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Chicago Public Radio seems to be pitching this collection to not only intellectual types and societal observers, but to music lovers as well. While there are tales set to songs from the likes of Thurston Moore, Blonde Redhead, RZA, Calexico, Mogwai, Tortoise, and the ultimate soundtracker Philip Glass, they are used as backdrops for the stories told rather than pushed to the forefront as individual audio tracks themselves. For me this poses no problem at all, but already a few of my less cultured friends have annoyedly skipped through this collection in search of standalone music tracks, to no avail.
Unlike This American Life's previous two audio compilations, Lies Sissies & Fiascoes and Crimebusters & Crossed Wires, this time around the title is much less specific and in turn the content is much more varied. As Glass himself points out, under what possible heading could there be a wider scope than Hope & Fear? For those are big shoes to fill and, in regards to any fulfillment of the goal of filling them, the collection is as awkward as this sentence. But to call Hope & Fear a failure would be remiss, akin to saying that Nelson Mandela has failed at ending racism. Rather than concentrate on the topic, it is best to consider the stories themselves, unattached to their respective sections, and their individual worth. In truth, some of the selections don't easily adhere to their assigned roles. Particularly some of those on the Hope side of the coin could just as easily be lumped in with Fear, so complex are the degrees of humanity they portray.
Of the eleven stories included, several of them are notable as standouts. Alex Blumberg's interview with Griffin Hansbury is especially poignant, funny and inspirational, and is appropriately categorized with Hope. Hansbury, who cleverly calls himself a "post-feminist," is, as he puts it, a guy who used to be a girl. His story is not just one of personal growth and humorous anecdotes, but is also rather informative for someone who knows little about the transformation, both physical and emotional, of a person who chemically changes genders. Sure, hair grew in places that it didn't before, Hansbury explains, but there was also an unexplainable interest in science and mathematics that was not present before. Revelations such as Hansbury's are what make Glass' program so mesmerizing.
Of course there are also less revelatory moments in the program, and some of those are included on the disc. Glass's interview with Jorge Just, an insecure New Yorker who has a momentary surge in self stature when he sees his apartment (or one just like it in his building) on an episode of The Bachelorette only to be utterly destroyed when not only the show's female lead but also the New York Post label his quarters "squalid." Sure, the story is amusing, but it is ultimately just an anecdote. Where is the over-arcing theme of humanity? That one episode about the guy who cloned his prize steer would have been more appropriate, no?
There are, unfortunately, more blasť moments still; Jonathan Goldstein and Starlee Kine's recollection of their foray into karaoke comedy doesn't even build, yet a lone climax, and Sascha Rothchild's recording for the Mortified comedy collective is just plain annoying.
But, even with these few ugly ducklings, Hope & Fear is a worthwhile raft of stories. Along with Hansbury's "Infinite Gent" contribution, the interview with Myron Jones and Carol Bove (two siblings who invented a fictitious family to escape their own mother) is also both touching and funny. Glass' interview with co-worker Julie Snyder (about her months-long battle with telephone company MCI over a billing error - a battle which is eventually resolved when Glass intervenes) is not only funny, but also reassuring for anyone who thinks they've been buried under a mountain of faxes and phone extensions by a major corporation. And "Anti-Oedipus," narrated by Nancy Updike, is heart stirring beyond description.
And of course what would a best-hits collection of public radio be without a contribution from David Sedaris? Yes, the guy is funny and, yes, he can tell a story. What sets "So A Chipmunk And A Squirrel Walk Into A Bar" apart from the other selections is not just that it is amusing, or that it fits so well within the theme of Fear, but that it is completely fictitious. Still, even in the face of all of the amazing true stories that have run on This American Life over the years, Sedaris' selection fits in. And hey, who doesn't want to hear about a chipmunk agonizing over the dirty implications of jazz?
I'd like to say that This American Life: Stories of Hope and Fear is not comprised of the best selections from the show's long and fascinating history, but in saying so I would be assuming that my own take on the shows is absolute. And, if anything, that is what Ira Glass' program has to teach people - that for any instance in life there are a million angles, ways to look at a singular moment that can either make it monumental or inconsequential, life-affirming or devastating. I found John Hodgman's recollections to be a bit trite, but who knows - through his story maybe someone out there can overcome a devastating loss or, at the very least, tackle their fears about rickety amusement park rides. And that, in a nutshell, is This American Life: something for everyone. SEE ALSO: www.thislife.org
SEE ALSO: www.npr.org
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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