Creative Quest

Creative Quest coverCreative Quest
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Ecco, April 24, 2018, 261 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.29

I had never heard of Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, until he showed up on the Rachael Ray show one day. Not that I watch Rachel Ray regularly (I wish there was an easy way eliminate all the other goings-on (as they appeared on the show pre-COVID-19) and just watch the cooking segments), but I caught this episode. It turns out that he is the musical director of the Jimmy Fallon incarnation of The Tonight Show, and his musical group Roots is the house band. But you no doubt knew that.

Questlove is also a lover of gourmet cooking and in a pre-COVID19 world he hosted food salons so he could hang out with four- and five-star chefs. He was on Rachael Ray to talk about gourmet holiday potlucks, as I recall.

When I looked him up on Amazon I found this book. Always interested in improving my creativity I bought it. It was a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of hip-hop. Actually, I actively dislike hip-hop. (I never enjoyed the music on Fallon’s version of Tonight the few times that I’ve watched it. Questlove is not Doc Severinsen.) Questlove writes a lot about the creative process in hip-hop and music in general. A music lover I am, but understanding the creative process behind producing music doesn’t interest me in the same way that understanding the creative process in writing does. The author writes about things like ProTools, which, if you are a serious musician, is the ultimate music editing software, or so I understand.

Still, Questlove has some interesting insights into the creative process, and he is candid about his failures in addition to noting his successes. He suggests that in a world of the internet and Google “the brain is more a hunter-gatherer and less a farmer.” He cites William Klemm, of Texas A&M University:

quote[Klemm] defines creativity as the process of drawing water from a deep well. I’m paraphrasing. He said that “creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.” We don’t have those brains anymore. Instead, we offload our knowledge to our phones and computers, to Wikipedia, to Shazam. It’s a great convenience, but what’s lost in the process?

Questlove, born in 1971, the year I graduated from high school, ought not be worrying about aging quite yet, but I like the fact that he references Dick Van Dyke, now in his nineties, saying as we age we ought not avoid (for example) using the stairs just because it hurts a little. I’ll remember that the next time I ache getting up off the floor when I’m arranging Tasha’s food on the bottom shelf of the cabinet.

The author writes in a light, breezy style. He has a “with” co-author in Ben Greenman, but I assume that the self-deprecation and dry wit are Questlove’s and not imposed by Greenman.

Not one of my favorite books, but there are some good insights here.

Who We Are and How We Got Here

Who We Are coverWho We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich
Vintage (March 27, 2018), 356 pages
Kindle edition $7.99, Amazon paperback $13.68

Our ability to interpret the human genome has advanced our scientific knowledge in a wide range of disciplines. In these recent stay-at-home pandemic months I have streamed on my Roku Great Courses lecture series on evolution, Native Americans, and linguistics. All of them have touched upon genetic evidence as part of the material presented.

Author David Reich is a working scientist who complains at the outset about taking time away from preparing papers for professional journals to write a popular book. The general reader, however, is better off for his having done so. He provides a readable outline of the state of genetic research today.

Reich discusses early human history and describes how modern humans carry genes from both ancient Neanderthals and Denisovans, something that helped early modern humans survive in new environments. He writes about the migrations of people and the interbreeding between hunter-gatherers and farmers. The author then describes research into the distribution of human populations today. Throughout the book he talks about work done in his own lab and gives proper credit to individual researchers.

Near the end of the book Reich complains about the politics and academic disputes that arise in the world of research. This was somewhat frustrating reading, but the bulk of the book, in which he lays out how the science of genetics has helped flesh out our understanding of humankind, was fascinating stuff.

The Secret Life of the American Musical

Secret Life of the American Musical coverThe Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built
Jack Viertel
narrated by David Pittu
Tantor Audio, March 01, 2016
print edition: Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$19.59 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The way in which I discovered this book is rather odd. I was searching Google for the exact words that Robert Preston used in introducing “Seventy-six Trombones” in The Music Man: “And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when…” Google took me to a Google Books copy of The Secret Life of the American Musical where the author quotes the lines in the introduction. I realized I might really enjoy reading (or listening to) this title.

After finishing my last audiobook I looked up the audio version of this book and used my August Audible credit to get it. What a delight!

Viertel describes the formula followed by most American musicals: an opening number followed by an “I want” song, then the conditional love song, and after that noise: an enjoyable song that probably doesn’t do much to move the plot forward. He notes that shows don’t necessarily set out to use that formula, but as the creators are putting the show together it works out that way.

The author points out that he originally planned on calling the book The Secret Life of the Broadway Musical, but that he realized that the British imports don’t follow the same formula. Hence you will find little about Cats, Miss Saigon, or The Phantom of the Opera in this book.

Viertel is a Broadway producer and has his biases. He considers Gypsy to be the model of the American musical and refers to it throughout the book. He dislikes Camelot as he considers it to be about two uninteresting, self-indulgent members of royalty. (I disagree.) He states that the golden age of the American musical began with the opening of Oklahoma and ended with the closing of A Chorus Line, admitting that this is his opinion and is somewhat arbitrary. Viertel is no traditionalist, however. He has much good to say about The Book of Mormon and Spring Awakening, for example.

Voice actor David Pittu does a superb job of narrating the book. Not only does he do an excellent job of reading the main text, but his interpretation of quoted dialog and song lyrics is well done.

I listened to all of The Secret Life of the American Musical in just a week, so I now must wait three weeks for my next monthly Audible credit. But it was well worth it.

thoughts on cooking techniques

I think it is fair to say that I am a foodie. The bulk of the television programs I record on my DVR are from Food Network. I cook dinner most evenings. So what is on this foodie’s mind? Cooking techniques.

kitchen utensilsI think it makes perfect sense to say that cooking is cooking, but I tend to divide cooking into two categories: conventional cooking and cooking using a specialized appliance. Conventional cooking uses the stovetop, the oven, and the outdoor gas grill. Specialized appliances include the electric pressure cooker, the air fryer, and the slow cooker.

I have all three. The slow cooker seems to me to be the most conventional while the other two might be a little more gadgety. I have been happy with most of the meals I have made with my ancient and appreciated slow cooker. I have cooked plenty of electric pressure cooker meals as well, but for me the results are often not quite as satisfying as a conventionally cooked meal. Somehow pressure cooker meals can end up all tasting the same. The exception is pot roast, where I have adapted a tried, tested, and true recipe from the pressure email group. It always comes out marvelous.

The air fryer is great for things you might normally deep fry, and far healthier besides, but I have had mixed results. One has to be vigilant. The various models vary so wildly that a given recipe can’t be trusted for your individual air fryer. I have learned the hard way that you need to calibrate a recipe you might want to try against the time chart for your specific air fryer.

Ultimately I’m a conventional cooking kind of guy and that works out well for me.

Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms

Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms coverArthur and the Lost Kingdoms
Alistair Moffat
Birlinn (November 1, 2012), 308 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Paperback $27.93
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

Alistair Moffat spent many years as an actor and as an executive for the Scottish equivalent of the BBC before retiring to live on his farm in southern Scotland and work as an amateur historian. This book is a product of that second career.

There is far less allure to the book than the title might imply. Much of it focuses on the early history of southern Scotland, describing the comings and goings of the Romans, Angles, and Saxons and their interactions with the native Britons. Moffat also has an ax to grind. It is important to him to establish Arthur’s origins in Southern Scotland, and he goes out of his way to do so.

Moffat writes that there is more evidence for the historical existence of Merlin than there is for Arthur. Yet he then uses place names and historical documents from a couple of hundred years after the supposed time of Arthur to describe the battles he led, to state that Arthur considered himself to be a military leader and not a king, and even give a specific year for Arthur’s death.

Moffat’s efforts are in the end unsatisfying and unconvincing. Despite all the efforts he and others have put into unearthing a historical Arthur, I’m not sure we’ll ever find him. Far better, I think, to enjoy and savor the myth and the legend.


Origins coverOrigins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History
Lewis Dartnell
Narrated by John Sackville
Hachette Audio, May 14, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Origins takes a fresh approach to human history. Lewis Dartnell writes about how the earth and its changes have influenced human activity.

He describes how plate tectonics have affected where humans have chosen to live. He explains how continental drift has affected human and animal movements: when there was a land bridge between Asia and the Americas humans went one way and the camel went the other. (Yes, camels originated in the Americas.) He shows how climate in different areas made the difference between the nomads of the steppes and settled agricultural people, and how climate change was in part responsible for clashes between the two types of cultures.

Dartnell discusses how the formation of the continents has affected both wind and water currents and how they affected the voyages of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He points out that one could sail east or west by changing your latitude in the northern hemisphere, but that in the southern hemisphere you had to wait for the monsoon winds to change.

Narrator John Sackville offers a calm, pleasant reading of the book. Sometimes a bit too calm as I felt inclined to nod off at times, but it was a skilled, listenable narration nonetheless.

familiar voices

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all areas of our lives, even our radio listening.

When Terry and I lived in Gilroy our evening listening Monday through Saturday consisted of the internet stream from KCSM, the public radio jazz service in San Mateo. When we moved to Hemet in 2015 we began listening to the jazz stations in Los Angeles and San Diego. I wanted to avoid any nostalgia for the Bay Area.

KCSM logoAfter a couple of years, however, I switched back to KCSM. I decided that I could listen without undue melancholy or remorse, and I very much enjoy the evening hosts on the Jazz Oasis. When COVID-19 hit KCSM switched to a syndicated public radio jazz service, and we began listening to the Los Angeles jazz station, KKJZ, again. Evening host Steve Tyrell provided an upbeat mood in the midst of a time of pandemic, even if his music selections were a bit repetitious.

Recently, however, the engineering staff at KCSM figured out how to let the Jazz Oasis hosts prerecord their shows from home. It doesn’t matter that they are not live; hearing their familiar voices in the six-to-nine time slot is delightful and comforting in this stressful time.

The KCSM web site states, “Thanks to the College and our staff, especially engineers Rene Renard, Hanns Ullrich, and Chris Cortez, for helping the music to play on!” Terry and I thank them as well. Thank you, KCSM, for returning some peace and pleasure to our evenings.

The Unexpected Universe

The Unexpected UniverseThe Unexpected Universe
Loren Eiseley
Library of America, 254 pages
originally published in 1969
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback 11.59
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $0.99

Back in my Claremont cockroach days, the era that began after I graduated from Pitzer College but stayed in Claremont and ended when I headed off to Laredo, Texas to open a B. Dalton Bookseller store, I was a big fan of Loren Eiseley. I loved his writing on nature, natural history, and the happenings of everyday life. I was delighted to discover, then, that much of his work is back in print. I learned this when I saw his book The Unexpected Universe in an Early Bird Books email. I bought it immediately.

Eisley is a skilled essayist. In the opening piece he interweaves Odysseus and Darwin as he discusses their respective journeys, one fictional, one real. In another essay he describes a man on a beach in Mexico throwing starfish which had washed up on shore back into the ocean to give them another chance at life.

He writes beautifully about humankind’s connection to nature:

quoteI saw the drifting cells of the early seas from which all life, including our own, has arisen. The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.

Eiseley is not unaware of the destruction caused by humans: “We have become planet changers and the decimators of life, including our own.” And this in 1969. Nonetheless, there is so much beauty, wonder, and awe in Eiseley’s writing that reading his work makes for a most enjoyable diversion in these turbulent times.