Jimmy Guterman's blog

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Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

What teachers do

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I usually find something to laugh at on the front page of The Brookline Tab (a typical recent piece heralded the arrival of new burrito shops to our town), but “Brookline Teachers Cut Extra Work” hit me. Teachers are so committed to what they do for the children and the community that their idea of a work slowdown is to stop doing some of the extra things that they’re not even paid for. Just a quick reminder of how much dedication people bring to that job.


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March 4, 2016 at 11:25 am

Best sentence of the day refuting conventional wisdom about a particularly odious Republican presidential candidate

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This theory is a lot like that Red Lobster menu, seeming to present an endless array of options, but most of them are just the same limited palette of cheap ingredients reconstituted in different ways.

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight.com

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January 8, 2016 at 6:08 pm

Carrie Brownstein’s Sentences Stand Out

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credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times

Most of the new crop of musician autobiographies is weak and one-dimensional: John Fogerty is still mad, with good reason; so is Kim Gordon; so is John Lydon. Two of the guys from Joy Division are still mad, without good reason; Neil Young misses some of his dogs; Patti Smith is tired from all that remembering. The most distinctive of the ones I’ve read recently is Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. As in her best Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag songs, Brownstein wrote a memoir that simultaneously shares what something feels like in real time and considers how it’s different now that she’s had a while to let those emotions cook. Anyone who regularly comes up with sentences like

“I offered to be in a band with a cute and hip-looking woman whom I admired for her ability to pull off overalls, but she wasn’t interested”


“We were like Fleetwood Mac without the sex or drugs or hair or songs”


“My attitude may have been a factor”

has a sense of humor and sense of self that serve her book well. In its way, this tough, sweet memoir is as loud and ambiguously satisfying as the best of Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock, or All Hands on the Bad One.

Written by guterman

November 12, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Posted in music, reading

(Re)inventing the Truth, Featuring Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie, and Iceberg Slim

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I read a lot of books as an impressionable teenager, but there were three autobiographies I devoured, all in the same semester, that inspired/fascinated/disgusted me with what I felt was their smart, savvy, sometimes brutal depictions and opinions of what “real life” was like: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp. One was assigned for school; two I picked up at a used bookstore in Greenwich Village when my friend Mike and I were supposed to be in school. All contributed to my education.

Over time, I learned that much of what was in those books, while emotionally riveting and mostly true, was factually dubious. Freshman year in college I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and learned that Guthrie was both savvier and more mundane a personality than he wanted us to believe. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention showed how Malcolm’s Autobiography was a brilliant, controlled, selective performance. And now Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim tells a more complicated and less self-aggrandizing (though still pretty damn disturbing) tale than the official take.

Few of the revelations in those books (Marable’s were the most controversial when they were first published) diminish the story or the storyteller. Many of the deviations from fact in Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bound for Glory, and Pimp were made to improve and focus the story, but it turns out that messiness makes for a more complicated and even more engaging story than a slightly too-well-rounded version.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s the key line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, in some ways, that’s the moral of the film and the three high school books I’m remembering. Sometimes, though, dumping the legend in favor of the fact can better serve the subject and the story.

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August 28, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Posted in reading

Viva Viv Albertine!

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Viv Albertine book coverForget that the stories tend to be self-aggrandizing and factually dubious; the actual writing in celebrity memoirs is often brittle and awkward, in part because they’re trying to capture the celebrity’s speaking voice. Jane reminded me of that this morning when she read me a paragraph she found online from the recent autobiography of Mike Huckabee (someone we don’t often quote around the house).

Even autobiographies from entertainers you like tend to be boring, which makes it all more exciting when you come across a paragraph as full of life as this one from Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, in which she chronicles how the members of her band, the Slits, carried themselves:

When we were on a TV show in Holland, Mike Oldfield’s sister, Sally, was on the same bill. She had a single out at the time (“Mirrors”). Sally was dressed in a peasant gypsy-type dress and warbling away in a breathy little-girl voice. We went up to her afterwards and told her she was shit, that she was compounding stereotypes and doing a disservice to girls, that she should take a good look at what she was doing and how she was projecting herself and be honest about who she was. She burst into tears. We do that sort of thing all the time.

(For more on the Slits’ influence, you may wish to see the brief note I wrote for BoingBoing after Ari Up died, in which I quote the great Amy Rigby.)


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January 10, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Posted in music, reading

Media diet, summer 2014, part 1: podcasts

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podcast iconI’m trying, and half-succeeding, to read less and write more. I read more than enough. (You don’t want to know how many times I’ve been through Proust, for example — one of the good things about having a tablet is that it’s easier to hide my habits/obsessions.)

I’m trying to cut down my inputs dramatically so I can focus more on my output. But someone asked me earlier this year to be part of a media roundup she was assembling for some editorial people. I never got around to it, but I thought it might be useful, for me anyway, to write down want I’m reading/listening to/seeing this summer. I’ll start with podcasts.

Here are five I recommend highly. There are far more great ones than anyone with a job, a family, or creative aspirations could listen to, but here are five I listen to regularly every week with consistent pleasure.

Song Exploder, in which musicians take apart their songs and share how they put ’em together in the first place. Not all the music is to my taste, but the discussion of what it takes to construct a work is engaging and sometimes inspiring.

Joe Bussard’s Country Classics, in which the legendary record collector (and Fonotone proprietor) digs into his bottomless pile of ’78s and reveals outstanding cut after outstanding cut of pre-WWII country, blues, and gospel, augmented by authoritative commentary, brought to you by the geniuses at Dust-to-Digital.

99% Invisible, a design podcast that digs deep into a topic every week, full of surprises and insight. And this uses the broadest definition of design possible: last week’s episode was all about the history of skyjacking.

TLDR is a blog about the internet, associated with On the Media. The producers are funny, share their wonder, and have a strong moral sense that doesn’t get in the way of entertaining.

On the Media is better known as an NPR show, but I listen to it on podcast just to make sure I don’t miss it when it’s on the local public radio station. I’ve listened to this media-news-and-comment show for years and still learn or am provoked by something new almost every week.


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June 26, 2014 at 8:53 pm

Posted in diversion, reading, worklife

Paragraph of the weekend (c/o Roddy Doyle)

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Jimmy hadn’t been accurate when he told Barry that there were only ten in the audience. There were twelve. But that figure grew to thirteen when the drummer left the band halfway through their crowd pleaser, ‘Your Happiness Makes Me Puke,’ but hung around for the rest of the gig so she could drive Barry home.

— Roddy Doyle, The Guts

guts cover

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June 8, 2014 at 9:58 am

Posted in ass-kicking, reading