Review: ‘Life Would be Perfect if I Lived in that House’ by Meghan Daum

In the early 2000s, Meghan Daum did something totally unprecedented. She busted past a bunch of dead male authors with flapper fetishes, and Margaret Atwood, to land a spot in my Top 5 Favorite Books of All Time list with her collection of contemporary essays: My Misspent Youth.

It’s not a Pulitzer Prize-winning mix; There is a good chance you’ve never heard of it. But is a real gem, with pieces on the financial woes of residual college tuition and renting in New York City on a freelance writer’s income, and another memorable bit where she likens the idea of carpeting to a gross kid from elementary school. She’s funny, the way you want funny to be: subtle, conversational, doled out in moderation. And she was recognizable. It wasn’t my life she was writing about, but it was a life I recognized.

[Unfortunately she followed this with fiction that smacked dangerously close to her own life: Woman ditches out on the fast lane, lands in Lincoln, Neb., meets a dude in a flannel shirt and lives in an old farmhouse. And in the process learns a thing or two about love. It was a total three-star meh-fest.]

Daum is back doing what should be doing, conversational nonfiction writing, with what is ultimately an essay-ish love letter to house shopping and the places where she has lived, Life Would be Perfect If I Lived in that House.

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Feature: gb leighton, musician

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Twin Cities-based gb leighton is as much a part of the Grandma’s Marathon weekend scene as elusive course records and droves of straight-legged limpers wearing “Finisher” T-shirts.

This will be the 14th year that the fun-time, sing-along bar band with regional appeal has secured this gig — playing for the masses beneath the big-top tent at Canal Park. And in that time, it is this scene that has become front-man Brian Leighton’s happy place, the spot he goes to in his mind when he imagines his ideal concert setting as he mentally prepares for his other shows.

“It always makes me feel like a star, almost,” Leighton said. “It’s one of those set-ups: big stage, big tents, thousands of people and they sing along all the words. … In my mind, that’s why the show is important to me.”

Full story here.

Originally published June 17, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune

Review: Papa Roach concert

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Jacoby Shaddix: You, Mr. Frontman for Papa Roach, should create the “Jane Fonda’s Workout Video” for rock stars.

All that marching in place and arm waving. All those dips and bends and jumps and twists. The way you command the audience to wave their hands in the air, fist pump, mosh harder and sing this line and that line.

By six minutes into your set on Thursday night at Clyde Iron Works, it looked like you had been dipped in butter. Every time your combat boot struck the stage, your body rained like its own personal thunderstorm.

Full story here.

Originally published June 18, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune.

Review: ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ by Bret Easton Ellis

The opening sentence of Imperial Bedrooms is enough to give an old Bret Easton Ellis-ophile chills: “They had made a movie about us.” Unfortunately, by the end of the first page, his 25-year reunion for the cold, drug-addled, pretty and pretty-wealthy sociopaths from Less Than Zero becomes something that would look best hitting a wall at about 45 miles per hour.

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Review: ‘Wifey’ by Judy Blume

Admittedly, I remember very little from the 1970s beyond having panel walls in our kitchen, and matted mustard carpeting in the living room. So, luckily, I am able to see beyond the frustrations of sexually stifled housewife Sandy Pressman, and instead take Judy Blume’s hidden-in-the-hamper novel from the era for something better: “Wifey” is Pure. Comic. Gold.

The book opens with Sandy Pressman looking out her window upon waking, and finding a man wearing just a bed sheet — which he quickly sheds — and a stars and stripes helmet, standing on the edge of her yard. He precedes to coax himself toward the proverbial second base, then zip away naked on his motorcycle. She calls her husband, who then calls the police. When a cop stops by to get her statement, Sandy recounts the “crime scene” and adds the final detail that defines the tone of the rest of the book.

“I just remembered … he was left handed,” she tells the sergeant.

Well, well, wellsy, Lady Hot Pants Pressman. You noticed. Rawr.

This experience kicks off a sexual something. Not an awakening, per se. Sandy took some pretty experimental tours around the old block back in the day with a super-creative lad named Shep. But she has gained a sort of sexual acceptance: that her three minutes of Saturday night special — which her blase husband Norman tops off with gargling, scrubbing, and air freshener — is no match for the memories of her time with no-holds barred Shep. Meanwhile, all around her, the mens are sitting up and taking notice of the Jackie O. lookalike. Her body becomes a sort of scratching post for those who inhale her pheromones. And a good time is had by all.

This causes an understandable amount of disdain for her mousy master of a husband, who does things like cut out photographs of hairstyles from magazines for her to consider, and push her toward more time at the Country Club, where she should be learning to play golf and tennis and socializing with the sophisticates.

What a delicious, hokey, and charming read from the woman who taught us all how they strapped on maxi pads in the old-fashioned days. Thankfully we don’t have to hide it on a high shelf anymore. It’s so hard to imagine a time when this novel wasn’t the height of hilarity.

Originally published June 13, 2010 at Minnesota Reads.

Feature: Russell Gran, painter

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Meet Lars Lundberg: He hunts, he fishes, he has xylophone abs. He enjoys playing hoops, has a younger brother and he’s lucky with the ladies. Maybe too lucky. Lars will choose the military over college. He’ll sport camouflage and make friends named Omar, Ryan and Eric. Spoiler alert: Things do not end well for young Lars.

It is this imagining of a life that is at the center of acrylic painter Russell V. Gran’s exhibit “Favorite Son,” which opens Friday at Washington Gallery.

Gran, 74, is a Duluth native and graduate of Denfeld and the University of Minnesota Duluth. He moved back 20 years ago after a stint on the East Coast. He is the oldest resident of the Washington Studios Artists’ Co-op. A former neighbor and colleague recalled him as “the patriarch of Washington Studios. The soul of the place.”

The idea for Gran’s narrative-turned-visual art comes from a mix of places, including young friends who ended up in the two “worthless wars,” as he calls them, Desert Storm and Iraq.

“I hated to think of these young people in their flower, getting killed,” Gran said. “This is the story of Lars, the favorite son of the Lundberg family. … Giving a story to it gave me focus.”

Full story here.

Originally published June 10, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune

Review: ’69’ by Ryu Murakami

When it comes to dizzying collections of words, Ryu Murakami has long been the writer most likely to make me wretch with glee. He’s a Level 3 sensory offender, twiddling away at a reader’s gag reflex just because he can. There is a scene in his novel In the Miso Soup (my favorite) that is so engraved in my brain that it has almost become a permanent ear worm. The depravity and desperation of Almost Transparent Blue have stuck with me for more than a decade. His novel Coin Locker Babies opens with such a shocking sentence that it’s a wonder anyone makes it to Page two — unfortunately.

But with 69, his roman a clef about a posse of restless, political, literary, music-loving teens noodling away at Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits on a guitar and talkin’ about a revolution, Murakami takes his best tool and hides it in a garage for the duration of the novel.

This is to say, I didn’t almost barf once.

Kensuke Yazaki is a trouble-maker, the only son of school teachers, a Pisces, an egomaniac. A romantic reading Rimbaud. He’s inspired by the political movements around him, and sets out to create his own. Shake things up at his school, which he sees as a mindless farm that churns out person after identical person. He borrows blueprints from pre-existing movements and organizes a faction of students to help him make statements: On one occasion they set up a barricade at the school, paint naughty graffiti all over the walls, coax a timid hanger-on to release an epic dump on the principal’s desk. This is part of a greater project: The Morning Erection Festival, during which he will show an original film starring some of the local high school hotties and with a little luck, find a white horse to co-star.

Much of this is to get the attention of a girl in his class, whom he refers to as “Lady Jane.” And, readers, she falls for it.

This book is to cute, what In the Miso Soup is to chilling. (Some people like to attach a Catcher in the Rye-like quantifier to it which is a bit of a stretch). In its best moments, Kensuke is 100 percent false bravado, quaking at the puckered lips in front of him. The last ten pages are pretty adorable, surprisingly. It doesn’t pack the punch of his grittier work, though.

Originally posted June 8, 2010 on Minnesota Reads.