All posts for February 2012

Minus Two Princes And Amber Dept.

It's harder than you think to recognize your own biases.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/29 10:02

Purchase on AmazonI've been reading Seven Princes (the title of this post is a sorry attempt at humor about it, I apologize), and in the process discovering something about myself that I don't like to admit: I'm biased in ways I scarcely know about. And the only way I can find out about that kind of bias, it seems, is to blunder across it and break my toes on it.

I originally planned to write a regular review of Seven Princes, in which I shrugged and described it as yet another fantasy cloned from the same cuttings of Tolkien that everyone has been cultivating since the Seventies. What's odd is how in many respects it reminded me of another set of books that I find far more appealing: Guin Saga. What was it about the latter, despite being written in almost the same manner as Seven Princes, that made it far more interesting to me?

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Tags: Guin Saga  Seven Princes  books  fiction  writing 

Book Reviews: Japan (Buronson / Kentaro Miura)

Kentaro Miura and Buronson team up for a collaboration that's if anything even worse than the last one I saw from them.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/28 10:00
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Another instance of Miura (Berserk) lending his considerable talents as an illustrator to a nearly-worthless story. The last time he did that was with King of Wolves, also with a story by Buronson, but Japan is worse.

In some ways this is Wolves turned inside-out: a gallery of characters are flung into the future instead of the past, where Japan has turned into a wasteland and all the natives have been ground under the heel of a pan-European dictatorship. Their one hope is a meat-headed yakuza (at least he knows he's a meathead) who doles out Justice and Righteous Vengeance in equal measure.

The story's dumb enough, but there's also generous dollops of crass sexism and pinhead sociology to boot. At least when Kazuo Koike did this kind of thing (Crying Freeman), or when Ryoichi Ikegami drew it (ditto, plus Wounded Man, Sanctuary and Buronson's own Strain), it had the saving grace of being enjoyably smarmy pulp trash. The whole thing feels like a dry run for a series that was never commissioned, and thank goodness for that: Miura's far enough behind on Berserk as it is.

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Tags: Buronson  Japan  Kentaro Miura  books  manga  review 

Book Reviews: Hell (Yasutaka Tsutsui)

Yasutaka Tsutsui ("Paprika")'s satire on the afterlife remains stuck on the level of an interesting idea rather than a fully-developed work.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/27 09:00
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A plotless meditation on the concept of hell (or, strictly speaking, purgatory) as seen from a Japanese point of view. Several people who have recently died find themselves in a place that is much like the life they just left behind, but with some key differences. Everyone else's thoughts are readable; past and present intermix freely; and the things you worry about have a nasty tendency to come true. The only way out is to stop struggling — a conceit that students of Buddhism will recognize immediately, but Tsutsui uses it for satirical ends all the way through.

Maybe Tsutsui's brand of satire doesn't translate into English as effectively as it reads in Japanese, or maybe Hell is just not one of his better works. I'm leaning more towards the latter, especially after having gotten my hands on the English edition of Paprika, which shows him off in much better form. Here, he has a lot of ideas, but they remain little more than that. This is a rare case of a short book that cries out to be expanded into a longer one instead of vice versa.

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Tags: Japan  Yasutaka Tsutsui  books  fantasy  review  satire  science fiction 

Book Reviews: MM9: Monster Magnitude 9 (Hiroshi Yamamoto)

A love letter to Japanese monster movies, with some clever mythology of its own that could support a more ambitious story.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/21 09:00
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A love-letter to Japanese kaiju, or the giant monsters we all know and love, from Godzilla all the way on down to Varan and everything in between. In a slightly-alternate present, Japan has a special government division, the MMD, to deal with giant-monster attacks of all varieties. Like any government agency their work is underfunded, thankless, and tiring; their sole reward for sparing Tokyo from destruction yet again is often nothing more than a hostile round of press coverage and their next paycheck.

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Tags: Haikasoru  Japan  books  kaiju  review 

Movie Reviews: Picaresque

If No Longer Human somehow managed to take Osamu Dazai's furious little novel and make a bloated bore of a movie out of it, Picaresque ends up doing the same thing with Dazai himself. It's a biopic that touches on...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/20 12:58
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If No Longer Human somehow managed to take Osamu Dazai's furious little novel and make a bloated bore of a movie out of it, Picaresque ends up doing the same thing with Dazai himself. It's a biopic that touches on all the usual beats in the man's life—his literary successes, his turbulent relationships with women, his suicide attempts, his drug habits, etc.—and doesn't manage to do much more with them than subject us to them.

There's some milking of the controversy involving his death (did he jump or was he pushed?), but there's no sense of what would have made him worth hanging out with, or even reading. Get the books instead, especially Self Portraits, where Dazai's cynicism and wit lances out at you from most every page (and where he tells his own story, in "Seascape with Figures in Gold", far more convincingly than you're likely to get it here).

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Tags: Japan  Osamu Dazai  movies  review 

Flight of the Vajra: Sign O' The Times Dept.

If SF is really about "now" rather than the future, does that make it also about contrasting the literature of "now"?

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/20 12:33

A discussion of how SF "reflects the period", with some interesting notes about how it seems more to contrast the popular or highbrow  literature of the period.

Reflecting the Times? : Uncertain Principles

The problem for the reflecting-the-times thesis is that the really optimistic tales of yesteryear were being written in the 1930's. And if you think the world looks depressing now, think about what it looked like in 1930.

The piece goes on to note:

SF has been struggling to become a Serious Genre, one that respectable literary types can engage with. And if you're going to be respectably literary, you need to put a greater emphasis on darker topics than on technological cheerleading. Which is why modern SF is so depressing, relatively speaking.

I think that also says more about the way literature is approved of or rejected by the reigning tastemakers and cultural guardians of the day.

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Tags: Flight of the Vajra  science  science fiction  writing 

Movie Reviews: No Longer Human / Ningen Shikkaku (2010)

A glitzy and hollow adaptation of a book that was anything but those two things.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/19 11:49
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Not long ago I wrote an essay on why some bad-to-mediocre books make good movies, and also why some good-to-excellent books get made into terrible movies. It is, I fear, far easier to do the latter than the former, because what makes a book great on the page almost never translates directly into action on the screen. This goes double for any novel where the majority of the action is in the narrator’s head (The Killer Inside Me), or where perspective and point of view matter to the telling (The Handmaid’s Tale). There are some things you simply can’t show, and any good movie (along with any good book) will know what’s worth telling and what’s worth showing.

Purchase on AmazonNo Longer Human is not so much unfaithful to its source material (the Osamu Dazai novel) as it is unjust to it. No adaptation should be this poor at communicating what it was about the original story that compelled several consecutive generations of Japanese to take it to heart. It does not make sense to take a work this inwardly-directed and turn it into a glossy period piece—all glittering Ginza back alleys and chintzy nightclubs—when the original could have cared less about such set dressing. It does not make sense to omit completely the narrator’s voice and inner monologue, which is what allows us to understand him, and where most of the story lie in the first place. It does not make sense to take one of Japan’s most significant postwar literary works, about a man’s alienation and psychological disintegration, and turn it into a story about a confused, aimless rich kid slumming it.

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Tags: Genjiro Arato  Japan  Osamu Dazai  adaptation  movies  review 

Flight of the Vajra: Unplugged Dept.

No cellphones in the future, and no computers either. Just connectivity and computation, for better or worse.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/17 12:24

Purchase on AmazonOne of the common elements of the future we're seeing now (as opposed to the future we saw fifty years ago) is a world where most everything in it has a digital representation, us included. Sometimes this is used for satire — viz., Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, where the horrid implications of always "being in touch" are carried to their logical extreme.

Twenty years ago, nobody imagined that something like Twitter would even emerge, let alone have the kind of pervasiveness that it does. Actually, I should stop right there: it's not that technologies like Twitter and (ugh) Facebook are indeed wholly pervasive, but that they seem that way right now.¹ Give it five years, and I'd bet you my next box of Cuban cigars (if I smoked) that they'll have melted away and been replaced with something else. Maybe not something better, but certainly something different.

While writing Vajra I became convinced that it would not be possible to know the precise shape that such technology would take in our lives. In other words, for us to speculate about what far-future variant of Twitter they would be using would be like someone in the 1910s wondering how many Model Ts there would be on the road and if they were finally in some color other than black.

I'm also reminded of the moment, easy enough to miss, in the terrible movie Lost in Space, where the daughter character breaks out her video diary device with its conspicuous Silicon Graphics Inc. logo. Or the in-dash Nokia-branded phone in the car in the even more terrible 2009 Star Trek remake. These things say less about the power of corporate money for sponsoring and branding than they do about how easy it is to not really think about the future, and just populate it with bits of the present.

So: communications technology. The way I saw it, once you gave people the possibility to become part of the very digital fabric they used, a lot of things become unneeded. No one carries a phone, because you are the phone: everything that phone used to do has in some way become a part of your very being, or been diffused throughout the environment you now move through every day. So there are no phones in this story, not even any computing devices as we know them now — but rather a pervasive atmosphere of computation and connectedness. That's about as forward-thinking as I could get without making a total fool of myself.

I'm looking back over what I wrote just a second ago — specifically, the words "populate [the story] with bits of the present". I don't meant to say that in itself is a bad thing, only when it's a substitute for genuine reflection on the future. The story I'm writing is indeed populated with plenty of bits of the present. That future is filled with people having meals together, arguing good-naturedly (or not so good-naturedly), creating art, going places, seeing each other, etc.

Yes, how they do all those things is drastically unlike what we have now. But I decided early on that a future where people did things that we of 2012 have no way to refer to or connect with culturally would make for a story that almost no one would want to read in the first place.

¹ The more you live or work with something, the easier it is to believe the rest of the world lives or works with it as well. This rule goes double, possibly triple, for anything in the tech industry. I'm growing a little tired of neophyte colleagues of mine — or even folks I know who really should know better — professing completely unfeigned astonishment when they tell me someone they know doesn't have a Facebook page, doesn't bother with Twitter, and for the most part is indifferent to the Web. How can they possibly live without acknowledging the impact of these things on their lives!? My answer was "A lot more easily than you think." I dread the idea that five years from now I turn out to be the naïve one.

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Tags: Flight of the Vajra  technology 

Unimedia Dept.

I like to think that maybe someday there will no longer be such things as sculptors and composers and film-makers and playwrights and poets. There will only be artists.-- Tom JohnsonJohnson, a longtime music critic for the Village Voice, wrote...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/16 18:55

I like to think that maybe someday there will no longer be such things as sculptors and composers and film-makers and playwrights and poets. There will only be artists.

— Tom Johnson

Johnson, a longtime music critic for the Village Voice, wrote that back in 1970-something, after being exposed to the then-burgeoning wave of multimedia artists. The impression he got was not of people who couldn't decide whether to work in film, music, sculpture or painting and so simply opted for "all of the above", but rather people who wanted to see what kinds of experiences could be produced by making different media share the same space.

I wonder what the Tom Johnson of 1970-something would have thought if he could have seen, say, today's video games. Those are multimedia experiences in a manner far more advanced than anyone of that period could have conceived of.

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Tags: art  entertainment  multimedia 

Big Damn Heroes Dept.

From authoritarian heroes to egalitarian ones.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/16 00:05

'One Piece' manga offers young and old something to believe in age of uncertainty - The Mainichi Daily News

The strong bond between the "One Piece" characters goes beyond mutual support. Yasuda points to the equity between characters. "(The characters) maintain egalitarian relationships, with different characters taking the leadership role depending on the situation. It's completely different from the Showa-era (1926-1989) image of the authoritarian athletic team leader pushing members to make sacrifices for group success," says Yasuda.

I'm not myself the biggest fan of One Piece — it's one of those things that where I missed the first bus, so to speak, and getting caught up with it now would be a gigantic investment of my time. I've tried dipping my toe in the water since, but each time I ask myself Do I really want to bother going back and getting caught up with all those previous episodes? And the answer is always No, and that's the end of it. The same thing happens with Bleach, Naruto and maybe even Gintama despite me being a major fan of the comic when that was coming out here.

This "egalitarian" analysis sounds easy on the face of it — meet the new shonen hero, nothing like the old shonen hero — and I wonder how much water it holds on closer inspection. To wit: Nobody is ever going to vote Luffy off the boat, and Naruto is never going to stop being the axis around which much of Naruto's action revolves — because a) those things would go against what they are, and b) they'd produce stories that would be arguably a good deal less exciting than what we're getting now.

That said, I do think the general trend is towards heroes that are still heroic but also clearly part of a larger whole. In something like Fist of the North Star, the whole thing revolved around Kenshiro and who he was punching out this week. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the story is unquestionably Ed & Al's, but they would get nowhere in it without the cast that surrounds them — both good guys and bad, who give them both support and something to push against. It's more mature storytelling, that's for sure.

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Tags: anime  manga 

Small In Japan Dept.

Why Foreign Bestsellers Often Fail in Japan | Publishing PerspectivesAn interesting piece on the mechanics of publishing in that country. One of the oddities about bookstores there -- this I can confirm from my own experiences with Japanese bookstores here,...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/12 10:30

Why Foreign Bestsellers Often Fail in Japan | Publishing Perspectives

An interesting piece on the mechanics of publishing in that country. One of the oddities about bookstores there — this I can confirm from my own experiences with Japanese bookstores here, too — is the strange way many books are filed by publisher first, then author. The used bookstore (Book-Off) that I patronize is not like this, but I think that's only because they have no reason to return books.

Tove Jansson, BTW, is the creator of the "Moomin" series of books, which remain perennially popular in Japan the way Peanuts is in the States.

I should also note there's no discussion in the article of the issues involved in translating a work for the Japanese market, or finding a publisher for it. I imagine those things are in a class by themselves.

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Tags: Japan  books  bookstores  marketing 

Book Reviews: No Longer Human Vol. #3 (Usamaru Furuya, Osamu Dazai)

The manga adaptation of Japan's "Requiem for a Dream" comes to an unforgiving close, just as it should.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/11 22:30
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[Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this series are also reviewed here.]


Back before No Longer Human had even its first volume released in English, I went and copped all three volumes of the original untranslated Japanese edition. I read the first two of them back-to-back on one train ride back home, and I read the third a month or two later, while sitting in Bryant Park on a cool autumn afternoon (an incongruous setting for enjoying such a punishing piece of work). In short, I knew what I was getting myself into when Vertical, Inc.’s English translation arrived, but that didn’t make the experience any less emotionally shattering.

It says something that I can finish the story, find flaws with it that bothered me on a conceptual or dramatic level, and yet still see the whole as being unassailable. I’ve since found that’s the only sort of perfect you’re likely to get in this world: one where you can see something’s flaws all the more clearly because you love the whole, and in the end you forgive the whole those flaws because the entire package is worth the effort.

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Tags: Japan  Osamu Dazai  Usamaru Furuya  Vertical Inc.  books  manga  review 

Book Reviews: Black Jack. Vol. #17 (Osamu Tezuka)

The end. And it’s a fitting end to a manga series that’s always stood poised on the knife-edge between sweet fairy-tale simplicity and the tougher sensibilities of stories for mature audiences. Black Jack might well have been Osamu Tezuka’s finest...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/11 00:38
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The end. And it’s a fitting end to a manga series that’s always stood poised on the knife-edge between sweet fairy-tale simplicity and the tougher sensibilities of stories for mature audiences. Black Jack might well have been Osamu Tezuka’s finest work by dint of how it combines the accessibility of works for younger readers (Astro Boy, Unico) and the sophistication and ambition of his experimental productions (Phoenix). Now’s the time to go back to the beginning, if you haven’t already, and experience the whole of this saga of a black-market medical man from start to finish.

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Tags: Black Jack  Japan  Osamu Tezuka  Vertical Inc.  manga  review 

Movie Reviews: Helldriver

Yoshihiro Nishimura paints the camera lens red yet again with his retake on "28 Days Later" and "Doomsday". Sorta-kinda.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/08 21:56
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Answers the question: What would happen if Yoshihiro Nishimura (of Tokyo Gore Police and Machine Girl infamy) remade Neil Marshall's Doomsday on a tenth of the budget but with two hundred times the gore, about as many political allegories, and with art direction that's somewhere between a vintage Dario Argento picture and a jumble sale?

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Tags: Japan  Yoshihiro Nishimura  gore  movies  review 

Baking the Bread of Yearning Dept.

Sometimes wanting to be a writer is the worst way to be a writer.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/08 12:33

Robert Olen Butler: “The Danger of Wanting to Be a Writer” | Talking Writing

The danger of wanting to be a writer is that it generally means “I want to get published, I want to win an award, I want to have a book.” And if that’s what’s driving you as a writer, you’ll never create anything worthwhile—even if you’re capable of it.

The title of this post comes from another quote mentioned elsewhere in the piece, and between that and the quote excerpted above I had plenty of things to chew on.

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Tags: Brad Warner  writers  writing 

Almost Famous Dept.

Why Should Libraries Focus on Popular Books? « Annoyed LibrarianLibraries should concentrate on collecting books that people might want to read, might even enjoy and benefit from, but don’t know about, and then promote them like crazy. The bestsellers are...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/06 13:45

Why Should Libraries Focus on Popular Books? « Annoyed Librarian

Libraries should concentrate on collecting books that people might want to read, might even enjoy and benefit from, but don’t know about, and then promote them like crazy.The bestsellers are already promoted like crazy. Most of them are pretty bad by whatever standard you want to apply, but they’re like cotton candy. They go down smoothly because the readers know exactly what to expect and never get any surprises. People who exclusively read bestsellers and mass popular fiction are hardly worthy of being called readers at all.

There's a lot in this piece (and in Annoyed Librarian's posts generally) about how libraries are scared of losing funding if they stop carrying the obvious bestsellers and genre fiction that, for better or worse, make up a big part of their circulation stats.

A lot of that attitude, I suspect, comes more out of the politics of public financing than anything else: I remember all too well the Congressional sessions where various scientists were called upon to defend the millions of dollars being poured into their research, and (rather stupidly, if I dare say so) admitted that there might not be any practical application for such work, but the fact that America would be promoting that much more scientific research was in itself good. End result: they had their funding slashed. In the same way, any public library that says "We're not going to emphasize books that everyone already knows about and can find" is begging on bended knee to have its funding gutted at the next referendum. Them's the breaks.

But all of the above brought to mind another question: Are bestsellers bestsellers because they're promoted like crazy, or is there another mechanism at work?

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Tags: books  publicity  publishing  writing 

Movie Reviews: United Red Army

Painfully long-winded (three hours and change), this docudrama about one of Japan's most notorious and violent political factions wouldn't be worth the attention if it wasn't for the fact that longtime director / agent provocateur Kōji Wakamatsu was at the helm. The...

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/05 00:49
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Painfully long-winded (three hours and change), this docudrama about one of Japan's most notorious and violent political factions wouldn't be worth the attention if it wasn't for the fact that longtime director / agent provocateur Kōji Wakamatsu was at the helm. The movie itself, though, could have been directed by anybody. The first hour's a jumble of stock footage, uninvolving re-enactments and title cards, as the turbulent political world of student groups in 1960s Japan is laid out for us in numbing detail, and it leaves us with little sense that the film will matter for anyone who wasn't actually there.

The second hour is slightly more absorbing, as the United Red Army of the title starts as an earnest splinter group from another faction but gradually degenerates into paranoia and self-persecution with many of its own members murdered for being not ideologically pure enough. The only people we get to know well enough are the instigators of the purge; everyone else is just a name and a date of death.

The home stretch re-constructs the infamous "Asamasanso Siege" (as documented in Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan). Here there are hints of the movie this could have been as the revolutionists barricade themselves in a mountain lodge, stand off against police for days on end, and face both physical and psychological warfare. But by that point the film has long since worn out its welcome. It's all good intentions for so little real payoff, one-and-a-half hours of movie in a three-hour bag. Then again, maybe Wakamatsu's point is that this revolutionary political stuff is supposed to be boring, but I'm dubious. Bonus points for Jim O'Rourke's mournful soundtrack, though.

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Tags: Japan  Kōji Wakamatsu  historical fiction  history  movies 

Book Reviews: GTO: 14 Days in Shonan, Vol. #1 (Tohru Fujisawa)

The further (and ever the more over the top) adventures of Great Teacher Onizuka, as he tries to turn around a whole special school full of kids abandoned by their own parents.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/04 00:19
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If one were to travel into the universe of GTO: 14 Days in Shonan and look up Badass on Wikipedia, I would find the article deficient if a picture of Eikichi Onizuka didn’t appear as the illustration of choice on that page.

GTO stands for Great Teacher Onizuka, and the adventures of Onizuka and his stupefying excursions into rock-ribbed machismo have been chronicled in both a manga and its subsequent anime adaptation. Both were translated into English, but are now sadly out of print. Enter Vertical, Inc., who have been looking to broaden their manga offerings. Rather than reissue all of GTO, which would have been problematic at best, they elected instead to bring English-speaking audiences this previously-untranslated follow-up series. It’s a gamble, but not a reckless one, and the presence of previous GTO stories doesn’t create a major barrier for newcomers.

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Tags: Great Teacher Onizuka  Japan  Vertical Inc.  manga  review  shonen 

Music: Kind of Blue (Miles Davis / John Coltrane)

One kind of perfect.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/02/01 20:46
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There is no such thing as perfection. It’s an idea, and not even a particularly useful one at that: all it does is tell you what you are not. It’s even misleading as a goal or a direction to move in, because all it will do is dog you at every step and remind you of how you fall short.

This is what I tell myself most every day, as a way to keep my expectations from being hijacked by the impossible. Impossible is nothing, or so the Adidas ads tell us—and while I do admit every day there is a little bit less of the impossible all around us, there is never any more of the perfect. The only time there’s perfection is when we let ourselves dream, when we freely drop into a space where what’s possible takes precedence over what actually is. Sometimes the best way to get there is with the right music, and if the soundtrack to such a thing is not Kind of Blue then I don’t want another one.

Kind of Blue is the only jazz album I would recommend to someone who has never listened to jazz, whether in a conscientious way or in any way at all. That is only because it’s also one of the few albums I would recommend to anyone no matter what music they already listen to, or even if they listen to no particular music, period. It seems not “educational” but necessary: a world without Kind of Blue is missing at least one major constellation in its sky. You can play it in most any environment without directly noticing what is so special about it, and in a way that is part of what makes it so important. If someone has Kind of Blue in their collection and not a single other jazz record, they are not all that deprived.

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Tags: John Coltrane  Miles Davis  jazz  music  review 

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