Monday, August 28, 2006

Bookmarks for August 2006

Well, school is a startin' and so I need to post some thoughts on the last few books I've read.
Walter Mosely's Six Easy Pieces (2003) is another novel told through short stories, this time involving his long-time character Easy Rawlins. Easy is dealing with the loss of his best friend Mouse, and doing so isn't made simpler for him by the questions he has to encounter, one of which is whether or not Mouse is actually dead. He also is unsure whether his beautiful girlfriend is faithful to him, and though he is trying to just do his job as head custodian at Sojourner Truth High School, he keeps getting pulled back to the detective work in the L.A. streets where it is hard to tell who is innocent. Most of these stories were originally published in paperback editions of other books, and each stands alone just fine. However the connected narrative, for me, is much more satisfying.
47 (2005) is Mosely's first attempt at the young adult novel, and it is a winner. Here Mosely tells the story of 47, a young man who is destined to be a force for emancipation, not only for the slaves on his master's plantation, but also for those bound by the mindset of slavery. 47 meets another slave named Tall John who speaks and acts as if from another planet and who helps 47 to realize his real identity, not his name, but who he really is and is meant to be.

This book is one of the most fascinating novels for young people I have read in years. The deft weaving of history and science fiction is masterful, but what I think is most important is how Mosely provides his readers an idea of mental slavery that engages his characters. This is a powerful, uplifting story. If it does not find its way onto high school reading lists, then something is seriously wrong.

My main complaint about Mary Karr's Viper's Rum (1998) is that it is too short. There is only 45 pages of poems plus the inclusion of Karr's now infamous essay "Against Decoration." But what is here is certainly worth reading. I did find myself a little put off by a couple of the poems. Well, put off isn't really accurate. The word "squeamish" comes to mind, but that might not be quite right either. Poems like "The Wife of Jesus Speaks" and "The Invention of God in a Mouthful of Milk" are likely going to make the more conservative reader uncomfortable, but careful reading will, I believe, show these to be as thoughtful and as inspiring as the rest of the collection. I did not find myself as moved as I did with Sinners Welcome; however, this volume has plenty to recommend it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A "Review" of Wikipedia

This summer I have become a bit of a Wikipedia addict. For now, I won't get into why, despite some reservations about credibility, I sometimes get distracted from important work by the desire to look up articles about interesting musicians, not so famous writers, and esoteric ideas. Suffice it to say that I often start to look up something I want or need information about and end up reading for hours.

But something has come up over and over as I read that has bothered me more than a little. This is the problem of including in the external links section of many articles, particularly those on contemporary and modern poets, links to what are supposed to be "reviews" or "critiques" of work by these writers. The issue may be one of simple semantics. However noting the discrepancy between critical analysis and criticizing is really important because those who are likely to make use of such links are probably going to be high school and college students, many of whom do not know the difference.

In terms of literature and other arts, the word criticism concern close reading (or observing) so that finer details (hopefully significant ones) and important, thematic connections are noted. Admittedly this is a realm that is not popular, particularly since it is rather foreign to most young students and unimportant to most of them or any other person except to professors whose life work seems to revolve around these writers. However, the rest of the world usually hears the word criticism only in its negative context: at best a list of flaws in a particular work; at best a bunch of reasons it doesn't live up to one's particular tastes. But literary criticism is not always critical in the same sense.

A review can be critical, and many publications contain reviews that incorporate critical analysis. However a review is usually a way or recommending one either buy the book (or go to the movie or listen to a cd) or avoid the same based on criteria that are usually matters of personal taste. I've never met a reviewer that didn't claim to have good taste or high standards. There are reviewers who are able to set aside their personal tastes to recommend something that might appeal to other people (I'm reminded of Roger Ebert giving thumbs up to some children's movies that he only enjoyed nominally because he thought that children would like them.) And reviews come in many different tones, from the snooty, supposedly highbrow voice of one who speaks as if she/he is the harbinger of good art to the angry voice of one who cannot tolerate anything outside his/her limited experience (I have in mind the many, whining reviews of jazz albums on websites devoted to heavy metal. Why bother?). This latter is a form of snootiness.

Not all reviews or reviewers are snots, but we do have to keep in mind that a review is about two things: taste and value. A good movie reviewer is not just telling you why he/she thinks you should or should not see a movie, often using his/her personal viewing experience as a guide, but also because one can only see so many movies, and it costs quite a bit to go to the theater. (At least it does for someone like me.)

Okay, so what does this have to do with Wikipedia? Well, the problem is that many of the "reviews" or "critiques" found in the external links section of articles about poets are not reviews or literary criticism at all, but mean-spirited, sometimes personal attacks by writer/reviewer/poet Dan Schneider from the This Old Poem section (called TOPs) of his website. Here Schneider picks apart one or more poems by a poet he has taken a great deal of time and energy to hate, usually working to revise the poem to, presumably, make it better. He uses a scoring system to eventually demonstrate how his version of the poem is of greater quality.

Look, I must admit that despite my own differences between his tastes or values and mine, Schneider has some important things to say about the state of contemporary poetry. While it might make me feel squeamish to have him attack poets I happen to like, it is fair for someone who loves poetry to expect writers to work harder than they often do and not produce mediocre work. It does appear, in the more reasonable arguments, that Schneider's war is really with two things, the mediocre and a publishing industry that produces what Donald Hall calls the
McPoem. I happen to value poetry, and so I, guardedly, applaud Mr. Schneider's effort and energy, if not his presentation.

But these are not, as I said, reviews. Many of these pieces are really personal attacks on the writers themselves and often use words like "stupid" or "boring" in the way a college freshman uses them to describe a textbook he has had to read. In what seems to be an attempt to be honest with his readers, Schneider relates a story of the writer in question, sometimes telling how that writer has been rude or unkind to him (he seems to take a lot personally). Some of these tales, perhaps unwittingly, show Schneider as a person who enjoys being a jerk. And while parts of these "reviews" fairly demonstrate where he thinks these poems stand up or fail, many just are just complaints.

Let me make a few things clear. Dan Schneider has every right to write and publish/post what he thinks about poets and poems. EVERY RIGHT. And as I stated before, he makes good points now and then, points that not only deserve, but need, attention. But they are not reviews, and Wikipedia should seriously consider dropping them. I suspect that unless Wikipedia better evaluates such things, the rift between students and the academic world will only widen, a problem Wikipedia should be concerned about.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Music notes for August 2006

Three good CDs this month. My main complaint is that they are all too short.

Jaco Pastorius/Pat Metheny/Bruce Ditmas/Paul Bley -- Jaco (1974). Though I was feeling a bit unsure as I sampled this in CD Source, I went ahead and got it. The disc is on the free jazz side and though I have supposed expanded (or degenerated) my taste, I am sometimes cannot listen to such things. But this one is not wild and harsh going in a dozen directions at once. There is still a sense of harmony and each piece (many of them rather short) segues into the next, so there is a feel that the disc is one continuous piece. All but one of the songs was composed by Paul Bley (electric piano) or by his then wife Carla. It is difficult to hear where Metheny is playing, but when you do, the solos are pretty nice. Of course this disc also documents Pastorius in all his youth and energetic glory. I believe this was recorded around the same time as Pat Metheny's first solo record, Bright Size Life, on which Pastorius also shines.
I picked up The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album (1985) at the same time I found Jaco. Of course any fan of modern jazz knows that DeJohnette is one of the finest drummers in music, producing his own terrific CDs as well as his stellar work with the Keith Jarrett Trio. But many are not aware that he is also a mighty good pianist in his own right. This is, for the most part, an enjoyable trio project where Dejohnette gives up the drum chair to Freddie Watts who is ably supported by bassist Eddie Gomez. DeJohnette plays synthesizer on a couple of cuts. While the purist might complain, the only song the synthesizer really got in the way is on "Time After Time," the Cyndi Lauper song that seems to be a favorite among many jazz musicians. On this song, the synth sounds like one of those keyboards one bought for sing alongs at home. Otherwise this is pleasant cd, demonstrating DeJohnette's considerable skill on the piano and as a composer. Several of the songs are tributes to his wife and to other great musicians like Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans. In the liner notes, DeJohnette is quoted as saying about playing the piano, "I actually deal with it pianistically, not percussively as some people might expect." One listening to this disc could hear DeJohnette's strong understanding of what makes good music and perhaps even understand how that sense makes him a superior drummer.

I found Toots Theilemans' Do Not Leave Me (1988) at a garage sale and paid 50 cents for it. This is a disc that is certainly worth more than that. Here the greatest harmonica player in the world (and not a bad guitarist) is documented in concert in his native Belgium performing with Fred Hersch (piano), Marc Johnson (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). This set (not really a whole concert it appears) opens with Jacques Brel's classic ballad "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("Do Not Leave Me"). This seems an odd way to open a concert, but it works here, setting a good tone with Theilemans' expressive harmonica. Next comes medley of "Blue 'N Green" and "All Blues" that clocks in at over twenty minutes. This is probably the highlight of the disc each player getting a chance to solo and wind around two great jazz standards. Next comes "Stardust," and then "Autumn Leaves." On the last two songs, "Velas" and "Bluesette," we get to hear Theilemans on guitar, the latter where he accompanies his trademark whistling and the former in a tasty quartet piece. The disc ends with the last song and the audience fading out, leaving an unfinished feel to the project. I wanted/expected more. However, what we have is most satisfying.

Brief notes concerning last months discs: The B.B King disc Spotlight on Lucille was fine, highlighting the blues master's playing, though some cuts seem to be cut out of other pieces. The Lee Ritenour cd Alive in L.A. was much more like real jazz than I thought it was going to be. I got a kick out of his tribute to the great Wes Montgomery. New Age Bach by Joel Spielgelman was exactly what I thought it would be. It was probably worth the buck I paid for it.

In the future: I have preordered an upcoming album featuring my favorite guitar player and my second favorite piano player. I am so excited, I'm scared.

Another note: I was sad to see that Robby Steinhardt had left Kansas (by mutual consent), but happy to see David Ragsdale back to take his place. Click here for a good interview with drummer Phil Ehart at Classic Rock Revisited.

Bookmarks for July 2006

Okay, so I said, I'd be reading mostly poetry, but I got a bit caught up in these books...
I know that Walter Mosely is a bestselling author, but even more people should read him than they do. Most people I know haven't, and I'm not sure why. He has written the fine series of mysteries around the character Easy Rawlins and some well received science fiction books and one adolescent novel (which I hope to read in the near future). He also has a series of books about the world wise ex-con Socrates Fortlow. I had read the second in this series, Walkin' The Dog, some time ago. Recently, I read the first, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. (Click the title to read an excerpt.)

The book is a series of linked short stories where readers watch Socrates wrestling with getting enough money to get by and with the moral and ethical questions faced by a black man and by the society he lives in. In the first story, "Crimson Shadow," he catches a young boy who has killed a neighbor's rooster. How Socrates handles this situation and tries to take care of this boy is not only touching, but speaks to the responsibility we all have to children and families in our neighborhoods. Mosely deftly walks us through Socrates' attempts to get a good, steady job in "Double Standard." We also see the role that guilt plays in a person's life and a hunger for redemption, not only Socrates' but that of the young man he wants to save, is a significant theme of the book.

The stories weave together nicely forming a novel that can easily be read at once or a little at a time. Mosely's well crafted narratives are thoughtful and real. Without sentimentality, this is a book of much needed hope.

Cherry is, I suppose, Mary Karr's sequel to The Liar's Club (click here for my post on this book). Where the first memoir focused on Karr's early childhood, Cherry concerns the years of middle school and high school. The book opens with a chapter about Karr leaving home, but the rest of the story is about the events which lead up to this moment. The book jacket describes the book as the "story of her tumultuous teens and sexual coming of age." I don't know about "coming of age," but sex is one of the main things this book revolves around. That and drugs and the usual problems of fitting in with people in a place one is not sure one wants to fit in.

I like many things about Cherry. I particularly like that Karr tells her story in her own powerful, honest way neither glorifying the era of "sex, drugs and rock and roll" (not that this time is any different) nor telling her readers "don't let this happen to you." Few writers focus on this time in one's life with such emotional honesty without going overboard in either direction. The story is what it is, and is powerful enough on its own. I also found myself strongly relating to her and her friends who read a lot and want more out of life than just the next dance. Further the book is funny where it needs to be and serious (without being maudlin) where necessary. I was particularly drawn in when I read passages where Karr tells of her own shortcomings as a friend.

A couple things bothered be about the book. I suspect that Karr's frequent shifts from first person to second person (speaking of herself with the pronoun "you") were meant either to create a kind of emotional distance from from whatever situation she was describing or to create a connection with the reader (a kind of you've been there too feeling). Karr is too smart a writer for gimmicks, but I found this a little distracting. I'm not sure everyone will feel this way, however. I was also a bit uncomfortable with the frank (though not graphic or pornographic) discussions of her sexual, really sensual, feelings. This is not a criticism of the book. These were not titillating or even unnecessary sections. I'm sure my discomfort largely comes from being a male and that I'm not used to such reading, particularly about women. Read the book, but be forewarned.

Madeline L'Engle's collected poems, The Ordering of Love, got better as I moved through it. Some of the pieces are really no stronger, well-meaning as they are, than greeting card verse that if you get you find nice because someone thought to put the words together and someone else thought well enough of you to send them. Some of these pieces would make terrific hymns. These poems will, undoubtedly, be inspirational to some. I even found myself edified by them. But many were not really good art.
Fortunately, not all of the poems in this collection are mediocre and banal. I got the sense that L'Engle, a writer of considerable skill and craft, learned more with each collection how to write not just a poem that expresses, but one that actually says something in thoughtful and cleaver ways. She is best in two areas: the sonnet and the monologue. The voice in most of the monologues are biblical characters. One sees encounters with God from a position that removes the distance created by time and the dry page.

Somewhere (I can't remember where) L'Engle wrote about the creativity that occurs in the tight form of the sonnet. Those in this collection do not disappoint. While I usually have a preference between traditional and free verse, L'Engle is much better in the stricter forms. In particular, the sequence written in 1966 (collected here for the first time) that addresses the death of her husband is striking in that while it is deeply personal, it plucks the common chords we hear in our hearts when grieving without resorting to cliche or the usual trite platitudes about God in his Heaven and all is right with the world. At times, she questions or rails at God, not with the voice of one losing faith, but of one who, like many pilgrims, has been faithful but has yet to see the fruits of their spiritual labor. These and other sonnets by L'Engle are rich, accessible, and thought provoking.

I've got three issues of Poetry, two books by Walter Mosely, and Karr's Viper's Rum to read and comment on. But that will have to be for next time. Until then, peace.