by John on August 13th, 2012
Since June, the Iowa City Public Library has been offering free downloads of local music at music.icpl.org. Fifty-eight albums are available, and more are coming over the next few months. What’s there that you might like? Most of the local heavyweights from the last few decades — Dave Zollo, Euforquestra, Big Wooden Radio, Mike and Amy Finders Band, the Salsa Band, and others — a good introduction to the local music scene.
Beyond that lie any number of gems. Too Much Yang, for instance, was an acoustic female trio with talent to burn. Their tight harmonies and jazzy arrangements suggest Dan Hicks or Asleep at the Wheel.
Amazingly, almost a generation has grown up never seeing High and Lonesome play. Not only was this the massively talented Dave Zollo’s first band, but guitar player Darren Matthews often seemed possessed by Keith Richards. ICPL offers all three of their releases. (Best of luck finding these for sale anywhere.)
Iowa City isn’t known for producing concept albums, but check out Let’s Get Clecky. When a band wants to record a wide variety of styles, from British Invasion pastiche to polka to county to Japanese cartoon theme music (!), why not just call it a compilation album by a nonexistent record company? Borges would approve.
Iowa boasts just a few world-class bluesmen, and you can own records by two of them. Catfish Keith dazzles with his picking and charms with his take on early blues. Joe Price (and wife Vicki) bring a more electric, rowdier vibe.
Scott Cochran’s band Flannel features Steve Ellis on guitar and up-and-coming Ryan Bernemann on bass and vocals. Think Townes Van Zandt. Think Gram Parsons. The Java House recording is unreleased, except through the Library.
Dustin Busch is quietly putting together a career as a musician’s musician, a go-to guy for tasteful guitar. His Down Home offers his take on blues standards.
One of the best parts of working on this project is being reminded how good Ben Schmidt is. The man can turn a phrase, feels things deeply, and his playing is impeccable.
by John on July 27th, 2012
This won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, but it was all the subsequent references to it in reviews that convinced me to give it a try. It’s become something of a landmark.
Wolf Hall tells a great story all the more fascinating for being true. It traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell as an advisor to Henry VIII, and encompasses Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, which led to the establishment of the Church of England. It’s a well-known story, but fleshed out in human terms, if by human we mean impossibly witty banter, jaw-dropping hypocrisy, and astonishing accomplishment which changed the course of western civilization.
Henry and Cromwell made the argument (apparently with straight faces) that Katherine, whom Henry had married, lived with for 20 years and had a child with, was not, in fact, his wife. She had been married briefly to his brother, and so was actually his sister. While 20 years of incest was regrettable, a merciful God could forgive that, and Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, who was more likely to provide a male heir.
Nearly as bizarre, this argument took place in the context of the Reformation. While Henry’s regime was burning heretics, he was himself moving toward a schism with the Catholic Church. Hilary Mantel’s achievement is to show Cromwell making such paradoxical arguments in good faith, with a fair degree of intellectual and moral rigor.
It will be fun to rewatch A Man for All Seasons after this, which tells the story of Thomas More, a heroic martyr in the movie, a fanatical torturer in Wolf Hall.
I’m struck by how much of this went over my head. Whence the title, for instance? Very little of the action takes place at Wolf Hall. The place names are just names to me, but the characters know them and react to a place’s characteristics.
A connection to Wikipedia filled me in on many details I didn’t know. That shy, awkward girl attending the queen, to whom Cromwell nearly proposes marriage? Turns out Jane Seymour becomes Henry’s next wife, and learning this added layers of meaning and irony to her every appearance.
The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies has just been published and longlisted for the Booker. I’m in line.
by John on May 15th, 2012
Everyone knows what Levon Helm sounds like, and I’m happy to report that his authorial voice matches that exactly. Were it a wine, it would be a rich, downhome red, with a pronounced twang and hints of vulgarity. Barbecue wouldn’t overwhelm it, nor possom for that matter.
Helm had a lot of interesting friends, a lifetime of road stories, and plenty of practice telling them. He was, after all, mentored both by rockabilly wildman Ronnie Hawkins and The Bob Himself. He backed Dylan on his first electric tour, and describes the surreal experience of riding a private jet, staying in the best hotels and getting booed every night. It shook him so much, he quit music for a time, and worked on an oil rig in the gulf.
He also kept a molten anger against Robbie Robertson, The Band’s primary songwriter. Helm felt the songs were more collaborative than the songwriting credits reflected. Playing music was his whole life, so Robertson’s decision to break up the band didn’t sit well either.
How much of this to believe? Can’t say, tho parts of it seem pretty well embellished. I doubt they really blew up a nightclub after the owner declined to pay them. Or if they did, that the police let them go because the owner was a jerk. On the other hand, “Well, it ain’t easy to come out and say I shot myself in the ass” has the ring of truth to it.
Helm died last month. Nobody’s going to forget The Band anytime soon, but his late-life records (after surviving throat cancer) Dirt Farmer and (especially) Electric Dirt are well worth your attention as well.
by John on May 11th, 2012
When a Nobel Prize Winner takes three and a half years to produce a 150 page novel (small pages at that, large print, lots of white space) one might suspect she’s maybe coasting just a bit.
The jacket copy says this is the story of Frank Money, recently back from the Korean War, damaged with what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. This must drive Toni Morrison nuts, because she writes best about women, and it’s also the story of his sister Cee, who’s damaged in other ways. The battle scenes in Korea are brutal. What Frank and Cee discover back home in Georgia makes those seem tame by comparison.
Home is intense. It’s distilled. It packs a punch. If you read it too fast, you’ll miss casual eloquence like “country women who loved mean.” It feels emotionally true, and shows clearly how the corrosive effects of racism explain behavior some of us might have trouble understanding.
In a way it’s silly to argue who’s the best living writer. On the other hand, who’s better?
by John on April 23rd, 2012
New York City. 1845. The city has just formed a municipal police force, much to the dismay of many residents, whose disdain for a “standing army” often simply masked a disinclination to be policed. Timothy Wilde, almost as strongly disinclined to be a copper star, nonetheless finds himself on the force, thanks to a lack of options after a calamitous fire, and his charismatic, debauched brother’s political influence. When a fleeing child prostitute, covered in blood, runs literally into his arms, he is forced to invent methods of detecting a criminal.
There is so much to like here. The politics of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment are central to the story. The pacing and relationships are expertly handled, especially Timothy’s tender, largely unspoken crush on Mercy Underhill, and his anger at his brother Valentine. The slang of the era adds authenticity and color. The crime itself, dark as it may be, is handled with a degree of delicacy.
Want a great mystery that will surprise you again and again? Right here. Looking for a thoroughly researched historical novel, with fascinating information seamlessly integrated into the story? Look no further. Remember Caleb Carr’s The Alienist? This one’s even better. Lyndsay Faye has written the best mystery I’ve read in years.
by John on April 11th, 2012
Hari Kunzru has put together a series of interrelated stories, scattered across time, centered about the Pinnacles, now a national monument, but over the centuries also a nexus of mystic/cosmic/UFO mojo. His telling of these stories evokes a wide variety of iconic situations–the realism of the recent past, the coyote stories of Native American myth, the sad horror of a utopian community degenerating into a cult, the apocalyptic hallucination of lost Mormon explorers.
In other words, we’re in David Mitchell’s territory, or Thomas Pynchon’s–insanely amibtious literary excursions that hint at deep connections which are never quite spelled out.
Good stuff, but not in Mitchell class, or Pynchon’s. For one thing, the longest story, presented in several sections, is probably the least interesting. It tells of a couple struggling to raise a severely autistic child, whose lives get much worse when he vanishes. They suffer. They suffer more. Then something wonderful happens, that may also be very creepy.
Good enough that I’ll keep an eye on Kunzru’s future work. Not good enough that I’ll track down everything he’s already written.
by John on October 6th, 2011
I liked Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain so much when it came out in 1997, I promised myself I’d read everything he ever wrote. That hasn’t proved burdensome, as this is only his second novel since then. I’m just glad I didn’t fall in love with Joyce Carol Oates.
It’s a pretty basic story. Charismatic nihilist Bud got a slick lawyer and beat the rap of killing his wife Lily, after she hid some money he stole. Lily’s sister Lucy inherits Lily’s two traumatized, pyromaniac children, and, Bud figures, his money as well. Lucy lives alone in a huge abandoned lodge in rural North Carolina, and Bud shows up to look for his money, concerned that the children, mute since they witnessed the murder, are beginning to speak.
Frazier’s a natural born storyteller. His insights into his characters, his prose and his nature writing are all pretty special. I’m glad I made myself that promise.
by John on September 29th, 2011
“I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.” This gave every indication of being one of those books where a boy with very constricted possibilities in life goes on to live a big life after all. Wrong.
Jaffy Brown goes to work for Mr Jamrach, who sells exotic animals, and, when an adventurer invites him along to hunt for a dragon, goes to sea. The dragon turns out to be of the Komodo variety, and things go very badly indeed, about as badly as they possibly could.
The brutal nature of Jaffy’s trials makes this a hard book to recommend, but Carol Birch’s sprightly prose sweeps one along, and the characters’ essential goodness makes their situation heartbreaking. How does one live after doing inhuman things?
by John on September 27th, 2011
Stand back. I’m gonna gush.
“The circus arrives without warning.” It’s tents are black and white striped, and they’re set in circular patterns that seem to offer infinite possibilities. It runs from sundown to sunrise. Each tent offers an attraction that leaves one doubting one’s senses. It is the venue for a competition among two magicians, each of whom was bound to the challenge as a child by a mentor.
The competition evolves into collaboration and the two fall in love, tho they are kept apart by the mysterious terms of the competition and the scary amounts of energy released if they so much as hold hands.
Another story line tells of Bailey, who sneaks into the circus on a dare and finds his fate intertwined with it. Yet another narrative thread describes circus attractions in the second-person, present tense. This thread ends with Bailey’s email address, which I’m happy to say generates an immediate (auto) reply from Bailey’s assistant, author Erin Morgenstern.
The story entranced me. The characters charmed me. Even the book’s design, with mylar filligree that sometimes catches the light to add a splash of color on the cover enchanted me.
Complex, ambitious, romantic and wonderfully imagined, this is a likely classic and my favorite novel of this young century. The first great post-Potter fantasy.
by John on August 29th, 2011
When a child is brutally murdered in 17th Century Germany, the town elders agree. Gotta be a witch, right? They suspect the local midwife, who’s a skilled herbalist. The sooner they get her burned the better. Many years before, when the regional authorities got involved, they located and burned sixty witches. No one wants to go through that again. Another child is murdered while she is locked up, but that doesn’t prove her innocence–she’s a witch.
The village elders do need a confession. Extracting one is the job of the local hangman, Jakob Kuisl, whose own children were delivered by the midwife, and who is a bit of an herbalist himself. Jakob stalls, trying to solve the murder (and its sequels) with the help of local physician Simon, who has an eye for the hangman’s daughter, unsuitable tho she may be as a match.
Oliver Potzsch researched his novel very well. The psychology and sociology of the witch hunt ring true. Jakok Kuisl was a historic character, an ancestor of the author. That said, the writing (or maybe the translation) seems clumsy and repetitive. Reviews have mostly been good tho.