London Beckons

London is a cosmopolitan city—diverse and modern, vibrant and eclectic, and perpetually hip yet carefully shrouded in ritual and ceremony. With the back of the great lion Churchill looming against monuments of centuries past and future, and the ghost of Virginia Woolf around each neighborhood corner, London’s great mystery is not one of secrecy, but of bounty. In a city charted by such grave and great history, where will you go?

Read More

Be Relentless: Creating an Audience and Communicating Brand Value

You've built a rock solid brand and defined your core purpose, now what? It's time to build an audience that believes in your brand, and communicate your value to that audience. This is the second in a series about brand strategy.

Read More

The Great Struggle: Pop Culture Favorites in 2015

History, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.
— Roberto Bolano

I am not as bleak about the future as Bolano, or so I set out to be. I am writing from a computer in a car as makes its way northward through what feels like the bowels of LA. South of here, in the heat of some forgotten desert, I can imagine the frantic mind of a tired novelist as he strikes at keys like a demigod to finish one final, apocalyptic sigh. It took me a year to finally finish Bolano’s 2666. The pages spanned the year’s breadth and I finished it just days before Christmas; without realizing it, it became the lens that colored the rest of the culture I experienced this year.

2666 is a book mostly concerned with violence and death; it seemed a fitting read for this violent year. Against its savage backdrop, I became mostly interested in cultural works that really struggled against something, whether themselves or some greater force. To borrow from Bolano, I wanted to observe “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” It was a year to get to know fear. How peripheral that task can feel at times; and yet, how essential it can become. Three interludes—a book, a television show and a documentary—stood out in their attempt to wage the struggle.

2666, Roberto Bolano

It turns out the future is bleak. The dessert is full of nightmares and each one appears like an apparition—hazy, determined and dressed in macabre robes. Composed of five parts, and originally intended to be released individually, the novel was instead released after Bolano’s death as one giant juggernaut of tensions that nearly crawl off the page as they beat towards a future that looks like a gathering baroque graveyard.

The novel focuses on a series of events and people that all converge around a growing sense of doom in Santa Teresa, Mexico (based on Cuidad Juarez): a group of literary critics looking for a reclusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi; a Chilean professor who arrives in Santa Teresa with his daughter and fears she will become another victim of the femicides that haunt the area; an journalist from Harlem named Fate who comes to Santa Teresa to report a story; a chronicle of all of the murders of hundreds of women and the police efforts to stop them; and a young German soldier and writer named Hans Reiter. Bolano brings all of these stories together will a mastery that is chilling. To read this book is to understand how a great master quarrels and bucks against wreckage and chaos. The pages are alive with mess and obsession and the story is a testament to the unfathomable nature of an evil that lurks outside every door.

The Auteur Spars: The Leftovers

With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you ask yourself

Where is my mind?”
— The Pixies

We are in position to be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of great television. There is much too see and not enough time to keep up, or binge-watch everything that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon can produce. Earlier this year as Don Draper sat on that Big Sur cliff and reinvented himself yet again and Jon Hamm crawled onstage to finally accept his Emmy, a curtain fell upon the so-called Golden Age of Television and it was clear that another trend was forming: the uncompromising vision of the auteur. 

The best shows of 2015 demonstrated an unyielding, dazzling and often jarring vision: Jill Solloway’s Transparent, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, Sam Esmail’s MR. ROBOT, Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, and finally Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. I’ve had my challenges with The Leftovers since the first season, which left me battered but still committed to watching. The second season—with a change of location and a corrected course for the problems that plagued season one—was a chance to see Lindelof take novel, brave and desperate chances with storytelling, and it became (with some admitted reluctance) my favorite show of the year.

Lindelof's work in season two proves that he is a storyteller who is unafraid to take risks, and right mistakes of the past by doing so. International Assassin—arguably one of the best episodes of television this year—read as bold and strange and human, when it could have easily been penned as Lost-runoff, or showy storytelling with no substantive backbone. Though it may be tormenting to some, it is a show that never has been about answers. The great auteurs will go to battle with their most oppressing themes, and in many ways The Leftovers is just that—a return to a theme that seems to haunt Lindelof: understanding how humans behave when exposed to the most tragic and unfathomable situations, and the great mystery of existence that we’ll just have to let be.

FootnotE

For a very informative, funny and intelligent conversation about Lost, The Leftovers, storytelling and the perils of criticism listen to the Channel 33 Podcast with Andy Greenwald and Damon Lindelof.

The Leftovers, HBO

The Leftovers, HBO

Romeo is BleedinG

But romeo is bleeding but nobody can tell
and he sings along with the radio
with a bullet in his chest.
— Tom Waits

I stood in the back of the theatre pressed inbetween a wall and a man who surely thought I was a coat rack to see this documentary. It was the one feature I didn’t want to miss at the Napa Valley Film Festival and it was the best documentary I saw this year. In fair Richmond, where we lay our scene, the documentary follows Donté Clark’s journey to transcend violence through spoken word poetry in a city torn apart by a turf war between neighborhoods. Donté sets out to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond—a devastating plea to a city and a population of youth splintered by a senseless war that plays out much like the fates of the Montagues and Capulets. In this case violence is deeply rooted—inherited like a family heirloom—and grown into something much stronger than an epidemic, it’s an ideology.

Donte’s efforts—along with a very dedicated teacher and a local community organization—provides a platform for the community to speak out, and a reminder that a voice can fly as sharp as those rogue, cylindrical projectiles that ended so many lives this year. It’s a love letter to a city torn asunder, to youth, to the power of a voice, and certainly a plea for a peace—even if that plea may go unheard in the dark.

Directed by Jason Zeldes, best known for editing Twenty Feet from Stardom, the film traveled the festival circuit this year and is out for very limited release. I can only hope this film spreads into the places where it belongs—living rooms, schools, juvenile prisons, and places like Richmond where the only chance for peace might be something as unexpected as poetry. And if that may be the weapon, wage on.

Romeo is Bleeding, A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes

Romeo is Bleeding, A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes






Shortness of breath: Ten Stories

The following are ten, wonderful short stories that are available to read online. I have chosen them because they represent different literary periods and are told with different voices and new types of language. I could have selected 50, but I'll leave you with this for today. Consume them all together, or sift through them with a slow hand. But certainly don’t underestimate them for their brevity—it’s always the fleeting things that leave us winded. Learn the language of shortness of breath, and lap it up with page-stained tongues.

Hint: Click on the title to be directed to the story.

James Joyce, The dead

If you haven’t read any of Joyce’s great beasts yet, consider this your toy-box introduction. The Dead carries all the weight of his other works but will not give you carpal tunnel from leafing through the pages. It's also a great dive into Modernist literature's themes and nightmares: centered around a party it conveys a sense of impending tragedy, demonstrates the fragmentation of reality and internal perception, and culminates in an epiphanic moment that brings forward ideas of mortality, rebirth and resurrection. It was one of my first forays into the Modernist sensibility and I’m still in love with it. Read this story with today's zeitgeist in mind and see what it tells you about this "less spacious age"—perhaps we’ve always been trying to crawl out of that creaky modernist vessel.  

John Cheever, The Country Husband

I could have directed you to The Swimmer, but I’m partial to The Country Husband in this case. The story follows Francis Weed, a suburban businessman who survives a plane crash at the beginning of the story, only to return home and find that his family is too busy with their evening rituals to care. What follows for Francis after his incident is a blend of fantasy and reality, where reveries prevail over the physical world and at nightfall men can climb snow-capped mountains and ride elephants like kings. This is what Cheever does best, cloaking the mundane in the absurd and extraordinary—often leaving us unsettled along the way.

Amy Hempel, In the cemetery where al jolson is buried

If you haven’t yet read Tumble Home, pick it up this weekend and devour it like dry earth that breaks open for wetness—because it will require an opening and in the end it will devour you instead. I read Hempel for the prose and her brilliant, infuriating skill with metaphor: “She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.” Within this short story and inside her terse, but witty and tender language there is more understanding of grief than anywhere we could go looking for it, should we least expect its advances upon us in the meantime.

George Saunders, The Semplica-Girl Diaries

From the structure, to the language and the story itself I don’t think I’ll ever forget the imagery that this narrator and his Semplica girls left behind. No one quite paints a world like Saunders, and adopts the language so masterfully to match that vision. The diary entries that inform this story chronicle both the banality of days and major themes of oppression, aspiration, covetousness, and the sadness that often comes with being responsible for another’s success or happiness.

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

At times reading a Carver story feels like discovering the bones of something meaningful and hoping there is more. His spare prose and brisk way with developing story off the page can feel a bit jarring. But I deplore you to let Carver punch you around a bit with his craft; a few days later you’ll find that his stories are still clattering around in your ribcage. From the collection of short stories of the same name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of his most famous stories and has an ending I could never forget, even if I tried. 

Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Mortality. Drink. Women. Sex. Discontentment. Love. The consequences of money. And masculinity while we're at it. The artist’s burden to create, and the desire to somehow endure. That corporeal grappling with time and belief (in anything) and the willingness to write about it in a world that has numbered our days. It’s classic Ernest, and it’s always worth a revisit to the mountains that have slain us. 

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find

The queen of the Southern Gothic will twist you into knots with this story that begins like comedic satire and quickly moves into tragedy. If goodness is only momentary, is it goodness at all? And what place does grace have in the same sentence as evil? Find out for yourself, for the beauty of this story is reading it for the first time and letting the story's moral terror sink into you like a field's first plow.

Dave Eggers, About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her

How apt a hand that crafts whimsy, hope, love, adventure, weightlessness, obsession and a sense of impending sadness in just 377 words. It's worth the few minutes it will take you to read.

Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

Everyone should have a lurid affair with Virginia’s prose at some point and this artful stream of consciousness bares her signature—the weight of time, an unmet desire for truth, and the use of color, nature and everyday surroundings to demonstrate a yearning for something more than this moment in time, perfectly kept. If the prose isn’t for you, at least consider the punctuation; it's an art form.

Vladimir Nabokov, Symbols and Signs

Call it a weakness, but I’ll never be able to compile a list on writing without including Nabokov. Very little happens in this story, but every moment and object inches us further toward calamity—the hospital, the missing keys, jam, soiled playing cards and phone calls. And yet, there isn’t anything that Nabokov doesn’t make sing on the page, including jam apparently. But it’s the symbols and signs themselves that one should look out for—are they the story itself, or are they empty talismans that distract us from a much more pressing narrative at hand?

A Disclaimer

These are not the ten best (how could we ask that of them?), nor are they the only (there is a menagerie of worlds like this we could fill our heady days with). A special note of “I really wish I had more than ten stories” goes out to Franza Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis and so many countless others.

Heading North: Stories from Sonoma

Heading North

Earlier this year, after five years in San Francisco, my husband and I packed up our tiny apartment that was perched on a foggy slope overlooking the mouth of the Bay. Its contents were damp with salty air. It was not a lavish space by any means—in fact it was growing mold and dust and decay in every corner by the time we left—but it was ours, and we managed to fit the yields of our years within those very thin walls (hi, neighbors who lived above us). On one occasion we even hosted a Thanksgiving celebration and had so many people carefully spooned into that apartment that I can still feel the heat of all those bodies in one small space.

All of us eventually learn the same lesson about space. The urge comes for room—indistinct from the bruises earned by curious extremities—and we listen before we outgrow our desires and abandon them. In February we found a house in Sonoma just outside of Glen Ellen, packed a UHaul with everything that would fit, and headed north to make claim to our land. [i]  

I always imagined I would settle along the sea, or at least close to the edge. I think it’s the sense of water actually commingling with land, and the eternal return of the waves that signals both newness and an incomprehensible vastness: there is more possibility than you conceive, but you must act fast.

The Valley of the Moon

We settled in wine country—another kind of holy water. Where the fog pats quietly along the valley floor in the morning, and moss grows on the trees like it did in the dark, vampy Northwest of my youth. As an added bonus: grapes grow everywhere and every season they squeeze their harvest directly into your mouth and you’re under the influence of their juices in a matter of minutes. Seriously.[ii]

The best part of moving somewhere new is the drunken exploration; uncovering the stories that make it unlike anywhere else you’ve been. Jack London lived here in the Valley of the Moon, and wrote a novel (of the same name) about a couple of labor workers who leave city life behind in search of land to farm. Life gets busy and I haven’t yet had the time to write the next great American novel about Sonoma; just give me one more lifetime. But I do hope to share some of the stories that make up the façade of this land of grapes and honey.

Stories from Sonoma

I hope you’ll stick around as I share some spaces, places the faces from Sonoma that are doing rad stuff, keeping tune with life’s riotous narrative, and having a grand time doing it. Check back for weekly updates and do let me know in the comments if you have suggestions or a penchant to explore something specific in these parts.

It takes some time to settle in and I'm still getting my bearings on newness, but I can elaborate on whether or not wine is food group, who Chuck Williams is and why he’s so obsessed with my kitchen appliances, and what they meant when they named this valley after our night's most perfectly illusive satellite. 

Footnotes

[i] Yes. Just like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. However, instead of that, home ownership looks a lot like those money emojis with wings. Farewell, my lovers.

[ii] Comments in this article are not endorsed by Sonoma County, its winemakers, Bacchus, or the people who purportedly squeeze the juices into all of our thirsty mouths.  

La Casa Grande, Sonoma Square - Meghan Marsh King

La Casa Grande, Sonoma Square - Meghan Marsh King

Monday Music: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Some songs we could sing and never mean it. Some songs lay the rain and you hate the few who were bold. Some burn up the sleeve and drive too far to remember.
— Nathaniel Rateliff
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Stax Records

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Stax Records

The night sweats. I’ve had them a time or two. Waking while dreaming, wet like a preowned dance floor, short of breath and looking for some acquaintance in the dark. The Night Sweats. What a name for a band. From the first notes I heard of their self-titled album I knew why this name felt so apt. These are songs that will make you lose water—if not from dancing, brown water, or heavy turquoise accessories and denim—simply from time, loss and everything else that moves unaccompanied through the night. I played their first two releases, Howling at Nothing and S.O.B., on repeat for days. And then, with the rest of America, I witnessed this perfect raucousness. 

If you haven’t yet spent time with Nathaniel Rateliff’s solo albums, please don’t hurt my feelings and give them all a spin immediately. I have an ever-growing list of “songs I wish I wrote” over which Rateliff holds a strong monopoly. In Memory of Loss was released in 2010, Falling Faster Than You Can Run in 2013 and Closer earlier this year in 2015. These songs are a far cry (and a big band) from the fast-tapping, knee-slapping rootsy tunes he’s produced with The Night Sweats but no one can deny them their soul. It feels as though Rateliff’s sorrow-filled writing and gruff voice was just waiting for a little more drum and a horn section.

This is not your father’s record [i], but it sounds like it could be and against the other sounds slipping fussily out of radios these days. So it’s no surprise that Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweat’s debut album was released on Stax records, the house that brought us Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd and Booker T. & the M.G.’s [ii]. There’s a sound here that will easily draw comparisons back to Stax alumni of the 60s, and certainly one can hear that Van Morrison sway as well (it really comes through in Wasting Time), but against the current popular music landscape it feels entirely fresh in a way that demands fervency, fullness and total abandonment.

At a time when soul is making a fashionable comeback with artists like Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding (and certainly Rateliff) at the helm, I can’t help but hope that this means a space in popular music for the kind of secular testifying that took place in the 60s that spoke to the gospel of human experience so much louder than the music itself. Something tells me we're hungry again.

Footnotes

[i] Even though it looks like it from all appearances. All hail turquoise swag, hand tats and chest hair.

[ii] For further information about Stax Records and a great read check out: The Power of Ordinary People: How Stax Records Set an Example for America

Deep cuts from Nathaniel Rateliff’s earlier records not miss: We Never Win, Brakeman, Oil & Lavender, Three Fingers In, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, Winded.

Deeper Cuts

If you’re feeling it, I put together a Quick and Dirty Soul Playlist for you to vibe to. It has classics and new voices and is sure to get you movin’ and feelin’. 

The Novelty of Fiction and Summertime Reading

There’s a sound that summer makes—hot off the tongue and quick to burn in untamed light. Sometimes it’s sinful like flesh singing on a hot grill, the slow sigh of a beer can’s remorse, or the cries from nighttime’s children as they chase the day’s foregone conclusion. Other times it’s languid—the quiet lap of water—a sensation that gives way to melting, more than anything. Time drools and promises that days may never end.

I’ve been thinking about summer reading lately, as my reading habits have differed significantly since last year. Perhaps all of ours have. Digital media and television have refashioned the way that we consume fiction. Since the onset of Tony Soprano’s panic attack in 1999, the "golden age of television" has been vying for the same time and attention we used to parcel out for reading novels. How could you be convinced to spend a few hours annotating Infinite Jest when you could indulge in some absorbing diversion on Netflix without ever turning a page?[a]

Do not mistake me, if it were released tomorrow I would watch five more seasons of Mad Men in five days in the kind of hazy stupor that only Don Draper knows how to wake from. I am a unrepentant fan of television and the masterful shows of recent years that unfold like novels and tell stories with the character development, nuance and restraint of great literary voices. What David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan have done for television is entertaining and critically lauded—reminiscent of the serialized Charles Dickens novels of the Victorian era.[b] It’s not a stretch to imagine people being as equally invested in the weekly adventure and overall fate of Oliver Twist as they were in Jesse Pinkman.

It’s easy to get enraptured, to follow the ineffable joy of becoming engulfed in the pace of plots dosed out like morphine. But here’s what’s strange about watching fiction on television: when I consume a show I am a visitor in someone else’s fully realized vision—asked to make assumptions, connect with fully drawn characters and often suspend belief—but I am not asked to imagine, create or decide; that work has already been done for me. Language has taken shape as either action or dialogue, characters are cast as discernible faces, and visual perceptions are arranged inside frames and parceled out for consumption by episode.

Do not mistake me, I’d love to tell you what makes Rectify and Mr. Robot so great this season. But for now, I’ll read a few chapters of a novel and hope that we don’t lose the seduction of reading language on the page. Perhaps reading a novel is like summer itself—tangible and carnal, demanding all of your capacity for attention at once, promising newness. It will take time. It will take imagination. It will eat at you if you’ve done it right. It will leave you hungry.

In the spirit of summer’s heady dance with the indefinite, I’ve suggested some reads that pair well with lakes, cabins, pools, beverages, beaches, airplanes, fields and whatever other weapon or vessel you have in mind. But don't call these beach reads; though they are as entertaining as television (gasp) and do not require spark notes (mostly), they are intelligent, imaginative, and persistent in their quest to uphold language and storytelling.[c] 

Featured Summer Read: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

There’s a sound I think of when I think of The Art of Fielding; a wooden snap that bobs in my memory like I’m eighteen and covered in grass stains that only youth could ever make last. I read this novel like a coed at play, never thinking about the consequences of time. There were moments so familiar, or seemingly so, that I wanted to live inside them. Part nostalgic, sometimes precious, but always firmly rooted in psychological realism—it speaks about sports, race, sexuality and identity in a way that is both old-world and fashionable.

Current Summer Read: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I’m reading this with a friend—together, but apart. Perhaps we’ll talk about it occasionally. Perhaps we won’t; but we’ll know that we’re reading the same thing at the same time. And, together, we’ll have two very different experiences because we are two minds apart, and that is a most intoxicating thing. Join us, if you'd like. 

Suggested Summertime Reads:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Footnotes:

[a] Those masterful fools don’t even let you press the “next episode” button yourself.

[b] Many comparisons have already been made between Dickens and television shows like The Wire (David Simon)—both imagined in the serial form, but enduring as the popular "fiction" of their time. 

[c] The ironic thing to be noted here is that many of these would make a perfect miniseries, or have already been considered for one by writers and networks alike. See: HBO Passes on The Corrections Pilot, Really Terrible Internet Casting Ideas for The Art of Fielding.

A Year in Reading: 2014

Taking a page from The Million’s Year in Reading, I compiled a list of the books that I read this year. It was the year that I set out to tackle a few of the weighty tomes that were taunting me from bookshelves, or tired of being made doorstops. I set out to see “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Read More