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[LISTENED TO: July 2017] The People of Sparks

After finishing up The City of Ember this summer, with that promising cliffhanger-ish ending, I was pretty excited to listen to book two.

Holy cow did I hate this book (until the end).  I blame the combination of DuPrau’s writing and Wendy Dillon’s excellent vocal work.  Because as soon as the book started, the sorta main character Torren quickly became the single most irritating character in fiction.  He is bratty.  He is incredibly whiny.  He is a really mean.  And he is unchecked by adults.  Perhaps we are supposed to feel sorry for him, but he is so incredibly unlikable and does such horrible things that I don’t see how one could.

I imagined that this book would pick up where Ember left off–Mrs Murdo finding the note and rallying the city together to come and meet Lina and Doon in the new place.  I imagined a lengthy first part where the characters try to convince the mayor and gather their stuff and eventually work their way out.

But no.  The book begins in the city of Sparks.  Horrible brat child Torren is sitting on a windmill (not sure why they have these windmills if they don’t harness the energy) and sees people marching across the empty land.

Soon enough Lina and Doon are introducing the 400+ Emberites to the 300+ people of Sparks.  The leaders of Sparks: Mary, Ben and Wilmer meet to decide what to do with this huge influx of people. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: July 2016, July 2017] The City of Ember

I enjoyed this book when we listened to it the first time and I enjoyed the graphic novel as well.

But I couldn’t remember enough about the audio book to post about it so I listened to it again.  And what was so interesting this time was how much it sounded like an attack on our current political situation:

A greedy pig in charge of a country; sycophants as his cronies; keeping as much as possible for themselves and allowing the richer to get richer while the country falls apart; shutting down truth; imprisoning dissenters and just to top it off, the mayor is a large man with very small hands (seriously).  The only real difference is that the mayor speaks eloquently and has a big vocabulary.

I absolutely loved the reading by Wendy Dillon.  She has quite distinctive voices for the main characters and some of the secondary characters have wonderful details about them that keeps them individual–the mayor wheezes, another character smacks his lips together, Clary speaks slowly and deliberately almost with a stutter.  It’s wonderful.  And the sound effects, while not necessary, are a nice addition.  Although they are fairly infrequent and can be surprising if you forget about them.

So what’s the story about? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MAREN MORRIS-Tiny Desk Concert #602 (March 6, 2017).

Maren Morris is hugely successful, but I had never heard of her.  It turns out that

Four days before the 26-year-old strolled into NPR’s offices, she’d pulled off a mighty duet with Alicia Keys during the 59th annual Grammys ceremony and taken home the evening’s award for Best Country Solo Performance.

Despite the “big, crossover-friendly gestures on her major-label debut,” she’s out of my musical area.  But I can see why people like her–she has major pop leanings in her delivery and its sprinkled with pop country that everyone seems to like.

And that first song is really fun.  Of course, the music sounds so much like Steve Miller’s “The Joker” that that may be why it feels so catchy.  There’s a weird almost hip hop delivery to the song despite its obvious country bass.  I mean check out the words:

Boy I’d be rich, head to toe Prada
Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water
Vegas at the Mandarin, high roller gambling
Me and Diddy drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn
No I wouldn’t be covered in all your IOU’s
Every promise you made me would have some real value
‘Cause all the little lies rolling on your lips
Is money falling from the sky (ka-ching, ka-ching) shit I’d be rich

The blurb continues:

She’s cultivated a soulful, irreverent pop-country aesthetic that trades in trucks, bros and beer for a vintage Mercedes, female friendships and boxed wine — and which owes much of its charm to details that shine in a stripped-down setting. Take, for instance, the cash-register ka-ching that punctuates the chorus of the oh-so-sick burn “Rich,” or the intimate, after-hours raggedness in her voice as she sings of jaded heartache in “I Could Use A Love Song.”

So I can respect that.

“I Could Use A Love Song” feels country but her delivery has a massive pop song styling (that’s the crossover appeal, I guess).

She jokes that this is the quickest show she’s ever done.  She sounds genuinely shocked that she won a Grammy the other night.

The final song “My Church,”  is very country sounding (that bass) and singing that she “cussed on a Sunday.”

It’s my least favorite of the three.  I particularly dislike the R&B inflections at the end which puts my two least favorite musical genres together.

But overall she is adorable and charming and she looks to be about 12 years old up there with those two larger musicians supporting her.  And even if I won’t listen to her, I wish her success because she seems really sweet.

[READ: January 11, 2017] “Most Die Young”

I enjoyed this story quite a lot.  I loved how it was structured and the surprising twists it had.

The title comes from a statement by Professor Cruze: “young” means under the age of 38.  Cruze was referring to a Malaysian tribe known as the Pawong.  The Pawong, she explained, have no defenses or weapons.  They are an easy target.  It doesn’t even occur to them that they could respond to attackers.

The narrator first heard about this tribe from her ex-boyfriend Glauber (Glauber is a name, in case you’re wondering).  He mentioned the Pawong tribe as an insult to her saying that she was ruled by fear and could be made a God of the Pawong tribe.

Professor Cruze explained that shyness, fear and timidity are highly valued among the Powang.  To be angry is not to be human; but to be fearful is. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PATTY GRIFFIN-Tiny Desk Concert #282 (June 24, 2013).

I have Patty Griffin’s first two albums—I like her folkie sensibilities and her voice which I tend to think of as a little unusual.  And yet it’s not unusual here at all.  She sings powerfully and beautifully.

For this Tiny Desk Concert she’s playing some from her then new release:

she takes care to balance the exquisite mourning of “Faithful Son” — and the sweetly somber “That Kind of Lonely,” which Griffin describes as “a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence” — by closing her set with the playfully bawdy, kindly celebratory “Get Ready Marie.” Inspired by a favorite photo of her grandparents, the song finds Griffin viewing two complicated lives with the generous, hopeful eye she’s been casting on her subjects for three fruitful decades now.

She opens with “Faithful Son.” I love how the middle of this has a cool section where the two acoustic guitars (played by Griffin and Dave Pulkingham) face each other and strum hard for a bit.  The problem for me with this song is that the baritone guitar (played by Craig Ross) is either out of tune or the Ross hits a few wrong notes.  Since it resonates a bit louder than anything else, it’s really noticeable.  The accordion (played by John Deaderick) isn’t loud enough either.

“That Kind Of Lonely” is, as noted, a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence.  It’s a pretty, quiet number.  A good contrast to “Get Ready Marie.”  She says she is always picking on her family for stories.  She says she got this idea from a photograph of her grandparents taken just after they wed in the 1920s.  Her grandmother is looking at the camera like maybe she made the biggest mistake of her life and her grandfather (who looks really handsome) looks like he can’t wait to get his hands on her. They had a wild relationship—plates were lying.  This is a comic bawdy song that sounds like a traditional drinking song with some great lyrics:

No this isn’t the end of our story
No our marriage stuck like a habit
But I had a good hunch, when she kissed me a bunch
She could do other things like a rabbit

It’s in ¾ time and the accordion is louder here and it all sounds terrific.  It’s hard to believe that she’s been playing for 30 years, but she sure sounds like a pro.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis 2

I found Persepolis to be an amazing book.  A peek inside a regime that was sort of mythically wicked during my childhood. Marjane’s personal story was interesting of course, but I enjoyed seeing just what was happening in this world that seemed so mysterious when I was growing up.

This sequel is a little less exciting because it is more or less about a lonely teenager in Europe.  I think if the first book wasn’t so groundbreaking, this one wouldn’t feel as disappointing.  Her story is interesting and her experiences are story-worthy, but compared to the first book this one is the awkward teenage years.

We see that Marjane’s being sent to Europe didn’t go quite as planned.  She stayed with her mom’s friend.  But the friend fought with her husband all the time and their house was not a happy one. They felt that they couldn’t look after Marjane so they sent her to boarding school in Vienna–Marjane didn’t speak German. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Tiny Desk Concert #281 (June 17, 2013).

I really like Billy Bragg.  Not necessarily all of his music, but I like a lot of it and I certainly love what he stands for.  If you like his instantly recognizable voice (which I do), then just about anything he does sounds good.  But no doubt some songs are catchier than others.

Bragg played a Tiny Desk Concert in 2016 with someone else as part of a duo.  I’d listened to that one first, but I liked this one more.

For this one he is accompanied on the first two songs by dobro player C.J. Hillman.

Bragg talks a lot–he has many lengthy stories between songs–and he’s pretty much always funny or thoughtful.  He introduces the first song by saying that moving into a new building always has troubles–you’ll always need someone to fix things up.  With that, his first song is called “Handyman Blues.”

It’s a great story song.  I especially like this line:

Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed / but I can write a song about how much I love you instead.

It’s amusing that in the next song workers actually interrupt his song.  They were “met with lot of hammering on our rooftop by some real handymen as they put the finishing touches on NPR’s new home.”

For the second song they

channeled the spirit of legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie, with whom Bragg collaborated — albeit posthumously, in Guthrie’s case — when he took Guthrie’s unsung words and set them to song with the help of Wilco. Here, he takes a song Guthrie himself co-opted and altered: a gospel tune (“This World Is Not My Home”) he’d turned into an anthem against inaction.

Bragg introduces this song as saying he took it over when the U.S. was having the debate about universal health care.  He says that people still face all the same problems that this classic song talks about–people losing homes to banks or families struggling to make ends meet.  But the middle verse is about a wife who dies on the floor for want of proper health care.  Bragg says that that doesn’t happen in his country anymore and it’s hard for people in his country to imagine that a generous country like the US still hasn’t resolved that issue (and five years later things are even worse with Trumpcare–#ITMFA #RESIST).

Guthrie called the song “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore”).  After he sings a verse, the hammering starts and they pause the song to wait for the work to finish before he re-starts the song.  In the meantime they talk about what his band should do in Washington.  Someone says the National Archives and he jokes the Nashville Archive?  He says that they really enjoyed Nashville.  Then he mentions the National Archive to CJ and says

We can find out how the Americans started the war of 1812.  (chuckles).  I just played Annapolis, they’re still sore about it over there.  Never mind who won the war but who started it.

It’s another nice story song.  The dobro works perfectly with it.

“Sexuality” is the only song on this set that I knew.  It’s an old favorite that is serious and funny as well (and very progressive for when it was written).  It sounds terrific and is super catchy.  Although he comments that the acoustics aren’t that great in this new building–there’s not much bounce back off the walls “for those of us who technically aren’t great singers.  But for those of us who are buskers like myself, it’s not bad.”

Introducing the final song, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” he says he read an article on the BBC about a kid who proved that economics professors were wrong and the article commented that “the trouble with economics is that no one knows nothing anymore.”  He says that had just written a song with that same name, so he’s with the zeitgeist.

He also interjects that there will be pedants–“and there are one or two who listen to NPR, I’m sure” who will write in to say it should be ‘no one knows anything any more.’  But the first thing they teach you at songwriting school is that alliteration trumps grammar.

And then he starts strumming “Sexuality “and says “Oh, I’ve just played that.”

“No One Knows Nothing Anymore” is a nice folkie, very-Billy Bragg song–good melody and really good lyrics.

At the end, as the camera fades to black he says “Chris, pass the hat around.”

I’m so happy that Billy Bragg is still making music.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis

This graphic novel is legendary, and I’m embarrassed it has taken me 13 years to read it.

Persepolis is a memoir of a young girl growing up in Iran during the 70s and 80s.  I appreciated the contextualizing introduction in which she explains the history of the country.

The introduction lays out a basic outline of the history of Iran and the Middle East (that goes all the way back to B.C years).  She explains that Iran has always been a rich nation and has constantly been under attack.  When oil was discovered, the West came calling.  Great Britain wielded a powerful influence over Iranian economy.  During WWII, Iran remained neutral but then was invaded by the west.

The Prime Minister of Iran (not the Shah) nationalized the oil industry in 1951 which led to an embargo and a coup organized by the CIA.  The leader, Reza Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah–known simply as the Shah of Iran.  The Shah stayed in power until 1979 when he fled to escape the Islamic Revolution.

She says that since the Islamic revolution Iran has been associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, but she knows that this is far from the truth.  And that’s what inspired her to writ this book.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LILA DOWNS-Tiny Desk Concert #590 (January 13, 2017).

This is yet another example of musicians, artists who are bridging the divide that certain politicians have been trying to wedge int our country.  Between the translated works of Zambra and the multilingual works of Lila Downs, it’s pretty obvious that cultural racism is just stupid.  #ITMFA

The blurb tells us

Downs has spent her career exploring the furthest reaches of Mexican folk music. With a voice that borrows heavily from opera, Downs performs the kind of full-throated mariachi singing that would fit right in at Mexico City’s Garibaldi Square — ground zero for mariachi.

She can also coax the most tender moments from romantic boleros. But Downs is at her best when she and her band gather all of those influences to create cross-cultural expression that breaks down musical barriers. Entertaining and inspiring, she’s as much a storyteller as a singer, and her between-song banter lays bare the Mexican soul, only to have it punctuated in song.

She plays four songs and dedicates the first “Humito De Copal” to “all the journalists in the line of fire.”

Even though this song has many components of traditional Mexican folk, the size of the bad (nine pieces) and the big sound she creates transcends folk and makes it sound really catchy for all.  I love it when midway through, the song takes off in a fun fast dancing section

She is really striking and her voice is amazing.  She’s also playing a cool scratchy/grater item.

“La Promesa” comes from a series of song about he ritual and the offering of the Day of the Dead.  She asks, “what does the homeland mean to us as Latin Americans as Mexicans and as Mexican Americans. It begins with a great electric guitar sound and cool organ accompaniment.  And then she sings in quite a low voice holding notes for amazingly long (about 18 seconds).  It turns into a bluesy song with a lengthy bluesy guitar solo.

The third song, “Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero” was written by a campesino, a farm worker, about rich and poor and young and old being taken by death.  He says “even hit men are going to die.”  She switches to a jarana, a small eight-stringed guitar-like instrument.  After a slow intro the song picks up a bit with a kind of reggae feel.  There’s already a big echo on the mic already but in the middle she cups her hands and gives the whole sound a much bigger echo.  It has a catchy ending with everyone singing along.

She introduces the final song, “La Patria Madrina” by saying “In Mexico, you wake up and put on the news and see a lot of depressing things and you wake up and hope today will be better…and it isn’t.  But despite all of this everything will be better tomorrow.”  It’s a slower song with more reggae sounds and dramatic flourishes.  This time there’s a kind of slide guitar running through the song.

The band consists of : Lila Downs (vocals, jarana); Paul Cohen (sax); George Saenz, Jr. (trombone); Hugo Moreno (trumpet); Marcos Lopez (seated percussion); Yayo Serka (seated drums); Rafael Gomez (electric guitar); Leo Soqui (jarana); Luis Guzman (bass).

[READ: August 28, 2016] “Reading Comprehension: Text No. 3” 

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Zambra’s works and this one is no exception.  I’m particularly intrigued by the “quiz” portion at the end of the piece which really takes the story in a different direction.

The structure of the story is similar to other stories I’ve read by him–I have to assume that he is being reasonably autobiographical about his youth and his life with the woman who would be his son’s mother.  If not then he has really appropriated this character.

A man is writing a letter to his son.  I loved the way the beginning started with the narrator telling his son to forget all of the thing that he has said or done: “mitigate my shouting, my inappropriate remarks, and my stupid jokes.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MARGO PRICE-Tiny Desk Concert #581 (November 28, 2016).

It is my fervent hope that I will wake up this morning and the world will say April Fools, and that these last few months will all have been a prank.  Or that this day marks the first day in formal steps to get the buffoon out of the White House before more people get killed.

Barring that, I can post these Trump-based pieces.

Margo Price is beloved by NPR.  I find her a wee bit too country for my tastes.  And yet, once again, a Tiny Desk Concert changed my opinion of her.

Price came to NPR on the day after the election.  I was in a fog of disbelief that day.  I can’t imagine how she managed to play and sing.  Here’s the intro:

When I greeted Margo Price in the NPR garage before her Tiny Desk performance, tears were streaming down her face. It was Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, the day after the 2016 election. For her — as for many Americans — it was a stunning and bewildering moment in time, a day when life and the everyday took on new meaning. And so when she and her band began to play “All American Made,” a song she’s sung many times before, those words about America’s changes and failures in the 21st century seemed even more powerful.

As this Tiny Desk progresses, even “Four Years Of Chances,” her song of a love gone wrong, feels less about a lousy husband and more about presidential politics. She dedicates her third and final song, “About To Find Out,” to Donald Trump; she says it was originally written about a “musician acquaintance of mine who’s a complete sociopath.” When the song ends, she rips open her red cowboy shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the words “Icky Trump”— a play on the title of The White Stripes’ song “Icky Thump,” which criticizes the U.S.’s immigration policies. She smiles, wipes a tear away: It seems cathartic, but temporary.

The music includes piano, guitar (of course), some slide guitar and harmonica.

“All American Made” plays down the twang in her voice and the lyrics are great.  It was written for her previous band Buffalo Clover.

1987, and I didn’t know I then
Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran
well it won’t be the first time and it wont be the end
They were all American made.

I was just a child
Unaware of the effects
Raised on sports and Jesus
and all the usual suspects

It’s a slow folk song with harmonica and a nice guitar solo.

“Four Years Of Chances” is actually about a failed relationship.  And we can all only hope that we don’t have to wait as long as she did in this song before ending this relationship.  It’s a faster song with good slide guitar work.  There’s a guitar solo, a piano solo and I like the way it goes up two steps after the solo.

I gave you four years of chances
But you threw em all away
I gave you one thousand, four hundred sixty-one days

“About To Find Out” seems so uncannily about Trump it is hard to believe it was written about someone else (as it says, it was originally written about a “musician acquaintance of mine who’s a complete sociopath”).

Well I’ve had about enough of your two-cent words
And the way you’re running your mouth
No you haven’t got a clue or another thing to do
Except to take another picture of yourself
You’re living high on the hog looking down at us all
You may have come so easy and happened so fast
But the harder they come, they fall

You have many people fooled about your motivation
But I don’t believe your lies
You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke
I see the snakes in both of your eyes
But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass
And you’re standing much too tall
You may have come so easy and happened so fast
But the harder they come, they fall

Tell me what does your pride taste like honey
Or haven’t you tried it out?
It’s better than the taste of a boot in your face
Without any shadow of a doubt
You better learn where the line is
You missed a lot you’ve gotta learn about
How’s it gonna feel to be put in your place
Well I guess you’re about to find out

Some folks today have got nothing to say
Except to talk about their wealth
But the poor’s still poor and the war’s still war
And everybody wants more for themselves
Like a rich man’s child you never walked a mile
One day you won’t have nothing to sell
You may have come so easy and happened so fast
But the way I see it you fell

Uncanny.

So yes, this Tiny Desk Concert has totally won me over to Price.  Although I really need to never hear “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” again–it is just waaay to twangy for my sensitive ears.  But more importantly, I hope she hasn’t given up the fight.

[READ: March 12, 2017] “It Is I Who Styles Donald Trump…”

My only other exposure to Crosbie was in the April 2012 issue of The Walrus, in which she wrote a couple of short pieces.

Obviously, I am all for hating on Trump, for ridiculing him and making him look as pathetic as he actually is.  And this entire issue was more or less devoted to the horror that is Trump.  So having a story that mocks him is something I can appreciate.

But, as with the comedians who mock Trump’s hair or skin rather than his racism, bigotry, lack of knowledge of the world, lying and everything else, this story is strangely superficial, and overall, just kind of strange.

It begins amusingly enough: “Last night I dreamt I went to Mar-a-Lago again.  I stood shuddering at the gates–was I to be the mistress of an estate named in colloquial Spanish?”

It even seems like it might go for an interesting angle: “as he sleeps his lips purse, and his hands fly our, defensively.”

But, as the title states (so I guess I was expecting too much), this is mostly about Trump’s hair: she “quickly took over this industry.” (more…)

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