Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time
Bellevue Literary Press (March 22, 2022), 214 pages
Kindle edition $15.38, Amazon paperback $16.19
Natalie Hodges opens her memoir by describing her performance anxiety in playing the violin and writes about her worries over the specific passages in a piece where she was afraid she was going to slip up. She writes about her different violin teachers and their differing approaches. Hodges describes the moment she realized she would never be successful as a concert violinist and put down her instrument. She then spends several pages writing about improvisation. Hodges admits to not being good at improvisation herself but goes into detail about a woman who was accomplished in that regard. She writes about the medical research into musical improvisation and discoveries about how the brain works in that manner.
After dwelling on the abstract concepts of improvisation, Hodges suddenly shifts gears and gives us a concrete picture of her childhood. Her mother gave her the violin to play as soon as she was big enough to hold it in her hands. She was one of four children, all of whom received an instrument. Hodges’s mother was Korean, but she married an upper class white man. At one point in her childhood her father summarily left her mother for a well-off white woman whom he believed was more appropriate for him in what he thought to be his station in life.
Hodges writes about her mother’s efforts to raise the four kids as a single parent and how she ensured that they continue their music education. The author admits that she woke up her mother, exhausted after finally having gotten the youngest sibling to sleep, to have her critique her playing.
In the midst of all of this Hodges digresses and talks about physics: both classical (the law of entropy) and quantum. The author covers a lot of territory in this short book.
Hodges concludes the book by describing how she picked up the violin again one last time to tackle one particularly challenging piece. The then put her violin away permanently. Hodges says playing the violin and then giving it up gave her something to write about and the opportunity for a different creative outlet. I’m sad that she gave up the violin, but I am happy that she took up the written word. I hope we see more of Hodges’s writing.
Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection
Cascade Books (April 26, 2021), 214 pages
Kindle edition $9.99
Although Cascade Books published Celebrant’s Flame in April 2021, The Christian Century gave it an extensive review in its 2022 Spring Books issue.
I don’t question the importance of keeping Daniel Berrigan’s legacy alive, but I found this to be a rather odd book. The chapters are a strange mixture. Some chapters are the author’s reflections or material Wylie-Kellermann has published previously. Some chapters are letters that Wylie-Kellermann solicited from those who knew Berrigan, asking for their recollections, while others consist of Berrigan’s own words.
It was difficult for me to follow the book as there were no consistent chapter headings to indicate the contents of a given chapter. Sometimes a footnote provided the information and the chapters that contained letters often made the name of the writer clear. Sometimes I had to read into the chapter to figure out that it was Wylie-Kellermann’s own commentary. Because the book draws from multiple sources there is also a lot of repetition; there is no forward-moving narrative.
The book paints a picture of Berrigan’s life as an activist that seemed to me to be unbalanced. For example, Berrigan spent just over eighteen months in prison for his part in destroying draft records. But some sections of the book read as if he were incarcerated for twenty years. After his conviction Berrigan went underground, but Wylie-Kellermann gives no explanation for Berrigan’s motivation for doing so. When agents finally arrested him at the home of peace activist William Stringfellow he surrendered without resistance.
One enjoyable aspect of the book is the picture it gives of members of the religious community involved in social activism. Thomas Merton frequently appears in the book as does Thich Nhat Hanh. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker communities are important figures in the movement. And, of course, Berrigan’s brother Philip plays a central role.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann is not an objective observer. He was a young seminarian when he met Berrigan, right after Berrigan’s release from prison. He became a Berrigan follower from there on. I assumed that Wylie-Kellermann was Catholic, but it was only when I got to the author credit at the end of the book that I learned he is a Methodist pastor.
Celebrant’s Flame is not page-turning reading, but it represents an important archive documenting Daniel Berrigan’s life as a social activist.
I was angered, frustrated, and disappointed, but not in the least surprised to wake up to the news that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. The best way I can respond to the news is to repost a blog entry that I originally published in 2016. I discuss why a woman’s right to choose is essential to her ability to live the life she has set out for herself. Although today’s ruling means my final statement is now outdated, I give you the post exactly as I originally published it.
The Abortion (or: are you kidding me?)
An Olive Street recollection.
Those of you who are old enough to remember Richard Brautigan will recognize the first part of my title as a reference to his novella about an abortion in Mexico that did not go well. The second part of my title represents this way of thinking: WTF? Why the bleep are we still having to fight this battle?
Last week the South Carolina legislature passed a law prohibiting abortions after twenty weeks. The governor signed the bill this week. The same week the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill making abortion a felony. Fortunately the Oklahoma governor vetoed that one. As I said, WTF?
Let me tell you a story. I’ve told this before, but it’s been some years.
I was living on Olive Street during my Claremont Cockroach days. Beth was my housemate. She was a sophomore at Scripps College. Her boyfriend Ken, who, in fact, arranged for her to help me share in the rent, came back to Claremont from his Ivy League medical school over Christmas. They did what lovers do, and the birth control failed.
Beth had a problem. She got some good advice and signed up for MediCal. Then she talked to the folks at the Planned Parenthood clinic and made an appointment for her abortion. I dropped her off at the clinic on my way to work at B. Dalton Bookseller and she had arranged for someone else to pick her up afterwards.
She had a lot of pain and Ken was a humongous jerk in grilling her over the phone as to how much of that pain was psychological. But she was free of the pregnancy.
Had Beth been required to bring that pregnancy to term her college career would have been ended and her entire future would have been in jeopardy. I don’t know where Beth is today, but I trust that she is successful and doing well.
Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. We cannot allow ourselves to backslide.
I get my recipes from a variety of sources. There is the Food Network, from what few actual cooking shows that they have left. We subscribe to three cooking magazines: Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and Food Network Magazine. I also follow a few recipe sites on my RSS news reader. (My RSS news reader allows me to follow my favorite web sites using a sort of inbox format. It is a technology that is on the decline, however, something that I have written about.)
One of the recipe sites that I follow is The Recipe Critic. Alyssa Rivers offers recipes that are consistently both easy to make and tasty. Low calorie, not so much. But for my cooking preferences easy and tasty rank higher than low calorie.
For example, last Saturday I made her Creamy Tuscan Garlic Salmon. (A lot of Alyssa’s recipes start with “creamy.” You see what I mean about them not necessarily being low calorie.) It was not at all difficult to make and it was delicious. Terry loved it.
At a time when neither my television programs nor my magazines are offering recipes that I find terribly exciting, I am glad that Alyssa is there to keep things interesting.
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret E. Savoy
Counterpoint (November 1, 2015), 256 pages
reprinted with a new preface by the author in 2021
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $15.94
I suppose one might classify Trace as a memoir, but there are a lot of moving parts in this book. It contains travelogue, history, geography, geology, and genealogy. Savoy is on a quest for her roots.
She opens the book with a recollection of a childhood visit to the Grand Canyon. Her parents incorporated this visit, as well as visits to other national parks, as part of the family’s move from California to Washington, DC. Her father decided he would be in a better position to fight for racial equality if he were based in the nation’s capital.
Savoy’s story is centered on the fact that her parents were both of primarily African American background, but her father was light-skinned and could (sometimes) pass for white, while her mother was dark-skinned and never had that luxury.
The author writes about Oklahoma’s geography, mentioning the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, two rivers which I knew well back in my Oklahoma days of the 1980s. She writes about how the five civilized tribes (she uses lower case and quotes in naming the people) could own Black people as slaves, a background from which her mother might have come. She says that while only an “elite few” did so, “more than seven thousand people with African blood lived in bondage in Indian Territory on the eve of the Civil War.”
Savoy offers a history of the early days in Oklahoma when free Black people founded towns in which they thought they could create productive lives for themselves. This was before the territory became a state governed by white men.
As a nature writer (at least in part), Savoy appreciates the nature writers who came before her. As a teenager she read the iconic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and wondered how, as an American author, his only mention of slavery could be in reference to ancient Greece. She writes, “I so feared that his ‘we’ and ‘us’ excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America.”
Savoy describes the Washington, DC in which she lives as a youngster. She also delves deeply into the history of the city. It seems that it was located where it was partly because George Washington didn’t want to be far from his slave holdings or have the nation’s capital in a city (Philadelphia) that was antagonistic to the idea of enslaving people. Further, slave owners were a powerful lobby, and that helped ensure that slavery was legal there. (I recall Michelle Obama’s reflection in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”)
The author offers a brief history of the Southwest and notes how the original agreed-upon border between Texas and Mexico was the Nueces River. The government in Washington, however, decided that the proper place for the border was the Rio Grande, fifty to a hundred and fifty miles to the south.
Savoy paints a vivid portrait of a military base in Arizona where her mother served as a nurse. During World War II the base held prisoners of war, including Nazis. In that era, in that environment, the white Nazi prisoners had more rights and privileges than the African Americans on the base who were United States citizens and officers in the US Army.
Laurent Savoy has much to say about American history, identity, and racism. We need to listen to her.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about Food Network, although Food Network programs make up a large percentage of my television viewing. I haven’t written anything because nothing has changed in the past several years. There are still a lot of competition shows and a handful of straight cooking programs. Certainly they made some changes at the height of the pandemic as to which shows were taped and how they were taped. For the most part, however, Food Network has been pretty stable.
What frustrates me is that the top, most skilled Food Network chefs focus on competition shows when they could be teaching us innovative recipes.
Anne Burrell once had a good cooking program called Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. Now she focuses on Worst Cooks in America, which must be popular as the network renews it season after season. Tyler Florence once had a show I really enjoyed called Tyler’s Ultimate. Now he’s all about The Great Food Truck Race. Bobbie Flay, once known for his grilling and brunch programs is tied up with Beat Bobby Flay and BBQ Brawl. On the other hand, Valerie Bertinelli spends a lot of time on Kid’s Baking Championship, but still finds time for Valerie’s Home Cooking. It’s just that her recipes the past several weeks haven’t caught my attention.
I have to give the hosts of The Kitchen credit for giving proper attention to that program, which Terry and I both enjoy, while they still do other work. Alex Guarnaschelli, the newest Kitchen host, stays busy both as a competition host and competitor. Sunny Anderson works as a judge and Jeff Mauro his own competition shows, but we still see them consistently on The Kitchen. Geoffrey Zakarian is frequently off on QVC promoting his merchandise and has the occasional competition program on Food Network, but always offers interesting recipes on The Kitchen. We don’t see Katie Lee Biegel on competition shows, but she’s busy raising her daughter.
I know Food Network is there to make money, and I know they will invest in the programs that get the highest ratings. Perhaps it’s futile, but I can still hope for more straight cooking shows.
Penguin Press (May 24, 2022), 368 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.61
Elif Batuman’s second novel, Either/Or, has passages that could be considered NC-17 rated. I will attempt to keep this review at the R rated level.
In her first novel, The Idiot, Batuman’s fictional character Selin recounts her freshman year at Harvard and the summer that followed. Selin was born in the United States to Turkish parents. At Harvard she elects to focus on Russian language and literature. She meets a Hungarian named Ivan with whom she becomes infatuated and with whom she spends time in Europe over the summer. Batuman’s memoir, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (you notice Batuman’s habit of borrowing titles from well-known books), suggests that the events in her novels do not come strictly from her imagination.
In Either/Or, Batuman writes about Selin’s sophomore year at Harvard. Selin is still studying Russian, but Ivan has moved to the West Coast to do his graduate work. In this novel Ivan only appears via email. The story is set in 1999, so we see a lot about Unix computer systems on the college campus and technology such as the Walkman. (Batuman also writes about rewinding VCRs and buying music at Tower Records.)
As in the first novel, Selin has a habit of overthinking everything. She analyses every novel or work of theology that she reads to see how her own life maps into the book. Selin thinks a lot about sex, but is not sure she wants to experience it, as she cannot even insert a tampon without pain. When she finally does lose her virginity she looks at the package of condoms and the tube of K-Y Jelly by the bed and speculates about the manufacturing process of each. And, yes, she found intercourse painful.
For the summer she gets hired by the Let’s Go travel guide (it really exists) to update their volume on Turkey. It seems that non-Turkish people working for them in that country tend to have nervous breakdowns, so the coordinator was happy to hire someone with a Turkish heritage who spoke the language to do the work. While in Turkey she constantly encounters men who want to have sex with her, and with whom she complies, mostly because it’s easier than saying no. But she experiences no pleasure in the process. And she even overthinks those encounters. (“I had sex with the first three guys. What right do I have to turn down the fourth?”) She is, however, strict about condom use.
Selin arranged to follow her Turkey venture with an academic internship in Russia. The novel ends as she arrives in Russia, leaves the airport, and takes a cab to the location of her internship, so we learn nothing about that part of her summer.
I enjoyed the narrative about life on campus at Harvard, but I found the Turkey section of the book tedious. (I’m always open to suggestions about a college campus novel I haven’t read.)
With Selin’s arrival in Russia Batuman does not offer any sort of conclusion or resolution, so perhaps we will someday see a novel about Selin’s junior year. I hope so, but I hope Selin learns to stop overthinking everything.
The Zits cartoon below reminded me of the end of my sophomore year in high school when we were passing yearbooks back and forth.
I was very much involved in the speech program at Hemet High School. I was in the forensics class, which was the advanced public speaking class. We had our speech club, and we attended speech tournaments across Riverside County. However, for reasons not entirely clear, but perhaps related to budget, our teacher, Miss Palvadore, was not brought back for the next year. We were all very upset, and were concerned about the survival of the speech program for the next year.
One member of the speech group was a young woman named Paulette. When she gave me her yearbook to sign, I wrote in earnest about the future of the program, quoting a Top 40 song of the day:
United we stand,
Divided we fall,
and if our backs are ever up against the wall,
we’ll stand together.
When Paulette handed me back my yearbook I was crushed to read:
You are a nice boy.
You have a good summer.
Really? That’s it? I suppose I don’t need to say that the speech program the next year, taken over by the drama instructor, was not the same robust entity it was my sophomore year.
I still have that yearbook. It’s in our great room, just outside my office where I write this. I can’t, however, bring myself to open it up and find Paulette’s words. I’m not willing to open that Pandora’s box.
Some memories are better left undisturbed.
On Jazz: A Personal Journey
Cambridge University Press (May 5, 2022), 312 pages
Kindle edition $15.49, Amazon hardcover $24.95
When I read about a book that captures my interest and the review or mention of the book appears before the publication date, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to download the Kindle sample on the actual date of publication. That was the case with On Jazz. Based on the review I was eager to read the book.
Certainly the author is well qualified to write about jazz. Alyn Shipton has played bass since his teens, he has written extensively about jazz, he was an editor at the publishing house Macmillan in the United Kingdom, responsible for accepting or rejecting books on jazz, and he has a long history at the BBC, hosting or producing jazz programs. As a longtime jazz aficionado and one who listens to jazz six evenings a week, I was looking forward to reading the book.
I was disappointed. I shouldn’t have been, I suppose. Shipton makes clear that the reader should take the subtitle, “A Personal Journey,” at face value and directs the reader to other books he has written for a more objective history of jazz.
Shipton writes about his experience with jazz in New Orleans and provides profiles of some of the greats in jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and others. He takes a unique approach to these profiles. He interviews the musicians who worked with these artists and provides transcripts of those interviews. The conversation was often hard to follow, however, as the interviewees were speaking in a conversational, vernacular manner which Shipton leaves as-is. He moves from one individual to another, and it’s often hard to keep track of who is speaking. The problem is exacerbated because the book uses the British convention of single quotes for quoted material with double quotes inside quoted material: the exact opposite of the American convention that I am used to.
Then there’s the fact that Shipton doesn’t define his terms. He writes about the swing era and about big bands, but he doesn’t define what kind of music either is associated with. He talks about Old Testament and New Testament music without telling the reader what those terms mean in the context of jazz. Late in the book he discusses the advent of fusion and he writes about bebop, without any clarification of what the terms mean. Added to that is the musical terminology that Shipton assumes the reader knows the meaning of.
From an archival standpoint I like the fact that the recollections of the rank-and-file musicians who worked with the big stars of jazz are preserved in Shipton’s book. But for a readable history of jazz and its evolution there are no doubt better choices.
A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters
Andrew H. Knoll
read by Tom Parks
HarperAudio, April 27, 2021
$17.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
This book is 277 pages in the print edition, which translates to four hours and fifty-seven minutes in the audiobook version, rather short by audiobook standards, but long enough for Andrew Knoll to get his message across. The print and Kindle editions contain several charts, diagrams, and photos. Fortunately, purchasers of the audiobook version can download a PDF file with these images.
Knoll does indeed condense the history of planet earth into eight chapters, and he arranges them logically. His eight chapters are:
- Chemical Earth
- Physical Earth
- Biological Earth
- Oxygen Earth
- Animal Earth
- Green Earth
- Catastrophic Earth
- Human Earth
The author does a nice job of tracking the history of the planet from its earliest days shortly after the formation of the solar system. Although the first chapter is titled “Chemical Earth,” Knoll refers to chemistry and chemical elements throughout the book.
He offers some interesting material. For example, he describes how life had to first form without oxygen before oxygen breathing animals could evolve. He describes one of the great extinctions, when there was an unusual amount of volcanic activity on the planet. This, he says, created an environment that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve. Then, of course, that infamous meteor hit what is now the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, causing their extinction.
Knoll describes the geological evolution of the planet, and how the continents moved and shifted until we got the geography that we know today. The first seven chapters offer an interesting blend of history, chemistry, geology, and biology.
Then the author gets to the final chapter: “Human Earth.” He paints a grim picture of what humans have done to the planet, and how human beings are responsible for global warming and climate change. He paints an alarming picture about the impact that these changes will likely have on the planet and society. Although he ends on a hopeful note, it’s clear that humankind needs to take bold action to protect the planet and our environment.
Tom Parks does a superb job of reading the book. He allows Knoll’s voice to come through while creating an enjoyable listening experience.