On Highway 61

On Highway 61 coverOn Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Dennis McNally
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99

This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.

McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.

The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.

McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.

I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.


Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

Thebes coverThebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Paul Cartledge
Narrated by David Timson
Blackstone Publishing, September 22, 2020
print edition published by Abrams Press
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The study of ancient Greece in large part focuses on the history and culture of Athens and its relationship with its sometime ally, sometime enemy Sparta. Certainly that was my experience as a classics major at Pitzer College in the 1970s. It so happens, however, that Thebes was central to the history of ancient Greece as well, both in its own right and in its interactions with Athens and Sparta.

Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Clare College in the University of Cambridge, goes a long way to correcting that omission in this book. He looks at both the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history and provides some insight into the importance of the polis in the ancient world.

The author reminds us that the Oedipus myth cycle comes out of Thebes, and the god Dionysus had a close association with the city. He points out that Hesiod, the early post-Homeric author of The Works and the Days and the Theogony was from Thebes. He explains that the lyric poet Pindar made his home in Thebes as well.

Cartledge describes Thebes in its political alliances, sometimes allied with Sparta and other times with Athens. He discusses in detail the importance of Thebes in both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

The book is ably narrated by David Timson, who delivers an enjoyable listening experience, keeping up a lively pace even at those few points when the text is dull. The downside to listening to the audiobook is that the illustrations, of which there are a couple dozen, are missing. Still, if you enjoy ancient history you will find this book very much worth your time.


The Movie Musical

The Movie MusicalThe Movie Musical!
Jeanine Basinger
Knopf (November 5, 2019), 730 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $27.11

As you can see from the page count, this is a big book. Basinger presents a comprehensive history of the movie musical. She starts in the silent era, discusses a sort of hybrid in which the studios added sound to some sections of silent films (“part-talkies”), and then continues on to films with sound. Although she focuses a lot on films of the twenties, thirties, and forties, Basinger mentions movies released as late as 2018.

The author’s knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic, and she discusses scenes from some movies in what is at times excruciating detail. The book was nonetheless an enjoyable diversion from the struggles and travails of this most unhappy year, and Basinger offers many insights and behind-the-scenes glimpses. When discussing Broadway shows that were made into movies she distinguishes between filmed stage performances and shows genuinely adapted for film. She prefers the latter.

Basinger has some odd perspectives. She refers to certain Broadway adaptations from the seventies, including Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, as being not “truly successful.” Say what? In discussing Straight Outta Compton, she dutifully acknowledges the complaints of plagiarism, violence, and abuse of women, and then tells us what an excellent film it is. The author goes to great pains to explain how the opening of Meet Me in St. Louis is such an excellent example of how to start a musical because it lets the viewers know what to expect. She then later praises the opening of The Sound of Music, with its helicopter view of Julie Andrews singing the opening number on a mountain meadow. That scene, while spectacular and uplifting, gives the viewer no idea of what to expect in the movie, with its love interests and its Nazis.

But enough complaining. The book was both informative and fun to read, and if you enjoy movie musicals I think you will find it well worth your time.


See No Stranger

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
Valarie Kaur
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio (June 16, 2020)
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had not heard of Valarie Kaur until she gave a brief message on All Saints’ Day at a virtual service presented by the the Episcopal National Cathedral. (The service was entitled Holding on to Hope. Valarie’s remarks begin just after the 48 minute mark.) It was shortly afterwards that I saw mention of this book. And a long book it is. The print edition is 375 pages, and the audiobook is over thirteen hours.

It is also a challenging book. Valarie is a Sikh by birth and upbringing. (I’ve always heard it pronounced “seek” but she pronounces it with a short i: sĭk.) She opens the book with a chapter on wonder, but quickly shifts to the prejudice and bullying she faced growing up in the rural Central Valley of California. She also describes the struggles her Sikh father and grandfather faced.

Kaur discusses her life as an activist, and her documentation on video of the hate crimes that Sikhs and other people of color faced after 9/11. She talks about her college and post-graduate career, originally wanting to be an academic, but ultimately choosing the law to further her activism. She writes about how a Sikh medical student (and later doctor) with whom she was in love refused to accept her activism. And she tells us about her life with a Muslim who supported her in her filmmaking and activism, the man she eventually married.

Valarie is honest and unblinking in her description of her personal life and her own body. Some of the material in this book is deserving of an NC-17 rating, both in her description of her own sexuality and health and in the description of violence instigated against non-white people. I chose the audiobook version of the book because Kaur reads it herself. Not only does her emotion come through, but she does a beautiful job of singing the Sikh shabads, the religious chants and prayers. Of course the NC-17 portions were hard to listen to, and I couldn’t skim over them as I could with a print or Kindle edition. Overall, though, I was more than happy that I chose the audio version in order to hear Valarie tell her life story in her own voice.

Bottom line: this is an important book in documenting the ongoing fight for social justice.


The End of the Road for My Favorite Dictionary

I am a word nerd. I love language. Given that, it should be no surprise that I love dictionaries. (But you likely knew that.)

American Heritage Dictionary coverMy favorite dictionary has long been The American Heritage Dictionary. You may have noticed that is the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD) next to me in my profile picture. It was something new and different when it was first published in 1969. The development of the AHD was prompted by what was conceived of as the permissiveness of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. What made the AHD unique was its usage panel. The editors polled a group of writers as to the acceptability of the usage of certain words, and from those responses usage notes were created for certain entries.

For example, with respect to the word hopefully meaning “it is to be hoped,” the usage note states:

In 1999, 34 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the sentence “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified.” In 2012, 63 percent accepted this same sentence.

I bought a copy of the first edition of the AHD when I was in high school. During my B. Dalton Bookseller years sales reports showed that I swung sales away from the Merriam Webster Collegiate and to the AHD in whatever store I happened to be working. (That ended up being a total of five.)

Alas, it seems that the days of the American Heritage Dictionary being actively maintained have come to an end. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has made no proactive announcement, but the evidence is clear. The usage panel appears to have been disbanded. The last blog entry was published February 2018, and the most recent list of word additions were announced in January of that year. The most recent print edition is the fifth, published in 2011, with a “50th Anniversary Printing” of the fifth edition published in October 2018.

My first email to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asking them about the status of the AHD went unanswered. The response to the second came several days after I sent the email.

As of January 2020, we do not have any new print editions planned at this time. However, the website is being occasionally updated, including for biographical changes (e.g. death dates/political terms ending), and sensitivity issues (most recently updating the word Black to show the racial/ethnic group sense can be either upper or lowercase and be equally valid).

Note the word “occasionally.” That means no active maintenance. No updates as meanings of words change. No additions of neologisms as they come into common use. No new polls of the usage panel as a particular usage of a given word becomes more common or less frequently used.

That’s it.

That leaves the Merriam-Webster family as the only dictionaries in the United States being actively maintained. Since I began doing freelance work I have subscribed to the online edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary. It is now my go-to reference.

Ah, but American Heritage, we knew you well.


The Bible With and Without Jesus

The Bible With and Without Jesus coverThe Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
HarperOne (October 27, 2020), 512 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.99

I was familiar with Amy-Jill Levine from one of her Great Courses offerings, so when I saw this book advertised it immediately caught my interest.

Levine and Brettler do a real service with this title because it is easy for those of us who come from a Christian tradition to interpret the entire Bible, including the Hebrew scriptures, through a Christian lens. Obviously Jews do not do that.

The authors cite several passages in which Christian and Jewish interpretations differ. For example, in the Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, there is no suggestion at all of original sin, and Eve is not singled out for blame.

Levine and Brettler explain that while the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was obsessed with Melchizedek, the priest-king is only briefly mentioned in two places in the Hebrew Bible. The first is Genesis 14, where, they suggest, “the Melchizedek story can be removed from Genesis without creating any narrative gaps,” indicating that it is likely a later addition. The other Old Testament mention is Psalm 110. They state that medieval rabbinic commentators say little about Melchizedek, perhaps because of the Christian fascination with him.

There are many other examples. They discuss almah (Hebrew: young woman) vs. parthenos (Greek: virgin), the story of Jonah, and the Son of Man in the book of Daniel vs. in the synoptic gospels.

For those interested in how key passages of the Hebrew Bible might be read when the Christian perspective has been removed this book will be an engaging resource.


The Ancient Celts

Ancient Celts coverThe Ancient Celts, Second Edition
Barry Cunliffe
narrated by Julian Elfer
Tantor Audio, February 05, 2019
print version published by Oxford University Press
$17.47 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Often when we think of the Celts we think of the cultures in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps that’s because those areas are where Celtic culture has survived in its purest form. As this book describes, however, Celtic peoples lived throughout Europe in the ancient world. In fact, the Celts reached as far as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. The people that Julius Caesar called Gauls were Celts, and Celtic people lived in Iberia, modern-day Spain.

Cunliffe considers a wide range of evidence. He spends considerable time looking at the archaeological record. He discusses the first-hand accounts by Caesar and the descriptions of the Celts by the Roman historians. Cunliffe is a careful scholar, pointing out where the archaeological account is lacking, and reminds us that Caesar and the ancient historians had a particular point of view and agenda.

The author spends a chapter discussing Celtic religion and mythology and its interaction with Roman mythology and religion. Fascinating stuff.

The book is expertly read by Julian Elfer, who kept the book interesting even through the parts of it where the material was quite dry. Of course listening to the audio version meant I missed the spelling of certain words and terms, but Elfer’s narration made this book a thoroughly enjoyable experience.


A Pilgrimage to Eternity

A Pilgrimage to Eternity coverA Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith
Timothy Egan
Penguin Books (October 15, 2019), 382 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.99

I like travel books and I enjoy books about an individual’s spiritual quest, so what better than a combination of the two?

In A Pilgrimage to Eternity Egan describes his travel along the Via Francigena, the pilgrim’s trek from Canterbury to Rome. He makes the trip in two segments, returning home to the United States about halfway through. His son and later his daughter accompany him at various times and his wife joins him for the end of the journey. Blisters on his feet cause him to take part of the trip by train and later by rental car, but this does not bother him terribly; his one rule seems to be travel must be on the ground and not by air.

In addition to describing his journey and the marvelous hospitality he received along the way, Egan includes several diversions. He writes about history, reminding us of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and the atrocities committed by John Calvin. He includes some personal history, including the story of a predatory priest in his hometown. Nonetheless, Egan isn’t anti-religion. He sees the value in it, and even has the hutzpah to seek a personal audience with the pope. He must be content with seeing the pope with a small group of pilgrims.

Egan delivers an entertaining travelogue and some valuable insights into the spiritual path.


We Need to Talk

We Need to Talk coverWe Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter
Celeste Headlee
Harper Wave (September 19, 2017), 258 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $12.99

If you have not watched Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation” skip this blog post and go watch it now. It will be time well spent. It has had over twenty-two million views so far. Really.

This book covers much of the same territory as her TED talk, but in an expanded form. Celeste clearly explains how to have an open conversation with anyone, no matter what their beliefs, without letting your own biases interfere. That is something I find it nearly impossible to do with those who support that blustering individual with the orange hair who currently lives in the White House. But Headlee says we can do it. She has an interesting perspective on this:

quoteThere’s no evidence that people who are aware of their own biases are better able to overcome them than those who are unaware of their biases. And no matter how much thought you give to the issue, you’re probably not aware of all the prejudices that influence your thinking. They’re called unconscious biases for a reason, after all.

She goes on to say:

quoteThe goal of an honest, respectful dialogue is to open our minds,
not to change them.

Wow. Straightforward. Simple. And so difficult.

Celeste is of a mixed-race background, and she directly addresses those issues. Her grandfather was African-American composer William Grant Still and his wife was the pianist Verna Arvey, who was white. Celeste describes the challenges they faced in that marriage. She writes about when they had to drive nonstop from the west coast to the east coast because in those years neither white nor African-American motels would rent them a room.

Headlee is an experienced, skilled interviewer on NPR, yet she honestly describes her own errors and mistakes in interviewing people.

This is a great book on how to have a conversation, but really, if you haven’t seen her TED talk go watch it before reading the book.


The Story I Am

The Story I Am coverThe Story I Am: Mad About the Writing Life
Roger Rosenblatt
Turtle Point Press (April 7, 2020), 277 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $16.99

I have been familiar with Roger Rosenblatt for some time, though I have read little of his work. He regularly reviews books in the New York Times Book Review and he reviewed a book recently that I wasn’t interested in reading, but the reference in the credit line to this book caught my attention.

The book, the subtitle suggests, is supposed to be reflections on writing. Much of it is, but many essays only touch tangentially on the subject of writing. The essays come from a variety of sources: Rosenblatt’s novels, his memoirs, including The Boy Detective about his coming of age in New York, reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and essays in Time magazine.

There are some interesting and enjoyable passages, but for a book of essays that was supposed to reflect on the writing life, I felt that it came up short.