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Recommendations for January 11, 2012

A relatively long list this time, with some interesting things to read and some new music. Somebody on a podcast I listen to, who writes for NPR Music, said recently that the beginning of the year is when record labels tend to push new or lesser-known artists, which might explain why I am hearing a lot of interesting new stuff lately; whatever the reason, it is exciting.
Article: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” by Joel Lovell
So, the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know about what this piece is trying to tell you. It is really a profile of Saunders more than a review of his new (or any) book, though, and it is mostly interesting for some of the ideas about fiction and its possibilities that it suggests. In particular, depute not being about David Foster Wallace, it includes one of the best encapsulations of what he was trying to accomplish. Saunders describes conversations he had with Wallace, as well as Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen, in which

“The thing on the table was emotional fiction. How do we make it? How do we get there? Is there something yet to be discovered? These were about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary.”

That is why it bothers me as much as it does when people lump Wallace in with a vaguely-defined set of “postmodern” writers who are clever but short on emotional engagement. I’ve never read Saunders, but any writer who shares this project with Wallace is of interest to me.
I also like something he says about MFA writing programs, of which I am generally suspicious: that the point is not to be taught how to be a “successful” writer, but to “learn to say something:”

“Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

This neatly summarizes a lot of what I feel to be the point of education in general. 
That’s a lot of ground covered, and a lot of big ideas dealt with, in a relatively short author profile. Lovell also manages to portray Saunders as a pretty nice guy that you might like to hang out with; that’s by no means my first concern with writers of fiction, but it’s a nice bonus.
Article: “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead” by Kevin Drum
A fascinating and alarming discussion of the possible connection (which the author sees as more than “possible”) between violent crime and lead. Looking for an explanation in the dramatic drop in levels of crime all over the United States beginning in the 1990s, research has shown a very strong inverse correlation between lead exposure (which was at its highest at the peak of leaded gasoline usage) and crime. That correlation holds across countries and across urban areas, and it also works within urban areas, at the level of the census tract (at least in New Orleans). Combined with new findings that much lower levels of lead exposure do much more damage, particularly to children, than previously thought, the data seem convincing. I am naturally suspicious of any single-cause explanation for a complex social phenomenon like crime— what about levels of crime in previous eras, when exposure to lead would have been much lower in society in general?— and I haven’t looked at all into the methodology of the studies the piece cites, so I won’t declare myself entirely sold on this hypothesis. If nothing else, though, it’s another angle to explore, and, excitingly, one over which— given the appropriate levels of attention, political will, and funding— we actually have a fair amount of control.
Article: “Suds for Drugs” by Ben Paynter
Occasionally, when riding the train to work and back, I have seen men (always men, in my experience) walking up and down the train with a couple of large bottles of Tide detergent, asking if anyone wants to buy them. I always figured there was something sketchy about this, but I didn’t know what it was; I pretty much dismissed the idea that the detergent was stolen, though, because who steals a massive, 120-load bottle of laundry detergent? And what kind of way is that to make money?
Turns out, a pretty good way. Theft of Tide— and it is Tide, specifically, which apparently has such powerfully positive brand associations for many people that they are willing to pay more than they can afford in order to use it— is a big problem, with huge quantities being stolen from grocery stores all over the country. One store in Maryland mentioned in this article reported 10-15 thousand dollars worth of Tide being stolen every month. The reason is that it’s easy for people to re-sell, both to consumers and to other, unscrupulous grocery stores, either of whom will end up paying less than they would otherwise, and the thief can get $10 or $15 per bottle. In many cases, this is used to buy drugs— it is, as the piece notes, the creatively desperate addicts that first hit upon Tide as the product of choice— but it’s a pretty good earner for anybody, and, as long as you keep within certain limits, shoplifting is usually a misdemeanor; add that to the fact that most grocery store employees have little motivation to try to detain a determined shoplifter, and the risks are low compared to most illegal ways of making money. A weird and fascinating story. There’s also some interesting stuff in here about why Tide is so dominant, including the technical/chemical innovation that built the brand’s reputation for removing stains that nobody else could get out.
Playlist: “1993 Was  A Good Year for Music” by Laura June
A collection of songs from the year 1993. This is definitely an “alternative”-leaning list, rather than one focusing on the hits of that year, but this is the period (roughly 1992-1995) that really activates, for me, that nostalgic sense that the music that you listened to in your youth was the best thing ever. (The playlist itself is available on both Spotify and Rdio, both of which have free accounts).
Song: “Zinli Rhythm” by Savoir

Two Australian producers making African-influenced dance tracks. Don’t know much more about it. It’s really catchy.
Song: “Forces” by Farao
The first song by a new Norwegian singer-songwriter. Again, don’t have much more information than that, but it’s good. 
Song: “Heavy Feet” by Local Natives
I am not completely sure how I feel about this band; I like them when I hear them (I saw them open for the National last year, and they were great), but I’ve also never felt compelled to follow them more closely. I do very much like the percussion in their songs (they have two drummers, and sometimes a third person also hitting things— it’s a big band), and this song is a good example of that.

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