Sunday, March 28, 2010

CD Review: Ireland, The Irish Tenors

Here only a couple of days late for St. Patrick's Day comes Ireland, the new album from the latest incarnation of the Irish tenors: Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns, and Karl Scully. If you want traditional Irish music soaked in Guiness or Harp, these tenors are not the Clancy Brothers. If you want mostly traditional Irish music sung with big operatic voices and backed by the Prague FILMharmonic orchestra, this is the disc for you.

While the album does contain some new songs, the bulk of the thirteen cuts honors such iconic fare as "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "Glocca Morra,” "Toora Loora," and "Danny Boy." These are the songs that have become identified with the Emerald Isle throughout the world; they are the songs that define Ireland and the Irish as much as, if not more so, than leprechauns, the Blarney Stone and Barry Fitzgerald. They are the songs that will have Irishmen true and Irishmen faux lifting a bit of Jamieson to the old sod.

The menu served here is not merely potatoes. There is the sentimental—and there is nothing like a sweet Irish tenor for sentimentality: you can smell the perfume from the heather as you watch the sun go down on "Galway Bay," knowing that to change it would be like trying to light a penny candle from a star. There is the dramatic—and there is nothing so powerful as the drama in the voice of the true Irish tenor: listen to the building vocals in Bill Whelan's "Lift the Wings." There is the plaintive—as lost love is lamented in "Knocknashee"—and there is no voice so plaintive as that of the bemoaning Irish tenor. There are the rollicking ballads and drinking songs straight out of the local pub--"The Irish Rover," and "Whiskey in the Jar."

There is no question that these are three singers with beautifully trained voices, three tenors who sing with joy and passion, three men who embody the tradition of the grand Irish tenor going back to the legendary John McCormack. Moreover, if you're talking about a song like Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer," a gem in the repertoire of the sentimental, these are the voices that not only do such melodies justice, these are the voices such melodies demand. Is there any other voice that could or should be singing "Danny Boy?" While one might prefer somewhat less lavish production values as a general rule, there is also a sense in which it is only natural that big voices demand big settings. Songs like these were written for these voices.

Although, it is also fair to say that songs like "The Irish Rover," and "Whiskey in the Jar" might well profit from a little less polish. The tenors' versions are certainly pleasant enough, but for many listeners, pleasant really isn't what one wants from songs like these. There is a raucous joy about them that sits more comfortably in the range of the raw and boozy. Sometimes one wants sweets, sometimes bitters. Still, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson's remarks on some indelicacies he found in Paradise Lost, flaws so beautiful, who would wish away.

Since there is a great deal of exquisite solo work on the disc, it would be a good idea to identify the soloist on each individual song. The listener unfamiliar with the individual voices would welcome some help with the individual singer. Neither the album notes, nor thethe Irish Tenors Official Website offer any information about who sings on individual songs. This is a shame; certainly the soloists on "Lift the Wings" and "Beautiful Dreamer" deserve some individual recognition and applause.

Although Ireland arrived a few days late for St. Patrick's Day, it arrived with a musical gift for the many days to pass before the saint's day comes again. After all you don't need St. Patrick's Day to enjoy Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage, and you don't need St. Patrick's day to enjoy Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns, and Karl Scully.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mini Review

Up in Honey's Room Up in Honey's Room by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Set in Detroit at the end of WWII: German spies, American symathizers, escaped prisoners of war, perky better dress sales woman, Okie Marshall, this is part of the large cast for this comic take on inept Germans. Too many characters, some get lost by the wayside, but character is not the main thing here. Leonard is having a little fun with the master race, and pointing out the superiority of down home grits and greens.

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Mini Review

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street by William D. Cohan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Decline and Fall of Bear Stearns and the mortgage crisis in detail. Sometimes it is impossible to figure out what some of his sources are saying, and Cohan likes to quote as often as he can.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book Review: Call It What You Want, by Keith Lee Morris

What happens when a father discovers that his teen year old son has disappeared from his basement bedroom during a flash flood? What happens when a typical father of two about to spend a lazy hour or two without any family obligations finds a cigarette near the dishwasher in his non-smoking family's kitchen? What happens when a young man in a menial job gets a chance to live out his wildest dreams with a stunning older woman?

These are the kinds of questions Keith Lee Morris deals with in the thirteen short stories collected in Call It What You Want. The stories, some in different form, first appeared in a variety of "little" literary magazines: Tin House( the publisher of the collected volume), New England Review, StoryQuarterly, and others. They are stories that attempt to deal imaginatively with the human condition in the best tradition of writers like John Cheever, Flannery O'Conner and the like. They are character driven explorations of seemingly ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. They are literary stories for a literate reader.

Sometimes they seem caught up in a Kafkaesque world that swamps its protagonists in nightmare scenarios beyond their comprehension. In "Tired Heart," a man embarking on a cross country move agrees to pick up some packages for a man he doesn't know for a large sum of money. He is given a set of instructions and rules to follow, which seem simple when he gets them, but almost as soon as he starts on his trip, he finds not only make no sense, but become impossible to follow. It is a predicament every bit as strange as that into which Josef K. awakens in The Trial. In "Blackout," a man loses all memory of an evening spent with an old girlfriend at a high school reunion. In "Desert Island Romance," a man and woman marooned on an island recreate their old lives in their imaginations.

Often the stories deal with people tormented by guilt. "Testimony," the first story in the book, is the narrated by a young meth addict who has turned states' evidence in the trial of one of his friends for the murder of another friend, one who had looked up to the narrator as a kind of older brother. At first the reader has to question the reliability of a narrator content to live in a fog of drugs playing games and watching tennis on the tube, but gradually it becomes clear that the young man is suppressing his own feelings of guilt. "Visitation" deals with a man who comes home from a church service during which his mother has just died to find a robber in his house. In his rage with himself at what he feels has been his poor treatment of his mother, he attacks the intruder only to recognize his own guilt.

Characters are caught in dead end lives, menial unsatisfying jobs, unhappy relationships. Yet all too often they are unable to escape, except in their imaginations. One dreams of a record shop in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, a time long gone and never again to return, as he spends his days working on roofs in a new housing development. Another has the chance to escape a job as a concierge in a New Orleans hotel, but can't bring himself to take a chance that reality will ever measure up to his dreams. Yet there are times when the imagination betrays them. The husband in "Camel Light” lets his imagination run wild when he discovers the alien cigarette. The couple marooned on the desert island drift apart as they begin to live in the past of their imagination.
Most of the stories have a realistic base, but there are those that take the reader beyond realism as well. "My Roommate Kevin is Awesome" takes a comic look at two misfit college students who become toasts of the campus when strange wonders begin appearing daily in their dorm room. In "Harmonica" a seemingly meaningless act of a motorcyclist trying to bum a smoke leads to catastrophic results.

The stories in Call It What You Want take an unvarnished look at contemporary life and the people who live it. They explore the limitations that keep people, even those that love each other, apart. They are not particularly optimistic stories, but they are stories that deserve to be read.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: Paint It Black by Janet Fitch

The world described in Paint it Black the latest from White Oleander’s Janet Fitch, is a bleak place filled with misery and suffering. It is a world where people are not always what they seem, where happiness, if possible, is fleeting, and where love, that oft touted panacea for all the assorted ills that afflict humanity, does not necessarily cure all that might ail you.

We see this world through the eyes of Josie Tyrell a punk rocking artist’s model who favors torn leggings, brightly dyed hair and red rubber cowboy boots. Not yet old enough to drink–although her beverage of choice is what she likes to call “voddy,” which no doubt is meant to tell us something about her level of sophistication, she has run away from an abusive, white trashy family in Bakersfield, and attached herself to the Los Angeles “sex, drugs and rock and roll” scene. She meets art student, Michael Farady, a Harvard dropout who seems estranged from a family straight out of lives of the rich and famous. His mother is a renowned concert pianist, his father, a globe trotting novelist. They are, of course, divorced. Michael, it seems, finds the life of privilege–trips abroad, apartment in Paris, celebrity soirees–empty and unrewarding. He looks for something more real, more honest slumming among the great unwashed. Presumably, there is nothing like poverty to cut through the shallow pretentiousness of the idle rich.

Josie and Michael fall in love. After all what could be more attractive than a gamin in tattered tights who favors pints of “voddy” and packs of “ciggies.” Before Michael, and even after, her musical taste runs to Iggy Popp, The Clash and Patty Smith. She has little understanding of the art for which she poses, and none at all of the modernists. He introduces her to the better things of life: poetry, Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine; classical music, Bach, Brahms; jazz, Louis Armstrong; painting, Bosch and Egon Schiele; pastel French ciggies; Montmartre scenes. But after awhile he finds no more happiness in her world than he did in his own. He dislikes her friends. He gets a job playing the piano for children, but gives it up in disgust. He becomes jealous and finds no comfort in their relationship.

Most of this is back story, revealed slowly as the novel progresses. The story itself begins in media res when Josie learns that Michael who she thinks has gone to his mother’s to work on a project has in fact committed suicide in a seedy motel in 29 Palms. Grief stricken, riddled with guilt, she is consumed with trying to understand what kind of demons could have made his life, a life she found so idyllic, so unbearable.

Coming to terms with the death of a loved one has long been one of the central themes of literature. One thinks of the classic elegiac movement from grief to acceptance and understanding, of tears giving way to resignations and ultimately the recognition that life goes on and that joy is still possible. In some sense this is the movement of Paint it Black but not quite. In the usual elegiac pattern there is some balance between the sorrow and the healing. Not so in “Paint It Black.” Here the suffering and sorrow are overwhelming. The healing, if one can call it that, is limited to a promise of something that might come. Misery is dominant from the book’s beginning almost to its end.

The world Josie sees after Michael’s death is much the same as the world Michael saw, the world that induced him to put a gun to his head, it is the world represented in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch: “. . . it was Bosch in all directions.” Before his death, there was beauty and happiness even in the cheap tawdriness in which she lived. She’d look out the window of their apartment and tell Michael how beautiful the world was. “‘It’s like something from Bosch,’ he’d say.” “Now she couldn’t help but see. Bosch was everywhere.” Bosch, of course, paints a nightmare vision of the world. His work illustrates, according to one critic, “the torments of hell.” It presents a “tragic view of human existence.” His work is “remarkable for its depiction of fantastic, often diabolic, creatures, generally moralizing representations of the consequences of sin and folly.” This is the world Michael sees and for the majority of the novel, it is the world Josie sees as well.

Misery and suffering are everywhere. Josie visits Michael’s grave and meets an elderly man at the grave of his wife. He is miserable at her loss. He can’t sleep at night. He stays up all hours trying to escape in joyless card games. And they have had a long life together. She was not, like Michael, plucked untimely. Still the grief is immeasurable. In the supposed wisdom of age, the old man tells the young girl what life is all about. The house, he tells her, always wins. The house always wins: to be human is to lose.

There is something daunting about so much unadulterated misery. How does one go on living if the world is such a vicious place? Back in the 19th century the English Poet Matthew Arnold wrote a poem about a man who had lived so far beyond his own time that he felt completely alien from the world in which he found himself. All of his friends, all his loved ones had passed on and he was isolated and miserable. In the end, unable to handle it any longer, he throws himself into a volcano looking for salvation in death. The poem, “Empedocles on Etna,” was published in 1852 as the title poem of a collection. When a year later a second edition was called for, Arnold decided to cut out this title poem, a poem moreover that had been the longest in the volume and he wrote a famous preface in which among other things he explains his decision. He says that the problem is not the portrayal of suffering: suffering presented properly is the essence of tragedy. There are situations, however, from which no poetical enjoyment may flow. “They are those in which suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistence; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous.”

Unfortunately for too much of the novel, this seems to me an apt description of “Paint It Black.” Although one can well argue that at the very end, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, that light is but a faint flicker in a vast darkness. If you want depression sliced, diced and analyzed, this is the book for you. If you want a rosier vision of the world, you had best look elsewhere.

On the other hand, if there are no beauties in Josie’s world, there are certainly a good many in Fitch’s prose. The irony inherent in the eloquence of her imagery and the horror of the world she describes is startling. There are the aphoristic bon mots: “Even lies could be true, if you knew how to listen.” There are the ingenuous similes: “She could lick him like candy.” A waterbed is “plump as a fat bride.” She describes Hebrew songs at a funeral as “so old they scraped the bottom of your heart like a burned pan.”

Of course there are the fucks and shits–how else could you describe the punk world that Josie inhabits, but even in the midst of the ugliness described there is a beauty in the description. Josie ruminates on the body of one of the older models: “She liked Callie, though, the way her body challenged the student’s ideal of beauty, its elongated breasts and the weals of multiple pregnancies. Josie appreciated that courage. At first she’d thought, if she ever looked like that she would disappear into the house and never come out, make love with the lights off. How had she ever been so ignorant? How right that the body changes over time, became a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it.” In some ways this may pass for an aesthetic credo, one that for Fitch would be the argument to Arnold, an aesthetic credo works for the a world that is Bosch everywhere.

Josie thinks in kinds of extended comparisons that run throughout the novel. For example, looking at the orchestral score of the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony,” “She like the look of the sweep of the notes, their shapes on the pages, trying to imagine how it would sound all together.

“At every moment, each instrument knew what to play. Its little bit. But none could see the whole thing like this, all at once, only its own part. Just like life. Each person was like one line of music, but nobody know what the symphony sounded like. Only the conductor had the whole score.”

The little bits all by themselves may well not be beautiful. The little bits may be discordant and ugly. But the artist, a Schubert, a Bosch, a Matthew Arnold may be able to take all these little pieces, the repulsive as well as the beautiful, and create something in the whole that transcends the parts: the work of art. Paint it Black for the reader who can get beyond the suffering is in itself the antidote for the poison it describes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

DVD Review: Edge of Darkness (BBC mini-series)

On a rainy Yorkshire night, police Inspector Ronald Craven,, a widowed father, played by Bob Peck, picks up his young daughter at a political meeting. They drive home and on their way to the front door, they are confronted by a shouting, mysterious figure who lets go a shot gun blast that kills the young woman. Thus begins the 1985 BBC six part mini-series, Edge of Darkness now available on DVD.

At first the assumption is that the killer was looking for revenge against Craven. But very quickly, it becomes apparent that this may not be the case at all. First as Craven goes through his daughter's things, he makes some strange discoveries—a map, a radiation detector, and most mysteriously a revolver. Then he learns that the girl may have been a member of a subversive anti-nuclear group along with her socialist boyfriend boy friend; moreover she may well have been involved in some kind of terrorism. In London, he discovers that she has been under investigation by at least one government secret agency. It is entirely possible that the killer was really after her.

Haunted by hallucinatory visions of his daughter both as an adult and as a child, Craven embarks on a search for the killer, and more importantly for the truth about her activities. Slowly he becomes entangled in political machinations involving British secret agents, the CIA, and upper level government ministers. He enters a Machiavellian world of pragmatic politics, where ends justify means, one time friends turn into enemies, and where it is never easy to tell the guys in the white hats from those in the black.

Indeed that is the key to the success of Edge of Darkness. It is an adult thriller. Unlike the blockbuster action flicks which deal with a simple world where there is good and there is evil and they are fairly easily recognized, that have come to define the form, its world is much more complex. Good and evil are not always recognizable. Good and evil may not even be relevant considerations in this world. Morality may well be subject to pragmatics.

In keeping with this complexity, there is more emphasis on character than on car chases. The story moves slowly, at a snail's pace compared to the typical film in the genre. Director Martin Campbell lets his camera linger over silent close ups of his actors caught in moments of introspection. He especially follows the distraught Craven as he sometimes wanders aimlessly, pursued by his visions of the past, his emotions bottled up in a vain attempt at the stiff upper lip so admired by the Brits. Peck's brilliantly understated performance leaves the viewer no doubt of the turmoil within and gives the inevitable eruption of passion that much more emotional truth. This is no stereotypical superman of the Liam Neeson in Taken variety. This is a man driven, but a man who might well fail.

Most of the performances emphasize subtlety of character and shy away from scenery chewing. Perhaps Joe Don Baker's Darius Jedburgh, a wise mouthed American agent with country boy fa├žade, comes close to the top, but even he doesn't really go over. Ian McNeice and Charles Kay as British secret agents are suitably subdued and ironically unflappable. At times they seem more concerned with food than with their political problems. Joanne Whalley plays Emma Craven, the daughter, with wide eyed sweetness and innocent optimism. Zoe Wannamaker has a brief moment or two as a secret agent and a love interest. Hugh Fraser as the head of a British nuclear facility turns in an effective performance as the face of institutional villainy.

The series' BAFTA award winning score was composed by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen. The DVD provides a music only option to isolate the score as one of the special features. Also included is an alternate ending (which seems only slightly altered). I must admit neither my wife nor I could tell the difference on first viewing. There are interviews with cast and crew in a section called, "Magnox—The Secrets of Edge of Darkness," as well as an interview with Bob Peck from a BBC morning show.

This two disc DVD set of the original series offers audiences who may have been somewhat disappointed with Campbell's recent big screen remake with Mel Gibson something they may well find more palatable.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Higher Education and Job Training

First a little history: when I first began teaching at a state college in Western Pennsylvania in 1968, the area was prospering. Coal miners were working overtime. Steel mill blast furnaces blazed hell fires. Families were growing and local school systems were bursting at the seams. Teachers were in demand. And since the central mission of our college was to supply those teachers, we, teachers of teachers were in demand as well.

By the middle of the next decade things had changed. Many of the coal mines had shut down. Foreign competition had cooled down the steel mill furnaces. The job market dried up, and families began moving out of the area. The population grew older and the local schools began losing students. All of a sudden the market for teachers evaporated, but still our college was training and graduating students with degrees in elementary education, secondary education, public school administration, students who had almost no prospect of using that education to get a job. It didn't take long for our classrooms to empty.

Something needed to be done. Classes needed to be filled. Students needed to be recruited. Students wanted programs that would lead to jobs. There had to be a reward at the end of their four years and that reward had to be a job, preferably a good job. What good was a degree, if a job didn't come with it? The solution to our problem was obvious. Build a professional program that trained students for the jobs that were out there; build it and they will come. In the late seventies and into the eighties, that program was business. Goodbye school of education, hello school of business and economics.

For awhile that worked. Students filled classes in macro economics and accounting, marketing and personnel management. Departments outside of business mined the new load wherever they could. Sometimes successfully: the English department offered classes in business writing and advertising, the Psychology department, industrial psychology, classes which emphasized practical and more importantly potentially marketable skills. Sometimes not so successfully: the philosophy department came up with a course in business ethics for example. Ethics, it seemed, was something that didn't much interest students whose primary concern was getting a job. An English department course in Business and Literature flushed down the same drain.

The program in business and economics became the School of Business and Economics and the College became a University. And the University, which already had had a graduate program in education, begat new programs in business. And the graduate programs in business begat a tidal wave of MBA's. And the tidal wave of MBA's flooded western Pennsylvania, which after all is not exactly a center of financial activity like, say, lower Manhattan. It didn't take long before classes in macro economics and business writing went the way of classes in education a decade earlier.
Again, something needed to be done. Classrooms needed to be filled. Along came Computer Science. . . . Well, you get the idea.

There is a problem, unquestionably. Vocational education, be it business or computer science or professional chicken farming, is only valued as long as there is a viable vocation waiting for those with the diplomas. Students will flock to those programs offering the possibility of good paying jobs; students will run like thieves from those that don't. Unfortunately colleges and Universities are not well built to supply programs that expand and contract with the job market. New programs require time to develop. Old programs cannot easily be discarded. Qualified people to teach in new areas are often difficult to recruit. Professors in disciplines no longer in favor may have tenure; they may have union protections which keep them lecturing to empty classrooms. Yet, in a year or two, the new program may be obsolete and the old one may be again in demand, empty classrooms once again filled.

Professional education is essential to a country's economic well being. Professional education is what many of our prospective students want. There is no question but that there is an obligation to provide it; there is also no question that it is not necessarily the college that should provide it. Professional education and higher education are not synonymous. Professional education should be the province of professional schools.

The goal of higher education, it seems to me, should be to provide students with a knowledge of what the nineteenth century social critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, called "the best that has been known and thought in the world." It should teach students how to think for themselves, how to critically evaluate the ideas of others. It should give them a base upon which to build some specialized professional study. And if in some unknowable future that specialized profession should go the way of the dodo, they will still have that base to fall back upon, and perhaps build anew. Call that base general education. Call it liberal education. Call providing that base common sense.

Recently I heard a teacher of professional journalism defending the continuance of the program in the light of current doom and gloom in the newspaper industry. She claimed that what they were trying to do was educate students to new models for professional activity. Now while such models may or may not be real, one has to at least question the motivation of someone touting them as motivation for students to enter a program of study in what may well be a dying industry. Still, if that's what students want, by all means let them have it, but let's not confuse it with higher education.