For your READING pleasure:

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

In a sprawling, wild, super-hyped magnum opus, David Foster Wallace fulfills the promise of his precocious novel The Broom of the System. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy,Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction, features a huge cast and multilevel narrative, and questions essential elements of American culture – our entertainments, our addictions, our relationships, our pleasures, our abilities to define ourselves. (Amazon)

Nothing’s conceptual origins were fraught with fear and disbelief, and only three civilizations independently discovered it. How Nothing went from a Babylonian place holder, a Mayan decoration in the empty space where no number fell and an Indian dot signifying all the current aspects of zero, to one of the most essential elements in mathematics, physics and cosmology, is the subject of this enlightening history. Barrow, a Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences and author of Theories of Everything and other books, follows Nothing’s evolution in a clear, well-organized narrative. (Publisher’s Weekly)

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

Narrator Barrett Whitener renders Toole’s cast of caricatures with verve enough to satisfy admirers. Toole wrote this novel in Puerto Rico during a hitch in the U.S. Army. In 1966 it was rejected by Simon & Schuster. In 1969 Toole committed suicide. Toole’s mother then tried to get it published. After seven years of rejection she showed it to novelist Walker Percy, under whose encouragement it was published by Louisiana State University Press. Many critics praised it as a comic masterpiece that memorably evokes the city of New Orleans and whose robust protagonist is a modern-day Falstaff, Don Quixote, or Gargantua. Toole’s prose is energetic, and his talent, had it matured, may have produced a masterpiece. However, listeners who do not feel charmed or amused by a fat, flatulent, gluttonous, loud, lying, hypocritical, self-deceiving, self-centered blowhard who masturbates to memories of a dog and pretends to profundity when he is only full of beans are not likely to survive the first cassette. (Library Journal)

An Explanation of America, by Robert Pinsky

[An] ambitious and immensely likable long poem . . . a poem which–a rare thing–seems to combine intimacy and authority. (The New York Times Book Review)

Wise and compassionate. . . . It is one of the most readable long poems in recent memory, graspable by all. (Kenneth Funsten, The Los Angeles Times)

The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher, by Julian Baggini

For Stelios, the teletransporter is the only way to travel.” So begins one of the 100 philosophically based brain teasers in Baggini’s clever book. Each entry includes an imagined scenario, which is based on sources from Plato to Sir Bernard Williams, followed by commentary that introduces a series of mind-bending questions and broadens the possible contexts: e.g., if Stelios’s body is disintegrated and then recomposed by the transporter, is Stelios still the same person he was? Is it ever ethical to eat animals, even if they want to be eaten? Is there really an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God? Is it right to do something wrong if it doesn’t hurt anyone? Is torture ever a good option? Baggini, the editor of the U.K.’s Philosopher’s Magazine, offers no firm answers, only hints as to where the discussion might go next. The conceit of the volume forces some repetitiveness and some simplification, but overall, it effectively explores aesthetics, ethics, language, logic, religion, mind and the self. More importantly, it’s hugely entertaining. Any one of these thought experiments would serve as a great party game, keeping the conversation going for hours. (Publishers Weekly)

For your Rocking desires:

The Monitor, by Titus Andronicus

Modern indie rock generally treats emotion as something that should be guarded or disguised. The Monitor does not subscribe to this viewpoint. On their second album, New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus split the emotional atom with anthemic chants, rousing sing-alongs, celebrations of binge drinking, marathon song titles, broken-hearted duets, punked-up Irish jigs, and classic rock lyric-stealing. And through it all, they take subtlety out on the town, pour a fifth of whiskey down its throat, write insults on its face in permanent marker, and abandon it in the woods. (Pitchfork)

White Crosses, by Against Me!

When they hear White Crosses, Against Me! fans holding out hope that 2007’s New Wave was just a one-off foray into polished, radio-ready punk may give up on the band for good. For everyone else,White Crosses is a set of the year’s most addictively catchy, earnest rock songs. As on New Wave, producer Butch Vig oversees a lustrously clean, slickly sharp set of concise chant-along anthems, and Tom Gabel’s bellicose rebelliousness remains genuine, regardless of its packaging. Exploring his personal and political discontent, he’s simultaneously seething, sad, sarcastic, and always self-aware; like Bruce Springsteen in his prime, Gabel is relentlessly bold even when catering to the masses. (Chris Mincer, A/V Club)

Smoke Ring for My Halo, by Kurt Vile

“On tour, Lord of the Flies. Aw, hey, who cares? What’s a guuuii-taaaaar?” So begins the sharply titled “On Tour”, a spacious, diary-like explosion nestled just a few minutes into Smoke Ring for My Halo, Kurt Vile’s fourth and finest full-length to date. Strings buzz, strummed patterns double back on themselves and from up above it all, the Philadelphia-native showers everything with cosmic, harp-like harmonics. It’s a song that’s both monastic and vast all at once, the kind of curiously rich work that seems like it was crafted by forty longhairs instead of just one. But Vile has gone great lengths in answering his own question in recent years, finding a way to distill thousands of hours spent with classic American guitar music into one very singular and sublime vision. (Pitchfork)

Stay Positive, by the Hold Steady

The Hold Steady weren’t the likeliest candidates for success. Pulling together after the demise of the imaginative, verbose, and mostly overlooked indie act Lifter Puller, Craig Finn relocated to New York to start a new band. Holding to his distinctive poet-lost-at-karaoke delivery, Finn– like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü before him– began unashamedly mining classic rock radio for inspiration. Surprisingly, it’s the latter group you can hear on opening track “Constructive Summer”, and not just in its title’s resemblance to one of Hüsker Dü’s most celebrated songs.

One of the Hold Steady’s most direct and thrilling tracks, “Constructive Summer”‘s tempo and edge are borrowed from punk artists like Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, and Finn’s friends in Dillinger Four (in a lyrical reference that will reward all the close Hold Steady readers out there). Here, the Hold Steady retain the successful balance struck by Boys and Girls in America, with Finn again avoiding crowding the band as it continues to grow musically: the ballads are weepier, the rock songs more immediate, the attempts to diversify more striking. While they continue to prove themselves a more convincing classic rock act than should be possible in 2008, there’s a tension in this album’s lyrics between old-fashioned storytelling and breaking down the fourth wall. Stay Positive is their mostly successful bid to have it both ways. (Pitchfork)

For your Viewing impulses:

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Film)

Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, here’s a Cliff’s Notes teen version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in its sometimes self-consciously eccentric but sincere portrayal of a suicidal teen who spends a week in a psych ward. (Richard Roeper)

Archer (TV)

Archer is the rare show that’s in love with its own wordplay and good enough that this love becomes endearing rather than annoying. (David Hinckley)

Sons of Anarchy (TV)

Shamefully snubbed for Emmy nominations, “Sons of Anarchy” is one of the elite shows on television with its brand of “adrenalized drama with darkly comedic undertones,” as the channel astutely notes.

The story of two conflicted leaders inside the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming (with lots of references to Oakland, Modesto, Stockton, etc.), the series was created by Kurt Sutter, a seminal writer and producer for “The Shield.” (If you newbies want some shorthand, it’s Hamlet on a Harley. And then some.) Sutter’s brand of nuanced anti-hero storytelling has infused “Sons 0f Anarchy” from the start, and the series has matured in virtually each episode since, gaining power and conviction. (Tim Goodman)

The Big Lebowski (Film)

Once again, the Coens have chosen their cast well. With long hair, a beard, sunglasses, and a vapid expression, Jeff Bridges is perfect as the perpetually-stoned Dude. Clean-cut and militant, John Goodman’s profanity-spewing Walter is delightfully off his rocker. Steve Buscemi for once has a relatively low-key role. As Maude, Julianne Moore is given an opportunity to take a walk on the wild side. And David Huddleston plays Lebowski like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, wheelchair and all.

Problems with the plot notwithstanding, The Big Lebowski ranks as one of the most audacious comedies of recent years. The Coens keep the jokes coming, although some of them are so subtle they can easily be missed (for example, when The Dude writes a check for 69 cents). Profane, outrageous, and without inhibitions, The Big Lebowski further cements the Coens’ reputation as independent film makers. (James Berardinelli)

Heima, by Sigur Ros (Documentary/DVD)

The film documents Sigur Rós’ 16 free and unannounced shows they played in their home country after an extensive world tour. The film uses insanely cool cinematography to depict the natural beauty of Iceland’s landscape while also giving us a peek into the lives of its residents. Various film tricks, such as showing water flowing backwards and using almost stop-action snapshots of various interesting details (mottled rocks, rippling sand, discarded rusting wheels), make the film visually striking. The music of Sigur Rós can be defined as having a surreal and other-worldly quality while being concurrently sparse – the DVD is constructed perfectly to fit with that sound. While the documentary style can be almost off-putting (and you can feel the coldness of the Icelandic air), it combines with the music so perfectly that the joy the band experiences playing at home is palpable. (Bostonist)


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