

My review of Dustin Long’s Bad Teeth ran today in the Boston Globe.

Long’s second novel falls squarely into postmodern novel territory, with a distinct Crying of Lot 49 vibe. It’s not nearly as detailed or deep as Pynchon, but what is? Bad Teeth looks to emulate the style, but doesn’t overreach, and the result is a really fun, wide-ranging story whose ultimate point is how pointless everything seems nowadays.

What I liked most about the book was how Long depicted the relationship his cast of millennial characters have with social media. They blog, they tweet, and they use Facebook, and they do so in a way that’s completely unobtrusive and germane to their lifestyle. I feel like references to youth culture often seem shoehorned into narratives, or are shown in an odd light, as if the writer doesn’t really have any first-hand experience with it. Like they are writing about young people based on how they’re portrayed in David Brooks columns. Long, however, seems to get it, and it’s really refreshing to read a story that feels like it’s set in the world as I know it.

One thing of note: about halfway through the book, it’s revealed that the narrative we’re reading isn’t being told from a third-person omniscient perspective. Instead, it’s being told by one of the characters within it. So the main character’s name, Judas, is thrown into a different light when you discover that the narrator is someone who was betrayed by the main character.

I’m not a huge fan of these metafictional touches. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow uses the exact same device (as does Roth’s American Pastoral, where the details of Swede Levov’s tragic life are entirely the creation of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination). And I’m left wondering, does this approach add anything to these stories? In Roth’s case, maybe, but I think you could probably remove the unreliable narrators from all three books and just let the stories stand on their own with no ill effect. They might even be stronger for it.


Books

North of Boston | Elisabeth Elo

January 27, 2014

My review of North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo ran today in the Boston Globe.

I’ve never been a fan of James Bond movies. Apart from the cartoonish stories and retrograde sexism, I just never found James Bond very interesting as a character. He’s pure wish fulfillment, a man who’s handsome, with intellectual and physical faculties that allow him to surmount any obstacle, is permitted to bend and break the law at his own discretion in the service of his goals, and can have any woman he wants.

He’s entirely characterized by superficialities, and utterly lacking in depth. It’s like a maladjusted 11-year-old boy’s fantasy.

I’ve also never been a fan of genre fiction, which I find to be plagued by the kind of writing I describe above. To make a big overgeneralization, it always strikes me as shallow archetypes moving through fairly banal plot loaded with “surprise” twists you can see coming well in advance. So maybe I wasn’t the target audience for “North of Boston.” In fact, I definitely wasn’t. So if you know you enjoy genre fiction, or thrillers in general, take my criticism with a grain of salt.

The book’s protagonist, Pirio Kasparaov, is, like James Bond, great at everything. She’s attractive, well read, and fairly affluent, the beneficiary of her family’s successful perfume company, where she works as an executive. But she’s also a down-to-earth gal who hangs out with fisherman and other blue collar types at seedy dives, and volunteers to bait fishing traps on a boat in Boston Harbor for her friend’s ex husband because hey, why not? What perfume company executive doesn’t like to moonlight as a chum jockey?

But Pirio’s all-around excellence doesn’t stop there. Elo also gives her superpowers, such as the ability to identify minute traces of obscure scents, and an imperviousness to hypothermia; naturally, she encounters situations in which the only clue is a faint aroma of cologne and in which she must swim across a freezing, arctic bay.

“North of Boston” might not have been so frustrating if Pirio didn’t enter every life-threatening situation seeming to know that she wasn’t in any real danger. More than once, she finds herself in circumstances that would terrify or frighten a normal human, and she never seems to process how serious they are. As a reader, this confused me, until I realized that the situations actually weren’t very serious. Because Pirio’s specialness pretty much ensured that she’d have no trouble getting out of it, and made it impossible to generate any real tension.


Books

Communion Town | Sam Thompson

December 17, 2013

My review of Sam Thompson’s Communion Town ran today in the Boston Globe.

Purportedly a novel, the book consists of 10 stories, each focused on a different protagonist, and all set in the same imaginary city. Though, the details and inner workings of the city are so slippery and malleable that it’s often difficult to see any cohesion from chapter to chapter.

Thompson is obviously a well-read writer, and Communion Town offers the highly literate reader a fun game of “spot the influence,” as it skips and jumps between genres, styles, and allusions. There are homages to Raymond Chandler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and nods to Italo Calvino and China Miéville. Thompson tries his hand at serial-killer thrillers, romance, and surrealism. His strongest story is the one that seems most his own, “The Song of Serelight Fair.” In it, a down-on-his-luck songwriter strikes up a love affair with a well-to-do lady. The characters are brilliant, and the city begins to feel like a real, living, breathing place, albeit one with an air of mystery and magic about it. Thompson’s prose is smart and engaging, though he occasionally lets his words run away with his sentences.

Communion Town is evidence of deep talent, and when Thompson does finally write a novel and lets his own voice rise above the references, it’s sure to be worth reading.


Books

My Favorite Books of 2013

December 14, 2013
The Color Master
Aimee Bender

“Like her previous collections, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures,” “The Color Master” explores transgressions of custom, where characters — most often women — dare to step outside their expected roles, and transgressions of reality, where she employs subtle surrealism to create moments of vivid tension.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe

Fools
Joan Silber

““The paths of love,” writes Joan Silber, “are long and complicated.” In “Fools,” her latest collection of short fiction, Silber invites readers to meander along those paths, through six interconnected stories that span a century, as her characters search for personal peace in the midst of a turbulent world.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe

Odds Against Tomorrow
Nicholas Rich

“Rich is an imaginative storyteller himself, and his vivid vignettes are peppered with factoids that seem just true enough to be frightening. He shows a bit of prescience in his plotting, setting the climax of the book in New York City in the midst of Hurricane Tammy, whose devastating winds and floodwaters [resemble] Superstorm Sandy.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe


Books

Double Down | Mark Halperin & John Heilemann

November 12, 2013

My review of Double Down: Game Change 2012 ran today in the Boston Globe.

Back in 2010, when Game Change came out, I had resolved to avoid the book mainly because I had no use for Mark Halperin. I knew him as the man behind “The Note,” a particularly noxious political roundup that pandered to the worst impulses of its audience of entrenched insiders. But when I finally caved and picked up the book, I was stunned by how engrossing it was. Halperin and Heilemann really captured what was great about the 2008 election, and their portrayals of the Obamas, the Clintons, and the Edwardses were riveting (not to mention their autopsy on the dysfunctional McCain/Palin campaign).

The book was great, maybe in spite of the authors, because the story was so great. You really couldn’t mess it up. As I mention in the review, Double Down suffers a bit because the characters just aren’t as interesting as they were in 2008. The Republican challengers, in addition to being terrible people, are terrible candidates. There’s not a likable, or even sympathetic, one in the bunch. Halperin and Heilemann try and fill the gaps by overwriting with overwrought similes and analogies, most of which are laughably distracting.

But there’s good gossip here. Much of it aimed at the thorns in Mitt Romney’s side, likely dealt out by Romney surrogates looking for revenge. Chris Christie, John Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich all get an extensive working over. So while it’s not the grand, transcendent story that Game Change was, Double Down still manages to offer a little entertainment for those who enjoy the behind-the-scenes insights Halperin and Heilemann are so adept at scrounging up.


Books

The Color Master | Aimee Bender

August 20, 2013

My review of The Color Master by Aimee Bender ran today in the Boston Globe.

Bender’s offbeat stories reminded me somewhat of Ben Loory, another writer who bends genres and takes pleasure in blending the fantastic with the mundane. With Loory, the surreal and often weird flourishes are an end unto themselves, but Bender employs them with care and precision, usually to tease out some larger theme or introduce a new source of tension for her characters.

While the fairy-tale inspired elements are sure to garner the most attention, Bender’s quieter, less flashy stories like “Lemonade” are just as accomplished and engaging. Throughout The Color Master, Bender defies expectations, and her characters are always pitch perfect, whether they’re clueless teens walking around the mall or bold women struggling with their turbulent marriages to ogres. She’s an adventurous, daring writer, and the stories in this collection are full of enticing surprises.


Books

The Illusion of Separateness | Simon Van Booy

July 9, 2013

My review of The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy ran today in the Boston Globe.

Van Booy’s book bears something of a resemblance to Joan Silber’s Fools, in that it’s a series of short vignettes featuring characters, across multiple generations, whose lives are all connected in some discreet way. But while Fools called itself a collection of short stories and came off more like a loose novel, Illusion purports to be a novel, but ultimately feels like a loose collection of short stories.

The connections between the characters in Fools were incidental and augmenting; in Illusion, they’re a focal point, and something of a drag on the story. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book. Though the plot is unfortunately thin, Van Booy’s writing is brilliant, and even if where he leads readers is something of a let down, following his wonderfully-crafted prose is still a pleasure.


Books

Fools | Joan Silber

June 4, 2013

fools

My review of Joan Silber’s Fools ran in today’s Boston Globe.

Pitched as a collection of short stories, the six, interconnected pieces in the book seem to constitute a loose novel, with a multi-generational assortment of characters whose lives span the better part of a century. There’s a group of Greenwich Village anarchists in the 1930s and ’40s; an entitled son bumming around Paris in the 1960s; a couple navigating the thorny intersections of love and faith in the 1970s up through the millennium; a lawyer looking for direction amid the intensity of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration; and a fundraiser squaring off against a canny potential philanthropist in the present.

Though the stories stand on their own, each contributes to a grander theme that encompasses the whole book, as Silber explores whether we can truly marry our ideals with our actions in the face of internal contradictions and external pressures.

Silber’s writing is rich and natural, and she instantly creates a rapport between the reader and narrator. It feels as if you’re engaged in a dialogue with another person, and this comfortable, flowing quality makes it easy to breeze through the book.


Books

Odds Against Tomorrow | Nathaniel Rich

April 26, 2013

I was abroad last week when the Boston Globe published my review of Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, while Boston itself was dealing with the kind of unpredictable, worst-case scenario Rich’s book deals with.

Rich’s novel is a product of our early twenty-first century obsession with disaster and calamity. Those of us who grew up in the time between the fall of the Soviet Union and September 11th remember a time when large-scale disasters and terror attacks seemed like abberations. Unlike our parents generation, our childhoods weren’t overshadowed by the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, and unlike our younger siblings (and possibly children), we weren’t pummeled by one major incident after another, starting with 9/11, through the anthrax attacks, Hurricane Katrina, London, Madrid, the 2008 financial crisis, Superstorm Sandy, and now Boston. As the Onion put it, “this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.”

The protagonist of Odds Against Tomorrow becomes fixated on predicting disasters; his formative experience is the destruction of Seattle by an earthquake while he is a college student (a scene that felt very familiar, as I was a newly minted college freshman on September 11th). In the review, I talk about the dangers of complacency, about letting these things creep up on you and ignoring the warning signs, but I also talk about the dangers of excessive vigilance, how a preoccupation with an unknowable, and perhaps inevitable future can be even more damaging. In the Bush years, it felt like our country was continually jumping at its own shadow, so determined to stave off another attack that it became a national neurosis; we likely did more harm to ourselves than any malefactor could have.

So far, I’m heartened by the response in Boston. As a city, we’ve held fast, and so far the reaction has been appropriately proportional to the event itself. My hope is that we don’t return to those dark times of the mid-aughts, and that we’ve learned from our mistakes.

Decades from now, when students and historians are trying to understand this troubled and turbulent time in our history, Odds Against Tomorrow will likely be on the reading list. It is a book of its time, and does a good job of peeling back the motives, fears, and anxieties of a society coming to terms with the true instability and uncertainty of life.


Books

Schroder | Amity Gaige

February 14, 2013

schroder

My review of Amity Gaige’s Schroder ran today in the Boston Globe.

Gaige’s plot is ripped from the headlines, borrowing from the real-life case of Clark Rockefeller. Like the fraudulent Rockefeller, her protagonist, Eric Schroder, is a German immigrant who borrows a famous name (in this case, Kennedy) in order to get ahead. When his dishonesty is revealed, he ends up on the run, kidnapping his only daughter. He’s not nearly as sinister as Rockefeller, however, more hapless and desperate, with an undercurrent of arrogance that leads him to make some terrible decisions.

Schroder’s personality, and his meandering road trip through upstate New York and New England, bear a striking similarity to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and the nomadic journeying in Lolita. I don’t think Gaige meant to intimate anything sordid about Schroder’s relationship with his daughter, but it’s also hard to not think about the connections if you’ve read both books. A quick, engaging read, Schroder manages to get you interested in a character who should be offputting, and asks some interesting questions about how much of our identity we’re capable of shaping, and how much we simply must accept as immutable.


Books

All In The Family | Robert O. Self

September 25, 2012

My review of Robert O. Self’s All In The Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since The 1960s ran today in the Boston Globe.

The book is an amazing account of the evolution of American politics spurred by President Johnson’s Great Society reforms, as the emergence of feminism, gay rights, and anti-war sentiment was met with vociferous opposition by conservative traditionalists seeking to maintain their privilege and deny the full benefits of American citizenship to those these emerging constituencies. It’s a nice companion to Rick Perlstein’s extraordinary Nixonland. Where that book focused on the electoral consequences of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of “Law and Order” conservatism, Self takes aim at the nebulous concept of “family values” as defined by right-wing politicians over the last 50 years. He covers the impact that second-wave feminists, gay rights activists, and anti-war protestors had on the national dialogue, showing how their attempts to bring the America’s self-image closer to reality was met with fierce opposition by a privileged class with much invested in a national mythology of a white, male breadwinner and all the idealized trappings that came with it.

Self shows how “family values” became a cudgel with which conservative activists and politicians could batter the electorate, and shape the political landscape of the country. Though “family values” purport to be about returning America to a simpler time in which single-income, two-parent households were the norm (a fantasy that Self easily dismantles), in reality they’re about creating a multi-tiered citizenship in which only those with wealth and privilege are entitled to full enjoyment of their status as Americans. Everyone else is left to the mercy of the market, by design, and denied the full enjoyment of their rights.

While I was reading this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his excellent article, “Fear of a Black President,” at The Atlantic in which he wrote:

For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.”

All in the Family hits on that same theme: the difference between our nation’s stated goals, its self-perception, and reality. Until we, as a country, come to terms with the systemic and institutional biases that are woven into the national fabric, we’ll never be able to tear out those stitches and reshape it into a system that works for everyone and treats everyone fairly.