Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

yorkernSOUNDTRACK: SOUL COUGHING-“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” (1994).

soul cI really enjoyed Soul Coughing’s output, and Ruby Vroom stands out as a great debut.  They had a terrific blend of great music played behind a more or less spoken word.  The idea wasn’t unique, but they made it work as more than a gimmick.

The musicians of Soul Coughing were tremendous and Mike Doughty’s voice has a wonderful resonance for telling is offbeat/absurd stories/poems.

This track seems especially appropriate when talking about Saul Bellow.

Starting with rhythmic guitar chunks, an upright bass plays a very cool rising and falling bass run.  It sounds like modern noir.

Then Doughty tells us “a man drives a plane into the Chrysler building.”  It’s difficult to hear it now, but in 1994 it was simply a fantastical image.   The drums come in as the guitar starts making shapes and slashes of sounds.

The chorus is a rather boppy moment amid the noise as things slow down for the recited “Is Chicago is not Chicago.”

Then the bridge(s):

Saskatoon is in the room
Poulsbo is in the room
Bennetsville is in the room
Palmyra is in the roomKhartoum is in the room
Phnom Penh is in the room
Pyongyang is in the room
Cairo is in the room

The song ends with a wonderful cacophony of guitar scratches and drum beats that definitively ends the song without it having to end itself.

[READ: September 1, 2019] “Re-Reading Saul Bellow”

I decided to read this article because I like Philip Roth and because I have never read any Saul Bellow.  In fact, although Saul Bellow is a name I was familiar with, I wasn’t entirely sure what he had written. So I was pretty surprised to read that he wrote The Adventures of Augie March, which I had without a doubt heard of, but which I knew very little about.  I was also really surprised to find out that he was still alive when Roth wrote this esay (Bellow died in 2005).

Roth knew Bellow, of course, and Bellow had once told him that his Jewish heritage led him to doubt himself as a writer.  This was mainly because “our own WASP establishment, represented mainly by Harvard-trained professors considered a son of immigrant Jews unfit to write books in English.”

By the time he wrote Augie March, he was prepared to open not with a line like “I am a Jew, the son of immigrants,” but “I am an American, Chicago born.”

Roth summarizes a few of Bellow’s works and talks about how he progressed as a writer.  Of course, he writes this re-reading as if we ourselves have read the books (so, spoiler alerts).

He more or less dismisses the first two novels Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) and moves straight on to The Adventures of Augie March (1953) saying how the transformation from the earlier writer to the writer of Augie is remarkable.  It won the National Book Award.

He especially likes “the narcissistic enthusiasm for life in all its hybrid forms” that is propelling Augie.  He cries out to the world “Look at me!”

What appeals to me about the way Roth describes this book is the “engorged sentences” as “syntactical manifestations of Augie’s large, robust ego.”  That sounds like a fun 500 page book to me.

Up next was Seize the Day (1956) which is a short novel and the fictional antithesis of Augie March–a sorrow-filled book about the culmination of a boy who is disowned and disavowed by his father.  Whereas Augie’s ego soars, Tommy Wilheim’s is quashed beneath its burden.  Tommy cried out to the world “Help me!”

Bellow seemed to alternate between comedy and tragedy and I would much rather read the comedies myself.

Next came Henderson the Rain King (1959) which contain an exotic locale, a volcanic hero and the comic calamity that is his life.  Henderson is a boozer, a giant, a Gentile, a middle-aged multimillionaire in a state of continual emotional upheaval.  He leaves his home for a continent peopled by tribal blacks who turn out to be his very cure. Africa as medicine.

According to Wikipedia, Bellow became very conservative and somewhat (or very) racist as he got older.  I hesitate to read this book although it was written when he was younger.  On the other hand, I do enjoy that Roth calls it “a screwball book but not without great screwball authority.”  So that’s a tentative maybe on reading this.

Herzog (1964) also won the National Book Award.  Moses Herzog is a labyrinth of contradiction and self-division. He is Bellow’s grandest creation.  Herzog is American literature’s Leopold Bloom.  Although in Ulysses, “the encyclopedic mind of the author is transmuted into the linguistic flesh of the novel and Joyce never cedes to Bloom his own great erudition… whereas in Herzog, Bellow endows his hero with a mind that is a mind.”

Much of the plot is given away in the review, presumably because a 50 year-old award-winning book is pretty well known.

Roth says that Herzog is Bellow’s first excursion into sex in a novel. Adding sex allows Herzog to suffer in ways that Augie March never did.  He also says that “in all of literature  I know of no more emotionally susceptible male, of no man who brings a greater focus or intensity to his engagement with women than this Herzog.”

In Herzog, there is barely any action that takes place outside of Herzog’s brain.  Roth suggests, the best parts of the book are the letters that Herzog writes.

This book sounds rather appealing.  Unlike Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) which also won the National Book Award (dang this guy must be good).  Roth gives it a rather short write up, but it appears to be about a man dealing with the culture around him.  It is a darker story, that sounds like a critique of the sixties.

That leads to Humboldt’s Gift (1975) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature [that is an impressive amount of awards Mr Bellow].  Roth describes it as the “screwiest of the euphoric going-every-which-way-out-and-out comic novels.”  It is “loopier and more carnivalesque” than the others.  It’s like the tonic that helps him recover from the suffering in Sammler.

Interestingly. Roth doesn’t really talk about the rest of Bellow’s works: The Dean’s December (1982); What Kind of Day Did You Have? (1984); More Die of Heartbreak (1987); A Theft (1989); The Bellarosa Connection (1989); The Actual (1997); Ravelstein (2000).  Rather he continues with Humboldt and talks about Bellow’s relationship with Chicago.

Roth says that in Bellow’s early books Chicago was barely mentioned–a few streets here and there, but by Humboldt Chicago infuses the book.

Perhaps Below didn’t seize on Chicago at the start of his career because he didn’t want to be “a Chicago writer” any more than he wanted to be “a Jewish writer.”

Roth does in fact mention The Dean’s December, but only to say that the exploration of Chicago in this book is not comical but rancorous.  Chicago has become demoniacal.

It feels like Bellow is no longer a part of Chicago.

Read Full Post »

SOUNDTRACK: FRENCH, FRITH, KAISER, THOMPSON-“Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found” (1987).

The words are a poem by Rumi.   It is a slow droney song that is primarily drums from John French.  Thompson sings in his quieter style.

There are several different versions of this song. There’s an earlier unreleased version with Richard & Linda Thompson that is much quieter.  I especially like this version because after every other verse they brighten things up with a dramatic five note string riff (or maybe it’s Kaiser on the sanshin) that seems to come out of nowhere.

They spice up the middle of the song with a rollicking traditional Irish sounding fiddle melody from Fred Frith’s “Lost and Found.”  (Frith plays violin).  It adds a bit of zing to an otherwise dirgey song.

After about three minutes of the slow thumping there’s a wonderfully rocking instrumental section complete with fiddles and bass playing some wild melodies.

It was recorded on the album Live, Love, Larf and Loaf and also appears on Thompson’s collection Watching the Dark (1993).

[READ: September 1, 2019] “Nell Zink’s Satire Raises the Stakes”

I have really enjoyed the Nell Zink books that I’ve read. I’ve even read an excerpt from Doxology, the book that’s reviewed in this essay.

What I like about this essay though is the summations of her writing and her earlier books.

Schwartz says that Zink looks at life from the fringes.  She then summarizes her three impossible to summarize books in simple and amusing fashion: (more…)

Read Full Post »

SOUNDTRACK: THE AVETT BROTHERS-“Live and Die” (Field Recordings, August 22, 2012).

This Field Recording [The Avett Brothers: Hot Tea And Honey] takes place at the  XPoNential Music Festival (now XPN Fest–the only Fest I’ve been to (although not in that year).

At the time (2012), I didn’t know the Avett Brothers, but since then I have come to really like them a lot and have seen them live.  This song in particular is simply terrific.

Seth and Scott Avett spend a good chunk of their lives on one tour bus or another, so asking them to perform in one isn’t all that different from asking them to perform in one of their own living rooms. They may be far away from their native North Carolina but the setting is cozy enough for Seth Avett to brew tea before performing.

I think that Seth Avett’s voice is just wonderful, especially on this song.  In one of those weird eye/ear moments, I never imagined that the guy with the long hair and mustache could produce this voice–which sounds fantastic in this recording on their tour bus.

The Avett Brothers will soon spend a lot more time on that bus: The band’s new album, The Carpenter, comes out Sept. 11. Naturally, when asked to play a song from the record, the Avetts picked its first single, “Live and Die” — a sweetly hooky jam which lends itself perfectly to the pair’s acoustic-guitar-and-banjo interplay.

Scott plays a lovely lead banjo and Seth’s guitar complements it perfectly.  This version is just as pretty as the recorded version with the extra treat of Seth’s tired voice cracking here and there.

[READ: January 25, 2017] “An Honest Film Review”

This should complete all of the already-published Jesse Eisenberg pieces.  He does this type of humorous piece very well.  Taking something fairly simple and turning it into something else entirely.

This week he’s reviewing Paintings of Cole.  His first complaint is that the screening was all the way uptown.  Also, the premise is that a young man brings down the Italian mob by using paintings to send secret codes.  He complains that in grad school he wrote a story with that exact same idea.  He failed the class but Kern, the director, is getting Oscar buzz? (more…)

Read Full Post »

SOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICS-Railway Club Vancouver (March 16, 1988).

This is a “very good sounding show considering it is from 1988. This has a mix of unreleased songs, Greatest Hits songs, Melville songs and even a couple that would end up on Whale Music.”

Like the 1987 show here, this is also their last night in Vancouver. It’s hard to believe that previous show was the same band, as just a few months later (Nov-Mar), the sets are radically different.

It opens with the end of “Lyin’s Wrong,” and then moves into a fun version of Stompin’ Tom’s “Bridge Came Tumbling Down,” and then one of my favorite unreleased songs: “Woodstuck.”

The opening is to the tune of Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done”

I called on Crosby and I called on Nash / I asked them if they want to buy some hash / Oh the deal is done / Hanging out with Stephen Stills, I asked him if he wants to buy some pills / Oh the deal is done.

And then the main body is a rocking bluesy number with the chorus: “You can’t go back to Woodstock baby, you were just two years old.   You weren’t even born” and a big chant of “BAD KARMA!”

Things slow down with a version of “Triangles on the Walls.”

During the banter, Dave Clark talks about going up Grouse Mountain in his jeans and he says he was automatically a “Wofuh”–as soon as you get into the skis you’re going to start saying “Woah… fuck.”

A great sounding “Dope Fiends” is followed by “Green Sprouts” which is “the silliest song of all… about the worms of New Jersey.”  “What’s Going On” has an accordion!  And “Italian Song” has them singing in over the top Italian with an almost ska beat and melody.

There’s a goofy, slap funk cover of “Take the Money and Run.”  It’s fast and rocking, but they leave out the signature five claps after some verses.  Nevertheless there are some great harmonies at the end.

They play an unreleased song “Sue’s Mining Town” which is a bit of a rocker, and then one from Greatest Hits (released the previous year) called “Churches and Schools.”  The set ends with a slow and pretty “Higher and Higher.”

This is the only place you can hear “Italian Song” and “Sue’s Mining Town” and one of the few places you can hear “Woodstuck” (except for this video)

[READ:August 28, 2016] Tennis Lessons

I’ve enjoyed some stories by Dyer but I was actually reading this because he reviews the new David Foster Wallace collection String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis.

But it turns out that this is not so much a book review as a delightfully funny discussion of Dyer’s own tennis playing and how he also wanted to write a book about tennis–but never did.

Dyer proves to be a funny protagonist. In 2008, (age 50) he was about to sell his novel to a new publisher and he imagined writing a book about taking up tennis at age 50. Dyer is British and the popularity and success of Andy Murray was making tennis very popular in Britain again.  It seems like a great idea.

And then Dyer is honest with us:

as a perennial bottom feeder for whom writing has always doubled as a way of getting free shit, I as also hoping that a top-notch coach might be willing to give e free lessons in return for the massive exposure guaranteed by inclusion in the book.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

SOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICS-The Cabana Room, Spadina Hotel, Toronto, ON (December 23 1983).

This is “Rheostatics and Trans Canada Soul Patrol 1983 at The Cabana Room – Spadina Hotel Christmas Party show. Amazing sounding recording considering it is from 1983.”

As far as I can see it is the only recording of the band with the Trans-Canada Soul Patrol.  And that basically means that it’s a lot of these early songs only with saxophone–lots of saxophone (it seems like only one member sof The TCSP is there).  According to a cassette recorded in 1984, the band was:

  • Drums – Dave Clark
  • Guitar – Dave Bidini
  • Tenor Saxophone – Charlie Huntley, Dave Rodenburg
  • Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Ray Podhornik
  • Voice, Bass – Tim Vesely

So it seems likely that it was a similar e lineup in Dec 1983.  I only hear guitar bass and drums, but I can only hear one sax.  And does that mean that Tim was the main singer back then?

This show is loose, dare I say sloppy.  There’s a total drunken party vibe going on, as befits a Christmas Party.  But the most notable thing is that sax–soloing all over the place.  Dave Clark gets a lot of shout outs during the set–trying to get him to do a solo or “lay the groove.”  Before “Thank You” (the Sly and the Family Stone song), Dave tunes his guitar with harmonics and someone “sings” Rush’s “Xanadu” briefly.  The band puts a massive echo on the first chorus–it’s pretty obnoxious.  And in the middle of the song Dace Clark starts chanting songs: “Fly Robin Fly,” “You Should Be Dancin'” and “Convoy.”

During “Chemical World” someone asks “What do you think Ronald, am I better off dead?” and then there’s a shout out: “show us your teeth, Paul.”  (None of these guys are in the band, right?).  Someone jokes that Clark is still playing drums even though his mom said that playing drums is not a career.

It’s unclear what’s happening or how serious the band is but they tell people “watch out, guys, you broke a fuckin’ beer bottle, okay.”  They introduce “The Midnight Hour” by saying it’s a song written by Wilson Pickett called, “Go Fuckin’ Nuts, no I don’t know what it’s called.”

This is the only recording I know of with “Big in Business,” which they describe as “something marketable.”  And after two shows where “Man of Action” gets cut off, we finally get to hear it to the end.

By the time they do “Louie Louie” the whole thing is a drunken mess.  There’s shouts of Merry Christmas, comments about it being the last  time they’ll play in 1983, calling people up on stage.  It sounds like Clark is looking for his girlfriend.  “Louie” is a massive party jam with all kinds of people singing along, including a woman with a very high singing voice, and someone going “shock” like Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” after each “Louie Louie” line.

The set seems to be over but then some one encourages them to sing “Shake Yer Body Thang,” which they do with lots of screaming and shouting and letting it all hang out.

It’s nice seeing a relatively young band acting so cool and comfortable and fun on stage, even if I’m really glad they got rid of the horns (and their whole sound).

[READ: August 28, 2016] In Short

Manguso’s book review of four books of aphorisms is fun because she (an aphoristic writer herself) breaks it down into 36 paragraph-sized chunks.  Including that “Hippocrates coined the word aphorism to describe his brief medical teachings.”

A few interesting things: She says that she doesn’t so much read prose as “root through it for sentences in need of rescue.”

John Gross, in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, says the word aphorism took on a moral sand philosophical tone after the Renaissance.  By the 17th century the definition included witticisms.

James Geary wrote The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms and offered a five part definition of aphorisms: it must be brief, it must be personal, it must be philosophical and it must have twist.  But the best thing that Geary has said is: (more…)

Read Full Post »

harpaugSOUNDTRACK: LAND OF KUSH-The Big Mango [CST097] (2013).

mangoOsama Shalibi is how Sam Shaibi is credited on this album.  He is the composer and creator of The Big Mango, although he does not appear on it.

Some background that may or may not be useful.  This comes from Popmatters:

“Big Mango” is the nickname for Cairo and The Big Mango is a love letter from composer Osama (Sam) Shalabi to his new home, Cairo, and all of its tumults and contradictions…. Reveling in free-jazz noise, rock rhythms, and the radical propulsion that Shalabi encountered on trips to Dakar, Senegal, the album weaves the divine spirit unleashed through fury and joy and dance into an utterly fascinating whole…  This pinging between controlled pandemonium and something beautiful, strident, transcendent, is not accidental. Shalabi is tackling the nature of change and the place of women in Arab culture on Big Mango, and by so clearly blurring the strange and the celebratory, he suggests that even sweeping, radical change need not be a revolution, but perhaps a way of life, movement as vital force in the universe.

With an introduction like that it’s hard not to want to love this record.  But a with everything Shalibi does, he is always trying to push boundaries and attitudes.  And so, this album has some songs that are really fun ad/or pretty and some songs that feel like (but apparently are not) wild improvisations that test the limit of your patience for experimentation.

As I mentioned, Shalibi doesn’t play on this –I would have loved to hear his oud, but instead we hear all kinds of interesting Western and Eastern instruments: setar (is a Persian version of the sitar), flutes, saxophones, piano, balafon (a wooden xylophone), hand drums: riqq (a type of tambourine), darbuka (goblet drum), and tablas (like bongos) and of course, guitars and bass.

“Faint Praise” opens the disc with 3 and a half minutes of Middle Eastern music quietly played with a rather free form vocal over the top.  The vocals are a series of wails and cries (and almost animalistic yips).  It sounds like an orchestra warming up, and indeed, the Constellation blurb says:

These opening six minutes are an inimitable destabilizing strategy of Shalabi’s – his lysergic take on an orchestra ‘warming up’ – that serves to introduce most of the instrumental voices and the montage of genres that will form the rest of the work

It comes abruptly to a halt with “Second Skin,”  a much more formal piano piece—structured notes that end after a few minutes only to be joined by a saxophone solo that turns noisy and skronking and nearly earsplitting.

After some dramatic keyboard sounds, “The Pit (Part 1)” becomes the first song with vocals (and the first song that is really catchy).  It begins with a jolly sax line which is accompanied by another sax and a flute before the whole band kicks in with a refreshingly catchy melody.  For all that Shalibi likes exploration, he has a real gift for melody as well.  The lovely lead vocals on this track are by Ariel Engle.  It’s very catchy, with a somewhat middle eastern setar riff and those voices.  When the song stops and it’s just voices, it’s really beautiful.  The song is 7 minutes long and I love the way the last 30 seconds shift gears entirely to a more dramatic, slower section.  This section is so great, I wish it lasted longer.

“The Pit (Part 2)” is only two minutes long.  It’s a quiet coda of piano and flute.  After about a minute, a low saxophone melody kicks in, it is slowly joined by other instruments and Engle’s voice.  Unfortunately I can’t really tell what she’s singing, but it sounds very nice.

“Sharm El Bango” is a jazzy song with hand drums and all kinds of space age samples spinning around the song.  I really like when the flute melody takes over and the song become quite trippy.

“Mobil Ni” is the second song with vocals.  It begins with some strings instruments and hand drums over a slow bass line.  Then Katie  Moore;s voice come s in with a gentle lovely vibrato.  Her voice is a little smoother than Engle’s.  The song ends with a mellow section.  And then there’s a trumpet blast that signals the beginning of “St. Stefano.”  The trumpet gives way to brief explorations off free-jazz type before turning giving way to a bowed section with resonating bass notes.

“Drift Beguine” returns to catchy territory with a full Middle Eastern musical phrase and Elizabeth Anka Vajagic’s lovely voice raging from high to scratchy and breathy.  Around 4 minutes when the pace picks up, it’s really quite fun.

The final track is the only one that really rocks.  “The Big Mango” has a big catchy guitar riff and hand drums filled in by Molly Sweeney’s rock vocals.  The song ends the disc as a kind of fun celebration.

As with most of Shalibi’s releases, it’s not for everyone.  But there’s a lot of great stuff hear, if you’re willing to experiment.

[READ: August 25, 2016] “Don the Realtor”

I hate to contribute anymore attention to Trump.  But it’s hard to pass up a chance to read Martin Amis, especially when he eviscerate his targets so eloquently.  Hopefully Trump’s voice will soon disappear from the airways and we can go back to forgetting about him.

Ostensibly this is a review of “two books by Donald Trump,” The Art of the Deal (1987) and Crippled America (2015).

Amis begins, as he usually does, by getting to the point: “Not many facets of the Trump apparition have so far gone unexamined, but I can think of a significant loose end.  I mean his sanity: What is the prognosis for his mental healthy given the challenges that lie ahead?”

Some basic questions come up about Trump: “Is his lying merely compulsive, or is he an outright mythomaniac, constitutionally unable to distinguish non-truth from truth.  Amis adds that “Politifact has ascertained that Donald’s mendacity rate is just over 90 percent, so the man who is forever saying he ‘tells it lie it is’ turns out to be nearly always telling it like it isn’t.”

But the Trump lying machine has grown from the rubble of the G.O.P. which “has more or less adopted the quasi slogan ‘there is no downside to lying.'” (more…)

Read Full Post »

feb20156SOUNDTRACK: ANTHONY HAMILTON-Tiny Desk Concert #517 (March 28, 2016).

anthamI don’t know Anthony Hamilton, probably because he is a soul singer and I don’t listen to soul music.  He’s won Grammy’s and everything!  He and this band The Hamiltones (nice) had just played for the Obamas, and they came to the NPR offices afterward.

The first song, “Amen,” is new and he says was his attempt to write an R. Kelly song.  The other three songs are apparently the ones that have made him famous.  The songs are “Best of Me,” “Cool” and “Charlene.”

I love his American Flag jacket/sweater or whatever it is.  And his voice and the voices of The Hamiltones are pretty sweet.  No doubt if I listened to soul music, I’d have a lot of Hamilton’s discs.

[READ: January 26, 2016] “Family Business”

This essay was an interesting mash-up of two writers that I’d like to read more of.  I am a fan of Nabokov’s although I have read but a smattering of his work.  And I have enjoyed what I’ve read by Lipsky, although I have yet to delve into his fiction.

This is a book review of the recent publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife Vera throughout the length of their mostly happy fifty-two year marriage.  Sadly, Vera’s letters were destroyed (by her), although as it turns out, she didn’t write very much back to him anyway.

This is the kind of book review that I find exceedingly enjoyable. It sums up what the book has to say and then lets me know that while I might enjoy reading it, I don’t actually have to.  Not that he gives away spoilers–are their spoilers if you know what their life is like already?  But he really gets the gist of the letters and their life. And frankly, I don’t need to be that intimate with the writer, even if I do enjoy his works. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »