Friday, April 30, 2010
What a difference context makes.
Back in 2008, I read my first Tarzan short story, “The Nightmare.” It’s part of “Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” a collection of twelve short stories that was published as the sixth book in the Tarzan saga. Back then, I had no ideas about the literary Tarzan. Now, having reads Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, and The Beasts of Tarzan, I have a better understanding of where “The Nightmare” fits into the canon.
Billed as a short story collection, Jungle Tales is all but a novel. Yes, it takes twelve snapshots of the life of the youthful ape-man but they all build on each other. The Wikipedia entry for this book lists it as a midquel, taking place between chapters 11 and 12 of the first novel. If I had to pinpoint the type of stories these are, they fill in the blanks on the growth of Tarzan from boy to man, just before he meets the Europeans.
The tales run the gamut of emotions and events in a young boy’s life. Tarzan falls in love with one of the she-apes, Teeka, a friend of his since boyhood. Gradually, through the course of the story, his “otherness” seeps into his mind (he doesn’t have hair like the other apes) and he learns to accept his status. Bukawai the witch-doctor makes a trio of appearances, as does Tantor the elephant, and Taug, the ape closest to Tarzan.
These are fun stories and show how Tarzan’s innate humanness begins to take a hold of him during adolescence. It’s fascinating to see how Tarzan works through problems and resolves issues. As a writer, creating these stories, Burroughs must have had to stop and un-think certain aspects of what it means to be a civilized human as Tarzan often does the opposite of what you or I would do. Burroughs’ cultural biases are on full display here but, as I’ve mentioned before in my other reviews, you just have to deal with them.
Jungle Tales of Tarzan isn’t really the first book to read for anyone wanting to start reading the literary adventures of Lord Greystoke. This novel is much more fulfilling if you’ve already read the first book. But I think this novel is essential for all fans of Tarzan. It’s re-whetted my appetite for his adventures. Well, here comes summer reading time...
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Patti Abbott - American Bandstand
Paul D. Brazill - Basczax
Sean Coleman - The Gods - Genesis
Bill Crider - 50's Pop with The Ames Brothers
Martin Edwards - On the Flip Side
Eric Peterson - Life Sentence to Love by Legal Weapon
Randy Johnson - Showdown by Collins, Cray, and Copeland
George Kelley - The T.A.M.I. Show (Teenage Awards Music International)
Evan Lewis - Marty Robbins - El Paso Trilogy
Todd Mason - Max Roach - Freedom Now Suite
Scott Parker - The Girl in the Other Room by Diana Krall
Perplexio - Harry Chapin - Short Stories
Charlie Ricci - Stevie Wonder - Where I'm Coming From
If I missed your entry, let me know and I'll fix this list.
See everyone on 27 May (and I won't mess up the dates this time).
In 2004, Diana Krall tried something different and was savaged for it.
Up until that year, Krall had been riding high. She crept slowly to the world’s attention although the jazz clan knew of her long before the rest of us did. Her first breakout CD was All for You, a Tribute to the Nat King Cole trio. After another CD devoted to love songs, Krall exploded on the world stage in 1998 with When I Look in Your Eyes. That CD had the distinction of being the first jazz CD to be nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. She followed with 2001’s The Look of Love, a lush, orchestral album, rich in jazz history with a modern touch. The DVD, Live in Paris, captured Krall at the zeitgeist of this run.
All of a sudden, things in her personal life simultaneously fell apart and found new joy. Her mother died in 2002 as did professional mentors Rosemary Clooney and Ray Brown, the man who helped convince Krall to move from her native Canada to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. These tragedies might have been worse if not for her newfound love interest Declan MacManus. What? You don’t know that name? How about his profession nom de guerre: Elvis Costello. It cannot be coincidence that the confluence of personal loss, personal happiness, and the presence of a brilliant songwriter prompted Krall to try something new on her follow-up. She wrote her own songs.
Krall is, like all artists, a creator. You can’t deny that, for example, the Krall version of “The Look of Love” or gender-swapping of Cole’s “I’m an Errand Girl for Rhythm” are new songs, ones different from other versions out there. But, for all the reasons listed above and others we don’t know, Krall felt the urge to create her own work, to say something in her own voice. And the resulting CD is something very special: The Girl in the Other Room.
Krall wrote half of the twelve tracks on this CD with her new husband, whom she married in 2003. In liner notes on her website, Krall comments that she wrote pages and pages of thoughts, memories, and impressions but it was Costello who trimmed and honed the thoughts into verses and stanzas. What you experience in these songs is an adult woman—not some Top 40 teeny bopper—coming to terms with heartbreak, loss, the meaning of love and family, and romance.
If there’s one song that has it all, it’s the title track. The main character is alone in a room in a house. The silence closes in on her. She’s thinking. She’s remembering her mother. The musical arrangement intensifies this feeling, opening with a simply guitar chords by Anthony Wilson. The aural quality of the guitar evokes emptiness. The funeral’s over, perhaps, because there’s murmuring from a different part of the house. She’s looking at her reflection and questioning herself. Later in the song, the same girl is with her lover as they undress and fall together. She questions whether or not they should be together, but she finally realizes life goes on. The girl in the mirror recognizes herself. She’s different now, but still the same person she was and always has been. In all, this song is a positive song, one about overcoming calamity and still living as well as possible. To stay put is to stagnate.
Not every song is about love and loss. There are songs about Krall’s new place in life: as a wife, as a seasoned professional. “I’ve Changed My Address” shows Krall reflecting on her earlier life playing in jazz bars, sharpening her chops. Now, it’s a sports bar. I think we all can relate to this kind of jarring change, where our sepia-tinted memories clash with modern realities. The music brings to mind the past, coming across as the type of song Krall would have played back in the day, a song that could have found it’s way onto the soundtrack of “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Not that Krall would ever sulk over a piano. But this song, and her voice, certainly imply that she could.
If you’ve seen a photograph of Krall, you know she is one of the most beautiful performers out there, jazz field or otherwise. Tabloid-wise, you never heard about her relationships until she hooked up with Costello. However, in her cover of the Chris-Smither-penned tune, “Love Me Like a Man,” made popular by Bonnie Raitt, a little of her romantic anger busts out. The words are like lashes of a whip, complaints to which, I suspect, many women can attest:
The men that’s I’ve been seeing, baby
Got their souls up on a shelf
You know they could never love me
When they can’t even love themselves
I come home sad and lonely
Feel like I wanna cry
I need someone to hold me
Not some fool to ask me why
It’s this kind of song that mutes us men. We don’t know what to say to a woman who’s singing like this. And that’s the problem. This track features Krall’s touring musicians of Jeff Hamilton on drums and John Clayton on bass, still with Wilson on guitar. There’s an effortlessness present in this song, a knowing something that you can’t get with just studio musicians. These players know each other and push and pull throughout the song like old friends. It’s during Wilson’s solo where Krall breaks out a couple of “yeahs,” something that came from within her. Again, modern, over-produced CDs don’t usually allow this kind of personal statement. But then, that’s what this CD is all about.
“Love Me Like a Man” is not the only timely cover Krall performs. Tom Waits’ “Temptation” comes across as that silky, snaky tune you’d hear on a late Saturday night, when you find yourself faced with something you know is wrong, something you’d have to come to terms with the following Sunday morning in a church pew. But, damn, it’s so good here, in the dark on Saturday night. The Hammond B3 organ, played by Neil Larsen, sneaks in on verse three, a sly reminder of the snake that is temptation. You can’t help but wonder if the temptation Krall sings of is the very album she’s creating, one that is of her and by her, but not necessarily what the jazz community thinks she should create. You get that vibe from her subtle counter melody under Wilson’s guitar solo. It’s a question that is left unanswered.
My favorite song is a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” Here Krall sings of highways, of constant movement, diving down for that “something shiny,” searching for love and music, trying to find it in every nook and cranny she can. She laments “How’m I ever going to know my home when I see it again.” You can’t help but hearken back to the character in “The Girl in the Other Room” questioning herself as well. It’s a well-chosen cover and the soaring solo Wilson delivers is fantastic.
I have mentioned other musicians but I need to turn to Krall’s own musicianship on the piano. She is an accomplished piano player but not one who knows only one thing or one style. What this collection of songs—and, by the way, Krall is credited with the music for all twelve songs—demonstrates is Krall’s ability to pull from the piano exactly what the lyrics require. That’s a benefit of being a composer, singer, and player. She brings out breathy notes for some slower, emotional songs, evoking Vince Guaraldi’s sound on “Almost Blue.” She bangs out octave-based accompaniments in other, broader songs. And her solos express a command of the instrument that rivals few in the jazz world.
After listening to the album, you have to wonder why this CD earned such mixed reviews when it came out and in the six years since. The folks in the jazz tribe certainly loved it when Krall covered old songbook titles but balked when she struck out on her own. Why? Do they just want to pigeon hole her? Ditto for some of the folks who reviewed the CD on Amazon. They loved her previous CDs when she sang love songs but didn’t like this one. Why?
One reason could be our society’s tendency toward the simple. We don’t often like to think and The Girl in the Other Room requires thinking. Sure, there are a couple of tunes where you can check your brain at the door but the rest--the autobiographical material--calls for listener involvement. There’s a saying that a book is never finished until a reader reads it. The same could be said for an album’s worth of music.
With The Girl in the Other Room, Diana Krall has challenged us as listeners. She wants to show us her painful journey through the loss of a mother, something we all have to deal with a sometime in our lives. She shows us that loss hurts, it can be debilitating, but there is always hope. A line from “Narrow Daylight” compactly expresses this hope: “Is the kindness we count upon hidden in everyone?”
And if you don’t want to think too hard about one woman’s journey from the valley to the mountaintop, just listen to the music. It’s stark, it’s expressive, it’s tentative, it’s soaring. As is this CD. I, for one, hope that Krall delivers another album’s worth of songs she herself pens. She’s a mother now. I can’t help but wonder how that experience has affected her muse. I don’t expect it to have the resonance the The Girl in the Other Room has but, then, this CD was a complete surprise. I look forward to being surprised again.
NOTE: The DVD, Diana Krall: Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, is the visual document of the tour promoting this CD. Nine of the twelve songs from The Girl in the Other Room show up on this DVD. The songs are expanded to allow more soloing and interpretation. Some of the tracks exceed the studio tracks. It’s a nice comparison piece to the 2001 “Live in Paris.” Same artist, different vibe. She’s visibly happy during both shows but you can’t help but wonder if she’s just a little more excited about playing her own songs on the Montreal DVD. As a creator, I certainly would be.
If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.
Monday, April 26, 2010
So, this Thursday, 29 April, post your forgotten music post on your blog. Let me know ahead of time and I'll get you on the initial list. If you have a last-minute addition, let me know and I'll collect your post in my summary post.
As always, anyone can participate. This is a no-holds, free-for-all celebration of music. Looking forward to reading and learning about some "new" music.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Two thoughts come to mind when I finished reading Justice, Inc., the debut novel featuring the pulp hero, The Avenger. On the one hand, I thought sometimes, enough is enough. On the other, the timing of the novel’s publication couldn’t have been worse.
Let’s take the date first. The cover of the new Avenger magazine is September 1939. I haven’t read any of the World War II-era novels of Shadow, Doc Savage, or the other pulp heroes but I suspect all of them seemed trite when facing the onslaught of Nazi Germany. As relentless as Richard Benson, the Avenger, is, Hitler was rolling through Europe in his own relentless drive for the Third Reich. How terrifying must that have been.
Having said that, had the Avenger been slightly more original, he might have had a longer shelf life. Other than his malleable face, Richard Benson’s story is not very original. By 1939, Doc Savage and his team had been fighting bad guys for six years. The Shadow a year longer. Tarzan was out there. So was Zorro, Sam Spade, Superman, and the new guy on the block, Batman. Now, again, there was a lot of borrowing of ideas back in the 1930s but the Avenger, at least in this first book, didn’t have that special spark needed to carry a series.
That’s not to say Justice, Inc., isn’t entertaining. The setup at the beginning of the book is pretty good. Self-made millionaire adventurer Richard Benson, along with his wife and young daughter, force their way onto a public airliner from Buffalo, NY, to Montreal. His mother-in-law was dying and they needed to get there. Benson visits the lavatory and, upon exiting, finds no trace of his family. Moreover, everyone on board asserts that he boarded the plane alone. Benson has a breakdown and winds up in a mental asylum with a curious physical reaction: his hair is completely white, as is his face. His face, succumbing to the shock of the situation, becomes paralyzed. He learns that he can push the skin of his face around...and it remains in the altered shape. This comes in handy as Benson starts to investigate what really happened on the airplane as he can disguise himself.
The writing style is pure pulp: lots of action, lots of reiteration, and lots (and lots) of words describing the nature of Benson’s eyes. I started rolling mine when the author, Paul Ernst, would describe eyes. Isn’t there another aspect of Benson you can describe?
What follows now is pure SPOILER so, if you’re intrigued about the story and want to read it, skip this paragraph. As a reader, the more I learned about the bad guys, the more I realized what happened to Benson’s wife and daughter. Like any protagonist (and me, had I found myself in a similar position), Benson holds out hope of a happy ending, of finding his family alive and well. It wasn’t to be. Ernst leads the reader on in a few places but it ultimately falls to one of the supporting cast to tell Benson the honest truth. The ending makes sense and, with it, Benson creates Justice, Inc. to combat evil. It’s a Batman-esque origin story and a worthy origin at that. It’s just not original. But, then again, how many origin stories are original?
Justice, Inc. is a very quick read. I listened to the free version over at Uvula Audio, the same place you can get Doc Savage #1. In fact, they are going to record some additional Savage stories this summer, something to which I’m looking forward. Chances are, I won’t be reading another Avenger novel.
Anyone out there want to let me know if there are additional good Avenger novels to read? Am I being too harsh?
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
So, everyone has an additional week to post on 29 April.
Apologies for the confusion.
Monday, April 19, 2010
And, as always, ANYONE can play. Just let me know ahead of time and I'll get you on the list.
Oddly, I haven't determined what album I'll be writing about yet, although I have a few contenders.
Friday, April 16, 2010
The Land of Terror was the second Doc Savage novel, published in April 1933, a mere month after Doc’s debut in print. It’s an interesting time to have a new superhero to follow. The Great Depression was in full swing, America had a new president, and pulp novels and stories were in great demand.
Never one to waste time, author Lester Dent (writing under the house name Kenneth Robeson), launches the story in a single paragraph. Jerome Coffern, chemist and friend of Doc, is murdered by a poison gas dubbed the Smoke of Eternity. This isn’t some supernatural creature; this is a weapon shot from a gun. The end result of a Smoke of Eternity strike is the body completely dissolving save for a forearm that extended outside the cloud. Doc, of course, was waiting for Coffern and chases the thugs who killed his friend. After a scuffle, Clark Savage, Jr., determines the men worked for a criminal mastermind (is there any other kind?) nicknamed Kar. He is responsible for creating this death cloud and weaponizing it.
Now, judging by the cover image posted above (from the Bantam edition), you’d be expecting Doc and his Fabulous Five Friends to get to wherever the dinosaurs are as soon as possible. Oddly, you don’t. More than half the book is spent with Doc investigating clues to discover more truths about Kar, why he wanted to kill Coffern, and all sorts of other dastardly deeds. Along the way, the team picks up Oliver Wording Bittman, a taxidermist who saved Doc’s father sometime before. Together, all seven men fly across the continent and land on a South Pacific island named Thunder Island. It’s the source for the chemicals used to make the Smoke of Eternity. Oh, and there are dinosaurs.
Doc saves the day and constantly saves his friends, too. Hey! I didn’t give anything away. There are still 179 more books to read, okay. How he does it never fails to impress and entertain. There’s a big plot twist my 2010-era brain saw coming miles away but it’s still fun to see it play out.
The body count in this novel is higher than in the debut novel. Doc gets mad and kills the criminals—usually in self-defense—but he also kills some of the dinosaurs. I’ve read elsewhere that Lester Dent toned down the violence in subsequent books. I was okay with the violence here, especially given the era in which it was written. Things were bleak in early 1933. Sometimes, our entertainment merely mirrors what’s already in the world. That would include some of the cultural biases of white folks against native Pacific islanders. I don’t hold that against Dent. It was the time, after all.
This book is quick, escapist, adventure-filled fun. You don’t need a lot of brain cells to enjoy this stuff. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Adventure House publishes two novels in a single volume. They also include historical essays and background information on Dent, Doc Savage, or other pertinent subjects. Plus, you get the black-and-white illustrations to boot. I’ll easily be reading more adventures in the coming months and years.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Saturday, April 10, 2010
The first was titled "What is Reading?"
The second was titled "The iPad: is it medium or is it the message?"
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
In my reading life, I can list only a handful of books that have truly captured my fascination: To Kill a Mockingbird, Mystic River, The Shadow of the Wind, Ender's Game, Money Shot, Hyperion, The Dawn Patrol, Tarzan of the Apes, and Treasure Island. These nine novels just landed themselves a tenth sibling.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, is a huge, engrossing, towering, dense, baroque, and incomparable novel. It's a fantasy story in that magical elements exist in the world of New Crobuzon. It's also a science fiction novel in that there's a prominent steampunk element running throughout the entire story. It's part horror since there are monsters in this land, as well as man-made monstrosities. It's part social fiction in that Mieville's political philosophy clearly comes out in how his characters interact with each other. Perdido Street Station (PSS), however, is more than the sum of its parts.
Other reviewers have tried to put into words the scope and style of this gorgeous novel and more than a few have chosen Dickensian. That adjective carries with it more than a century of baggage and not everything to which it is applied deserves it. PSS does. In his novels, Charles Dickens explored then-contemporary social issues within the framework of a complex, sometimes convoluted, plot structure. Characters abound in a Dickens novel, little ones and big ones, some playing only a minor part, others consuming whole chunks of the story. Mieville's characters operate in a similar way, only their world is fictional, fantastical, and more than a little depressing.
The level of detail in which Mieville describes the architecture, history, geography, and population of New Crobuzon warrants it's own, separate essay. If you've followed my discussion of world-building over at SF Safari, you'll remember my thoughts on world-building. In short, I think many SF/F books suffer from bloated world-building--too much travelogue, too little narrative-- so much so that the plot gets sacrificed along the way. It's why you see so many thousand-page doorstops on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Mieville straddles this line tenuously. He doesn't stop the action so long as to give a five-page mini-history. Instead, he gives you a page here and there, the cumulative effect being a wider understanding of New Crobuzon and it's place in the world of Bas-Lag.
By now you're probably knocking on your computer screens and saying, "Yeah, Scott, but what is the book about?" [Deep breath] Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a scientist, a human, who studies crisis energy. His girlfriend is Lin, an artist and a Kepri (a humanoid with a insectile head who "speaks" in sign language). Isaac and Lin each get commissioned at the same time for different jobs. Isaac is hired by Yagharek, a Garuda (race of humanoid-bird creatures) to restore his flight (his wings have been hacked off for an unknown crime). Lin is hired by Mr. Motley, the godfather of all crime lords in the city, to sculpt a statue of him. (If you thought Jabba the Hutt was disgusting, you'd be horrified at Motley's description. He has altered, AKA "re-made," himself by adding various body parts to his original human frame.)
For the first third of the novel, you see Isaac and Lin accept their commissions, interact with their friends, and you, the reader, are treated to a sepia-tinged snapshot of New Crobuzon. The novel is hardly flawless and the dense prose at the beginning--replete with overly descriptive passages detailing just how old and fetid the city is--can be daunting. More than once I wondered when the story was going to pick up and what the main narrative arc was going to be. It shows up in the most unlikely source: Isaac's research. In an attempt to learn how natural things fly (to better understand how he can give Yagharek new wings), Isaac sends out secret word that he'll pay for anything with wings, even things like caterpillars who will eventually get wings. His is given a stolen larva that has been secreted out of the main research area of Parliament (located in a giant tower named Perdido Street Station, so named because of the elevated railway that crisscross the city). Oddly, this larva only responds to a hallucinogenic drug called "dreams--t." Not knowing what the creature is, Isaac buys some of the drug and feeds it to the larva.
You remember when your mom told you never to mess with things you don't understand? Clearly, Isaac forgot that lesson. The larva grows and the thing--yes, Thing--that emerges is a slake-moth. One of the more unique aspects of Mieville's writing is that he gives you just enough description of an object or person but you still never quite get the entire picture. In addition, different readers will have different takes on the same creatures. To say the slake-moth is bad news is a gross understatement. It's wings hypnotizes it's victims, bringing in their minds myriads of nightmares. The moths then drink the dreamlike juices. Yuck. It's been a long time since I read any horror literature. I'm not squeamish by nature but the first time a moth fed just about got me. To give you an idea of how ferocious these things are, the aliens from "Alien" wouldn't stand a chance.
And there are five slake-moths. The one in Isaac's lab escapes and frees it's siblings. The rest of the novel is Isaac and his friends trying to kill the moths. Other characters enter the stage. The mayor of New Crobuzon, Bentham Rudgutter, rallies the military and other Re-Made creatures, trying to capture the moths for his own corrupt reasons. The Weaver, a giant, spider-like, god-like creature who has human hands but can also travel between planes of existence, has his own agenda when it comes to the moths. There are other things that populate this chimeric city but I won't spoil the fun of their discovery.
Perdido Street Station is not without its weaknesses. Certain characters that you think are important drop from the main stage and, inexplicably, never return. There's a giant coincidence that pushes the story along that I saw coming and was a little let down when it proved to be true. The denouement at the end of the story is satisfying. I can't say the same thing about the epilogue after the big ending. It was rather disappointing and it keeps me from giving this novel my complete five-star recommendation.
But I wholeheartedly give it four-and-a-half or more. It's not a perfect book. But it is unlike anything I've ever read. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite it's flaws. I was completely engrossed by the world and want to return. After I finished the book, I was spent. It took me a week to figure out what to read next. There are so many books and authors I want to read that I usually have a rule: I don’t read the same author back to back. In my audiobook world, I’ve kept that rule, listening to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (completely the opposite type book). In my reading world, I’ve broken the rule. I realized that the only person who can follow Mieville is Mieville.
Click icon for more
book review blogs
Monday, April 5, 2010
For more information, head on over to the Needle Mag website. There's a photo of the first issue proof here. There's a Facebook page here.
All things considered, it's something I'm looking forward to having on my shelf. And I feel proud to have a part in its creation. Thanks to Steve for inviting me along for the ride.