book reviews, literature, nature, politics

Book Reviews, September 2016

My September book reviews offer three different vantage points of America, from the rich and powerful and their political interests to the recently repatriated reconnecting with the American landscape on the fabled Appalachian Trail to the rural poor Latino figuring out his place in the world.

  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a good book about an important subject—money in politics—but I couldn’t help feeling depressed as I read it.  Mayer has done the research and followed the money trail.  She meticulously shows how rich men (especially Charles and David Koch, but also many others such as Richard Mellon Scaife) have used their fortunes to fund and influence the political conversation towards their preferred policies.  A lot it comes down to tax avoidance.  Scaife, for instance, and his sister received their large inheritances from their father in the form of two trusts of $50 million apiece.  The money sat in the trusts for 20 years accruing interest.  The interest had to be spent on charitable nonprofits, but after the 20 years were up, the children would get the entire $50 million tax free.  The Koch brothers received a similar arrangement from their parents.  Scaife and the Kochs used the interest from the trusts to fund nonprofits that aligned with their political views.  One way they did this was to give to new, more ideological think tanks in the 1970s.  Before this, research think tanks had been driven by social science research for the general public interest.  The new think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute had a much more ideological bent.  It didn’t stop at think tanks.  Then the Kochs and like minded rich philanthropists started funding programs in higher education in order to compete with the liberal agenda they saw in academia.  Most of these billionaires were in the energy sector, whether oil, coal, or natural gas.  They were most determined to fight any research that conflicted with their bottom line.  Mayer details the political fights of the Obama presidency, showing how the influence of the money and operations of the Kochs and other billionaires has stymied progress.  The total opposition to Obama began as soon as he took office, not in reaction to anything he did, but the very fact that he had won the election.  The Koch brothers’ group Americans for Prosperity and another group FreedomWorks, funded by other billionaires and companies like Philip Morris, helped organize and promote the Tea Party.  It wasn’t a grassroots uprising.  The sea change in thought on climate change was especially profound and evidence of the power of monied interests.  John McCain in 2008 actually ran on a platform of acknowledging climate change and advocating for a cap and trade bill, a relatively conservative solution to curbing green house gases based on free markets.  A year later when Obama supported a cap and trade bill that passed the House, the opposition in the Senate became intense.  It was never even brought up for a vote because it wouldn’t have passed.  By 2012, Mitt Romney had to reverse his previous position of acknowledging human caused climate change in order to be acceptable to the conservative side of the Republican party.  It was no longer acceptable to the big donors who funded the party.  The Koch brothers believe that they are fighting for their libertarian free market principles when they fund attacks on regulations of the fossil fuel industry.  It just so happens that all of the issues that they fight the hardest for and put their money towards would also help them avoid taxes or responsibility when accidents happen.  The amount of money involved is truly astounding, made more so by the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United which breaks down barriers to pour even more money into politics.  It’s depressing that those with the most money have so much power and influence on our political system and even political opinion.  Mayer focuses her attention on what she calls the “radical right,” but the problem of money in the system goes both ways.  It is especially evident on the right at the moment.  She does point out at various times some of the liberal billionaires who have attempted to use their money in a similar fashion, but it is mostly a reaction to the efforts of the Kochs and their like minded billionaires, and not nearly as well coordinated or funded.  The book is solid research, but I would only recommend it to someone who can stomach it.
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson is a fun travel memoir about friendship and nature.  After spending roughly half his life in Britain, Bryson embarks on a hiking trip with an old friend from his hometown who he hadn’t really kept up with.  Neither of them has much experience with hiking and the wilderness, though Bryson has done a lot of research for the endeavor.  Bryson’s narrative is very funny and compelling as he relates how they eat the same meals over and over, encounter a bear one night, and face the difficulty of carrying everything on their backs mile after mile in spite of being out of shape and overweight when they begin.  I especially liked the parts where Bryson gave the history of the AT and the challenges of nature conservation.  It’s true that Bryson didn’t complete the whole trail.  I don’t hold that against him, though he could have been more up front about his plans. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, I joined an experienced friend to hike the John Muir Trail in California (itself a part of the Pacific Crest Trail).  Unfortunately, we had to quit the trail before we had even exited Yosemite National Park because my friend was experiencing knee pain.  Those three days on the trail were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically.  It took real effort to continue putting one foot in front of the other.  We probably would have hit our stride in a few days, and it would have become easier.  I often wish I had gone back to do the JMT in full.  I would like to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a comparison and contrast to Bryson’s tale.  Some of the crudity of Bryson’s friend Stephen Katz is presented as “boys will be boys,” which was distracting in parts.  It’s another reason I’d like to read Strayed to get a different hiking experience.  But overall I enjoyed Bryson’s travelogue.

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  • Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez is a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.  It begins in blackness, and then we see Julio’s open crying mouth; it ends in the same open mouth and blackness when he dies.  The artwork, done in black and white, is somewhat cartoony, but it’s never simplistic.  The approach is spare and clean.  Julio grows up in a poor rural area of the country that is never specified (my guess is California).  He is closeted and complex, not really acknowledging the love of his life, his childhood friend Tommy.  He never marries and lives with his mother.  But the story continues along various paths, tracing the history of his family and community: his evil uncle, his friend Araceli who goes off to nurse soldiers in multiple wars, his sister’s family, including her grandson Julio Juan.  Julio Juan is an interesting contrast to Julio, as he is also gay, but since he came of age in a different era, he can live freely.  There are multiple stories and characters, so sometimes Julio drifts to the background of his own story, but he and his life ground it all.  It’s a rewarding read that I would definitely recommend.  [Read an excerpt here at NPR.]
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faith, music, personal

Remembered Sounds

I wrote another short piece for the Rock & Sling blog for their Remembered Sounds series.  It’s about the first cassette tape I ever purchased: Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man.  The name Remembered Sounds comes from a line in a Wallace Stevens poem: “The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds.”  I like that, and I like it as a unifying theme for significant music in my life.  A lot of my memories are bound up with music in a sort of soundtrack to my life.

At the end of the essay, itself a meditation on music and faith in my life, I listed five spiritual songs I listen to now.  Whereas I used to expect explicit answers and easy messages, now I live with questions and doubt.  I plan to write about these songs in the future, but I’ll put them down here so they can provide a soundtrack to the essay.

Sinead O’Connor “Take Me to Church”

Vampire Weekend “Ya Hey”

Cat Power “Say”

David Bowie “Where Are We Now”

Phosphorescent “Song for Zula”

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book reviews, comics, history, literature, politics

Book Reviews, August 2016

The batch of book reviews for August is another hodge podge of comics and American history.  Much like I did for a review last year (Ari Berman’s study of the Voting Rights Act), one of the reviews is twice as long as usual in order to cover the topic of the Second Amendment more thoroughly.

  • Batman: Contagion by various writers (including Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Dennis O’Neil, Alan Grant, and even a short chapter by Garth Ennis) and artists (including Kelley Jones and Mike Wieringo, among others) is a crossover event comic that under-delivers on a promising premise.  What if an ebola-like virus struck Gotham?  How would Batman save the city?  If any peril merited the mind of the world’s greatest detective, this would be it.  Unfortunately, it mostly involves our heroes punching bad guys while numerous civilians we’ve never met before succumb to the deadly virus. As a big crossover event, it means Batman gets help from Robin, Catwoman, Azrael, Oracle, Nightwing, and Huntress in order to save the city.  Though one of the heroes contracts the virus, we as readers never doubt the cure will arrive in time.  The whole exercise feels nothing like a real outbreak of a deadly pathogen.  The artwork is mostly pedestrian or outright bad, with the exception of Kelley Jones’s exaggerated dark and brooding version of Batman.  The original comics came out in 1996, a year after Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and the film Outbreak.  If you want an interesting story about ebola, try one of those.
  • The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman is an important book that looks at two important things regarding the Constitution.  First, it is a history of how the Second Amendment has been interpreted.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it wrestles with how to interpret the Constitution today, showing how the theory of originalism does not work as a coherent theory of interpretation.  So first the history of the amendment.  The Second Amendment is notoriously difficult to interpret because it has such a strange grammatical structure: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Waldman starts with a lesson about colonial America and the history of militias versus standing armies.  It is this context that informs the writing of the Second Amendment.  During the Constitutional Convention, there was no debate about an individual right to “private gun ownership” or that it needed to be protected in a bill of rights.  Later, during the House debate on the Bill of Rights, “None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting, or for any purpose other than joining a militia” (55-6).  In the literature of the time, especially political writings and those of the founders, almost every use of the phrase “bear arms” had a military context.  It was the duty of every adult male in the community to join the militia and bring his own gun when training or when mustered for duty.  The courts of the early era mostly all understood the right espoused in the Second Amendment as a collective right so that there could be a local militia.  Waldman then proceeds to give a history of the NRA, showing how it evolved from a marksmanship and recreational organization to the militant lobbying group it has become today.  In 1958, their Washington headquarters had the sign, “FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION.”  By contrast, their new headquarters in the 1990s had an edited version of the Second Amendment which omitted the first half about militias.  The key moment in between these two mottoes happened in the late 70s when new leadership ousted the old in what was called the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” and the group became much more political.  This change in the NRA coincided with a new interpretation of the Second Amendment.  From 1888 to 1960, “every single [law review] article concluded the Second Amendment did not guarantee an individual right” (97).  In the next 20 years, however, articles were evenly split, 27 apiece, for an individual right, but 60% of those for an individual right “were written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the NRA or other gun rights organizations” (98).  It should also be pointed out that law review articles are not peer reviewed.  These articles cited each other and found tenuous arguments and often misunderstood or taken out of context quotes to bolster their claims.  The NRA itself is not above trying to misconstrue the founders when it suits their purpose.  For instance, a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington contained the quote “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”  From context, it is clear that Jefferson is not speaking of firearms at all, but rather is asking for some letters back so that he can prepare rebuttals in his capacity as Secretary of State (See the quote at the link for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action site and this explanation of the Jefferson letter).  This sea change in interpretation of the amendment culminated in the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which finally established a federal individual right to own a gun.  Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the right was incorporated to the states, thus overturning Chicago’s handgun restrictions.  The late Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in originalism when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, wrote the  Heller majority opinion.  This is notable because the decision picks and chooses from the original context of the writing of the amendment, avoiding much of the history and context of the colonial militias.  Then, later it moderates somewhat by mentioning a list of exceptions to the absolute individual right to a gun (i.e. rights of felons and the mentally ill, carrying firearms into schools and government buildings, and allowing for conditions and qualifications for commercial sales), none of which have an originalist explanation.  They are clearly in the opinion in order to secure the swing vote so that it could pass 5-4.  The decision is not in the least conservative, either, as it overturns over 200 years of precedent.  It is the very definition of an activist judiciary to find a new “true” meaning of the amendment that the courts had never before found.  This inquiry into the change in interpretation of the Second Amendment thus serves as a good case study for why originalism does not work as an interpretive framework for the Constitution.  The first question is whose intention counts when trying to figure out what part of the Constitution means?  Do we side with those drafting the document (they certainly didn’t all agree; that’s why they debated it), or the new Congress, or the ratifiers in the states?  Perhaps more to the point, a theory that rests on finding an original meaning (if one can be found) does not keep pace with social progress.  How could the founders, smart as they were, consider the principles that would shape our current more technological, globally connected, era?  Each generation reads and interprets the document differently, applying it to the contemporary dilemmas.  Waldman has done a superb job explaining the history of a thorny debate.  I highly recommend anyone interested in the Second Amendment to read it.
  • The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is a promising start to a comics series.  It begins with a solid premise: every 90 years, gods return to earth as popular icons, but it doesn’t last.  They die within two years.  Much like any pantheon, the gods fight amongst themselves, while being adored and misunderstood by humans.  This particular go-around, the gods are popstars.  The series plays with notions of celebrity and fandom in interesting and playful ways.  It’s still early, but I’d recommend giving it a try.  [After reading Vol. 2: Fandemonium, I would definitely recommend the series.]
  • The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell is a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  She focuses on the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather than the earlier Plymouth of Mayflower fame.  The Bay Colony features interesting figures like John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson.  She gives the necessary background for why the Puritans were leaving England in the first place, leading to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”  The sermon is famous for calling the Massachusetts colony “a city on a hill,” an example for the world, but also the same watchfulness was a warning to live up to their ideals.  The colony had famous religious freedom battles where first Roger Williams and later Anne Hutchinson were banished.  Williams sets up the colony in Rhode Island known for its religious tolerance, which paves the way for the First Amendment’s protections more than a century later.  But it’s not all religious squabbles in the early colony, there are also skirmishes with, and the slaughter of the Native population (after smallpox had already ravaged them).  Particularly horrifying is the description of the Mystic Fort Massacre.  A group of allied colonists and Narragansett and Mohegan warriors surrounded the Pequot fort and set fire to their homes, shooting anyone who tried to escape the walls.  I was deeply disturbed to find that the destruction of the Natives was immediate and unrelenting.  For the past few years, ever since I knew I would be living in South Dakota, I’ve been reading and learning about the decimation of the people who lived on the Plains.  But that’s not where it started.  It goes back to every first encounter with Europeans, including the Puritans of New England.  While that is certainly a hugely depressing point in the book, much of the rest of it is made fun by Vowell’s sharp wit and humor.  As a side note, I would point out that Vowell makes no secret that she is politically liberal, but that she is also a patriot (an earlier book of hers is called The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an apt self description).  She spends time comparing the Puritan conception of what “a city on a hill” meant to them to how Reagan repurposed it during his presidency.  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is a decent, if not great, thriller.  I picked up the novel because Hawley is the showrunner for the TV series Fargo, which has had two great seasons so far. I enjoyed the book, but I expected more.  The story revolves around a plane crash, what led up to it, and its aftermath.  The mystery is the unfolding of how the plane came down on the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York.  Hawley spends time with each of the characters on the private jet, the pilots, flight attendant, the banker and his wife, the cable news executive and his family, and an artist.  My main problem with the novel is that there are a couple of villains in the book and, despite his attempt to humanize them, they come across as flat characters to me.  In fact, the more I thought about them afterwards, the less I liked the book overall, even though I had enjoyed reading it.  This shortcoming left a sour taste and is seriously affecting my feelings for the book.  The book wrestles with the idea of our constant bombardment of infotainment from cable news and the need for narratives to fit every news story whether we have the all the facts or not.  It would be even more interesting if the novel itself didn’t fall prey to its own narratives that forced the villainous characters to fit certain roles.  I have to say I ended up disappointed with this book and wouldn’t recommend it.
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book reviews, education, history, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2016

This post is a little late.  Sorry for the handful of you who actually read my reviews.  I read a lot in July, but only managed to finish two books.  Fortunately they were both quite good.  One is a fine collection of poems and the other a history of education in America.

  • New and Selected Poems (1992) by Mary Oliver is a solid selection of poems from the early career of a great poet.  I picked up this collection years ago because a friend of mine told me he really liked Oliver’s poetry, but it languished on my shelf.  More recently, someone shared “Wild Geese” on Facebook and I realized I had to read more of her poetry after coming across lines like “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.”  I discovered many more poems I liked as well or better as that one, from an early poem about Theseus and the Minotaur to the many nature poems later.  Interestingly, this collection puts the poems in reverse chronological order, starting with the newest ones first and going backwards to the earliest poems.  I liked being able to track the growth and changes in a poet in a collection like this that spans more than 25 years.  There’s something similar in a collection like this to a greatest hits package for a musical artist versus going through a back catalog album by album.  Sometimes I prefer to experience an individual album (or poetry collection) and see it as a whole unit.  But sometimes an artist’s offerings lend themselves to selections plucked from the field and placed in their own vase to be admired as their own bouquet.  This set of wildflowers are beautiful.
  • The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a helpful and even-handed look at education in America.  By tracing the history of teaching, Goldstein is able to show how many ideas that seem new have been tried in the past as the country continually tries to improve our educational system.  For instance, ideas like merit pay and complex teacher evaluations have been used in the past without seeing much improvement.  Merit pay has been tried numerous times in the past 100 years, but the programs failed because of “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreement about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (174).  Merit pay programs were often implemented as a way to cut overall teacher pay.  Too often the programs pit teachers against each other, causing acrimony instead of harmony.  Teaching should be a collaborative job, where teachers mentor each other and share materials that work.  But most merit pay systems only reward a few top teachers, creating an incentive not to work together.  The chapters each focus on a different time period or type of reform from the first common schools to the beginning of teachers unions to our own day of high stakes testing and charter schools and programs like Teach for America.  Goldstein attempts to give the history straight, showing what teaching was like at the time and how it changed over time.  But she does interject with what the research shows, like when she points out in a discussion about teacher quality (a current hot topic in school reform discussions) that “the current achievement gap is driven much more by out-of-school factors than by in-school factors” and that teacher quality differences amount to about seven percent of the equation.  She withholds her own policy prescriptions for the end, where she recommends some commonsense ideas like focusing on principals as much as teachers because the work environment matters, or that testing is more useful as a diagnostic tool to let teachers know what they need to teach to students, not as a tool to evaluate the teachers themselves.  Above all, teachers should be part of the equation whenever it comes to reform projects because they are the ones doing the job.  Too often, outsiders with business experience or some philanthropist tries to impose strictures on teachers without their input.  This is a useful book for anyone who is invested in the public education of the children of our country, which is basically everyone.
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book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, June 2016

June was a good month of reading.  I read four fantastic and varied books.  I’d recommend all of them highly!  Check them out!

thunder and lightning image

  • Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss is an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  Redniss does it all: she created her own font for the text.  The prints that accompanied the stories and interviews were made either by copper plate photogravure or photopolymer process.  The art is impressive and draws attention before even reading the words.  It’s hard to categorize a book as beautiful and interesting as this one.  It’s not merely a science book, though it is that, too.  In the chapter on wind, there’s the story of Diana Nyad, an endurance swimmer attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida but needing a period with little wind so the waves wouldn’t be too large.  Interspersed in her story are pages with types of winds or mythology and an interlude on the attempt to introduce wind at Mecca during the hajj when millions of Muslims gather for pilgrimage because the site has been so built up to accommodate all of the visitors and cuts off the natural flow of wind.  It’s a one of a kind book.  I’d highly recommend it.
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  It’s dangerous for her when she is in 1800s, even though she is herself not a slave, she has no rights that anyone needs to uphold.  Her education and knowledge of history is a two-edged sword: sometimes she can use it to her advantage and other times it makes the whites of the time, and the slaves too, fearful of her.  While it is a science fiction story because of the time travel element, it doesn’t focus on the particulars of how it is happening.  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.  It’s an extremely powerful book and I highly recommend it.

GalleryComics_V_1920x1080_20141100_Sandman-Overture-deluxe_560c5e1637ae77.26559071

  • The Sandman: Overture, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams III, is a lovely prequel to an essential comics story.  First, let me say, that prequels are tricky and often doomed to fail.  When a story begins in the middle of events, it can be difficult to go back and tell the earlier backstory in a compelling way.  But Gaiman has done it beautifully.  When the original Sandman story began, he is imprisoned by a secret society for 72 years after being weakened by some adventure.  Overture tells the story of that adventure when Morpheus (the embodiment of Dream) travels across the universe in order to save it from destruction that he himself inadvertently caused.  Throughout the story, Gaiman weaves elements and characters from the original story in new and interesting ways that add to the mythos instead of merely explaining origins or anything mundane as that.  I was enjoying the story for the first few issues, happy to be back in the world of Sandman, but I wasn’t astounded either.  But upon finishing it, I can say that Gaiman sticks the landing and elevates the entire story, making it a truly worthy prequel.  Though it takes place chronologically before the main Sandman story, I think it still best to read it afterwards.  This was a deluxe edition, so it included a lot of supplementary material in the back.  Remarkably, I found it pretty illuminating, at least more than I usually do with material like this.  The artist, colorist, and letterer all explain their craft and artistic decision making process in a way that helped me understand better the collaborative process of making a comic.  J.H. Williams III’s artwork in particular is gorgeous and makes the book stunning.  If you like Sandman, definitely check this out.  If you haven’t read the original ten collected volumes of Sandman, get on it!
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book. A few of the stories are told by a third person narrator, but most of them are narrated by the characters themselves, so we get to see how they see events, often the same events from multiple perspectives.  It’s a wonderful way to show the intricate nature of perspective.  One of the voices is Lipsha Morrissey, a young boy taken in by the Kashpaws, possibly his relatives, though the mystery of his ancestry is one that he tries to untangle.  His is a humorous and earnest voice.  He describes another woman who his grandfather had a love affair with: “There was this one time that Lulu Lamartine’s little blue tweety bird, a paraclete, I guess you’d call it, flown up inside her dress and got lost within there” (243).  The unwitting joke is that instead of naming the bird he has used the Greek word  for advocate, usually meaning the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. Earlier in his story, he had described his grandmother’s memory as “like them video games that don’t forget your score.  One reason she remembers so many details about the trouble I gave her in early life is so she can flash back her total when she needs to” (240).  Lipsha is only one of the many fully realized people that we empathize with and come to understand.  Many others love, grieve, connive, cope, and live.  It’s a world of characters that Erdrich returned to for a number of other books, but this is the first.  In fact, it’s her first novel, which is amazing.  It’s such a great book.  I read the 1993 expanded edition, which includes more stories than either the 1984 original or the more recent 2009 revision.  But it’s hard to see how one can go wrong with any version of the book (one of the stories taken out of the 2009 version appears in the backmatter, so it isn’t wholly lost).
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music, personal

Covers

A few different times I’ve included a song with a post if it happened to be on topic, but for this post I want to share a few songs that I’ve been listening to a lot recently.  All of them happen to be covers.

Cover songs are interesting when done well.  They transform a song to a new context, give it a new shape and sound, and sometimes resuscitate life into it.  But what I find most interesting is that no matter how transformed a song is by a cover version, there is still some core identity that remains.  There’s a kernel of the song that the listener can recognize even when it changes clothes, speeds up, slows down, or completely metamorphosizes.

I’m thinking about this in part because my high school class’s 20th reunion is next month, and I’m not able to get back for it.  I haven’t kept up with many of my classmates, and some I haven’t seen since graduation.  I feel like I’ve changed a lot in the intervening years, but that there is something still distinctly me that is the same.  I’m different versions of the same song.

The first cover is Brian Eno’s version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.”  Here’s what Eno had to say about the song: “That particular song always resonated with me but it took about 25 years before I thought about the lyrics. “I’m set free, to find a new illusion”. Wow. That’s saying we don’t go from an illusion to reality (the western idea of “Finding The Truth”) but rather we go from one workable solution to another more workable solution.

I like to think of it in slightly different terms, something more like we go from one story to another story.  We tell ourselves the story of our lives, with ourselves as the main characters.  Sometimes it’s one long continuous narrative.  But sometimes we revise and start a new story.  We’re set free to find a new illusion.

The next song is Sturgill Simpson’s cover of “The Promise” by When In Rome.  Mostly this is an excuse to share something from Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music which I recently discovered and have been listening to a bunch.  When I heard this song I didn’t immediately know that it was a cover, but something about it sounded familiar.  It felt like I should know it, though when I looked up the original, I couldn’t say for certain that I had known it (though I had definitely heard it before during the ending of Napoleon Dynamite).  It’s a classic example of a one hit wonder.

Simpson turns what was originally a new wave synthpop driving melody into a plaintive cry.  A gentle piano solo in the original becomes a soulful guitar in the cover.  It’s a tremendous transformation all around.  Though they are worlds apart, I really like both versions.  And I like the song because I relate to the confession in the chorus of the speaker’s inability to communicate fully and completely what he desires: “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say / I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.”  Then, despite the shortcomings of the speaker, he overpromises that he will overcome everything to get his lover to fall for him.  The grandiose feelings are over the top, but that’s what love can feel like sometimes.

The last cover is divisive.  Max Richter took it upon himself to “recompose” one of the most famous pieces in classical music: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  He thought it had become too familiar, almost like elevator music.  So he wanted to “reclaim the piece, to fall in love with it again.

In this selection from “Spring,” Richter takes the bird like sounds of the violin from Vivaldi and loops them while providing a bass line progression that is emotionally evocative.  I found many reviews that hated this combination, especially the latter part.  One described it as “tak[ing] a bit of the original—the solo violin birdsong in the first movement of “Spring” for example—and repeat[ing] it mindlessly over a pop-ish chord progression”; another echoed the sentiment: “The string line underpinning the first section added an unfortunate dollop of schmaltz.”  Well, I like it.  Maybe because it is a pop chord progression and schmaltzy.  I found the effect extremely entrancing and moving.

And here are the originals if you want to compare.

The Velvet Underground “I’m Set Free”

When In Rome “The Promise”

“Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (The selection I picked featuring Anne Sophie Mutter doesn’t let me embed the video, so you’ll have to click on the link to hear/watch it.)

 

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