Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A WEEKEND OF MUSIC

This past Friday night I was taken by my son to see Beck at Universal Ampitheatre here in Los Angeles. It has been a while since I've been to a concert with that many people. Usually it is a coffee-house or bookstore venue. I was glad to have my son as an escort, but really it was a fine crowd of people. Even though there was a mosh pit, we had seats, though no one sat in them. We just all boogied where we stood.

I thought it was a great show. I don't really know his songs except for "Loser" and "Two Turntables and a Microphone" (which he did perform) and yet it all sounded familiar somehow. In the middle of the show, he did an acoustic set while the rest of the band sat at a table on stage and ate a meal. Whatever. But then I realized that actually the guy is a folk based singer/songwriter just like me, except he can scratch on those turntables and rap and he rocks. It was fun. The best part was the next day, when my son called to say that he didn't know too many Moms you could take to a Beck show and have such a good time. I was honored.

Saturday morning my husband and I drove up to Paso Robles, just north of San Luis Obispo, in the heart of the new wine country. (Apparently the Sonoma area was struck by a grapevine worm some years back and growers went to this area south of San Francisco to escape the worm.) At the Castoro Vineyard, we saw Laurence Juber play under the setting sun and then the stars. He played a varied selection of his original pieces, some Beatles and Wings tunes, some blues and standards. Domenic Genova on bass and Steve Forman on percussion were the perfect back up musicians for Mr Juber's virtuoso finger-style guitar. Somehow we missed dinner that night and also decided to pass on the wine, but my hunger was filled by the scenery and the music.

It was fitting for this musical weekend that I had just finished reading Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, Volume I. I think you might have to be a Dylan fan to fully enjoy the book. I have been a fan for a long time, ever since I performed and knew all the words to some of his ten minute songs, such as "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Also, I've read at least three biographies of the man, so it was almost a relief to get Bob's side of the story. He writes prose the way he writes lyrics. In fact, I could really hear the Woody Guthrie influence. The writing rambles and lurches along in the same way Guthrie does in Bound For Glory.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Movies: A Study in Contrasts

I saw two movies last weekend, which couldn't have been more different from each other.

Sideways, 2004, was an Oscar nominee. Two guys go on a California wine country weekend. They were best friends in college; now they are at least 10 years older. One is a fading actor about to get married to a rich girl. The other is an aspiring novelist waiting to hear if his novel has been picked up by a publisher. They are very different personalities and the only thing between them is that old college relationship.

They meet women, shit happens. In fact, they are both so male! Completely opposite viewpoint from a chick flick. I wanted to hate these guys, especially the actor character who is so shallow. But the acting was great and I was entertained in spite of myself. My husband did not fall asleep this time.

Next we go to Africa for Hotel Rwanda. Intense, gruesome, moving. Don Cheadle is stunning in his role as an African working in a white man's world who must then become the leader of his countrymen as they try to survive civil and tribal war. Heaviest of all was the message that the white world deserted this country in its time of trouble. I found a similarity to the way we turn our backs on the killing and gang wars in the slums of this country.

Call to teen readers

If you are a teen and you read, I want to hear from you.

I want to know what books you are reading, what books you love, what books you dislike or even hate.

I am a tutor of teens and I encourage them to read books. But I think it is silly to read book reviews written by and for adults. I think teens should review the books they read.

So PLEASE, comment here or send me your reviews by email and I will post them here on this blog.

BTW, I just read King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry. It is a horse story about an Arabian horse, his faithful horseboy and a cat named Grimalkin. They travel from Morocco to France to England. Sham, the horse, becomes the sire of a whole line of race horses which still win races today. It was pretty good, even though it was written in 1948. It won the Newbery Award in 1949, which means it can be found in any library.

THE HEAT OF THE DAY

I discovered the author Elizabeth Bowen while browsing in a bookstore in Galway, Ireland last spring. We had gone to Galway because it was purported to have a lively music scene. Perhaps because we were there mid-week, we found little music and lots of rain. But the first day we were walking Eyre Square, the main area of the old town; no cars, just cobblestone walks and lots of shops. Actually there was quite a street music scene, even in the middle of the day. I met a singer/songwriter from S Carolina, who had gone to Ireland to seek his music fortune. A very nice guy who let me sing a song with his guitar.

But I was missing my reading time and longing for a bookstore to hang out in. I found a wonderful store with three stories crammed with books, new and used. I picked out a nice pile of used books, including A World of Love, by Elizabeth Bowen, which I started but never finished. She was born in Ireland, but moved to London as a young woman, as many Irish writers do. The Heat of the Day was written in 1949, which is why I read it now. Most of the action takes place at night and the weather is not hot, but I think the title refers to the times. It is mid World War II. Stella is a divorced woman with a 20 year old son and a lover. She learns that her lover may be a spy for the enemy. You don't find out until near the end of the book whether or not he is.

The writing is very exquisite. I had to read slowly because the parsing of the sentences was so British and literary, but when she was good, I loved the way she put things. The characters were well defined and each had a distinct voice. The setting of London during bombings, black-outs and food shortages is well described.

Still, I was left feeling unsatisfied at the end. I think the trouble is that I wanted to admire Stella, but she is not really admirable. She is a woman trying to survive in that time and place, wanting love but not all that strong. The point of the story seemed to be the odd relationships that can come about during the upheaval and uncertainty of war.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rivers of Gold

Call me naive, but I still get a thrill out of meeting people on-line. One day I was googling an author (F VanWyck Mason) who wrote a 1949 bestseller called Cutlass Empire. The second item I got took me to blog called Rough Edges which is written by James Reasoner. Turns out Mr Reasoner is an author of westerns, historical fiction, adventure stories and is also a big pulp fiction fan. He had some interesting biographical info about Van Wyck Mason.

So I sent James Reasoner an email and one thing led to another. He now has one of my CD's and I have one of his books, Rivers of Gold. Not only does he have his own series of books, but he also co-authors books with his wife Livia. Then they call themselves JL Reasoner and that is the case with Rivers of Gold.

It is a story of Gold Rush days in California, when everybody and his brother headed for the hills with dreams of untold riches. All we have left of that spirit is the lottery (and maybe the dreams of young musicians.) Rivers of Gold has adventure, mayhem, love and even riches, although they are made by a savvy woman from Boston who opens a store in San Francisco which supplies miners. You really get the feel of the times and the chaos of a new adventure in American history.

I am sorry that I haven't yet figured out how to put links into this blog, but you can visit Rough Edges by going to www.jamesreasoner.blogspot.com. Be sure to tell him I sent you

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Known World





Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, The Known World, by Edward P Jones is a beautifully written book. It is the story of a black family living in a fictional county of Virginia in pre-Civil War times. It presents slavery in America in a personal way, sweeping away misconceptions and simplistic views and digging deep into the effects of slavery on individuals, both black and white. It also deals with the various results of white slave owners begetting children on female slaves, creating "Negroes" that are of mixed race.

Slavery is both a physical reality and a state of mind. It has been practiced for so long on this planet that I believe it has created a slavery state of mind in some people, not to mention a slave-holder state of mind in others. In my opinion, that is the theme of The Known World.

Jones uses a little known and infrequent practice from those times to play out this theme. Before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves could buy their freedom after years of additional slaving. Then they could buy other family members, either out of slavery or as slaves from white plantation owners. So you have a situation of a free black man owning slaves.

Such is the case with Henry Townsend, the book's main character. He was purchased out of slavery by his father, married a free black woman and owned more than a dozen slaves and a fair amount of land. You might ask why a freed slave would turn around and own slaves. This is only one of the questions I found myself asking as I read this story. Henry dies early in the book and as his wife tries to take over, the whole place begins to fall apart and slaves begin to disappear. Many just walk away to freedom, but some face a darker future.

In one of the reading groups which I attend, we read and discussed The Known World. I like reading groups because it is fascinating to me to hear the different reactions to the same book. Some readers objected to Jones giving the impression that blacks owning slaves was a common occurrence. Others were bothered by the story moving back and forth between past, present and future. One reader said the book left her feeling depressed. Yes, it is not an uplifting subject, but I feel the story could lift people out of their "known world" and create a higher level of understanding among people of all races. This is not an angry anti-White book, but it is an anti-slavery book.

"They say, 'Sing while you slave,' and I just get bored." Bob Dylan
"Who's gonna do the dirty work, when all the slaves are free?" Joni Mitchell

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Good Week at the Movies

Saw two good movies this week. I picked P.S. because of a write up in the Los Angeles Sunday Times Calendar section. It was released in 2004 and I got the idea it was about a writer. It is not but was still a fine movie. Laura Linney plays Louise, a college admissions officer in Columbia University's Art School. She is divorced, 39 years old and lonely.

One day she sees an application from someone with the same name as her boyfriend of 20 years ago. She calls this person in for an interview and you learn that the boyfriend died tragically way back then. The current guy shows up and looks and talks just like the original Scott. She immediately takes him home and they have eager, passionate sex, which is done really well and is convincing but also funny.

Well the plot thickens, of course. Louise has a girlfriend and back in the day, this "friend" stole Scott from Louise. Also the ex-husband turns out to be a pervert doing a 12 step program to stop being a pervert. Poor Louise.

But here is what is great about this movie: First of all, Topher Grace who plays the current Scott is an amazing actor. I am a bit older than Louise, but if (big if) I were to seduce a younger man I would want him to be just like the Topher Grace character. Second, the relationship between Louise and her girlfriend is so real, so way beyond anything I've found in a chick lit book, so much like the way women friends actually are with each other.

P.S. is probably not a guy movie. My husband fell asleep during it, but he had had a margarita earlier. My theory on chick flicks though is that guys should watch them if they are really serious about understanding women. Unfortunately, most of them aren't.

Last night we watched The Incredibles, which I found to be incredible. I generally am not a fan of animated movies. (I never liked comic books either, which is so not with it these days, but oh well.) However, to be totally not consistent, I do like superheros. The Incredibles is about an entire family of superheros, who have been put out of work and into obscurity by some bone-headed government program, but who come back to save the world from a psychopathic madman.

Everything is great in this movie; the plot, the dialogue, the animation, the humor, the exactly right hipness of it all and especially the superhero kids.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles spent more of his life as a composer than as a writer. The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, is his first and best known novel, based on his own travels in North Africa and his version of existentialism.

Port Moresby and his wife Kit leave New York City after World War II to travel through North Africa and the Sahara. They are young and their marriage is in trouble, but they are in Africa for different reasons. Actually Port doesn't quite know why he is there, but Kit is following him for the sake of love.

I did not like the book for the entire first half because they are both such weak and confused people, besides which there seemed to be no point except pointlessness. That is not my understanding of existentialism and Port has no reason, or at least there is none given, for his despair.

I did like the author's explanation of the difference between a tourist and a traveler, given in Port's voice on page 14: "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, a traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

In the second half, called Book Two, it becomes Kit's story and then it gets better, even exciting. The underlying sense of dread, present from the first page, becomes life experience. Kit is a more developed character, though still a bit flat.

The ending is ambiguous. Tragic perhaps but possibly a breakthrough for Kit. The issue here is the clash and difficulties of coexistence between Westerners and non-Western people, clearly still a world issue in 2005.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

My Big Fat Reading Project

I am a maker of lists. I like to organize the things I do into plans and
programs. So when I found myself reading more than ever a few years back, I felt I needed a way to approach the vast body of fiction that I was
attempting to devour.

At first, I used what I call the Alphabet System. I stole this from Francie,
the main character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. (One of my all time favorite books, because it is the story of a girl in Brooklyn who rises out of poverty through reading.) Her habit was to go to the public library every day, take out a book and read it. She just started at the letter A and went on. This was a pretty good method for me because I
discovered many authors I liked (such as Richard Adams, Edward Abbey and Joan Aiken) as well as a few I didn't like (Kobo Abe and Alice Adams, to
name two.) I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing taste.

Then I started researching the whole American Literature scene and also
learning about current literary writers who had deeper things to say and
were thus not appearing on the bestseller lists. OK, I will admit, Oprah had
an effect on me. I also read a few biographies of writers and learned that
many of the best learned how to write by reading, not by going to college.

Finally, a few years ago, my sister sent me a book called Legacy, A
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence, 1997, Ohio University Press. She thought I should write my story and the story of our family, at least to hand down to our children and grandchildren. I had
another book I was using to get up to speed on modern fiction writers, The
Reading List, Contemporary Fiction by David Rubel, 1998, Henry Holt and
Company, and was working my way through the complete books of Toni Morrison,
Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and others.

One day I was surfing the web on all things about books and came across a
curriculum posted by a professor at some Southern college. It involved
reading the top ten bestsellers from each year, decade by decade and writing
papers on how books and literature were both a sort of report on culture and
an influence on its direction.

Suddenly it all came together. MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT. I would read the
top bestsellers of each year of my life and relate these books to what went
on in those years and how I was influenced by it all as I moved through my
life. So I printed out the bestseller lists which this professor had so
kindly put together and off I went. I was born in 1947, but I decided to
start my reading in 1940 to get a feel for the world I was born into. I also
added about 10 other literary books to each year.

I began this project exactly three years ago. I am now about half-way through
the reading for 1949. That means it has taken me three years to read ten
years worth of books. It is a looooong project. Could last me the rest of my
life. That is fine because I have discovered something about being a
middle-aged woman. My kids are grown, my music career flopped, my marriage
is 30 years old (it is good and he is my grand passion but I am really used
to him) and I need a project that gets me excited everyday and will go on
for years; that has new and unknown factors to look forward to each day;
that is creative.

I have learned so much from this reading: more than I ever knew I didn't
know about World War II; how earnest and wholesome people were in the 1940s;
that family was the true glue that held society together; that Christianity
made for bestsellers back then; that the war and the Industrial Revolution
and Communism/Socialism were all beginning to erode all those values and to
create chaos. It is a fascinating study made through fiction.

I read other things as well, which you will hear more about later. Sometimes
I just can't stand to read another book from over 50 years ago and go off my
plan to read the hot books of today. But I wanted to explain why I will be
writing about all these old books I am reading.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Yesterday I finished The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. It is longish (487 pages) but I loved every minute of reading this book and it was a fast read. The story takes place in Barcelona spanning the years of the Spanish Civil War up to the 1960s. As a young boy, Daniel, son of a bookseller, is mourning the loss of his mother. His father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to choose one book. His choice is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. Daniel reads all night, is entranced and begins to search for other books by this author.

So I am immediately entranced because it is a book book and that is exactly what I do when I read a book that I love. I look for more by that author. But Daniel's search opens up a mystery which becomes an epic of murder, madness and hopeless love. The successful mixture of genres is only one of the wonders of Zafron's writing. He also now and then drops in philosophical, political or humorous bits that are clearly his views, but done with such a deft touch that you hardly notice. The characters are excellent, the mystery is gripping and the descriptions of Barcelona are truly stunning.

Then he pulls off a great ending. I want more books by this author.

Independence Day

Happy 4th of July

I feel we have a lot of things to fix in this country (starting with literacy), but I also feel very blessed and proud to be an American. With all our freedoms and privileges comes a large amount of responsibility to increase understanding amongst the peoples of the world, to free people from oppression (without using violence, thank you very much) and to set an example of the ability of human beings to govern themselves.

There! That is my speech; it didn't cost you a dime; you didn't have to drive or park; but there will be no fireworks.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Maiden Voyage to Blogdom

Whew! I made it. I have arrived in the universe of blogs. A little bleary eyed, a little shy. Will I be cool enough to be a blogger? Made it through blogging for dummies thanks to blogger.com. Everything is new and subject to change, but I have a mini profile and a blog name. Still have to learn how to get anyone to come and read the thing and how to do links and all that stuff.

Anyway, welcome to my blog. It will be mostly about books that I am reading, have read or want to read. Today I am reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. So far it is wonderful. It is obviously written either by or in the voice of a fairly young man. That is fine because I like young men. It takes place in Barcelona, Spain, which is where my lovely artist niece just spent a semester. Her name is Elizabeth and she designed the cover for my latest CD, but I digress.

I am also in the middle of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, a sad and somewhat disturbing book. I will finish it but first I have to finish the above book for a reading group meeting on Tuesday night.

OK, this is just a short post to get the blog rolling. More to come soon.