I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorite Albums I Discovered in 2011

I've been seeing a lot of "Best of" lists in recent days, and been thinking about my own favorite music discoveries of the year. This isn't a "best of 2011" list, since most of the albums and artists I've been listening to recorded their work years ago. But, it was all new to me.

This year marked a significant shift in my music listening habits. Save for a few rare instances, I'm buying 100% of my music online now. As a result, I'm spending a lot more time mixing my own playlists, and I buy a lot of single tracks to fill these in. Gone are the days when I'd have to shell out money for a CD to get one good song. So, this means that if I find an album that holds my attention, it's a really good album.

Probably my favorite album discovery was How We Quit the Forest by Rasputina. Rasputina is progressive cello rock with hints of steampunk and goth. Her literary and historical interests are very strong, and half of the pleasure of listening to Rasputina is researching the obscure historical trivia she's referencing, or else having her sing a song about something that you knew about, but had never known was songworthy until now. Alas, Rasputina is so far ranging in her topics and musical approaches, most of her albums are a mess of stuff that doesn't really fit together. She has an annoying fondness for gimicky, jokey songs that really stop being interesting the second time you hear them. But, her instincts also drive her to write songs with haunting lyrics and beautiful melodies, and can produce songs so perfect they give me songasms.

How We Quit the Forest has only a few joke songs (Onward Christian Soldiers, Diamond Mind, and Dwarf Star). And, as her joke songs go, these are pretty good ones. But, she really goes all out on more serious topics, singing about relationships in The Olde Headboard, senility in Rose K, human cruelty in Herb Girls of Birkenau, and standing by a troubled/sick friend in Sign of the Zodiac. And, if there has ever been a better song, wierder, more perfect song about alienation and love than The New Zero, I can't think of it. Seriously, my friend Mike Edmonston told me about this band last spring, and I've been hooked since the first you-tube video I sampled, a cello driven cover of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.

In contrast to my online discoveries, I happened to run across Radiohead's albums Amnesiac and Kid A while I was in a thrift store. The CDs were only 99 cent, so picking them up wasn't a huge gamble. I've like Radiohead in small doses, but never really fell in love with their albums before. But both Amnesiac and Kid A are works of art that need to be listened to in thier entirity. They are atmospheric, moody, and haunting, with most of the voice work digitally altered until it's nearly impossible to understand. But, rather than being annoying, the warped voices add to the overall emotion of the albums, and seem to be a statement in themselves about how difficult it is to communicate honestly. I don't use drugs, but these albums give me a feeling of altered consciousness, of sinking into a surreal landscape where the familiar becomes unrecognizable.

While I'd been lukewarm to Radiohead, I've loved the Decemberists since I first heard them, and have nearly all their albums. One I didn't have until recently was The Hazards of Love. It's a concept album, where all the songs blend together to tell the story of a shapeshifting son of the forest who seduces a mortal woman. When I heard about it, it was a bit too fairy-tale for my tastes. Also, I had the bad luck of listening to The Rake's Song out of context, and was just put off by it. It's sung by a man who boasts of murdering his three children after his wife dies so he can return to the life of a wanton bachelor. The Decemberists have a flair for dark humor, but, out of context, this song was too dark even for my tastes.

Now, I've heard it in context and, wow, The Hazards of Love is easily the Decemberist's best album. Ironically, it manages to do this without having any of thier best songs. There's nothing from this album I'm going to pull out and put onto my Decemberist playlist. The songs really only make sense in the context of the other songs. The Rake's Song doesn't work unless it's matched by the revenge song that comes near the end of the album where the spirits of the dead children rise from the water to greet thier murderous father. Many of the catchiest songs echo and thread throughout the work, like the refrain of the title, "The Hazards of Love," or the chorus from the song "The Wanting Comes in Waves." Most of the characters in the musical play are matched with musical themes, and the music will shift from theme to theme as the characters interact. I find myself looking forward to driving places that take more than an hour to get to, so I'll have the chance to listen to the whole album at once, which is really the only way to approach this. Otherwise, it would be like trying to watch a movie in three and four minute snippets.

One last note: My year got off to a good start with Jonah Knight released an EP of songs based on my novel Nobody Gets the Girl. While it seems like that should be on my list of favorite albums, I confess that Jonah really knocked the Nobody soundtrack out of my year end thoughts by putting out an even better album, The Age of Steam: Strange Machines. Steampunk is a growing trend in a lot of media, and some artists embrace of it seems more opportunistic than inspired. But, The Age of Steam is a perfect blend of geeky and creepy and just sounds sincere. You can tell Jonah loves the subjects of time machines, airships, haunted guitars and the restless dead. Also, he does a cover of "Bad Moon Rising" that will make you forget the original version, which had a pop, upbeat melody. Jonah's slow, haunting take really highlights the menace woven through the lyrics. This version really makes going out at night when a bad moon is on the rise sound like a very poor choice.

I feel like I need to note an absense on this list: For the first year in almost a decade, I didn't find any new Mountain Goat albums to obsess over. This is a combination of having filled out nearly all of his back catalog, and being somewhat let down by his new album this year, All Eternal's Deck. AED had one song that produced one of the aforementioned "songasms," High Hawk Season. Damn These Vampires and Prowl Great Cain are also very strong songs. But, past that, the album just never caught my imagination. I felt like John Darnielle pulled back on this album and didn't do many songs that were really personal or daring. I know it has to be emotionally draining to produce albums like The Sunset Tree or The Coroner's Gambit, but there was something clinical and clean about All Eternal's Deck that robbed it of emotion. But, I'm not losing faith, and await the next album he produces so it can wipe away my rather feeble memories of this one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The War on Christmas

First, as an atheist, I'd like to apologize for the behavior of some of my brethren this season. Specifically, I'm talking about the atheists who flooded the lottery system for a town in California in order to claim 15 of 18 spaces reserved in a public park for a holiday display. Ordinarily, these spaces were used by local churches to stage nativity scenes. This year, however, only three churches could put up displays due to the atheists having snatched up the other spaces. Adding insult to injury, the atheists only put up three rather boring winter solstice displays, then left the remaining dozen spaces empty.

Some people will argue that a public park shouldn't be used for religious displays, period. I find this a little confusing. It seems to me that public parks as shared space should be available for use of all the public, and, last I checked, Christians composed at least some small portion of the population. I would think that as long as the local government is neutral on content, allowing religions other than Christianity to put up displays if they wish, there's no violation of anyone's rights unfolding by letting churches stage their nativity scenes in a park. If you can stage a Shakesperian play in a park, why not the nativity? A nativity scene is just a very boring play. Some teenagers in robes stand around with sheep and a donkey, staring adoringly at a baby doll in a straw-filled wooden box for hours on end. The highlight of the evening is if the donkey poops. How does this harm anyone?

I firmly support the right for atheist groups to put up a display promoting their point of view. But to leave the majority of spaces empty just shows they weren't interested in spreading a message, they were interested in silencing Christians. I can think of no motivation beyond spite.

It is, bluntly, the work of jerks. The fact that these jerks happen to be atheists embarrasses me. No one should gain pleasure by stopping their fellow man from partaking in an activity that he enjoys if no one is harmed. It's just petty.

That said, I find it tiresome that some right wing commentators use this time of year to trot out the predictable phrase, the War on Christmas.

If Christmas is in any existential danger, it's not from atheists. Instead, it's in danger from the corporate Christmas machine. Christmas has become a brand, a rather naked excuse to drive American's into a shopping frenzy that results in shoppers breaking down mall doors, pepper spraying fellow shoppers, and brawling over sneakers. I know that there's a reporting bias here; no one is going to report a story of shoppers entering a Walmart, quietly finding the items they want, then checking out with a polite cashier. It's only the extremes of naughty that make the Drudge Report.

Still, I can't help but feel that Christmas has been warped by our collective affluence. I find an analogy with our obesity epidemic. American's used to do a lot of manual labor and eat less processed foods, and were, on the whole, much thinner. But, we got smart, started working desk jobs and making more money, and began eating out all the time. We ballooned up. Christmas faced a similar problem. There was a time when gift giving meant more, because people didn't have as much free money as they do today. (Arguably, the free money is actually cheap credit, but that's another column.) A girl who got a doll on Christmas morning was thrilled, because she didn't have that many toys. Today, kids have more toys than they can ever play with. I've watched kids opening gifts and been struck at just how jaded and ungrateful they seem now. It doesn't get much better with adults. Because we're affluent relative to the Victorian era where many of our traditions began, most of us already have all the stuff we need to live a comfortable life. So, Christmas gifts almost by definition are becoming stuff that we don't need. I was struck by a gift center in a department store the other week, where the items being sold were obvious intended for no other purpose than giving away, since they were in decorative holiday boxes already. The gifts were little doo-dads and trinkets. A hammer with a flashlight in the handle. Binoculars with a compass built in. Clock radios for showers. Golf balls with little christmas trees on them. Bars of soap shaped like snowflakes.

No one would ever buy these items for themselves. But, because we absolutely must give gifts, these useless, pointless items are purchased, given, then promptly go into drawers, or storage buildings, or landfills.

Just as our affluence has led us to devour too many empty calories, we now clog the arteries of our holiday traditions with valueless gifts. And, just as our wastelines have expanded beyond the bounds of health and attractiveness, Christmas has expanded, swelling across the calendar to all but swallow Thanksgiving and Halloween, which are now events concurrent with the Christmas season, rather than events that preceed it.

I admit, I'm saying this as an outsider who walked away from Christmas many years ago. It may be that those of you who still celebrate the holiday like walking into malls at Labor Day and looking at the Christmas displays going up. But, I still can't help but think that, if Christmas doesn't mean as much as it used to, it's not the fault of atheists.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

This week produced one of those moments in politics where I felt, once more, that I lived in a Looking Glass universe. The heart of the weirdness started when Newt Gingrich said something right on the borderline of common sense, always a dangerous place for any politician to wander. Gingrich said, if I may paraphrase, that our child labor laws hurt poor children who would enjoy long term benefits in life if they were allowed to work at an earlier age. He went on to say that the poorest of poor children grow up in households and neighborhoods where no adult works, so they never witness good work habits. Finally, his proposed remedy was to hire the children as janitors in their public schools.

There are three basic arguments here. First, poor children would benefit if child labor laws were changed. My libertarian sensibilities lead me to believe this statement is true for all children, not just poor ones. I'm not saying children should be put to work in sweat shops, nor that they should be allowed to work schedules that would take away time from their education. But, in my personal experience, people who started working early in life (often outside the legal employment grid, working as baby sitters and mowing lawns) tend to be more mature by the time they reach college age than the kids who've managed to avoid any real labor. Of course, the real issue today may be, if we did remove the working age barrier, and let individuals employ whoever they wished no matter what their age, would there be any jobs available for young workers? Still, on this point, I think Gingrich was taking a common sense position, but many commentators acted as if he was advocating child abuse. The Nation ran an article titled "The Nastiness of Newt Gingrich" and the New York Times had an editorial titled "Newt Gingrich's War on Poor Children."

The latter essay, by Charles Blow, directly attacked the second premise of Gingrich's argument, that poor children don't see adults working. I'll concede that Gingrich didn't throw out any percentages, so his claim is a bit overly broad. By the census statistics Charles Blow sites, fifty percent of all households in poverty have at least one parent working full time, and another twenty-five percent have a parent working part time. That still leaves one in four children fitting Gingrich's assertion. But, Charles Blow goes on to look at the "poorest of the poor," since that is who Gingrich singled out, and seems to feel like he's delivering a devestating rebuttal when he declares that 1/3 of these households have at least one working parent. Meaning two out of three of these households don't have an employed adult providing a role model for their kids. Either Charles Blow is really bad at math, or he thinks his readers are, to trot out a statistic supporting Gingrich's argument and wave it around as evidence that Gingrich is wrong.

But it wasn't this editorial that most pushed me into Looking Glass land. It's was Gingrich's solution to the problem of childhood unemployment. By arguing that they should work at their schools, Gingrich is suggesting that the government hire them. Isn't this... I dunno... a stimulus plan? Instead of removing barriers to kids finding work in the private sector (for instance, by having a lower minimum wage for teenagers), he's proposing that government do the hiring directly. Isn't this something that, if President Obama proposed it, Newt Gingrich would denounce as socialist manipulation of the free market?

For all the Tea Party types who are starting to support Gingrich (who is, I admit, a towering intellectual genius when placed against Perry, Bachmann, and Cain, and a portrait of political courage when stood up next to spineless Romney), pay close attention to what Gingrich is revealing about his political instincts in this off the cuff remark. He may talk up small goverment and free enterprise, but Gingrich is a political creature to his deepest core. He's a font of ideas, but many of these ideas are about how government can improve people's lives. If he winds up as president, there is no way he'll govern as a hand's off, libertarian type. The problems of the world are nails sticking up that he doesn't want people to trip on, and government is his hammer. That people who claim to want small government can choose a man like him over someone like Ron Paul is mystifying to me. At least, it's mystifying until I remember, oh, right, I'm through the Looking Glass.