How does it feel for native English speakers that everybody in the world uses their language?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

On a practical basis, it makes travel and expat life a lot easier. Of course, not everyone can speak the language. But in Europe, it’s rare to meet people without at least some knowledge of English. Running errands, speaking with colleagues, dealing with bureaucracy, all of those things come easier.

As for its worldwide adoption, I don’t feel any particular pride in that. Nowadays, English is often used outside of any specific Anglo-American context. Poles talking to Hungarians, Italians talking to Chinese, that kind of thing. It has little to do with any kind of broad acceptance of American or British culture.

There are downsides to global English adoption. The hardest for me is that I love learning other languages and would prefer the opportunity to speak them over a German, Swede, or Korean, for example, switching to English.

Lack of English can make for a more rich traveling experience. French and Italians have a reputation for cultural chauvinism, but I enjoy how many of them are reluctant to converse in English. They usually appreciate my trying to speak their language and it gives positive reinforcement for learning it.

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OOIOO Returns with Gamel

OOIOO has just released Gamel, the 7th album by this longstanding Japanese art rock band. As the title suggests, Indonesian music provided much of the inspiration for this recent set of songs. You can hear the resonant tones of Gamelan bells throughout “Atatawa” and “Jesso Testa”

Back in 2009, I reviewed their last album Amorica Hewa, another stellar collection of songs informed by a wide variety of Asian and African folk music styles.

Right now, the band is in the midst of a small US-Canadian tour. Those in the Northeast and Midwest should make the effort to see them. OOIOO ranks among the most captivating and technically proficient live acts ever I’ve seen. They possess an uncanny ability to translate the intricate, layered recorded versions of their songs onto the stage with astonishing fidelity.

Band leader Yoshimi P-We began her career as a drummer for Boredoms in the 1980s. Her skills as a percussionist and trumpet player led that band’s transition from noise rock provocateurs to their current configuration as a kind of transcendental drum-circle art happening.

Most Americans know of her as the inspiration behind the Flaming Lips song and album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—not a bad example of one artist tipping their hat to another, but one since become a cliché in reviews of her work with Boredoms, OOIOO and many others.

A current interview with Yoshimi can be read at Impose Magazine

Rodeo novel fiction?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

Winterkill by Craig Leslie. The protagonist is Danny Kachiah, a Nez Perce rodeo clown living on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest. The story follows Danny as he confronts a declining career and family traumas after taking custody young son, whose mother has died in a car accent.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book. Like a lot of students growing up in Oregon and Washington during the 90s and  2000s, I read it as part of the English curriculum in high school. From what I recall, the prose was well crafted but the pacing slow. The flashbacks felt contrived.

But if you’re reading strictly for the subject matter, you should give Winterkill a try. The bits about rodeo life struck me as being quite realistic, and they were by far the most interesting sections of the novel.

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Nocturnal Travels (Proust)

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Moonrise by Stanislaw Maslowski,1884

A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a  second the point of the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and, in the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed. If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went to bed several months earlier in another country.

From Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (trans Lydia Davis)

What are the differences between historical fiction and realistic fiction?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

Realistic fiction portrays fictional events and characters that can plausibly occur within a commonly accepted model of objective reality. Literary critics, especially of the postmodern variety, will argue whether it is possible to represent reality. But that’s a whole other argument,

Historical fiction is closely related to realistic fiction in that the past needs to be plausibly if not accurately represented, especially if the story is not only set in a historical period but the characters and events within that story have analogs within the actual historical record. In other words,  Winston Churchill the character needs to resemble Winston Churchill the man, or at least one of many different accounts of Winston Churchill. Even if a writer is positing an alternate history, those counter-historical events still need to have origins within some commonly accepted view of the past.

So the two categories are not mutually exclusive. Much realistic fiction, including works by classic 19th Century realist authors such as Tolstoy or Balzac, could be considered historical, since they were set in a time period preceding their composition. But neither are the two categories wholly inclusive. Some works of historical fiction, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy immediately comes to mind, have elements of the fantastic that place those works outside realistic narrative strictly speaking, even though actual historic events and people are represented within them.

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Desert Island List: Books, 2014

Roget’s International Thesaurus (desert islands tend not to have WiFi)
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions
Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees
Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Henry Fowler, Modern English Usage
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Franz Kafka, Collected Short Stories
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (“Bartleby the Scrivener” will do in a pinch)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (about a metaphysical desert island, if you will)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (really anything, but desert islands aren’t known for their abundant shelf space )
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Michael Gira on 30 Years of Swans Music

Two years ago, I interviewed Michael Gira about The Seer, the second album by Swans following their reformation in 2010. A few months ago, the band released another record, To Be Kind, one of their best in the 30+ years since their formation.

For those unfamiliar, Swans emerged in the early 80s from art and music scene of lower Manhattan. Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, and Sonic Youth were early stylistic touchstones, but even among those contemporaries Swans stood out as especially uncompromising. Their music gradually evolved to incorporate elements of folk, psychedelic rock and ambient soundscapes, but the expansive, grandiose nature of the music has remained constant.

Truth be told, I was apprehensive going into the interview. Gira has a reputation for being prickly in the face of ill formed interview questions. And I was inexperienced, something which he seemed to pick up on. “So do you do this often?” he asked me pointedly near the end of our conversation.

Immediately apparent was the seriousness with which Gira approaches music making, but also the care he felt towards his bandmates as well as his sense of humor, which belies the one-dimensional image of Swans being a dour band helmed by dour old men. He spoke about collaborating with Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O., saying, “I was singing and it just seemed like I was in the way, that my voice was some kind of troll trying to be gentle to someone. I’m not Nick Drake. Let’s put it that way.”

By Gira’s own account, Swans are more popular now than they’ve ever been. This may seem odd in a culture so obsessed with celebrity and instant gratification. But what sets them apart and what, I think, lies at the heart of their appeal is the obvious devotion put into every second of their music. For anyone interested in creating on their own terms, whether that be art, music, or literature, their late career renaissance is something to admire.

You can read more of my interview with Gira here.