Music and Popular Culture

Paul McCartney: boy in a band to man on the run…

Tom Doyle’s excellent book on Paul McCartney during the Wings years reveals a Paul most don’t know very well: a conflicted, sometimes lost, boy/man trying to carry on as a musician while also trying to be husband/father and rock star/cultural agitator at the same time – until traumas of very different types made him settle into adulthood and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Sir Paul McCartney, my favorite Beatle (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Much of what the average rock aficionado knows about the break up of the Beatles comes from either Jann Wenner’s interviews with John Lennon or from casual attention during those years to news reports about the legal hassles the Fabs endured while extricating themselves from their partnership in Apple. Like any break up, personal or professional, (and this was both the severing of an indescribably successful musical collaboration and the splintering of friends who’d been almost inseparable since childhood), the Beatles’ demise was messy and hurtful for all involved.

Tom Doyle’s superb book Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970’s fell into my hands as a birthday present from my beloved sister a few days ago and I dropped my usual reading to devour it, both because I wanted to make sure my sister knew I appreciated her thoughtfulness and because I will read anything written with something approaching competence about The Beatles generally and Paul McCartney specifically. Hell, I even read the incompetent stuff.

This book is as good as any I’ve ever read on these subjects. Kudos to Tom Doyle and to my sister Janis. Continue reading

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Book Review: Murder and Bombs by Greg Stene

Murder and Bombs is the sort of thrill ride that any reader would be glad to add their collection of what we know fondly as “beach reads.” 

Murder and Bombs by Greg Stene (image courtesy Amazon)

Greg Stene’s latest crime novel, Murder and Bombs, covers lots of ground despite taking place exclusively in and around Tucson, Arizona. It takes in Mexican drug cartels, the Tucson police, mad bombers, covert government operations, love and marriage, and the meaning of brotherhood. It does all this at a not-quite-breakneck pace, one that rolls along fast enough to keep the pages turning, slow enough to allow Stene to develop his characters, build suspense, and give all this craziness enough context and background to make it plausible.

Oh yes, and The Thing makes an appearance. Wouldn’t want to forget that.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Lee Smith’s Black Mountain Breakdown: high level lifestyle lit…

Black Mountain Breakdown is a fine novel with depths that many readers, whether they are those who prefer what is dismissed as “lifestyle lit” or those who would dismiss Smith’s work too easily as such, may not see thanks to their biases…..

Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

In writing a series of essays last summer about the late Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the state of litfic in the late 1990’s, I addressed one piece to Bellamy’s celebration of what he termed “super fiction.” Bellamy saw it as a great leap forward for literature – I was pretty meh about it. That’s not going to surprise anyone who has read my work (I’d like to thank all eleven of you at this time) as I am a pretty staunch defender of realism as literary style in all its permutations. Bellamy is generally a generous and thoughtful writer about literary fiction and its practitioners, but in the section of Literary Luxuries that I wrote about in the essay linked above, he refers to what he terms “lifestyle fiction.” He is dismissive of this type of litfic (written, primarily, we should note, by women authors such as Ann Beattie, Ellen Gilchrist, and Lee Smith) as not experimental enough, not ground breaking enough, not, it would seem, challenging enough to readers. Bellamy goes further and tacitly links this genre of writing to reactionary thinking such as that which propels American conservative politics. It’s damning criticism, and, at least for its best writers, unfair. While there is in the work of these writers, of whom Lee Smith is an example, much of the lifestyle of the worlds they live in (there is a domestic life – particularly women’s domestic life – element to the work of these authors that is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Mama and them” theme), their treatments of their chosen subjects, while sometimes unappealing to some readers (particularly males), rings true and has the power of realism. For the reader who appreciates the work of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, both of whom certainly explored the domestic lives of women, the line from those authors to writers like Smith should seem clear. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Flying through Coleridge

Last night I started reading the second volume of Richard Holmes’s superb biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who probably is best known for his poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.”

My first encounter with Coleridge came in 1966, when our seventh-grade English teacher assigned “Ancient Mariner” as a reading. As might be expected, we 12-year-old boys weren’t ready for it. In fact, we were so not ready that we didn’t simply ignore the poem, as we did with most of our assigned readings. Instead, we made fun of it. Inspired no doubt by Mad magazine, my smart-ass buddies and I wrote our own version of the beginning of Coleridge’s classic. It was exactly what you’d expect:

It is the Ancient Mariner
Who walketh down the street
He cometh across the Wedding Guest
And smelleth of his feet
He droppeth dead as he smelt of them
They doth not smell so sweet.

Continue reading

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Go Set a Watchman: Historically Important – Literarily, Not So Much…

Go Set a Watchman, to use a tired description, is what it is: a sixty year-old first novel that its author, with guidance from a thoughtful editor, revised into a beloved classic of American literature.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy Goodreads)

I wrote about Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, a couple of weeks ago and discussed the problematic history of its discovery and subsequent publication. At that time I wondered whether Lee was able to discern how her decision (upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court) might affect her literary legacy.

I’ve read the novel now and can offer two observations: 1) if one is to appreciate Watchman, one must approach it as what it is – a 60 year old work that might have been published as a work of its time; 2) had Watchman been published in 1957 when Lee first shopped it to publishers, it would have been reviewed as an uneven first novel by a young author who showed flashes of promise but as a work was ultimately a failure.

It certainly wouldn’t have sold over a million copies and elicited backlash like this. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Walker Percy, the South, gentlemen, God…and me….

Southerners have trouble ruling out the possible. What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course…. – Walker Percy

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy (image courtesy Goodreads)

At long last the time has come to talk about Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman both on its own merits as a great Southern novel and in relation to my novel The New Southern Gentleman and about Percy’s influence on both me and on that novel.

As promised, let me talk first about my relationship with Mr. Percy. In 1984 I was a doctoral student completing a creative dissertation which became (several years later) the novel mentioned above. I was in contact with an editor at one of the major publishing houses in New York who liked my work and kept pushing me to write something/anything that would please the new masters of publishing, the corporate entities who were swallowing up the old family owned publishing houses left and right and for whose decision making power they had shifted from editors to marketing departments. He liked my manuscript, but he figured it would not fly with marketing (he was right; the novel only appeared years later from a small, independent litfic house in California). Because of the similarity in the title of my work and the title of Mr. Percy’s masterpiece, he wrote to me and suggested I write to Walker Percy. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Literature as comfort food…

Our choices of favorite books, those we go to time and again for pleasure, for solace, for inspiration, for – comfort – may be inexplicable, even to us….

You can bet a certain Mr. Twain will be on the menu of my literary comfort foods…

As I continue my rather too leisurely reading of Walker Percy’s classic The Last Gentleman, I find myself scrambling for an essay topic. Luckily, last week I was helped out by  my friend Sam who insisted, rightly, that I wrote something about the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. Then I ran into an article at The Nation which allowed me to discuss two of the current movements in literary fiction.  That made for another nice essay to allow me more time to finish the Walker Percy – which I didn’t do.

Hence this essay – more dithering until I get back on track writing about items from the 2015 reading list.

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks about this issue, literature as intellectual comfort food. In fact, I’ve already decided that for the 2016 reading list will be devoted to a list composed of at least some of my favorite books. As anyone who reads my drivel is aware,  my tastes run to literary fiction. In past years I have also read compendia of scholarly essays, naturalists’ journals, histories, science works, and even children’s books. So here is a list of five of my comfort food books. These will certainly appear in next year’s list where I’ll write about them in more detail, so for now I’ll offer simply brief explanations of why I return to them again and again. Continue reading

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Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: mythbusting or manipulation?

The soon to be released Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman will be an interesting experiment: a sequel that seeks to explode the mythology surrounding her only other work, the ubiquitously revered celebration of high-minded Southernness, To Kill a Mockingbird. How that will go down with the myriad Atticus Finch acolytes is what will make or break both the novel and perhaps Lee’s reputation as a writer….

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy HarperCollins, NY Times)

By now anyone within reach of media of one stripe or another knows that Harper Lee, the long reclusive and now aged and fragile author of one of, if not the the most beloved of American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is now, at long last, bringing out a second novel, a work which is both a sequel to Mockingbird and, at least in the minds of early reviewers, a sort of rebuttal of that myth of Southern race relations.

It seems a daring act – but as history shows, Go Set a Watchman is not a “new” work. That raises questions about Lee’s motivation for publishing her novel (which is, it seems clear, the antecedent of Mockingbird). Is this the act of a woman coming to terms with her mortality and wanting to “set the record straight,” to coin a phrase? Or is this what some have claimed, a manipulation of an aged, fragile woman by cynical forces?

However, such questions, and the arguments they have fostered, seem, at best, pointless now. Go Set a Watchman will be released 07/14/2015. And Chapter 1 of the novel is already available from numerous sources for those seeking a preview. What remains, then, is to consider the work – which probably must be done both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship with its iconic descendant. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Carson McCullers: trying to understand why love is so difficult…

In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and in her short stories Carson McCullers seeks again and again after the same goal: to discover why love is so difficult to find and even more difficult to keep….

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (image courtesy Goodreads)

Carson McCullers’ literary reputation has always been rather fragile as her work has an amorphous quality that makes her difficult to classify as a Southern writer even though her work has deep Southern roots. A true Southern eccentric, her work bears the earmarks both of Southern Gothic and of what would later come to be called dirty realism. At the same time her work carries forward the autobiographical strain of Thomas Wolfe, though McCullers’ particular focus is that most powerful and enigmatic of emotions, love. In one way or another, every work by Carson McCullers is a love story. Sadly but not surprisingly these stories are in one way or another stories of love lost. That is partly because McCullers seems to be trying, as autobiographical writers do, to work out the questions in the lost loves of her own life. Still, it would be unfair to say that her fiction is only a sort of self-administered therapy; the best of her works show us love as the rightful goal of human endeavor. Continue reading

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

James Street’s The Gauntlet: that old time religion…

James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….

The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)

From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.

Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road: maybe Southerners aren’t merely caricatures…

Reading Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is reminiscent of watching an episode of Dukes of Hazzard and reading Flannery O’Connor at the same time… 

First, an anecdote:

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).

Another anecdote:

I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.

It also allowed me access to secret, forbidden worlds. Like the world of Erskine Caldwell. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Jean Genet’s Treasures of the Night: once an outlaw…

The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….

Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)

The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.

They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems. Continue reading