Hey, Mom! The Explanation.

Here's the permanent dedicated link to my first Hey, Mom! post and the explanation of the feature it contains.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Eating Contests are not news; they're disgusting!

Want to know what pisses me off today? Eating contests.

The other day Eating champion Takeru Kobayashi failed to break a 2001 record for eating fruitcake set in 2001 at 4 pounds and 14 ounces in 10 minutes. Kobayashi is famous for eating record numbers of hot dogs at record setting speeds.

I have one thing to say: this is NOT NEWS.

Food-eating contests are not news. They’re disgusting.
There’s the normal fare (a top ten list): Hot dogs, hamburgers, buffalo wings, ribs, jalapenos, chili cheese fries, pizza, pig’s feet, pie... or the really disgusting stuff (compiled by Esquire Magazine): Madagascar Cockroaches, Yorkshire Pudding, deep-fried asparagus, Marshmallow Peeps, Vidalia Onions, mice, corn dogs (supposedly erotic corn dogs), PB&J sandwiches, crocodile eggs, and garlic.

Does anyone care how many chili cheese fries someone can eat and in how short of a time period?

Not only do these obnoxious and so-called “contests” make TV news, internet buzz, and print, but there’s professional organizations for these ridiculous pursuits, such as Major League Eating and the International Federation of Competitive Eating.


I am all for the strange and unusual. And if people want to have an eating contest, go ahead. Stuff yourselves silly. But IT IS NOT NEWS.

A tsunami is news. The recession is news. Heck, even the rise in the psychic business trade because of poor economic times and unemployment seems news worthy. But eating contests are not.

The only thing news worthy here is that Americans still don’t understand how unattractive gluttony is in a country (and a planet) that has so many hungry people.

Actually, that’s not news either.

There’s lots of things Americans don’t understand.

Help the hungry: THE HUNGER SITE.

Basic facts on hunger: here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thank you for FREAKANGELS

I need a short posty in here before another gargantuan post, and this illo by Paul Duffield for the amazing FreakAngels, weekly web comic, is worth reposting.

If you arrive newly at my blog as I have begun to promote it a bit (and it is bloggy Friday, my weekly blog reading and writing afternoon), you will see that I am also promoting FreakAngels (see sidebar).

FreakAngels is a very well-written and beautifully illustrated web comic that is delivered weekly on Fridays (which make bloggy Friday all the more special) by masters Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield. Hello, gents!

I adore this comic. I adore reading the new installment weekly, and I hope to spread on the love of this weekly interlude of story beatification to all.

At the end of the year, as I am reflecting on all the things I am happy for, one thing I feel comfortable promoting (as opposed to the private and personal things for which I am thankful), I am thankful for FreakAngels.

Thanks Warren and Paul. Keep it coming in 2009.
-cbt 0812.26 15:14, Richland, MI

PS: And I love purple. Click on the illo for a better look. Purple hair, purple eyes, purple lips. Why isn't there more purple in the world?
What else is PURPLE? This video.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Old Blogs that never got Posted pt.2

LISEY’S STORY REVIEW - originally drafted August 1, 2007

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is what you’re getting into if you start reading...How much credence do people put in reviews by readers posted to sites like Amazon?
Sub-question B: Do potential readers see the problems, the inherent flaws, in taking these reviews too seriously?
6. TOO MANY CHOICES (and blogs that are too long)
7. I DON’T SHARE YOUR PERSONAL TASTE BUDS: Personal taste is not a useful criterion for reviewing.


In our continuing series of things that bug me as well as the continuing series of half-finished blogs that have been languishing on my hard drive far too long and need to get posted no matter how out of the date, I pose the following question:

How much credence do people put in reviews by readers posted to sites like Amazon?

Now before I delve into that question, I have to present the first of many neurotic disclaimers in the true spirit of the neurotica that is Sense of Doubt (thank Mr. Bowie). I started this blog entry over a year ago, and the more I wrestle to bring it to some form I feel is worth posting on the Internet, the more I think I come off like a hateful, elitist snob. And it’s not my intent to be perceived this way. However, some online reviews of books (and other works of art) strike me as reckless and dangerous or at least deeply flawed. And so, blog I must.

Prepare yourself. It’s a long one. And I think throughout this long, long, VERY LONG treatise to reviewing and posting online, I am questing. I am trying to figure out why my neurosis and annoyance is triggered by some of the obnoxious reviews I see all over the Internet (well aware, that I myself may be obnoxious in sharing all of this).

Back to the question at hand...or rather sub-question B:

Do potential readers see the problems, the inherent flaws, in taking these reviews too seriously?

Because if people are dissuaded from reading a book like Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story due to reviews by any reader with the compunction to express her/himself online, then the reader is missing out on a rich and rewarding reading experience. I might make the claim for other books, too, but it was seeing reviews for Lisey’s Story that inspired to me write this blog.

Probably these views are not overly original. But I am seized with the ire necessary to write a column like this one, even over a year after my first draft, and so, I inflict it upon whatever readers I may attract here now or in the future (can’t do nearly enough about the past to suit me).

Ultimately, my thesis has more to do with expectations people have for a work of art, such as a book, and with the important difference between an evaluation of quality and personal taste. But for a while, my thesis may seem like it is about how people should think before they write... but that’s a deeply flawed opinion to argue, and so let me meander through a hazardous mindscape of ...

1.READERS ARE IMPORTANT - I am not dismissing the opinions of readers. Readers are important. And the opinions of readers are important. After all, it is regular readers, not professional critics, who buy books and generate income for writers.

The Internet provides a marvelous open forum for posting reviews, even ones that I find lacking in substance, merit, thought, or insight. I want such a forum to exist. Because if I shell out actual cash money for The New York Review of Books, I want to see reviews of thoughtful insight executed with some standards.

And it’s not that I think so-called professional critics are more “right” or even more “worthy” than readers who like to share their views on web sites. Hardly. Actually, I am not a huge fan of critics. Being one myself and publishing reviews in newspapers and magazines for over 20 years, I understand with what critics are full. If there’s a book I want to read or a movie I want to see, I am going to see it anyway and make up my own mind regardless of what one or a dozen critics write.

It’s also kind of funny that a book by Stephen King inspired this diatribe because he’s an author who is going to sell a lot of books and a lot people are going to read his books no matter what some online hack posts. I am more concerned about how such posts could hurt the book sales and readership of writers who don’t have a following like Stephen King’s (or not following at all).

I want readers to have a voice. I think discourse about books is valuable and in most cases helps the industry more than harms it. However, the Internet has allowed anyone with a computer the ability to “publish” any opinion whether it has been thoughtfully considered or dashed off in the heat of anger and frustration, and I think there are some problems with that freedom (which I wish to preserve) that should be acknowledged, considered, remembered when looking at online reviews.


I question the validity of making a decision on whether or not to read a book based on the online posting of someone whom you have not met, do not know, and may not like if thrust into a social situation together. I question the need for these ramblings and stewings of readers who seem reckless and quite thoughtless in their “reviews” of books posted to Amazon or other book review sites. Many of these “reviews” strike me as reactionary and overly emotional.

Many potential readers are probably going to be able to discern the unreasonable reviews from the well-reasoned ones. These over-zealous reviewers often negate their credibility with language that betrays a lack of sophistication and immaturity. Whereas others who basically have the same opinions but state them with more thoughtfulness carry more weight.


Yes, I know... how ironic (and I don’t mean in the Alanis Morissette sense)... I am condemning the content of some people’s online book reviews in a blog that is itself an online book review. I am warning against taking to heart anything written by a stranger in a blog entry that may be either read by strangers or at least by “online” acquaintances. Yes, yes, how amusing. You’ve caught me.

I am de-pantsed and yet still typing away in what will be another long blog that has sat on my computer way too long without being posted (another in a series). Fine.

But where else am I to assemble these views? This is an awful lot to write on a bathroom wall with a sharpie. Thanks for reading, though. I shall endeavor to be both perspicacious (always a favourite word of mine) and not too ostentatious with polysyllabics. (Okay, fine, maybe this would improve with an editor, but I don’t have one right now, so if you’re amused, please read onward, and if not, well, then, I have no idea what you will do...)


Movies are different. People will often invest two hours in a movie that receives mixed or even poor reviews, especially if there is an attractive celebrity involved, but may not be willing to commit to reading a 500-page novel if they see even one negative review, especially of the inflammatory and puerile kind that so often appear on sites like Amazon.


I hate the idea of “qualifications.” Just because a critic has a certain amount of education or expertise does not make her or him more qualified to opine about the worth of a book in a post to the Internet. When it comes to reviews of books, as long as someone is not spewing something truly hateful and violent, then most every opinion is valid on some level.

However, I jump immediately to the issue of qualifications when I find a review I don’t like. It’s not enough to simply disagree. When a rival theater reviewer writes something about a show I review that I think is wrong, I don’t just disagree. I attack the writer’s credentials often claiming he or she knows nothing about the theater, has never studied the theater, and/or has a poor penmanship. I go farther with my fallacious condemnations for the so-called reviews I read online: “that person obviously never finished high school,” “people who can’t spell should not post their crap online,” and “this person is a waste of oxygen.” Those are all emotional reactions. I am pissed off by the review. But once I get past my initial emotional reaction, I am not comfortable censoring people because I don’t think they are qualified to express themselves (because who is, now, really?), and neither should sites like Amazon or the book reading applications linked to Facebook.

The only qualifications for reviewing should be the ability read and the ability to write.

Granted, most readers are not going to take the time to write a well-considered review in a quick, little, Internet post. Many are going to dash off a few quick thoughts, a few sentences, something very brief and which does not do the book justice. So, that’s a reason for these damaging and straw-stuffed reviews, but is it an excuse? No.

Maybe what we need is reviews of reviews (Metacritic anyone?). Maybe what we need in an open medium of public discourse is more means to criticize those who recklessly unleash their opinions, ill-considered as they may be, on us the reading public.


It would be great if we could have an enormous blog-world of open dialogue integrated within one sole buying mechanism online. Sadly, until we have nanobots in our brains that can interface with the entire debate about reviews for a single book and input all of this data into our consciousness in a distilled format, people are going to do no more than glance at the first few reviews that pop up on the page before purchasing (or not purchasing) a book.

I know that some readers are diligent and will examine in depth or will just ignore all the reviews and buy based on some other criterion (recommendation from a friend, favourite author, interest in the book’s subject matter, following of a genre, etc.) I am not worried about these folks.

I worry more about the subliminal effect of reckless reviews on the casual reader, less prone to analysis, who may pass by an excellent novel like Lisey’s Story without realizing that he/she has been influenced. In fact, I suspect that many of these casual surfers may claim, if asked directly, that most of the so-called reviews on sites like Amazon are junk and not worth their time. And yet, how often have they looked at these comments anyway? Or worse, not even really read the comments but glanced over the page and some fragments of information entered the mind, which caused the person to be influenced without realizing it, clicking away from the page, not buying the book.

Probably no way to measure those who consider and click away, no way to measure whether bits of words filtered into the consciousness subliminally and affected the choice to move away from the page, to not buy the book, to no longer consider ever reading the book.

6. TOO MANY CHOICES (and blogs that are too long)

Too many choices. Too much information (running through my brain, too much information driving me insane)... (okay, sue me, at least I am having fun).

Surely, online reviews posted at the purchasing page can help readers sort through the sea of possible choices because, honestly, there are too damn many, and so customers are seeking relief from the vast number of choices they make in a given day.

As described in the book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, studies demonstrate that people are more dissatisfied than they have ever been, despite having more material wealth than at any time in history. According to Schwartz, as we have been given more and more choices, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions we have to make. This observation may be applied to the inundation of product selection in stores and on the Internet.

A term coined by UT professors Susan Broniarczyk, David Hoyer, and Leigh McAlister, Hyperchoice aptly describes the new dilemma of overwhelming numbers of choices needed to navigate even a quick trip to a mini-mart.

Historically, selection was the reason people chose a store. And though many still choose a store based on selection, it is becoming clear that shopping in such an environment (hyperchoice) can lead to frustration, fatigue and regret. Strategies such as category management and selection editing aid people in navigating the vast world of brands, products, and choices. Yet those feeling overwhelmed often just shut down. They stay away from the store. They stay out of Amazon or ebay. Because to be sucked inside is to lose one’s self in a diaspora choice as one item cascades into five and five expands to fifty and there’s no end in sight.

So, all of that said, we get to the core of my long-winded post.


Personal taste is not a useful criterion for reviewing.

Readers who post reviews online seem unaware that there’s a difference between what they may not like, what may irritate or bother them, and a reasonable examination of a book’s intended goals.

Personal taste is not the same as employing some standard criteria to evaluate a book’s merit or its quality.

Examining reviews of King’s Lisey’s Story, I see that one constant criticism in Amazon reviews has to do with the idiomatic expressions Lisey adapted from her own family and that she used in her marriage with Scott. Many people found the expressions irritating. For instance, “Smucking for Pete's sake. Along with other silly and annoying terms supposedly coined by Scott. Everyone knows what she means by smucking, so King should have her use the "f" word or nothing--as most adults born after the 1950s often do, especially in books; and forget this dopey made-up language.”

See what I mean? The core of this argument: it annoyed ME (the reviewer). Not that the slang terms did not work, interfered with story, were inconsistent, but that they were annoying to this reader, who then attempts, making assumptions galore, to justify this view by speaking for all adults and the way they (all adults) prefer to use idioms. But the reviewer is really just continuing to her/his irritation not really making a cogent argument.

The criticism boils down to personal taste, and personal taste is not a relevant criterion for evaluating a book. It’s fine if this reader (CA Book Lover) qualified the remarks with “I prefer the real f-word” or “maybe this wouldn’t bother others” or even “King’s a masterful storyteller but the techniques employed here just rubbed me the wrong way.” No, none of that. (BTW, there’s plenty of f-word-ucking language along with the “smucking” but maybe CA Book Lover just smucked over those parts.)

Now, I have no problem with CA Book Lover posting this review and wanting to vent his personal taste online. My problem is with how this very subjective review (even more subjective than reviews inherently are already) might subconsciously affect the choices of potential readers.

In the reviews, I like best the reader has made some attempt to evaluate the book’s quality on its merits. The reader has not applied mistaken expectations, wanting a book about dogs when reading a book about cats, or rather wanting another Dead Zone or Dreamcatcher. Yes, reviews are subjective. But I want insight not rants based on some violation of someone’s personal taste buds.


How do consumer reviews affect book sales?

Judith Chevalier and Dina Mayzlin have studied the impact of consumer reviews of books on word of mouth and subsequent sales with the following findings. (Locate the studies via links at the source website).

1. Most consumer reviews of books on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com are very positive.

2. The reviews at Amazon are longer and more extensive. They are also more critical on average.

3. Better reviews on one site boost relative sales. The use of two sites gives us a controlled experiment to determine that word of mouth does indeed help authors rather than being a mere side effect of higher sales.

4. A bad review hurts you more than a good review helps you.

5. It remains to be seen whether allowing consumer reviews increases aggregate sales or simply shifts around sales to more suitable titles. Even a shifting affect, however, may increase consumer loyalty to the on-line site. If you know that Amazon helps you discover good books, you may be more likely to buy from Amazon.

My advice: I don't put much stock in how favorable the Amazon reviews are, whether I am buying books, movies, or music. (I am most likely to buy music from Amazon.) This well-known example is one reason to distrust the reviews, although I think bad taste is more common than masquerades. Instead I look at how many reviews have been generated. I take this as a kind of sufficient statistic for how much passion the item has generated. Since I am at the tails of just about any distribution of taste, and since most cultural products disappoint in any case, look for something that creates a spark in people. I then see some chance of finding a product that I truly love. This advice will sometimes steer you wrong, but a little added intelligence will allow you to make the necessary adjustments.

Here’s some good info with data.
This is about sales and not much about reviews but there’s lots of great data here.
And some more good ruminations in the blogosphere.

So, clearly, bad reviews can directly affect sales and more significantly than good reviews. Potential readers will pass by, click on to the next option, and avoid a very good book like Lisey’s Story simply because a couple of these odious reviews popped up on the page, even without reading them in any depth, just after a glance.

Lisey’s Story Reviews breakdown Amazon

443 Reviews
5 star: 32% (146)
4 star: 15% (68)
3 star: 17% (77)
2 star: 13% (58)
1 star: 21% (94)

Lisey’s Story annoyed, bored, or turned off 94 of the 443 reviewers on Amazon. Sadly, percentage wise that’s second place to the 146 five star reviews. Quite a disparity.

More baffling is that readers seemed to often revel in their inability to understand or “get into” King’s book. One wrote simply that he “couldn't get past the first few chapters. Does anybody else miss the old Steven[sic] King writing style? King used to be my favorite author. However, his last few books may be seem better to critics but to the unwashed masses..they suck.”

I might be more inclined to purchase the book after seeing that review. I don’t consider myself either unwashed or part of the masses. Why would this guy? (Plus I know how to spell the author’s name especially when it’s right there on the page!)

I would rather follow the advice of Michael Chabon and Nicholas Sparks who wrote the blurbs for Lisey’s Story than unknown readers who post their insipid remarks to Amazon.

And that’s my problem with online reviews. Thankfully, they vary greatly. Some (maybe even many, I am not going to do a quantitative study here) are quite well-thought and insightful.

In my word processor, I am on page ten. If anyone has stuck around this long, or even scrolled down here, thanks.

I will wrap with a brief though relatively substantial review of Lisey’s Story, which, as I have written before, I really liked.

Lisey’s Story is by no means a perfect work of art. But it’s one of the best Stephen King novels I have ever read (and granted I have not read them all). And it’s one of the best books I have read this year (2007), last year (2006)... I know two facts dependent on what I am reading and no measure of books published. I would hazard to argue that Lisey’s Story deserves to be in a top 100 books published in the last five years in the fiction market. It’s that good.


People expect certain things from certain artists. This is natural and to be expected, but is it fair?

But sometimes people have expectations seemingly based on nothing. It’s the same problem I had with most of the criticisms I heard of movies like The Perfect Storm or Twister. It’s as if people expected some other movie than the one the creators had made. Their criticisms had nothing to do with the movies themselves but with some failure of the film to live up to an expectation that they created themselves, as opposed to one constructed by previews or by the first act of the film itself.

I disliked the romance in Titanic more probably because of the gaga-popularity of the stars involved than the construction of the story itself. And yet, I thought the romance did not serve the story of the ship wreck best. As ONE story among many, it would have been welcome, but as the sole story, the main focus, of a film about the most famous ship wreck of all time, it detracted from the film’s purpose. I did love the interpretation of how the ship sunk and how some may have survived as the ship broke apart and went down. But the film as a whole did not meet my expectations for what kind of multi-character, multi-storyline film I think should have been made. And yet, are my views fair to the film? Did the film fulfill its intended purpose? Was my only real problem with the romance of Titanic about the hype surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio and NOT the way the story was rendered by writer/director James Cameron.

Stephen King is well known for writing certain kinds of novels in the horror genre. Readers come to expect a certain kind of book from Stephen King, and if their expectations are not met, then they react negatively to the book.

Often these expectations are not grounded in reality. Often readers have this idealized image of Stephen King in their minds that is more of a conglomeration of his work. Or these readers may have limited experience with King’s work. A fan of The Dark Tower: Gunslinger novel will not find anything remotely resembling it in Lisey’s Story.

Luckily for Stephen King, his book will hit the best seller lists and remain there for a decent period of time solely because it bears his name. Many more people will ignore negative reviews or comments by friends and read a Stephen King novel simply because it’s a Stephen King novel; these same people may not forgive bad reviews of an unknown author. Furthermore, it’s possible that the majority of reviewers who write the kind of reviews I want to dismiss as banal or inane may not have heard of blurb writers Michael Chabon or Nicholas Sparks, and so their endorsements carry even less weight.


THE CONTRACT: a story makes a contract with the reader. For ease, I will dispense with the double nouns and confine my remarks to stories in writing, novels primarily, even though the idea functions with any story be it in film or on television or in a comic book.

In creating the contract, the author establishes from the beginning the basic parameters of the story. Often the synopsis on the book’s cover is the first stage in the writer-reader contract. Readers build expectations based on this contract. Surely, the previous work of an author factors into this contract, but there’s a difference between expecting certain things from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and expecting Stephen King to push the same buttons and hit the same notes with each of his books, some of which fall into the horror genre, while others clearly do not.

So, a lot of the bad reviews of King’s Lisey’s Story come from the belief that he has violated the contract. Readers wanted another Dark Tower or another Misery, even, and they get a bool hunt with smucking Lisey.

And a lot of the readers hated the idioms. But the idioms, invented language, special terms are so integral to the story and to the characterization of Scott, Lisey, and both of their families that the book would not work, would not even exist, without them. This language is one of the things, maybe the chief thing, that makes Lisey’s Story such a unique novel, so captivating. There would not be a Lisey’s Story without the boolhunt, the smucking, and the bad gunky, there’s no character in these characters, that stuff IS THE CHARACTERS.

Now, if the readers cannot grasp this integral aspect from reading the book jacket and some synopsis, even a few pages, then don’t read the book. But it should be quite obvious what they were getting into. King’s “failure” to deliver the book that is a special picture in the heads of these readers is not his fault.

Book jacket material: “Lisey’s Story is about the wellsprings of creativity, the temptations of madness, and the secret language of love.”

Does that sound like another rewrite of Cujo?


Lisey’s Story has it flaws.

The follow up on the Long Boy was weak. He just goes away. No showdown for Lisey with the Bad Gunky.

The Book also seems to promise more of a reunion with Scott. The resolution of Scott’s past is worthy and well-handled, but the book seems to promise a healing for Scott, which never develops.

Lisey is healed but her future is only sketched out with broad strokes. Will she strike up a romance with the flirty deputy? Will she sell the house she lived in with Scott?

Lisey’s handling of the threat on her life is also somewhat weak. She is established as independent and strong woman, and so eventually it is no surprise that she decides to take on Dooley on her own. But she is intelligent enough to at least consider other alternatives before dismissing them. Like with millions, why not hire round the clock security? Plot flaws like this seem glaring and manufactured to keep her alone.

So, to the end, long blog, and not that I have finished, I am writing a summary for the top.

Thanks for reading. Watch for other old blogs that need to get off my hard drive soon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Old Blogs that never got Posted pt.1

- The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Saturday, Sept. 29 2007

This may be over a year old, but it’s still relevant.

If I made a list of musical artists with whom I would like to have dinner and a good conversation, Suzanne Vega would be at the top of my list. She radiates such keen intelligence that I think the conversations would be fabulous, and she also possesses such a warm and open manner that I think I could overcome the intimidation I might feel around other “celebrities.” I am sure that I am not the only one who would like to have an extended talk with Suzanne Vega, asking questions about the origins of her songs, the choices she makes, the scope of her career, and her plans for the future.

On stage, she has a tendency to explain the origins of her songs in a way that invites dialogue and did at the intimate venue that is Ann Arbor’s Ark. With a “stage” that is more of a platform in a room with seating on three-sides, everyone was within conversation-distance with Vega, and she encouraged this exchange. For the song “NY is a Woman,” she announced that if NY is a woman, then what is Ann Arbor? Apparently, the answers in Pittsburgh were... colorful. Answers in Ann Arbor included “liberated, Goddess, Hippy, and pretentious,” the latter which became a running joke throughout the evening. After Mike the bassist called Vega “pretentious,” she jokingly told him she wanted to speak him to after the show.

Vega opened the show with an acappella version of signature song “Tom’s Diner,” as the band drifted on stage. The drummer even brought a newspaper, pointing to an article inside when Vega sang the lyrics about the actor who died while he was drinking, “it was no one I had heard of.” From there, Vega launched into “Marlene on the Wall,” with the full band accompaniment, to the delight of her longtime fans and others who have recently discovered that much-loved first album.

The show continued with Vega alternating between solo acoustic versions of some songs or with just the accompaniment of the bass or bass and drums. Some songs she sang without playing her guitar, but others, like “Gypsy,” were rendered beautifully by her precise picking talent.
Vega’s explanations of song origins and interactions with the audience made the concert one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at a show in years (and I see A LOT of concerts). The intimate setting was much more suited to her demeanor than the grander Michigan Theatre where she played in 2001. Vega did not have time to play all the songs the audience wished to hear: “The Queen and the Soldier,” “Calypso,” “Those Whole Girls (Run in Grace),” and “When Heroes Go Down” were all called out numerous times. In fact, she played nothing from Days of Open Hand, which seemed curious. Posted set lists of the tour so far also showed she was skipping Songs in Red and Gray, but to the delight of many, she played “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May” after telling a story, though somewhat veiled in privacy, of how Rod Stewart’s original inspired her.

The show was dominated, as it should be, by the songs of the new album, – Beauty & Crime – which are fantastic. Many in attendance seemed to know the new album already and were excited to hear songs such as “Frank and Ava,” “Pornographer’s Dream,” and “Zephyr & I.”
Vega carefully avoided becoming too pedantic or morose about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York. Prior to the beautiful new song “Angel’s Doorway,” she mentioned the work at Ground Zero in almost an off-hand way, which was probably much more effective than anything else she could have done.

The show closed with a dance version of “Tom’s Diner” with a groove and a beat that the band obviously really enjoys. Vega inserted “Bound” from the new album into the double encore (off and back on twice), something she had not done other places, at least according to posted set lists. With “Anniversary” and “Small Blue Thing,” the concert ends a little melancholy but still exquisitely. Vega’s music is like fine sweet wine, nectar, but the kind of liquid poetry that infuses the body, mind, and spirit, lingering, evolving, illuminating.

Suzanne Vega is an artist whose music has been a frequent and faithful companion of mine for twenty-two years, seeing me through heartaches and triumphs. Her music has enriched my life in too many ways to enumerate here. I would be thrilled to have the chance to talk to her about her work and its impact, but I also respect her privacy. I would certainly drop everything to see her in concert again. I encourage everyone to do the same. It’s an unforgettable experience.

SET LIST (The exact position of some of these songs may be off): Tom’s Diner (acappella), Marlene on the Wall, Ludlow Street, New York is a Woman, Caramel, Frank & Ava, Gypsy, Some Journey, Left of Center, Blood Makes Noise, Angel's Doorway, Zephyr and I, Pornographer's Dream, (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May, Luka, In Liverpool, Tom’s Diner (dance version).
Encore#1: Bound, Anniversary. Encore#2: Small Blue Thing

The above review appears at
Who knows how long it will stay before it is archived?
But I was proud to have my review posted to Suzanne Vega’s web site.


Like so many people outside of New York, I heard of Suzanne Vega for the first time in 1985. It’s one of my beliefs that much of what we like best, those things we come to cherish, come to us from other people, from, in my case, girlfriends, mostly. And so it was with Suzanne Vega. I had started dating this woman named Julia. She did not own many record albums, but she owned a copy of Suzanne Vega’s debut solo album with the eponymous title.

Given that this all occurred 22 years ago as of this writing, and not far off in time of year (I met Julia in September of 1985), I don’t remember the exact details. I am sure she must have thought I would like Suzanne Vega as we were surely discussing the women performers I already adored: Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson, and that’s about it. Back then, I thought I knew a lot about music, but I was just learning. I had not heard Marianne Faithfull nor did I even know who she was. I had heard of Linda Thompson, but knew nothing about her. I had not even heard the name Laura Nyro let alone heard any of her music. For that matter, I had yet to discover Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, or Bessie Smith. So, surely, I was neophyte when it came to music, especially the music of women artists.

I am probably still a neophyte.

Perhaps this is a meaningless exercise in narcissism. Surely, there’s little to interest other people in my journey of remembering hearing Suzanne Vega for the first time. Then again, there’s some good material that results from my exploration. If you’re reading this at all, you’re a kind soul; bear with me.

Julia’s apartment had a rather large picture window before which she and her two roommates had set up the record player. I remember the sun streaming through the window. It was the fall, and the window faced west. The afternoon sun came through with such blinding intensity and warmth that it lit the whole room with bright, white-yellow light and heat. Since we knew winter approached, the sun felt renewing and transforming.

There was the promise of nesting. I think people often form relationships in the fall and spring. In the spring, relationships begin because of the planting instincts. The time to sow seeds has arrived. In the fall, people are preparing to hibernate for winter. They seek warmth, comfort, and companionship. I think we listened to the album the first time I visited, so all of these promises were implicit. Probably, we listened to the whole album while we talked and maybe drank wine. I know it seems as if I am building to something profound. But that’s all there is. I am trying to articulate why I came to love Suzanne Vega’s work so much and that first album in particular.

As an artist myself, I think one of the most precious things about creative works is how they become experiences of connection. Julia and I connected over listening to Suzanne Vega’s music, and I felt as if I had been given a great treasure.

And yet, my Suzanne Vega experience is intermingled. I can never think of Julia and not think of Suzanne Vega, and when I listen to Suzanne Vega’s first album (and often any of her albums), I think of Julia, and I remember that sunlight. I am sure we must have discussed them, if not that day, then in the weeks that followed as I listened to the album incessantly until I knew every word by heart. I am sure Julia told me the things she liked about the album, though I have forgotten. I seem to remember that she liked songs that were not my favourite at the time, (like “Small Blue Thing”) songs that I may have listened to more closely because she liked them so much, and I wanted to figure out why. In fact, I learned a lot from investigating songs she liked and figuring out why. I learned a lot about my own flawed evaluation process. I learned a lot about the difference between personal taste and reasonable, open-minded evaluation.

There’s a confluence of ideas here. Suzanne Vega, connections between people, obtaining things we love from others, learning to evaluate without using personal taste as the only criterion, how memory permeates every experience with an artist’s work. And so, returning to my original comment about having dinner with Suzanne Vega, all of these ideas would make for a great conversation, I think. I would like to hear her reaction to these ideas and her experiences with creating and performing her music. Has she had similar kinds of experiences? Have others shared with her similar stories of how they have encountered and listened to her music? What varied experiences have people shared with her?

But perhaps it’s disingenuous for me to make the hasty claim that I would like to have dinner with Suzanne Vega. I don’t know Suzanne Vega at all. From what I know of her concert chatter and her music, my intuition tells me that we would have a great conversation. But maybe, what I was and what I am really thinking of is that day in Julia’s apartment with the sun cascading through the window, listening to Suzanne Vega for the first time. In a crazy sense, deep down, I may think Suzanne Vega and Julia are the same person, and so I think that talking to Suzanne Vega will be like talking to a dear friend that I care about very much but have not seen at all in over 10 years.

Usually I don’t like to put myself in a group of what I arrogantly consider to be “ordinary” fans. And yet, am I not being a weird, creepy fan by thinking I know an artist because I know her music and because she’s personable on stage?

Again with the narcissism.

After a while, traveling performers must have trouble distinguishing one concert from another. What may seem memorable to me, may be lost in the haze of travel and nameless faces in the half light of concert halls for someone like Suzanne Vega.

But for me, and I suspect that this is true of others too, when I experience an artist’s music, her chatter in interviews or between songs at concerts becomes a part of my experience. But also how a close friend experiences the artist’s music is absorbed by the evolving, growing membrane surrounding how I know and think about this artist. In fact, my thoughts and feelings become inseparable from the thoughts and feelings of others. There’s clearly a deeper topic here. Something worth exploring another time: connections between people, a kind of collectivity of experience.

Lastly, before I close this blog entry, (which is hideously long, so thanks for reading), one in a series of infrequent entries on random subjects, I want to point out my own unfair segregation of artists. Earlier, when mentioning my own inexperience with music before discovering Suzanne Vega, I listed women artists with whom I was or was not acquainted. This is quite unfair. Why should Suzanne Vega be compared only to other women singer/songwriters?

Often in the teaching of my class at WMU, I bring up this issue in regards to Joni Mitchell because Joni’s peers are not just Marianne Faithfull, Carly Simon, and Carol King, but Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon, too. And yet we all seem to indulge in this kind of gendered comparison system without questioning how fallacious it is. Bob Dylan is the same as Joni Mitchell in many ways, except he’s a man. They have both had a huge impact on music and on me personally. I feel neither is more important than the other, musically speaking (though, personally, I have always preferred Joni Mitchell).

Q Magazine recently listed the 21 people who changed music and Bob Dylan was one of those 21 people. Joni Mitchell was not. Of the corollary list of 21 albums that changed music, both had albums featured. But of the 21 people who changed music, only one of them, Madonna, was a woman. Yet again, here’s a topic for another time. Has Madonna been more important to music than Joni Mitchell? How does Suzanne Vega fit into this hierarchy?

But back to the peers thing, it’s not that Dylan does not deserve his pedestal. It’s the way his impact is greater because of his gender. Would Joni have been listed over Dylan if she had been a man?

And then there’s the way we refer to our artists. I have tried to be consistent with the norm for references knowing I would make this point. Why is it “Dylan” when people refer in short to “Bob Dylan,” but “Joni Mitchell” is reduced to “Joni?” Is this part of the way the culture reveals itself? The way it elevates the men to levels of importance in large part because of their gender. They are referenced by their last names because of that inherent respect. But no matter how great, influential, pioneering, original, or powerful women artists are, their accomplishments receive diminished respect that manifests unconsciously. Joni Mitchell is Joni, but Bob Dylan is Dylan, not Bob.

And do these cultural attitudes make me more likely to think that I could have dinner and a great conversation with Suzanne Vega? Because there’s lots of artists who have had as profound if not a more powerful and lasting impact on my life, such as David Bowie, but I did not select him because he intimidates me. He’s up on that pedestal. He seems untouchable. Maybe. Or maybe it’s that he’s not nearly as personable as Suzanne Vega in concert.

Still, I want to talk with Suzanne Vega, share a meal. It’s not a wish that I ever expect to be realized. It’s an extension of my adulation and respect for Suzanne Vega as an artist. She has given me so much; this is my small way of giving a little something back.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More word play...

The words Fire Department make it sound like they're the ones starting the fires, doesn't it? It should be called the Extinguishing Department. We don't call the police the Crime Department. Also, the Bomb Squad sounds like a terrorist gang. Ditto, WRINKLE CREAM. Sounds like it causes wrinkles, doesn't it? And why would a doctor prescribe pain pills. I already have pain! I need relief pills!

And another thing, I hope no one asks me to show them the ropes; I have no idea where they are. Maybe I could pull some strings and find out.

"Play is the exultation of the possible." - Martin Buber

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Machine Love is my WISH TANK and I am Lost in Transport: Hyper-sleeping

The music cascades. Long guitar whines interspersed with the delicate notes of piano lay over a steady, quiet drum line. And other sounds wash through the soundscape, like water sliding over a pane of glass, navigating around attached debris and other detritus. Electronic noises modulate at different frequencies wrapped in the soughing of disembodied vocals, rising and falling like a night breeze over dark waters. The melodies are harmonious and gentle, soft and graceful, polite. There is no jarring cacophony or dissonance. Though some tunes are more upbeat than others, all are atmospheric, ambient, and elegant.

Pretentious? Maybe. (Not them, me). I am trying to describe the divine sounds of this band and language seems insufficient to capture what they do with sound. Machine Love has a funk groove that is sexy and chill without being boring or turgid. Each song has a distinctive flavor but all share a common theme that is individual to Machine Love.

Ambient groove, sexy chill-out, or electronic soul. Machine Love fits the mood for rainy days or holidays with loved ones. They are contemplative and serene and yet instilled with a vibrant and elusive energy. They are the sound of the metropolitan zeitgeist.

I can’t believe they only have 482 friends.

On My Space.

482 friends.

Other musical acts that aren’t in the same realm of quality have thousands?

Why have so few people heard of this band?

Machine Love
is an electronica, soul, space rock duo based in San Francisco. Though its music contains no lyrics, Machine Love applies vocalizations and live electric guitar against an ambient groove backdrop of funky rhythms and spacey melodies.

Machine Love lists its influences as psychedelic, lounge, jazz, funk, and rock artists such as Thievery Corporation, Fila Brazilia, Visit Venus, Air, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Herbie Hancock, Porcupine Tree, Rise Robots Rise, Gus Gus, The Flaming Lips, Beck, Coldplay and Miles Davis.

Machine Love consists of Vincent James on Drums, Keyboards and Electronics along with Jim Hedges on Electric and Acoustic Guitars.

Machine Love can also be reached at MySpace.

You can stream of their music from their web site


There's also a great set up for their stuff at IT'S ABOUT MUSIC.

I acquired all seven of their albums via emusic. Please note that these are not seven albums of differing, original material. Some of these albums offer remixes of some songs or just repeat inclusions of the same material. Their music can also be found on Itunes and CD Baby.

For example, the original version of one of their most beautiful and chill songs, “Lost in Transport,” originally appeared on Space Travel Pak as a 7 minute and 34 second trek into a trippy flotation groove. But in a 2005 release by the spacey duo – Machinations – they trimmed the lengthy ride to a mere 3:26.

Whereas other doubles, such the six-minute-plus “Hyper Sleeping” also from 2003's Space Travel Pak (which is as far as I know only available on emusic) reappears on the 2005 Supermarket Vamps at its original length.

By far, their best work is the 2005 release Supermarket Vamps. Though I may love it best simply because it was the first album of theirs that I heard. I will delay a more detailed album-by-album set of reviews for a later blog post.

As listed on their own web site, the four main releases are

Net Works (2004)

Supermarket Vamps (2005)

Machinations (also 2005)

Pushing West (2006).

On emusic, I also found Space Travel Pak (2003), Atomic Power Pak (2003), and The Now Explosion (2003).

Most of the songs repeat, as mentioned, but sometimes in shortened versions. Check out “Stoner Girl,” which has some of the greatest groove sounds in their entire canon. I am also very found of “Night Digging,” "Wish Tank," and “Radio Ghost.”

CD Baby says: “Chillout moods, sexy vibes, retro funk. Trip Hop meets Space Rock. Think Thievery Corporation meets Pink Floyd or Zero 7 meets Porcupine Tree. Also sounds like Massive Attack, The Flaming Lips, Beck & Rain Tree Crow.”

Check out my tumblr where I have one cut posted and plan to upload more.

But with all the information here, go access Machine Love, listen, and then spread the love through the machine world.

PS: Yes, I know. Technically, the correct pronoun I should have used throughout for Machine Love is "it." Forgive me for a few "their" pronouns when they sound better in context.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Neurosis, doubt, and a book review

My friend Suzanne has written her first novel. Scratch that. Published her first novel. There were other novels before this one.

Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata. Title is link to Leapfrog or try AMAZON.

I have had the book for a few months now. I finished reading it in February, and I have been struggling ever since with how to review it.
Why struggle? It’s my friend’s book. So why should there be struggle?
Well, first of all, Sue and I have been friends a long time. We went to Kalamazoo College together. I adore her. I count her among my dearest friends. Since I have known her so long, can any review I write be objective? Probably not.
I was prepared to love the novel. I was so excited for Sue and her success. And I did like the novel very much. There are many things about it that I love. However, as a whole, I did not love the novel. So, the struggle. Both my friendship with Suzanne and the fact that I am a writer myself caused me to hesitate writing my criticisms. In fact, given my blog’s minuscule readership of two people and their pet cats, I am not sure that I am even writing this for people to read. It’s something I need to write for me (but then why post it on the Internet... yeah, I know...).
I am not afraid of hurting Sue’s feelings. I know she can take criticism. We all can. It’s part of being a writer, of developing as a writer. And Suzanne Kamata is an excellent writer, even my criticisms do not detract from her talent and her success. But I did shy away from immediately emailing my impressions of Losing Kei to my friend once I finished reading it. I wanted to wait; I wanted to think.
One fear I had about my criticisms of the book was that I was jealous. I have been writing just as long as Sue, and I have yet to publish a novel. Would I share the same criticisms of the book if I were a published novelist myself? I spent a lot of time on this question, and in the end, I think that my criticisms are sound. I am not jealous of Sue’s success.

Do I wish I had a published novel?
Yes, of course.
Do I deserve to have one published more than Sue?
No, of course not.
Do I wish I had published first?
No, it’s not a race.

I am happy for Sue, and I am proud of her success. I am publishing the longer and more critical review of her novel here on my blog. On Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I wrote a more positive and shorter review that only hinted at my problems with the book. I detail them in greater depth here. The problems are neither many nor severe. The book is very good. I recommend it. And I am willing to admit that my first criticism – give me more about Japan – is probably my own desire to always have more, my own tendency to overwrite, to overcompensate; can you tell that this is my thing, the wordiness?
But the second criticism, about the ending, I think is very valid, and it’s a great weakness of the book. However, it was not a problem for other reviewers, either those who have posted to Amazon (there were none on Barnes and Noble before I posted) and for Susannah Elisabeth Pabot at Literary Mama.

So maybe if you read Sue’s book, and I hope that you do, you will find it to be an outstanding novel and see that she is nominated for book awards. Not that I am worried that my blog will sink the sales of her book. I don’t post here often, and I don’t think my friends even check it regularly unless I tell them I have a new post.

This entire preamble (and thank you for reading it) is the very essence of SENSE OF DOUBT. Can you see the neurosis at work? The anxiety and uncertainty? The self doubt? These are the central issues of my blog SENSE OF DOUBT, which, if all goes well, I will start posting to more regularly.

MY REVIEW OF Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata

Even without being a parent, I can imagine that a parent’s greatest fear is of losing a child. Suzanne Kamata illustrates this fear with palpable intensity in her debut novel Losing Kei.
The novel opens in 1997 with main character Jill Parker watching her son from a distance on the playground only to have him whisked away by his grandmother. The scene closes after only two short pages with the lines: “I have lost him again. I have lost my son Kei.” The impact of scenes like this one and those final lines is what is best about Kamata’s novel. Packed with mystery about what has happened to cause Jill to be separated from her son, what has caused the grandmother to shield the boy from his mother as if she were a criminal or worse, are the bedrock on which Kamata has staked her foundation. Kamata exposes Japanese xenophobic custody laws, which, in the case of a “gaijin” marriage to a native, the child is almost always awarded to the Japanese parent. As such a suffering “gaijin,” denied her son, the scenes of Jill’s loss and yearning are poignant and emotionally rich.

Beyond the initial scene of spying on her child like a voyeur, the novel Losing Kei charts the course of Jill Parker, an American artist, who tries to escape her broken heart in Japan, but finds it difficult to leave behind memories of her American ex-boyfriend. While working as a bar hostess, she falls in love with a Japanese man, Yusuke. They marry and a have a son, Kei, but the marriage and the life Jill believed she would have begins to unravel. Kamata generates suspense by interspersing chapters of Jill’s back story, told in past tense, with the scenes from the “present” (1997). Though the fact that Jill’s marriage to Yusuke has ended and that she has “lost” her son are revealed early, the reasons for these situations are the story the novel slowly unspools.
In one scene, Jill stakes out the home that she had shared with Kei’s father and grandmother; once everyone has gone to sleep, she invades the home, like a stalker or a detective. Present tense and facility with language drive these scenes hard with ever-increasing momentum demonstrating why Kamata has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize five times. Her sparse prose and deft touch with language are what best recommend Kamata as a writer. The rhythms of lean prose, trimmed of fat, and short scenes finely honed for maximum impact like a runner hones lithe muscles make the novel a fast and powerful read.

Kamata is also at her best when she details the landscape of Jill’s world, Japan, a world Kamata knows from her own experience. Though born and raised in Michigan, she moved to Japan many years ago to teach English and married a Japanese man; today, they are raising twin children – a brother and a sister – in rural Tokushima. Knowing the world of Japan as she does from the perspective of an American trying to fit in to a culture that sees her at best as a visitor and at worst as an outsider or interloper, Kamata has an exacting eye for the precise details that will best underpin her story. The novel may have benefited from more of these details of Japan, more of Jill Parker’s odd role as stranger in a strange land. The Japanese back drop gives the novel such strength that too much spent away from them seems to weaken the over all story, especially plot development toward a satisfying ending. What Kamata does include is well wrought but more may have been better.

Though the novel is a swift and enjoyable read, its greatest fault is its ending. The resolution of Jill’s stalking and her plans to get her son back are contrived and unwieldy. Given Kamata’s proficiency and skill as a writer demonstrated through the novel’s first 180 pages, the climactic scene seems rushed and poorly set up by the novel’s plot. Perhaps mandates of the publisher forced Kamata to keep the book at 200 pages and resolve her story quickly. Such an explanation would explain why the novel proceeds so carefully through 180 pages, almost languidly at times, with no sense of urgency, and then ends abruptly in a hurried way. The ending is far too easy given the struggles Jill Parker faced to work out even visitation let alone custody of her child.

SPOILER ALERT! If you don’t want to know how the novel ends, stop reading.

Perhaps my problem with the ending is that it affirms the goodness of people. I don’t want to think ill of the Japanese people or culture since I am a great fan of both. However, I am happy to think ill of people in general. People are not inherently good. The novel seems to support this idea for most of its 180 pages. True enough, most people do not share my view and want a redemptive ending, want affirmation that people are good by their nature as human beings.
Losing Kei presents the reader with an unjust situation for which its main character suffers. With the story, Kamata has written herself into a difficult spot. Jill has lost her son to a cultural system that awards its own people and does not acknowledge the same rights for naturalized citizens of other countries. But smart readers know that all of Jill’s skulking about, her machinations and plans to reclaim her son, must amount to something in the end, something must HAPPEN. Kamata know this, too, and she handles it all brilliantly up to a point.
Jill hatches a scheme to kidnap her child with the help of an informant, a babysitter, hired by her ex-husband. The babysitter manages to arrange several surreptitious meetings between Jill and Kei in a park, where Jill can secretly resume her role of mother with stories to read to him or fleeting, temporary gifts since he cannot take any of them home or reveal his clandestine relationship with his mother.

With only a handful of pages remaining before the book ends, Jill hatches a dangerous plan to take Kei to Indonesia to see a real dragon because he is so interested in the dragons in the stories she reads him. From there, she plans to take him to America. The scenes leading up to the abduction and the abduction itself are ooze with Jill’s disgust at herself for how she bribes and tricks Kei as well as her own self-doubt and recriminations that words of love or gifts are the wrong choices to win back the heart of her son. The scenes and Jill’s inner turmoil clearly establish a foreboding. Given the life Jill has been leading and the dangerous plans she’s hatching, is she really the best mother for Kei?

Also, in the ending, Kamata writes the boy’s own belligerent selfishness mingled with intermittent, unconditional love, brilliantly. It’s too bad the book does not go on longer to show more of the boy’s petulance.

As I read, I realized that Kamata had many choices for playing out the abduction story. But seeing that only a dozen pages remained, as a reader, I was confused as to how Kamata planned to resolve such a complex plot so quickly. Given that the book was almost at an end when Jill takes Kei to the airport, it was a likely guess that they would be stopped from leaving the country. I assumed that somehow the father Yusuke or the mother-in-law, someone, had found out about Jill’s plans and arranged to have her and Kei detained at the airport. This is a disappointing assumption because the thought of a perilous trip to Indonesia, of how such a kidnapping would affect Jill’s life and her chances of reclaiming custody of her son presented all kinds of fascinating choices.

Instead of being detained for possible kidnapping, Jill is detained for drug smuggling. The set up for how the drugs came to be in her bag is very poorly rendered. Even if readers were well prepared for this plot point, it does not seem like the right choice for the story, which has nothing to do with drugs or even risks of Jill’s associations with people who use drugs.
Furthermore, the drug incident seems glaringly out of character for Kamata as a writer. In nearly 200 pages, Kamata is as precise as a writer can be. Each scene is carefully sculpted, each sentence, each word precisely chosen. But drug smuggling? Seriously? It’s absurd. It’s not believable. Sadly, in this one moment, the whole novel is tainted. Perhaps not ruined, but flawed, smudged.

The wrap up of Jill’s unknowing drug smuggling is rushed. The last few pages truly read as if Kamata may have turned in a 400 page novel, and Leapfrog Press insisted that she bring it in under 200, and so she went back to the drawing board and concocted this less acceptable, less believable ending than the one she may have originally conceived. It is this criticism I hesitated to publish, as my introductory remarks indicated. But I need to write it down as much for myself as for my friend Suzanne Kamata and her excellent – I do still think it’s excellent in most ways – first novel.

In the rushed wrap-up, Jill gets to return to America without a trial or any incarceration for her crimes. There’s a good scene with her ex-husband that drips with Jill’s own self-loathing and yet almost irrational hopes and dreams for a relationship with her son, which at this point are quite laughable. And then, the novel skips ahead in time. The epilogue featuring this future glimpse also reads like something tacked on, almost as if Kamata did not write it herself. The evil mother-in-law has died; Yusuke is sending Kei to spend a year with Jill in America. It’s too easy. Too simple. Too contrived.

Though the ending disappoints, Kamata’s skill as a writer makes it work better than many other writers would have managed with her ever canny eye for detail and strong prose.
In the end, Losing Kei is about more than a mother’s separation from her son, it’s a journey of self-discovery and personal growth for a woman living as an expatriate, trying to find her way in a culture that is often dismissive if not hostile to others. Jill Parker’s quest to find both the essential meaning for her own life as an individual first and a parent second – or rather the two roles merged into one because aren’t all parents, parents first? – is the novel’s great work. The path to achieve those goals is fraught with great torment as Parker loses her son both in the sense of custody, first, and then his heart and his love as influenced by the mother-in-law character second. Kamata navigates the reader along this path with amazing celerity.

The jacket copy on the novel describes it as a cross between Lost in Translation and Kramer vs. Kramer. This comparison is quite misleading. The only thing Losing Kei has in common with Lost in Translation is that both tell stories about Americans in Japan. The similarity ends there. Readers should not expect Kamata’s novel to be anything like Coppola’s film. And Kramer vs. Kramer is about a custody battle in which the battle is shown: it’s the dramatic work of the movie. The custody battle of Losing Kei happens between scenes, and the novel’s dramatic work is about recovery from loss not battle for the custody of a child.

Despite my criticisms, the novel Kamata has written is well worth a reader’s time, and I highly recommend it. I plan to recommend it to the Kalamazoo Public Library’s reading program and to instructors at Western Michigan University as a course text as well as individual readers.

Beautifully packaged by Leapfrog Press, Losing Kei is a gem.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008



In a continuing series of incidents in which celebrities are set apart from the rest of the populace: basketball star LeBron James is caught speeding.

The story itself is unremarkable. James left some party or watering hole the night of his 23rd birthday (December 30) and drove his “Benz” too fast down a highway in suburban Medina, OH (Cleveland suburb) at 3 a.m. A state trooper clocked him at 101 MPH (in a 65 MPH zone), pulled him over, and issued a citation. Kudos to the state trooper for not being in anyway lenient with the media darling and cult hero of the greater Cleveland area. The trooper treated James as she would treat any other driver who violated the speeding law: a ticket and a fine.

Weeks later, on January 14th, the story breaks nationally. Again, this is somewhat unremarkable. Everything LeBron James does or says is news. Millions of people adore this newly turned 23-year-old and gobble up every little story about him like candy the night of Halloween. But James is such a magnet for attention that even people who don’t like him are drawn to a story like this for the opportunity to laugh at him or deride him for being as careless and reckless as the rest of us.

But what galls me is that James’ lawyer, Colin Jennings, has filed a “not guilty” plea for James in Medina Municipal Court. A hearing is scheduled for February 11th.

WHY? When CAUGHT speeding, most people simply pay the fine and move on with their lives. Sometimes people fight a violation, but usually no a speeding violation. In this case, James even admits he was speeding.

"I'm not going to jail or nothing like that," he said. "I wasn't drunk. I was just speeding. That's it."

And also, this..."You've just got to abide by the rules that's all. I made a mistake and I'll live with it."

So, why has Colin Jennings filed a “not guilty” plea? Why is a HEARING scheduled? Why hasn’t James paid his fine, so we can all move on with our lives?

This does not strike me as good publicity for James. So the intent here cannot be to drag out the story for more media exposure, keeping James’ name at the top of my Yahoo! news sorter.

And James has admitted his guilt! How is a “not guilty” plea in any way believable when he’s telling people that he was speeding?

Furthermore, most of us cannot afford lawyers to file useless pleas when we violate the law. Most of us would be embarrassed to waste the time of the court system without a legitimate reason. I have challenged several traffic violations in my life, but only when I felt I had a valid reason for doing so. I have won exactly zero of those challenges.

Both James and his lawyer should have to pay additional fines for wasting the time of the Medina Municipal Court and by extension the American people. James should face additional fines since he cannot attend the hearing as the Cavaliers are in Orlando that day for a game. Surely, the Medina Municipal Court must find James guilty if only because he will fail to appear in court, but also since he has publically admitted that he was guilty of speeding.

In fact, the Medina Municipal Court should be concerned that at no time has James indicated that he would obey all posted speed limit laws in the future. In fact, when asked if he would obey speed limits in the future, he said “I don't know, maybe at times. It's not a big deal to me.”

Not a big deal??

I have actually been stopped for speeding in the greater Cleveland area, and since I was from out-of-state not only was the fine larger (over $200 for 10 over) but the state trooper had to take my money on the spot. We ran my credit card twice and drove to two ATMs before I could pay her the money.

In my life, with my meager income, it was a VERY BIG DEAL.

I recommend that these incidents become a little bigger deal to LeBron James.

Here’s how: the state police in Medina should wait for James along the routes he often drives. Now that they know he’s going to be speeding down their highways, maybe they can instruct him on what a big deal it is when someone, anyone, breaks the law.