Monday, February 28, 2011

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although the narrator is an older woman at the time she is telling the story, she more often than not steps back into her young girl persona. Every once in awhile she speaks in her older voice, when she moralizes about events. While this takes some of the uncertainty about her fate, (since it is a first person account we are assured of her safe return, if not the specifics), it does provide perspective on the events.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Billy Joel, The Hits

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It was August 2, 1994. Billy Joel and Elton John were in Pittsburgh for a concert at Three Rivers Stadium, a concert that had been sold out almost as soon as tickets had gone on sale. At the last minute, they opened up some of the stadium seating behind the stage. We drove in early looking to scalp a couple of tickets, but when push came to shove we settled for the newly released seats: turned out to be not such a bad deal. The seats were fairly close to the stage. Joel and John, when they were seated at the piano were always in profile, and when they were up on their feet, they always made some effort to play to those of us sitting behind. It was one great concert, one of the best.

Three Rivers Stadium is gone now. Elton John is touring with Leon Russell. And Billy Joel is set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release Cold Spring Harbor, his first solo album, in 2011. In conjunction with that anniversary, Columbia/Legacy is releasing a nineteen track collection of the Piano Man's best: The Hits. Looking back at Joel's playlist for that '94 concert, it is not strange that almost all of the songs he played that night are featured on this new album, nor that those that aren't probably should be. This was after all the zenith of the singer's career. Indeed, "The River of Dreams," the latest song on the album dates from 1993.

Nineteen, of course is no magic number. While Billy Joel fans are bound to find some of their personal favorites missing from the CD, it is hard to quarrel with what is included. It isn't a question of trading one piece for another. One disc just isn't enough to hold everything that ought to be there. If I had my way they'd have to include the whole of 52nd Street, a vinyl LP I wore out back in the day. And what about "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant?" "Prelude: Angry Young Man?" "She's Got a Way?" "Captain. . . ," well you get the idea. What we really need is another disc. Luckily, Columbia/Legacy has more on the way. Their publicity promises a 2CD/DVD edition of Joel's 2008 Shea Stadium concerts and a complete collection of all fourteen of his albums with a bonus disc of sixteen non-album tracks. Happily for Billy Joel fans there is more to come.

The Hits begins with "Everybody Loves You Now" from his first album. "Piano Man" and "The Entertainer" follow. The mellow "New York State of Mind" from the 1976 Turnstiles album is followed by two from 1977's The Stranger: "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" and his anthem, "Only the Good Die Young." "My Life" and "Big Shot" close out the songs from the seventies. Glass Houses' two classic rockers "You May Be Right" and the infectious "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me" start the new decade, followed by a live performance of "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." Then there are the more socially conscious songs "Allentown," "Pressure," and the later "We didn't Start the Fire." "The Longest Time," "Tell Her About It," "A Matter of Trust," and "I Go to Extremes" round out the album.

This is a collection that not only highlights Joel's hits it also tries to pay attention to all of his different voices: from the mellow jazz piano man to the swinging pop rocker, Joel is here in all his incarnations. Three Rivers Stadium may be gone, but Billy Joel's music isn't going anywhere. It's here to stay.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Some time ago I heard the British novelist A. S. Byatt talking about the work of Robert Louis Stevenson on a podcast about the uses of enchantment in fiction. In order to show that magic and enchantment were not traditionally meant only for children, she pointed to the work of Stevenson. His novels, she said, were not originally meant for children. They were written for readers of all ages, adults as well as children. Be that as it may, certainly by the twentieth century they, the most popular ones at any rate--Treasure Island, Kidnapped--had become staples of young adult literature, stories of adventure mainly for young boys. The one exception, the one piece that has still retained its appeal to the general reader is his novelette, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This story of science run amok taps into some of the central human themes that have long concerned literature: the Faustian search for knowledge, the evil that may lie dormant in the best of us waiting patiently for some trigger to awaken it, the doppelganger, the mad scientist obsessed with his discovery. These are themes that are still the stuff of fiction today, and more than likely always will be. It is, then, good to see that C. E. L. Welsh's adaptation of the story for the Campfire Graphic Classic Novel series does nothing to dumb down the book and its themes. It follows the well known story of the good doctor who discovers a drug that to his horror unleashed the evil beast inside him, and who is unable to control his other self closely and sets up the moral questions the story raises with some clarity.

This is a dark story and that darkness is emphasized in the illustrations of Lalit Kumar Sharma. It is not a pretty world. Faces are sharp and scowling, lined with care. This is not only true of the misery laden Jekyll and the hideous Hyde, but it is the way all of the characters are drawn. There is rarely a smile in the book. Kumar has drawn the kind of world in which it is extremely likely an evil like Hyde can be carelessly loosed. While there is little in the way of blood and guts, this is not a book for the youngest of readers. It is a book aimed at young adults.

Like others in the Campfire series, the book includes a one page introductory biographical sketch of the author and an appendix which looks at some further examples of some element in the story. In this case the appendix deals with a gaggle of mad scientists through history. There are six in all; all of them unknown to me. There is a 19th century Italian physicist, Giovanni Aldini, who we are told electrified the dead body of a hanged convict at the London College of Surgeons frightening many in the audience so badly, that one member is said to have died as a result. Others mentioned are 20th century psychologist Harry Harlow who was known for his cruel experimentation with animals and Vladimir Demikhov, a transplant scientist infamous for his attempt to create a two headed dog. These are the kinds of informational tidbits aimed at encouraging further study in the youthful reader.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Music Review: Alice Ripley-Daily Practice, Vol. I

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Alice Ripley, winner of the 2009 Tony Award for the Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of the bipolar Diana Goodman in Next to Normal, is now out with a ten song collection of covers of some of her favorite rock music called Daily Practice, Volume I. The title, she explains, comes from her habit of winding down in her room after her demanding stage performances with her acoustic guitar and some of best loved songs. It is as though she were able to transfer all of the dramatic intensity bottled up in the interpretation of her character to the music. These are covers like you've not heard before. If you are looking for something pleasant to wile a way an hour, these aren't for you. If you are looking for lavish production values, look elsewhere. If you are looking for naked passion, you've come to the right place. There is a voice. There is a guitar. And above all there is passion.

The songs she has chosen are not only her favorites; if you are a lover of rock, many of them are your favorites as well. The album opens with a standout performance of Carole King's "It's Too Late." In Carly Simon's "Anticipation," her focus is on the present moment, when one can never be sure about the future. These are, after all as she cuts off abruptly, "the good old days." REM's "Everybody Hurts" is a rich vocal with perhaps a few echoes of the original. Sting's "Message in a Bottle" is an emphatic plea with a driving chorus. Her voice becomes an insistent cry. Lucinda Williams' "Essence" is a power ballad delivered full throttle with little of the bluesy feel of the original, but with all of its passion. She transforms Nanci Griffith's wispy version of "The Flyer" into a haunting memory with the power of her vocal. Ripley is at her most intense in the cover of Alanis Morissette's ranting tirade "You Oughta Know." It is a vocal filled with bitterness of betrayal and shame.

Her covers of The Eagles' "Take it Easy" and U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are fine, but somehow they don't quite have the same vitality as the others. I do have some question however about her take on Springsteen's "Thunder Road." Shrewdly she makes no attempt to out-boss the Boss. Instead there is something almost breathless about her performance. It is as though she can barely get through the lyrics. I would imagine, accomplished actress that she is, she has created a character, and is singing in the voice of that character. I guess my problem is that I am so tuned to Springsteen's voice that any other seems wrong. It's not that she doesn't create voices in the other songs on the album, unquestionably she does. It's simply that the other voices seem more in touch with material. Or, maybe, if you're going to cover an iconic performance of an iconic song, you had better be a Hawaiian with a ukulele.

The talented Miss Ripley (with apologies to Patricia Highsmith) may have been using this music as a form of therapy, but her decision to collect it all on an album gives the rest of us an opportunity to hear what a first rate artist can do with some of the music she and we all love. You may not like what she does with every song on the album, but there is no way you won't find something new in songs that you've heard many times, something that may push your buttons, but something to remind you why you loved these songs in the first place.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If graphic adaptations of classic literature are effective ways of introducing youngsters to the joys of reading, the Campfire Graphic Novel Classics Series offers a catalogue of literary gems likely to do the job. Not only have they chosen books with literary merit, like Frankenstein and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but they have chosen the kinds of stories that have traditionally been attractive to the young male reader. More often than not they are stories that focus on mystery or adventure; they are the world's great horror stories, the tales of the supernatural. These are the kinds of stories that have captured the young adult imagination, in most cases for over a century now.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1901 novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is one of the latest classics to be published in the series. Doyle who had introduced his brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, had apparently killed him off when he and his arch enemy, Professor Moriarity, locked in mortal combat, hurtled over the Reichenbach Falls in a story called "The Final Problem." Public outcry however convinced the author to bring his hero back from the brink, and The Hound of the Baskervilles marked his return. Although it seems that Doyle always considered his Holmes stories less important that his other literary endeavors, few readers have agreed with him. In the supreme rationalist detective, Doyle has created the kind of archetypal character rarely managed by even the greatest of writers.

The Campfire adaptation by J. R. Parks is fairly straight forward, following the story line as closely as one would expect. It begins with the legend of the hound and goes on to explain how Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson become involved. It follows Watson, as Holmes sends him out to the moors ostensibly to protect Sir Henry Baskerville, the new heir to the Baskerville property. It makes sure to illustrate Holmes' legendary deductive powers as he glances at a threatening note Sir Henry received at his hotel. While the introduction of some of the characters seems abrupt, Stapleton for example, the narrative flows clearly and moves rapidly.

Vinod Kumar's Illustrations are typical of the Campfire style. Characters are drawn with an intensity that emphasizes strength rather than good looks. The women especially are not portrayed with the characteristic comic book glamour. Given some of the more recent manifestations of the great detective, Kumar's version of the iconic detective is quite traditional. Most of the time he appears with the trademark deerstalker and pipe, and, to my eye at least, he bears a remarkable resemblance to Basil Rathbone. Kumar's Dr. Watson, however, looks nothing like Nigel Bruce. I'm not sure that the images of some of the other characters are always those described in Doyle's story. The artist does manage to capture the dark sense of foreboding that dominates the atmosphere of the novel and its setting.

As with other Campfire editions, The Hound of the Baskervilles includes a short introductory essay on the life of the author. Although it doesn't go into some of the strange ideas that dominated the later part of his life, it does give some background about basis for the creation of Holmes, which is probably more to the point in this context. Since the story features a hound as a central plot point, an appendix discussing a variety of breeds of dogs called "Collectible Canines" is also included. While the specific breeds mentioned—Afghan Hound, Newfoundland, Komondor, etc.—seem to have little to do with the terrifying beast described in the story, the information may be welcome to dog lovers. Perhaps they could have found something more closely related to the story with a little more thought.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

This article was first published at Blogcritics

More than likely there will be many readers intimidated by the title alone of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; I wouldn't be surprised if it hadn't been purposely chosen with intimidation in mind. This is not a novel for a reader fearful of ideas. There are philosophical discussions; there are theological debates. There are pages devoted to what some might consider esoteric mathematical theory. There are discussions of Jewish mysticism. But if you are undaunted by such considerations, this is after all a novel not a philosophical tract, and it is a novel that will have you laughing, it is a novel that will move you, a novel that will give an emotional as well as an intellectual workout.

The central figure in the book is Cass Seltzer, a professor who specializes in the psychology of religion. He teaches at Frankfurter University, a school located near Boston, which seems to have been suspiciously cloned from Brandeis. He has recently published a bestselling study of religious belief called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion," and has become something of a poster boy for modern atheism, the popular press calling him, "the atheist with a soul." Divorced from his first wife, a French poetess, he is living with a highly aggressive colleague, a star in her own right, whose expertise is in game theory. Although a non-observant Jew himself, Cass comes from a family which has belonged to an orthodox Chassidic sect.

Goldstein takes the reader back and forth between Seltzer's successful present and his past. She shows how he became a disciple of a megalomaniacal literary scholar with an obsession with mystical religion, a bond from which he eventually has to break away, but not before, at his guru's instigation he renews his Chassidic connections. In the Chassidic community he meets the Grand Rabbi's young six year old son, who he discovers is a mathematical prodigy, and who will eventually be forced to choose between his religious obligations, he is the inheritor of his father's mantle, and the outside world. While the literary scholar is treated as a ridiculous figure in his pompous pedantry, the young boy is treated with compassion and understanding. Interestingly, the young man's conflict, is similar to that described in Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, but with different results.

Like many other novels of academia, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is very hard on the academics. With few exceptions they are self absorbed ego maniacs with little concern for anything other than their own reputations and perks. For them the university is not an ivory tower where they can escape from the world and pursue their studies; for them it is a stepping stone to something bigger and better, a Nobel Prize, a key note address, a bestseller and a spot on The Daily Show. For them the goal is to become an Extreme Distinguished Professor. Education is the least of their concerns. Indeed in this novel about a professor, one of the things we never see the central figure do is teach.

Goldstein's writing is intellectually rich. She writes with equal assurance about the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the mathematical ideas of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Euclid's proof of the infinity of prime numbers, the theological ideas of William James and the teachings of the Jewish mystics. Not only does she write about them with clarity and understanding. She is an adept with the phrase. A literary agent goes beyond "putting the 'antic' back in 'pedantic.' After the breakup of his marriage Cass goes through "the long cold February of the soul." His advisor had been his "mentor" and "tormentor." His new love is famous as "the Goddess of Game Theory." She writes with a wit that makes even the most complex ideas accessible to the attentive reader.

In an age when intellectuals tend to limit themselves to their special disciplines, it isn't often that you come across a book that manages to manages to move freely between fields of study, between mathematics and literature, science and mysticism, music and psychology. It is the genius of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God that it does so with style and ease. It is a book about pedantry that never seems pedantic. It is a book about reason, that still has a place for mystical faith. It is a book about faith that recognizes the importance of reason. It is a remarkable book. It is a book to savor.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

DVD Review: Still Walking

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda's sixth feature film, Still Walking is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. In discussing the film, Kore-eda speaks of this story of one day in the lives of a typically dysfunctional family as his most personal work to date. Written two years after the death of his mother, he sees it as his attempt to come to terms with his personal conflicts over his loss. The family in the movie is not his family, he says, but the conflicted emotions are his emotions. He has taken his own subjective experience and objectified it in an attempt to universalize the individual.

Kore-eda, who began as a director of documentaries, turned to fictional features in 1995 with Maborosi, a film about a young wife's attempt to deal with her husband's suicide. This was followed by After Life in 1998, Distance (2001), Nobody Knows (2004), and Hana (2006). Critics have praised his films for the way they deal with themes of memory and loss with sensitivity, but without sentimentality. Indeed in an interview included as an extra on the new DVD, Kore-eda, while acknowledging the personal nature of his film, disclaims feelings of nostalgia. Clearly nostalgia is his term for sentimentalizing the past. The material of his films may be fictional, but it is screened with all the realism of his documentaries.

Still Walking is one of those dramas in which nothing seems to happen yet everything happens: think Chekov. The Yokohama family has gathered on the anniversary of the eldest son's death, a fact that only gradually becomes apparent as the film progresses. In fact most of the undercurrents of the family relationships are revealed through indirection and innuendo as the film progresses. Ryota, the second son, feels the typical inadequacies of the younger child. He has married a widow with a child, and he is having trouble finding work. His parents are less than thrilled with his marriage and disappointed with his failure to follow in his father's, a doctor, profession. His sister and her family are trying to wheedle their way into living with their parents, an arrangement which would involve moving into the older brother's room, which their mother treats as something of a shrine. The relationship between the older Yokohamas is also less than idyllic. They rarely communicate and when they do, they quarrel. There are reasons, and they are revealed slowly and subtly. Kore-eda is nothing, if not subtle.

Subtlety and indirection are central to the film's imagery as well. Kore-eda and Director of Photography and cinematographer, Yutaka Yamazaki, also in an interview included as one of the DVD extras, both talk about the importance of what is happening outside the frame. Yamazaki's comments are illustrated by a scene from the film where the frame is focused on an empty room as action is going on just outside. This is a technique used often in the film. The audience is always made aware that what they are seeing on the screen is only the surface. It is necessary to look beyond the frame to get an idea of reality. The cinematic technique reinforces the thesis that much that is significant in human interaction is hidden beneath the surface, just as the dead son's absence dominates so much of what is happening.

Although when one has to depend on subtitles it is sometimes difficult to tell, performances are natural and realistic. There is no chewing of scenery. Hiroshi Abe's Ryota is appropriately miserable without being sullen. Yoshio Harada plays the father with a stern stoicism that ignores everything around him, but every once in awhile opens up, especially to Ryota's son. His sister is played by You (the name of the actress) with a kind of nasal good humored artificiality. But perhaps the subtlest performance is Kirin Kiki as the mother. She can drop the most biting of remarks with the most casual aplomb. She hides her unhappiness with everyone around her in fussing attentiveness. Even her care with cooking seems calculated to other ends. This is an ensemble cast that works together about as well as any real family could.

Besides the interviews the DVD also includes a half hour documentary on the making of the film and a trailer. The interviews are well worth your time. Besides talking about the personal nature of the material, Kore-eda talks about his career in general, his influences and ironically the removal he now feels from the material. It is as though the making of the film had a therapeutic effect. Yamazaki talks about how he came to work with Kore-eda as well as the collaborative process. The documentary provides insights into the way this particular director works with his actors and the rest of the creative team. It looks at large elements like rehearsals and details like costume choices. The DVD also comes with a little brochure that includes an essay of the film and the writer/director by Dennis Lim, and a set of recipes from Kore-eda for the dishes prepared in the film.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: War, by Sebastian Junger

This article was first published at Blogcritics

War, Sebastian Junger's account of one American platoon's experience fighting in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, is intended to give readers an idea of what war is really like for the soldiers on the front lines. It is based on Junger's experiences as an embedded reporter, and it has all the advantages that first-hand gives a writer, but it also has its disadvantages, and unfortunately at times the disadvantages seem to outweigh the advantages.

Advantages first, there is definitely a sense of authenticity about the book. Battle Company's life at the Korengal Outpost (KOP) and its various outliers is described with authoritative detail, whether it is the arrangements for handling excrement, the computer games, the problem making a cup of coffee or the pictures of bikini clad young ladies tacked to the walls among belts of ammunition. He describes the physical discomfort—the heat, the bugs, the dirt. He stresses the boredom. There are the occasional patrols. There are the random firings into the compound. More often than not, these seem to be welcomed as relief from days of inaction. Besides, as Junger sees it, these are men who get an adrenalin rush from battle. War may be hell, but it sure can be exciting.

Junger focuses on the sociology of the platoon, the interaction of the men, their dependence on each other and the cohesion that that dependence fosters. He does his best to try to explain what makes young men willing to risk their lives for their comrades, to understand the obligation they feel for each other. He describes men running to their deaths to try to help someone who has been wounded, men having been wounded going AWOL from the safety of the hospital to return to their buddies. There is a group dynamic that is stronger than the individual's self interest. The platoon is like a family. These men are like my brothers, one soldier tells Junger. Oddly, perhaps, they hide their love for each other by wisecracks about their sisters and mothers and by beating the crap out of each other. On the other hand perhaps this is not so strange. These are, after all young men, young warriors; strong emotional attachments may not be easy to admit. That some of them eventually do is probably a testament to their trust of an author who has done his best to become a part of the unit.

But it is in that becoming a part of the unit that at least some of the problem with Junger's book is manifest. Too often the attention is on him. Many of the men in the platoon are little more than names. They come to life sporadically and then fade into the background sometimes disappearing entirely. Some never become more than names. It is always Junger that is front and center. There is nothing wrong with that if one is writing the story of the adventures of a war correspondent. If what you are writing the story of a group of young men fighting anonymously in what seems like a hellish environment, it's probably a better idea to keep yourself off to the side.

Junger took five trips to Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. The longest, he says, was for about a month. The book however doesn't actually emphasize the chronology. This can be confusing to the reader. It is not always easy, if it is even possible, to distinguish the relationships between events. Of course, this is not meant to be a historical account still chronology can be useful to keep the reader grounded.

If there is one man who stands out, other than the author, it is Sgt O'Byrne. The book begins with O’Byrne in New York six months later and it ends with his problems getting home from Italy when he is mustered out. In a sense this focus is intentional. As Junger says at the beginning of the book, "I came to think of O'Byrne as a stand-in for the entire platoon, a way to understand a group of men who I don't think entirely understood themselves." Despite the hardships, despite the danger, despite the military snafus, Junger sees these soldiers as men who revel in what they do. In battle they have found something valuable. He ends his book with a quotation from O'Byrne: "Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Graphic Book Review: Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche by Ryan Foley, illustrated by Sankha Banerjee

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Written by Ryan Foley and illustrated by Sankha Banerjee, Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche is the latest in the Campfire Graphic Novel Mythology Series. The myth is framed as an object lesson on the power of love to overcome all obstacles. Demiarties, a female tutor, tells the story to her teenage charge who is having problems with the family of the young man she is in love with. The young man's mother feels she is not good enough for him. "Take two prominent families." Demiarties tells her. "Have two young members of the families be in love. Add a disapproving mother who wants to keep them apart. . . . that is a tale as old as time itself." Psyche's story, she goes on, is a story of "romance, trust, separations, second chances, and a very powerful disapproving mother."

The story she tells follows the traditions fairly closely. Aphrodite, jealous of Psyche's beauty sends her son, Eros to use his arrows to cause her to fall in love with some foul creature. Eros, however, succumbs to her beauty and falls in love with her himself. When Aphrodite refuses to relent in her animosity to Psyche, Eros vows to withhold love of all kinds from the world and eventually Aphrodite is forced to give in. The story continues with the strange marriage between the lovers, Psyche's failure to obey the command that she not look at her husband, her various labors to make up for her failure, including her descent into Hades, and of course her final transformation into a goddess. Foley tells the story in a straight forward manner, but never loses its magical quality. The young adult is the audience Campfire generally aims at, and this is just the kind of tale that can capture their target audience's imagination and encourage further exploration.

Campfire fosters such exploration with the inclusion of a two page addendum at the book's conclusion in which several other classic romances are summarized under the title, "Legends of Love." These include Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Paris and Helen from the Western tradition in literature, as well as Salim and Anarkali and Layla and Majnu from the Eastern. Their stories are presented in short paragraphs with single illustrations of each of the couples. Interspersed on the pages are interesting facts related to the stories. For example, the planet Uranus has one of its twenty seven moons named Juliet and Cleopatra supposedly bathed in donkey's milk. Again these are the kinds of things that may well send the young reader to the internet for more information, maybe even the library.

Banerjee's illustrations seem smoother and brighter than has been the norm in previous Campfire editions. Even the images of Psyche in Hades are not as dark as they might have been. Representations of the gods and goddesses are imbued with the kind of monumentality you would expect from divine beings. Often panels are laid out so that the figure of the god dominates the page. In general, the illustrations are effectively fine tuned to work closely with the text.

If you are looking for a way to introduce a youngster to the magical world of mythology, this Campfire version of Eros and Psyche is a good place to start. It is a story that has everything: romance, jealousy, adventure, and mystery. It is a story with lessons to learn, morals to be drawn. But most important of all, it is a story told with flair and illustrated with style.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hotel Paradise (Emma Graham Mysteries)Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Introduces the 12 year old Emma Graham, inquisitive young investigator who can't stop herself from looking into crimes in the past, crimes which always seem to have repercussions in the present. This is a much better book than the new entry in the Graham catalogue--"Fade Away Girl."

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Music Review:La Boheme

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I don't know if Puccini's La Bohѐme is the most often recorded opera ever written, but if it isn't, it has got to be one of the prime contenders for that honor. The tragic lovers have been sung by most every significant soprano and tenor of the past century, many more than once: Callas and Freni, Victoria de Los Angeles and Montserrat Caballé, Gigli and Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jussi Björling. And these are only a few. It has been recorded by nearly all of the world's greatest opera companies under the baton of the world's greatest conductors—Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, James Levine. You name the artists, it is more than likely they have recorded the opera, if not the complete four acts, at least the highlights.

Why then, you might ask, why then does the world need still another recording. It is not as though none of the previous performances were any good. Recording after recording has been praised for musicianship, sound quality, drama and general artistic quality. There are recordings that are legendary, like Beecham's with Björling and de Los Angeles. There are recordings that are becoming legendary, like Herbert von Karajan's with the Berlin Philharmonic and Mirella Freni and Pavarotti.

And of course there are those that. . .well the less said about those the better. Now along comes Sony Classical with a remastered 2 disc recording of the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast performance of February 15th 1958 with Thomas Schippers conducting the Met Orchestra and Chorus. So one has to ask why—and there is really only one answer. You can never have too much of a good thing. Great art does not fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. A fine performance is its own justification. You can't have too many Hamlets, and you can't have too many La Bohѐmes. Great artists always have something of their own to bring to a great work, something that makes the work their own.

And these leading singers are excellent. Soprano Licia Albanese sings Mimi. Perhaps most famous for her interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, a role in which she debuted at the Met in 1940, she was equally noted for her portrayal of the doomed Mimi. While perhaps a little old for the part in 1958, her voice remains young and she manages to capture all the pathos of the situation. Donde lieta usci, the Act III aria in which she says farewell to her jealous lover is masterful and truly affecting, as is her work at the end of Act IV. If she doesn't bring a tear to your eye, no one will. Rodolpho, Mimi's poet/lover, is played by tenor Carlo Bergonzi. He has the kind of powerful voice the role demands, and he does full justice to what may well be the signature aria of the opera, Che gelida manina, as well as the finale of the first act, O soave fanciulla.

The supporting cast is made up of Met stalwarts. Laurel Hurley is the coquettish Musetta. She makes the most of her shining moment in the second act with an exciting Quando me'n vo'. Marcello, the artist, is sung by the dynamic Mario Sereni. Norman Scott and Clifford Harvuot round out the rest of the Bohemian crew with professional vigor.

There are reasons why this opera is so popular, why it has been recorded so often. Puccini's music is passionate, gorgeous and most of all accessible. The libretto, based on Henry Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Bohѐme, is affectingly sentimental. It is nearly impossible to listen to the end of the first act without chills and the end of the last act without damp eyes. When sung well, it is a magical work. This is a performance in which it is sung well.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Review: Fade Away Girl, by Martha Grimes

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you intend to read Fade Away Girl, the latest in Martha Grimes' Emma Graham mystery series, you would probably do well to read the first three books in the series first. It is not that you can't understand what is going on without having read the others; it is simply that there are so many more or less cryptic references and connections to people and events in those earlier books that they inevitably get in the way of new story. Not having read the other books myself—until I went down to the local library and checked them out—I must say I often found myself confused.

Novelists writing a series are faced with the problem of giving new readers enough information to understand who everyone is and any background they need without boring their old readers by rehashing things they already know from the earlier books over and over again. The more recurring characters there are, the greater the problem. It is fairly easy to avoid the problem if your central character is a rootless loner who rarely stays in one place for any length of time, or if he or she is a professional of some sort always working on different cases with one or even a few allies. On the other hand, if your detective is a twelve year old girl tied to a small town at the very bottom of Maryland and its environs, where not only is she a waitress at her mother's hotel and a reporter for the local newspaper, but a super sleuth as well, it becomes a real issue.

It is not one or two or even five or ten characters who move from one book to another, it is towns full of people: the waitress at the local diner and its grumpy owner, the sheriff and his demeaning deputy, the fellow who drives the taxi, the ancient great aunt who lives alone on the fourth floor of the hotel, and on and on. It is very easy to get lost in the crowds of people that Emma runs into in the course of her investigations. Then there are the constant references to events that took place in other books, and which she can't seem to get out of her mind: how she was nearly killed, other murders—Mary-Evelyn Devereau, Rose Queen, Fern Queen, a kidnapped baby. Most of which, at least at first, seem to have very little relationship to what is going on in the present book. Indeed, at first one has to wonder what it is exactly that is going on in this book, outside of what may be growing out of a precocious twelve year old's active imagination. Her mind as the sheriff says in the first novel, Hotel Paradise, may be "unlumbered by reality."

It is Emma Graham that is the heart of Fade Away Girl. She is the voice of the story, and if you can buy a twelve year old playing detective, if you can take her as seriously as she takes herself, and indeed as seriously as most all of the people she deals with take her, this is a novel you may well enjoy. Although there are times when Emma's behavior seems out of character for a twelve year old, most of the time it is not. She plays childish pranks; she has childish jealousies. She likes her doughnuts, hot chocolate and coke. She recognizes her ignorance about things sexual. And if she seems able to roam around the countryside without telling anyone where she is going and why, if she is able to inveigle all sorts of adults into helping her with her schemes and plots, if she is able to see what is going on when no one else can, well, after all, she is something of a phenomenon.

But she is not Nancy Drew. She has a voice that is uniquely her own. At one moment she can moan and groan about having to bring her brother's breakfast to him, and at the next busy herself making up clever, punning names for the alcoholic drinks she concocts for her great aunt. She can hide hot peppers in the food of one of the guests she doesn't like; she can charm adults into giving her all sorts of information. She can talk about the poetry of Frost with some sensitivity and at the same time ridicule Emily Dickenson. She can talk about Faulkner and then admit she's never read him. The reader, seeing everything, even Emma herself, through the girl's own eyes, is always left to question whether what he is seeing is real, or if it is simply her vivid imagination at work. The trouble is that more often than not despite her childishness she seems to see more than the adults around her. In a sense what you have here is a modern variation on the ancient theme of the wisdom of the child, and Emma Graham is a child you won't mind spending your time with.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Music Review: Roger Hodgson, Classics Live

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Supertramp's story is not unusual. The story of rock bands that couldn't stand their success is an old one. From its formation in 1969 through the seventies, Supertramp put out a series of critically applauded albums with some of the most commercially successful singles of the decade, reaching their zenith with the 1975 monster hit, Breakfast in America. The artistic nucleus of the band was its founders, Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson. Each working individually, they composed the songs and wrote most of the lyrics. Hodgson did most of the lead singing, but Davies did his share as well. Hodgson also began playing the Wurlitzer electric piano which in some ways became the band's signature sound. Trouble was too much of a good thing, and after a 1983 tour, Hodgson left the band.

Why? The reasons are unclear. Hodgson has said that there were no personal problems with Davies, but that hasn't stopped speculation. Especially since the two made a legal agreement that they would no longer perform each others' songs. Hodgson has gone on to pursue a solo career. Davies continued with Supertramp. Neither of them has met with the same kind of success.

Now Hodgson is back with a collection of live performances of some of his greatest hits. These are songs he has said in an interview he still loves to sing. "My songs come from a very personal place inside me and they carry my beliefs and my dreams and my philosophy of life." More importantly, they are songs we still love to hear. They have been available as digital downloads on Hodgson's official web site and will soon be out on a CD. Classics Live collects dynamic performances from the singer's 2010 world tour: Brazil, Germany, Norway, Venezuela and Paris. If the album shows anything, it shows that Hodgson still has that distinctive voice that thrilled us all back in the day and the songs themselves are as alive today as they ever were.

The CD opens with "Take the Long Way Home" from Breakfast in America and adds three other songs from one of the finest rock albums ever recorded: "The Logical Song," "Lord is it Mine?," and "Breakfast in America." From the 1974 Crime of the Century there are three songs: "School," "Dreamer," and "Hide in Your Shell." There is an acoustic version of "Two of Us" from the 1975 Crisis? What Crisis? and Even the Quietest Moment(1977) is represented by the hit, "Give a Little Bit." "It's Raining Again" from 1982’s Famous Last Words, Hodgson's last album with Supertramp, ends the album. The only song from his solo career is "Only Because of You."

If you are too young to have been around in the seventies when Supertramp was at its heights, here is a collection that will give you a good idea of what made them so great. For the elderly among you, this is a collection that is bound to bring back some fine memories. Unlike some singers who seem to have grown tired of singing the songs that made them famous, Hodgson recognizes the "deep connection that fans have" with these songs and he performs them with the same passion and vigor he did forty years ago. Classic is the right title for these songs; classy is the right word to describe the singer.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Music Review: Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Sinatra fans who have never had the opportunity to see old blue eyes on stage need not entirely despair; Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas, a newly released collection of fourteen live performances culled from Reprise Records 2006 five disc box set: Sinatra: Vegas, can at least give you a taste of what his club act was like. The new release features the singer on the Vegas stages of the Sands, Caesar's Palace, and the Golden Nugget between 1961 and 1987. Unlike studio recordings, these performances have the kind of electricity that only comes from interaction with an audience. Sinatra was not only a great musician; he was a master showman, and it is his showmanship, his power over his audience that comes across most clearly on this CD. Not only do you get some stellar versions of Sinatra favorites, but you get the artist's give and take with the audience—the wisecracks, the jokes: speaking or singing, this is a man who knows how to work the crowd.

Still it is the music that is the important thing, and this disc has fourteen classics. There isn't a dud in the bunch. Recently I heard an old interview with Wilfred Sheed in which he said that Sinatra was probably the best band singer ever. Given Sheed's writing on the singer, I would doubt this is hyperbole. Indeed, the music collected here, with its dynamic blend of singer and big band, is surely convincing evidence for Sheed's assertion.

The set opens with a swinging version of "The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else" followed by some nice lyrical improvisation on the standard, "Moonlight in Vermont." Rogers and Hart's "The Lady is A Tramp" shows off the singer's legendary phrasing as well as his playful handling of lyrics. "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Fly Me to the Moon" have Sinatra working with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Quincy Jones and show the how the singer meshes with the distinctive Basie sound. "I Can't Get Started," made famous by Bunny Berigan has some really nice trumpet shadowing by Charles Turner. Interestingly, Sinatra begins with the rarely heard verse. "Without a Song," usually treated in an inspirational, almost reverential mode, gets a unique swinging arrangement.

There are interesting new arrangements of "Witchcraft" and one of Sinatra's earliest recordings, "All or Nothing At All" by Nelson Riddle, as well as a really jumping Quincy Jones arrangement of "Pennies From Heaven." Less well known songs like "Angel Eyes" and "Street of Dreams" show the master's prowess with the boozy ballad, and he takes the opportunity to do a little schmaltzy emoting. The set ends with a romp through the "Theme From New York, New York."

Besides interpolated patter before, after and even during some of the songs, the CD includes an eight and a half minute monologue. Truth to tell, while this does give the listener the feel of what Sinatra's Vegas act was like and the rapport he was able to create with his audience, I don't know but that I wouldn't rather have had eight and a half more minutes of music. If I've got a choice between monologue and, say, "My Way," give me "My Way" every time. After all it is not for his comedy that the man is revered.

Come to think of it, since this is a selection from a five disc collection, there must still be a lot of material left over. Might there not be a Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas (2) or a Son of Frank Sinatra Best of Vegas in the works? I mean, think of all those live performances waiting in the wings. One look at the playlist from that box set, and you can't help wishing for at least one more dip into the cache. "Don't Cry Joe," "Come Fly With Me," "For Once in My Life:" here's hoping.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Book Review: Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

This article was first published at Blogcritics

What disturbs me most about Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel, Barney's Version, now available in a new paperback edition as well as a major motion picture with Paul Giamatti, is that it took me almost fifteen years to get around to reading it. This is one hell of a masterful piece of fiction. It has everything you could want from a novel—humor and poignancy, complexity and passion, eloquence and a specific aesthetic point of view. Barney's Version is not only a great read, although it is that; Barney's Version is a work of art.

Now in his sixties and having trouble remembering the names of the Seven Dwarfs, Barney Panofsky sits down to tell the story of his life, ostensibly to defend himself against what he sees as a scurrilous attack in a book by a writer he once thought of as something of a friend back when they were young expatriates living imitation Bohemian lives in Paris. Barney, in spite of the fact that he tells his own story, doesn’t come across as a particularly nice fellow. He is loud and can behave obnoxiously, especially when dealing with poseurs and those he considers pompous. He is defensive about his roots, his religion and his feeling that he has sold out to the money grubbers, and his defensiveness more often than not takes the form of aggression.

Three marriages: his first wife dies and she is followed by two divorces—although he still carries the torch for his last wife. He has made a fortune producing schlock television shows for broadcast in Canada. Not particularly religious himself, is tuned in to both the anti-Semitism he felt as a child in Montreal and still feels as he writes and his distaste for the pretentions of many of the Jews around him. He is an aggressive type-A personality who goes after what he wants without regard for the feelings of others. He is not afraid to flaunt his wealth and use his position to get what he wants, and if he needs to finagle a little, bend a law here and there, he is not above it. He can be foul mouthed and sarcastic when he likes you and a vindictive son of a bitch when he doesn't. Yet despite all this, he is a vibrant exciting character filled with a will to live life to the fullest.
Back in the 19th century when Robert Browning was writing poems in the voices of a gallery of rather disreputable characters, he pointed out that what he was trying to do was present them in such a way that they would make the best possible case for themselves—what he called the defense of the indefensible. In some cases they were outright villains, in others, charismatic reprobates. But however a reader felt about them, that reader's feelings came directly from what they had to say about themselves. Richler is doing the same thing. Like Barney, or hate him: it is from his own mouth that you must make the determination.

He is a curmudgeon, but he is not one of those loveable curmudgeons with a heart of gold hidden under the bristles. He can be cruel. He is self-centered and selfish. He is perfectly willing to use people. And still you can't help liking him, possibly because of his voice. He tells his story with what seems like unvarnished honesty. He doesn't seem to be hiding anything. When he denies having done something especially egregious, the fact that he has been owning up to all these other misbehaviors gives some credence to his denials.

Moreover the story just seems to pour out of him. It reeks with sincerity. It never seems artificially pointed to make a case for the reader, despite the fact that it obviously is. It is filled with digressions, memory lapses and angry rants on all sorts of subjects from Francophile politics and the state of contemporary hockey to literary pretentiousness and political correctness. At one point he compares what he is doing to books like Sterne's Tristram Shandy ; if Sterne could get away with all the beating about the bush, why not Panofsky? There are even points where he suggests he may well be setting the spool of his life on rewind and "editing out embarrassments, reshooting them in my mind's eye." Not only does he ramble and digress he admits to the possibility of his own unreliability. He is a narrator with whom it is a pleasure to spend four hundred pages.

And if Barney is not to your taste, there is a supporting cast of the kind you might find in a Dickens novel. There are the three wives: Clara, an expatriate artiste with real emotional problems who becomes a feminist icon years after her death; the second Mrs. Panofsky (as she is always referred to in the novel), a Jewish Canadian Princess with a family pretending to be Wasps; and Miriam, the mother of his children, the love of his life and the woman he ultimately betrays. There is the Jewish fund raiser whose eyes light up when he hears about anti-Semitic acts because they foster contributions. There is Barney's hard drinking father, the only Jewish cop in Montreal. There is his best friend Boogie who may or may not be a great writer, but who is definitely a druggie and a procrastinator. And these are just a few by way of example.

There is something of a plot concerning what may have been a murder in Barney's past, but since it is only hinted at through most of the book, and revealed at the end, it would be horrendous for a reviewer to spoil any of it for the reader. Richler approaches it and backs away like child playing peek-a-boo. The details are less important than the game, and to know them in advance would spoil the game. Besides, the pleasures of this book are not in the plot; the pleasures are in getting to know someone like Barney Panofsky and listening to his version.