Archive for February, 2009

And on to #11

February 24, 2009

11. Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

The subtitle of this one is “How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” And nobody will get Shenk for false advertising. This really is a book about depression and greatness, which seem at first to go together about as well as peanut butter and ladies (two points to anybody who caught that Talladega Nights reference).

Shenk’s essential premise is that Lincoln, prone to depression and occasionally suicidal as a young man, learned how to harness his depression into a passion for involvement in the civic world, and eventually transcended depression by making it an important part of his incredible leadership style. Shenk is a very careful historian, checking and re-checking sources and including a very lengthy notes section documenting his book.

The writing is occasionally a bit uneven, trying, as it does to simultaneously sift through historical narrative, psychological analysis, and histrocial discussion of understanding and perception of depression and mental illness. Still, when it works, Shenk has done some heavy lifting here. I enjoyed this book, and felt that in particular, the last third was very well written and concise.

If you like history and/or if you’ve battled depression, well, you’d probably like this book. At the very least, it is interesting. At most, it seems to read almost instructionally. Either way, it’s a very nice book.



Book #10 of the 50 for 2009

February 24, 2009

10. Portrait of the Writer as a Young Fan by Brian Weinberg

This was a pure impulse buy on a recent book buying spree (far better than a book burning spree… unless you’re cold).
Weinberg was 23 or so in 1996 when UK won its first basketball championship in 18 years (and in my lifetime, if you’re keeping score). He decided to write about it.

Weinberg’s book is pretty simple. He talks basically about two things: that explosive 1996 UK team and its march to the championship and his group of obsessive UK fan friends. Of course, you can’t live in Kentucky and not have some obsessive UK fan friends, so that’s really nothing new. And the basketball isn’t painted particularly well in here.

I somewhat enjoyed the book because it brought back memories of the glory days of probably the best college basketball team I remember. That said, this is a pretty thin book and doesn’t really have much to say. I think I paid about $5 for it. It might be worth a read at that price.


Book #9- Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning

February 19, 2009

Part of my compact in trying to get 50 new books in during 2009 was that 1/10th of the books (my tithe, if you like) had to be religious books. Given my background, that essentially means that they have to be Christian books. Nothing against Buddhism or Islam or Judaism or whatever your creed, but frankly, I’m confused enough without studying other religions’ ideas of God and His/Her teaching at this point.

Manning’s book is outstanding. I’ve been feeling more than a little burned out lately, and in an imperfect world, with all of my human failings, it’s very easy to fall into constant navel-gazing over how inept or lazy or self-centered I am. Manning reminds us that the gospel is about a love, an insane, ridiculous love by human standards, but point of order for God. One of his essential points is that God loves everyone, that he loves us in our inept, lazy, self-centeredness, and that we don’t have to dress ourselves up as anything we aren’t. And, of course, all we have to do to have this love is accept it.

Manning’s Christianity is not a prison of regulations, but a world of freedom. Manning won’t have much appeal for people who try to hide their humanness beneath a mask of feigned competence or control. He doesn’t like or accept worry or anxiety or guilt. His book reminds us that Christianity truly is a relational faith, and that so much of the work was already done for anyone who will accept it. He reminds us of Christ’s two great commandments– that aside from honoring God, our other direct challenge is in loving our fellow humankind, who are probably all, well, ragamuffins, not so different than us.

Also, for whatever it’s worth, Manning tells an anecdote early in the book which gets its own post. It was like Jerry Seinfeld discussing sin. I hate to tease without the info, but the book is at home right now… I’ll post it later.

In the meanwhile, I dig this book. It’s positive, it’s thoughful and it seems to me to be solidly based. It’s definitely worth reading.


#8 of the 50 books for 2009

February 17, 2009

Reel Baseball by Les Krantz

Reel Baseball is a tribute to the days when most baseball fans followed the game through the marvels of newsreels, rather than television. Specifically, the book covers 1932-1965. It also comes with a nice hour long DVD of actual newsreels. The newsreels were the SportsCenter of their era, albeit tending to focus much more broadly– whereas SportsCenter is on several times a day, newsreels had to have a bit of a shelf life.

This is fun stuff, mostly because it’s fun to remember REAL baseball. As a baseball fan, the modern game absolutely sickens me. The steroid scandal has stained the integrity of anyone unfortunate enough to play baseball during its era. Players are beefed up marketing empires, instead of human beings.

Is nostalgia oversimplification? Of course. But is there something wonderful about seeing Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays that isn’t/wasn’t present in Mark McGwire or Rafael Palmeiro or Alex Rodriguez? Yes, there is, and that something makes Reel Baseball worth a browse.


Book #7 of the 50

February 9, 2009

7. Mind Out of Time- By Paul Williams

No, title aside, this isn’t some sort of new age theory book. It’s a book about Bob Dylan, specifically from 1987-1990 (and beyond, as Williams so happily tacks on). I was very interested in this book because I tend to know Paul Williams’s writing for two things: 1) rambling incoherently about things like how Dylan’s mumbling is a great artistic technique and 2) being overwhelmingly positive about everything Dylan ever does.

1987-1990 wasn’t a banner time for Bob Dylan. Of the top of my head, I can specifically recall these moments:

1. A painful, shouted version of Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous “Hallelujah” that was played sometime in 1988.

2. An absurdly shambolic version of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” in 1990 in which the only line Dylan seems able to remember (since he sings it about every other line) is “I AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT TIRED!” I recall one of my other favorite made-up lines was “And I need a reaction/Yeah, I need a reaction to my face.” Seems he also tries to rhyme “spark” with “f**k” at one point as well.

3. An even more drunken, more absurd cover of Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, which culminates in the clumsiest, most off-key harmonica solo ever.

And yes, it did get worse. Realizing I haven’t mentioned any Bob Dylan songs, I should bring up the infamous Stuttgaart 1991 (and yes, I know 1991 is after 1990, but bear with me) performance of “New Morning”. Dylan opened the show with this “song”. Based on the recording, he apparently stumbled on stage and tried to control his senses for a moment. Giving up, he went over to the piano and bashed a few random notes like an insolent child while the band played through the song again and again. He then grabbed a stray harmonica and squealed it into the microphone for several bars before realizing it was the wrong harmonica and was horribly off-key. He then picks up a guitar and clumsily thrashes a few chords out of time with the music and likely out of key as well. Eventually, he stumbles over to the microphone and with the tunless intonation of a drunkard sucking on a helium baloon, stumbles through the song without getting 20% of the lyrics right.

So what did Paul Williams do? Write a typical Paul Williams book. He expends a great deal of time talking about how Eastern singers are understood to sing in a way in which a garbled, phlegmatic delivery is not only intentional but appreciated. Sure, Paul, sure. He spends at least 20 pages talking about how Dylan artfully contemplates the segues between his songs. Sure he does, Paul.

I do give Williams a little credit. He does admit that some of this stuff is just rancid. At the same time, I can’t say I really enjoyed the book because, as ever, Williams’s central theme is to take whatever mound of poop Bob Dylan gives us and try to reshape it into some sort of brilliant statue. Paul Williams never seems to get that some of the time (okay, much of the time) our figurative emporer really has no metaphorical clothes.

Ah well, hope everybody else spent their weekend on better pursuits!


Another new CD

February 6, 2009

Gary Louris and Mark Olson– Ready for the Flood

Once upon a time, there was a band called the Jayhawks. And nobody ever heard of them. Except a few people who really liked them. They were folksy and twangy and rocked a bit. And there were two major singers/songwriters in this band, Gary Louris and Mark Olson. In 1995, after the best album the band had ever made, Olson left the band. Louris soldiered on, kind of remade the band in his image, they made a couple more great albums that nobody ever heard and about 2004, they disbanded.

2009 brings Louris and Olson back together for the first time on record. They got back together for the first time on tour in 2005, during which my wife Julie and I, actor Steve Zahn, and a couple hundred other Jayhawks fans congregated in a tiny and now extinct club in Lexington, KY, and enjoyed this musical reunion. In the world of Jayhawks fans, this was the equivalent of a Lennon/McCartney reunion tour in 1979.

I’m sure Ready for the Flood will go essentially unnoticed by virtually everyone. In a lot of ways, this is the anti-Springsteen album. It is awaited by few, and will be heard by even less. There is no hype machine, and in fact, this album was held up for a few months while labels scrambled to not release it.

This disc is about two old friends, doing what they do best– crafting hooky dozey melodies and harmonizing like brothers. There’s nothing very exciting about this record, but it is quietly, steadily proficient and beautiful. The Jayhawks, or at least the guts of the group, are growing old gracefully.

“Bloody Hands” is the standout track of the album. Over a bluegrassy mandolin riff, the duo serenely intone, “What the mind forgets/The soul retains/All my love is in vain.” If the Jayhawks aren’t exactly back, they’re as close as they’re likely to ever come.


Working on a Dream

February 3, 2009

I’m sort of semi-discontinuing the “albums that matter” series to review two new albums that might matter. First up, The Boss. Fresh off his turn as a star of (as he himself would put it) “late night tellyvision”, it seemed a good time to look at his new disc. Actually, last week seemed like a good time, which I thought on Tuesday when I went and bought the album. But my electricity was off until Friday, so the horrific Kentucky ice storm has delayed this blog.

I’ve seen two camps on this. One says, “Wow, it’s brilliant.” Rolling Stone compared the album to Born to Run and gave it five stars. The other camp says “Wow, it sucks.” I noticed that the Courier-Journal gave the album 2 1/2 stars. I’ve seen some longtime Springsteen fans who are arguing that it might be his worst album ever.

I can’t buy into either side. I think WOAD, as the Springsteen lunies have already abbreviated it, is somewhere between the two extremes, a solid B- kind of album. At first listen, the record is, well, a bit trite. The lyrics tend toward mundane, maybe even banal at times. But WOAD is better than that. The music tells the story here, and Springsteen has worked very hard on the SOUND of this record. In many ways, it is a reversal of form from his last album, Magic, which is actually a brilliant record, but is sometimes a bit  lacking in sound quality. I can’t help but think that WOAD is an okay album, which would have greatly benefitted from another year to craft a few more impressive songs, and which could have made it a really, really good album.

There are a few songs that have grown on me deeply with a few listenings. For my money, “This Life” is a gorgeous sweeping ballad, complete with a “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” sonic depth and Spectorized wall of sound. “Kingdom of Days” is probably the philosophic masterwork here, which sometimes is just a simple love song and sometimes is a meditation on the passing of human existence drop by drop. “Working on a Dream” is upbeat and inoffensive, “My Lucky Day” is a joyful thrash, and “The Wrestler” is evocative and haunting.

On the other hand “Good Eye” is such a skimpy excuse at swampy blues that it reminds me of Dylan’s more derivative 12 bar songs from his recent albums. Zzzzz. “Queen of the Supermarket” is one of those songs that people will either love (me) or hate (my wife). “Surprise, Surprise” feels like complete filler.

WOAD made a lot more sense to me when I stopped to consider that Bruce is now 59 years old. At 56, Bob Dylan released Time Out of Mind,a great album which is absolutely mired in pain, old age and death. Bruce is three years older than that. But he doesn’t slump off into the good night mournfully. The songs on WOAD can call into question the increasingly lessening days of our human existence, but they still can celebrate whatever is left in those days.  If you can approach the album from that standpoint, then there’s plenty to enjoy.


Book #6- City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

February 3, 2009

This is the rarest of choices… actually, I have to credit my wife. On a recent trip to Oxford, Mississippi, we sat in on a Thursday night Thacker Mountain Radio show where Piazza read part of the book. Thacker Mountain is a thing so cool that it would have to be in Oxford, Mississippi. If Garrison Keillor took Prarie Home Companion down South, got some soul and had some talented and wildly random musical guests (like the Northern Mississippi reggae band on the night we were there), it’d be a lot like Thacker Mountain.

Anyway, Piazza read a chapter from this novel and Julie and I were both enthralled. City of Refuge is basically “about” Hurricane Katrina. The derisive quotation marks come because it’s about ten million things, but they occur in the backdrop of Katrina. Two families, one black, one white, are charted through Katrina. You ride out evacuation with one family, and the storm itself with the other. You experience their displacement, their loss of geographic identity, and all of the questions that Katrina brought– Can we even go back? If we can, should we?

Piazza breathes life into his characters in a superb way. This is the best sort of novel, one that is based so well and written so realistically that it doesn’t feel like a novel at all. Sometimes, history is improved by fiction. I daresay that “The Grapes of Wrath” teaches about the Dust Bowl in the way that no history book can or will. In the same way, I found myself much more interested in Katrina and what it meant via this novel than via Headline News or magazine article after article.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a very fast read, and I suspect it will stand for years as a living and accurate interpretation of a terrible but historic moment. Sometimes the tension and claustrophobia of the tragedy are palpable in the pages, but the book seems to channel the heartbeat of its characters, just people, just like us, and suddenly fighting for everything.