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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

A Kazuo Ishiguro Sandwich


Although I suspect no one except me cares about which authors have ascended into my one-year-old-constantly-evolving-destined-to-never-be-complete list of 100 favorites, it is a list. For any reader who hasn't yet figured it out, lists are semi-sacred to me. Thus, immediately upon finishing The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro was elevated into my august group. Anyone keeping track? Right. But just in case, Ishiguro is author #31, the fourth author added to that list since the post above was published last August. 

I'm guessing many of you have seen the remarkable film adaptation of Ishiguro's eponymous novel starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. If you revere that film as I do - and you are a reader - I urge you to return to the even richer source material. Ishiguro's understated prose and attention to the nuance of character cannot be over-praised. He is a master of detail, a shrewd observer of class, and an astute student of history. Each of the three books I've read demonstrate his total command of craft. And for my money, much as When We Were Orphans (2000) and A Pale View of Hills (1982) both floored me, this novel from 1988 is a notch above, fully worthy of the Booker Prize it won.   

To extend the glow of this peak reading experience, I'm planning to re-watch the faithful Merchant-Ivory film adaptation, soon. If you've seen the film once, why not read this brief but terrific book, then re-watch the film. Then we can compare our Kazuo Ishiguro sandwiches.   



Monday, August 28, 2023

A Legacy of Love

"The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough of is love." - Henry Miller

Over your lifetime, how would you say the love you've sought vs. the love you've given supports or refutes Miller's wise words? Pretend for a minute that a scale exists. much like the one we've all seen held by the blind-folded woman measuring justice. If you were able to put all the love you've sought on one side of that scale and all the love you've given on the other, in which direction would your scale tip?

Months ago, I first noticed that Miller quote under my new son-in-law's e-mail signature. Ever since, the questions opening and closing my first paragraph above have been gnawing at me. And I wasn't fully comfortable asking you what your scale might look like until I was ready to formulate an answer for myself.

I've always considered myself a person who loves easily and openly. But if that scale I'm asking you to envision actually did exist, I suspect mine might tip more on the seeking side vs. the giving. On the other hand, maybe none of us are capable of answering questions like this about ourselves. Instead, is it possible the people closest to us are the ones better equipped to provide an answer? If that is so, I've got some folks to talk to, and you can do the same if you wish. I'll look forward to hearing what you discover. 

In the meanwhile, I do hope this much: If, after I'm gone, those who were closest to me say my scale was at least evenly balanced, being remembered that way is a legacy I welcome. You?  

"And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." - Lennon & McCartney

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Please, If You Must Compare ...

The obnoxious groaning you heard in the movie theater watching that documentary was probably me listening as some pop or rock celebrity compared the music of one of their contemporaries to Mozart, again. How many of you are with me for establishing some common sense guidelines here to help us  avoid the ridiculous comparisons we've all endured? I'll start; please join in and offer either your ideas or your objections to mine.  

If comparisons must be made - and I'm not sure they must - how about we compare any artist's work - author, filmmaker, musician, etc. - only to their own work? For example, wouldn't it be preferable if an undeniably great song like If I Fell were compared only to other Beatles songs?  Overnight, we'd avoid the entire Beatles catalogue from ever being compared to third-rate pop mediocrities or .. to Mozart. Think of it: If I Fell = A+; In My Life = A; Why Don't We Do It in the Road = F.  We level the playing field by agreeing George Gershwin compositions be compared only to other George Gershwin compositions and not say, Steve Miller compositions. This way, if you want to declare Take the Money and Run a musical masterpiece, have at it, but don't stack it against Embraceable You.

OK, now about that word masterpiece. Unless I'm etymologically challenged - and I don't think I am - that word gets to be used just once across an artist's whole oeuvre. And actually, having an artist's masterpiece as a standard to assess all their other work against is a handy way to ensure comparisons are not made between say, Tolstoy and Tom Clancy. If you claim Anna Karenina as the Count's high-water mark, and Hunt for Red October as Clancy's, great. Start there, I say, and put each of those books against all the respective subsequent and prior work of the same author, but don't compare the two novels to each other. I'm also all for allowing anyone to change their mind about any author's (etc.) masterpiece if a newer work by that author (etc.) ups the artistic ante in the view of the assessor. 

Need to acknowledge the insights of a reading soulmate in helping me midwife today's reflection. In our recent discussion of A Line in the Sand - an astonishing new novel by Kevin Powers - my friend and I digressed a bit when she spoke of her love for author Lorrie Moore. Because Moore's most recent work has been slightly less satisfying to my fellow bookworm, our conversational tributary meandered to If I Fell vs. In My Life, briefly. From there, this post began to take shape as I recalled how The Yellow Birds floored me when I finished it. For me, that debut novel by Kevin Powers stands as his masterpiece. Which takes nothing away from A Line in the Sand, a book so assured I'd be beyond proud to have written anything even close to it. Just as proud as I'd be if any song I ever wrote approached the majesty of say, In My Life.  


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Sixty + Years of Evangelism

Could it be that I'll never run out of ways to evangelize about music? What passion of yours infects you enough that you can't imagine a time when you won't want to convert others?  

I've talked about it - to anyone who would listen - since the drum break in He's So Fine set me on fire in 1962. I've continually performed - many times horrendously, especially early on, i.e., a kind of perverse evangelism, I suppose - since 1963. I've made mix tapes since, well since people first started making mix tapes back when cassettes were the rage. And then I switched to making CD mixes and have done that - sometimes without being asked - ever since. I've taught privately for over thirty-five years. I've blogged about music here on the bell curve since 2010. (Rough estimate: 250 posts.) I've taught continuing education classes at local colleges - and elsewhere - since 2014. 

My latest evangelism began when a fellow hiker innocently asked me if I would recommend some jazz tunes to help ease him into that world. Poor guy - he had no idea what a mistake it was making this simple request of me. We are now about thirty songs - at three songs per week - into my most recent evangelistic endeavor. I'm confident saying this unsuspecting "student" is likely wishing he'd never had a conversation with the man he is now calling "professor". I can't help myself. (Wait, do I hear Levi Stubbs wailing?)

See what I mean?    

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Call Me Scab; Not!

Call me a crank - or something worse - but if you were going to invent a stage name for yourself, wouldn't you come up with something better than Flea

I mean no disrespect to this fine bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And actually, until I was recently reminded of his stage moniker as the film credits rolled at the end of Babylon, this crabby thought had never crossed my mind. Then, I considered Archibald Alec Leach becoming Cary Grant

I know Grant had help making up a stage name. Still, even if suave Archibald/Cary had made up his own, somehow I doubt he would have settled on Turd or Scar or Snot - bass player in a semi-punk band or not - don't you? Seems to me there's a tiered system when it comes to invented names. See if you agree.

Let's start with classy, like say, Cary Grant. Who else would you put in the highest tier? A step down we get to semi-cool or just OK, like say, Sting. Although I've always been tempted to give Sting either the first initial "B" or the last name "Ray", to me, his alias is still a clear step up from the goofy/silly Edge. Again, a fine musician and probably nice enough guy, but how can anyone resist giving him either a first name like "Cliff" or a middle and last name like "Of Tomorrow"? Who are your nominations for stage names in tiers two and three? Or, would you place Sting and Edge - with or without the "the" - in the same tier? 

Either way, unquestionably, in the bottom tier goes Flea. Got any others you'd lump in with him?      

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Words for the Ages, Line Twenty-Seven

"We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

On occasion, I have no doubt the universe is speaking to me. When was the last time something like I'm about to describe happened to you?

Less than a week ago, I finished Wonderstruck (2011), Brian Selznick's captivating young adult novel, which was made into an exceptional film in 2017. I'd known immediately after watching the film that the book needed to go onto my "must read" list and said so in the blog post directly below, written just days later. I then promptly forgot my reading pledge until a few weeks back when a reader unearthed my five-year-old post. With me so far? 


Within hours of re-reading my post, I had the book in my hands and raced through it. Then came a Wonderstruck sandwich when I insisted my wife join me - she's my witness here - as I re-watched the film, loving it more the second time. OK, now get ready and try convincing me this is a coincidence. 

Yesterday, I'm driving and listening to the radio, and as is my habit, paying attention to lyrics because I never know when some words for the ages might jump out at me. A 1981 song called Message of Love - written by Chrissie Hynde, performed by the Pretenders - comes on, containing the words that open this post. Want to take a guess why Hynde's aphoristic gem stopped me cold? Because those words happen to belong to Oscar Wilde and are featured prominently in Wonderstruck, both the book and the film adaptation.  

Given the way this came together, doesn't the word wonder strike you as perfect for this particular iteration of words for the ages?     

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Still Here, Sort Of

Avoid labeling this thought experiment as morbid. Treat it instead in the spirit in which it is intended.

When you are gone, what signs would you like to send back to those who loved you to remind them you're watching their lives unfold? Put aside for a moment whether you believe in a spirit or an energy that transcends our physical beings and answer this: What tone would your spirit or energy take? For example, would you want loved ones to know you're watching by playing pranks on them, say, hiding their keys in a place they wouldn't think to look, like, next to a picture of you? 

Or, would you want your spirit or energy to manifest somehow via signs you send through the natural world, e.g., the orb of a full moon accompanied by a birdsong that you taught loved ones to recognize? Or, maybe your spirit or energy could hide itself in plain sight via an art form - music, literature, film? Even the most casual reader of my blog might guess this is my idea of an optimum way to let loved ones know I'm still here, sort of. Of course, this is assuming the choice is up to me. If not, I'd be happy being the prankster or signaling my presence via the natural world. Now that I've given you a few ideas, please tell me some of yours. 

Anyway, although I'm planning on being around as long as possible, it doesn't hurt to give this some thought. And in the meanwhile, if I drop enough hints to loved ones while I'm still around, regardless of the tone my spirit or energy ends up taking, they could start seeing me everywhere. Good deal.  

Thursday, August 10, 2023

PSA for Serious Readers

As I was introducing folks to each other at the most recent meeting of the book club I established in 2017, something dawned on me. Of the nine people aside from myself who came to discuss Rocket Boys that night, five of them were folks I'd previously met in three different book clubs. It would be hard to over-state how much my life has been enriched by the people I've met since joining my first club in 2010. 

Even clubs I belonged to briefly between 2010-2017 yielded benefits that outweighed their demerits. And though I didn't realize it over those years, what I was continually doing during my tenure in each of those clubs - winners and duds - was gathering best practices. That clearly ended up helping me shape my own club into something special. Four of the six charter members of my club are folks I met in three earlier clubs I'd belonged to, including the moderator of the first club I joined in 2010 and remained active in for over two years. The other two charter members of my club are my wife and me. Sweet.

Before entering the post full-time work world in early 2010 , I made a list (surprise!) of some new things I wanted to try. From that list, joining my first book club is the thing that's proven to have had the most far reaching impact. I would strongly encourage any serious reader give consideration to getting involved in a book club or clubs. Keep searching until you find one - or more - that meets your needs. If you persist, you'll be rewarded by finding people who you'll want to keep in your life.   


Monday, August 7, 2023

The Road to Comfort

What word would you use to describe your current financial situation? Forced to guess, I'd say many of the people I know - including most of my family - would say comfortable. But even if my guess is way off the mark, I'm confident saying this: The stories people tell about how they've attained a state of financial comfort frequently include some predictable variables. Which of those variables come first when you tell your story?

Hard work? Who have you ever known who thinks their hard work had little or nothing to do with what they've attained? Smart choices? How many comfortable people have you met who will willingly own up to dumb choices - financial or otherwise - that set them back? So, how much of your story centers on your hard work and your smart choices? Whenever I'm telling my story reflexively vs. mindfully, those are definitely my go-to riffs. 

How about luck and its close relative good timing? How much air time do those two get in your story? And what about privilege? Ever run across someone who was born on third base and thought they hit a triple? I have. Though I wasn't born on third base, my privilege has clearly played a part delivering me to my current level of financial comfort. Luck and good timing have also helped me. To deny any of those three have had a role is to tell only part of the story.

Here's a challenge: Listen carefully when you next hear someone speak of their road to comfort. Pay close attention to the story they tell. Then come back and tell me what has become clearer for you. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Library Drive-By

Only those who have worked a long time on their own writing can fully appreciate how difficult it is to finish something as seemingly breezy as Silver AlertLee Smith's 2022 novel is charming, funny, and easy to zip through. But like many talented writers who make it look easy, Smith has more on her mind than entertaining you, if you're paying attention. 

First and foremost, Smith's prose is unfussy, ensuring a reader stays squarely focused on the plot vs. the writing itself. "They did not even say goodbye. What I think is, they may be real smart, but they are not real nice."

Next - as the passage above amply demonstrates - Smith is deeply wise. Using just two simple words longer than one syllable, DeeDee - the young, uneducated, but emotionally intelligent protagonist - delivers a universal truth about people. In this case, DeeDee is speaking of the daughter and pompous son-in-law of the other main character, eighty-three-year old Herb. Unlike his daughter and "ass-wipe" son-in-law, Herb sees DeeDee as a full human being, regardless of her reduced circumstances.

Finally, as she did masterfully in perhaps her most well known book - Oral History (1983) - Smith toggles back and forth in time seamlessly. And as she does so, it's easy for a reader flipping pages to miss tiny hints that Smith casually and skillfully drops, each revealing telling details about her characters. "...this is just a short visit, a little retreat to clear my head, you might say." I missed that nugget when I raced through Smith's unassuming treasure. But while composing my book journal entry about Silver Alert, I recognized how much this tossed off remark revealed about the privileged mentality of Willie (William Randolph Farnsworth III). Willie is another player in DeeDee's young life who unthinkingly treats her as disposable.  

As has happened frequently in the past, Silver Alert was selected in a pure library drive-by; all I knew was Smith's name. I'd read no reviews, heard no buzz, purposefully avoided reading the book jacket and the gushing blurbs on the back cover, i.e., I started the reading experience a blank slate.  I finished knowing I'd just spent precious hours in the capable hands of someone who has worked long and hard at her craft. What was the most recent instance when you came in 100% cold and the book you selected subsequently knocked you out? What a blast.



Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Act Three Day


I asked you to remind me. But no matter that you did not. Following a tradition established on this date in 2012, I hereby decree from this day forward August 1 be celebrated as Act Three Day. And even if Hallmark does not climb on board, post offices and libraries remain open, and many otherwise ignore my newest brilliant idea for a holiday in this barren month, I steadfastly maintain those of us in act three - especially the ones who get no attention on grandparents day - deserve to be feted one day a year. Got ideas for ways to get this party started? I do.

* We pay just 50% of admission price for concerts, movies, plays, or sporting events on this day. And no charge for refreshments.  

* We automatically go to the front of any queue. Proof of age offered on request but tread carefully you whippersnappers. 

* A one day moratorium is declared on all patronizing age-related remarks, e.g., "You're in such good shape for a 70 year-old", etc. While we're at it, how about just for August 1 we set aside some tired adjectives frequently used to describe people in act three, e.g., spry

Other ideas? Come on, help me out here. This is attempt #12 at bringing August into line with all the other months, each of which has at least one major holiday.