Book Review: Every Song Ever

What do you say about a book where a single chapter moves seamlessly from Bud Powell to Jerry Lee Lewis to Outkast? Or from The Ronettes to The Clash to Duran Duran to Bill Evans to Kanye West to Big Joe Williams? I say, that’s my kind of book. And in Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music in an Age of Plenty, writer Ben Ratliff brings us on a sonic journey to better understand the possibilities of music in our lives, along lines way beyond genre.

I borrowed this book from the library but I am getting the sense — days after finishing it and knowing I need to return it soon — that I might have to buy Ratliff’s book after all. It’s one of those few books about music that I know I am going to want to return to in the future, in appreciation the way that Ratfliff expands our notions of the power of music.

With themed chapters ranging from loud, quiet, density, speed, space, improvisation and community and more, Ratliff’s inquiries are a map on which one can journey into many realms of sound. I found many touchstone tracks here (every chapter ends with a playlist) and many artists I had never heard of. This bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar is what listeners need, or at least, it’s what I need, as someone who craves variety in my life soundtrack.

Every Song Ever, even with its hyperbolic title, is perfectly suited for this day and age of immense possibilities of music, but also, an age where the sheer volume of musical tracks makes it increasingly more difficult to situate yourself into a transformative listening experience. Ratliffe tries to shows ways we can listen, and be transformed, if only we remove the locks of genre from our scope of vision.

Infinite access … can lead to an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves, and a hardening of taste, such that all you want to do is confirm what you already know. But there is possibly something very good, too, about the constant broadcast and the powers of the shuffle and recommendation effect. — Every Song Ever, page 6

Keep on listening, with your ears wide open.

Peace (it sounds right),
Kevin

42,000 Pages (or so) Read in 2016

My Year in Books 2016

I keep track of all my reading over at Goodreads and appreciate the ability to go in at the end of the year and gather some “data” about my reading. The above graphic is generated by Goodreads as an end-of-year infographic, and while reading is always about quality over quantity, I am often curious about totals.

My goal for 2016 was 100 books. I will have the same goal for this year.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin

Book Review: One More Cup of Coffee

It’s early morning — my writing time — and I am at home, not a cafe, but I am still traveling along with local writer/artist Tom Pappalardo as he brings me on his tour of coffee cafes in Western Massachusetts in his self-published book, One More Cup of Coffee.  The subtitle says a lot: “In which the author barely talks about the coffee.”

Which is not completely true. Tom talks about the coffee, but more often, he talks about the people and the atmosphere, and his own state of mind when the coffee hits the cup in the various places in my hometown and beyond. I am a sucker for local writing, set in local places, and Tom is a gifted observationalist — a bit biting and sarcastic in his views of the world, perhaps, but he has a keen eye for overheard conversations (so much so, I was hoping he wasn’t ever overhearing me in the booth next to him).

The passages here are short and often very funny, and Tom is not above calling the coffee bad when he tastes it, or the conversation, when he hears it, but he also celebrates something about the independent coffee shops that goes beyond the cafe itself — he is celebrating the public gathering spaces they represent, bringing people together to quietly write (as he does) or to loudly talk (as many do) or to just wonder about the state of the world (what I often do). Oh, and he is not afraid to tear down the corporate places, too. We do have Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts but only with great reluctance in these parts.

I don’t visit the downtown coffee places like I used to, give my family and teaching job, but Tom’s book brought me right into the heart of our Pioneer Valley’s lively centers. I know most, but not all, of the places he writes about (and appreciated some of the local history of how-this-place-used-to-be-that-place), and I could sense that I was hanging out with Tom as he wrote (which he probably wouldn’t appreciate or like, as my presence would interrupt his writing).

I bought this book to support a local self-published writer and the One More Cup of Coffee more than met my expectations, so much I just ordered another from Tom — a collection of comics and graphics. I think I recognize his work from our local alternative newspaper. I realized, too, that I have seen his music posters and artwork around my small city for years, and never knew it was him. Now I do. Good work, Tom.

Peace (and a hot cup of java),
Kevin

Book Review: But What If We’re Wrong?

This latest book by the always-interesting Chuck Klosterman has the subtitle “Thinking About the Present As if It Were the Past,” and that just about sums up Klosterman’s expansive dive into his ongoing question of wonder: Will the things we think of as important in the present really live up to the scrutiny of the future?

Probably not.

Klosterman is all over the place in But What If We’re Wrong, and I like that. From looking at the prospects of pop music now and into the future (and wondering if the Butthole Surfers might resonate more than The Beatles but ultimately decides that Chuck Berry would likely be the icon of the rock and roll era), to which films and television shows might stand the test of time (not for their art but for the way they reflect, perhaps inaccurately, on the present time), to whether American football will survive (even as numbers of drop, but he suggests it will become a narrow sport field, like boxing, with perhaps even more violence in the future than the present to appease its dedicated hard-core fans).

What Klosterman is doing here, again and again, is calling into question what the “present” thinks of the “past” and the strange lens that comes to bear on events, centuries after the fact. It’s hard to know what will last when you are in the midst of it. This is what historians do, too. But Klosterman thinks they go about it all wrong, too, trying to make sense of a distant time by artifacts that probably don’t accurately reflect the actual time period, and so .. we probably get a lot it wrong.

Klosterman (who used to write The Ethicist column for the New York Times) writes with wit and humor, and admits often to the reader that he is stretching to the deep end of thinking. He even offers up an apology in the end credits for a hedgehog story. (Yep — you’ll have to read about it). He does what we want writers to do, by pushing the way we think about the world in new ways, and you could do worse that cozy up to Klosterman on a wintry day.

But, of course, I may be wrong about that. Just ask Chuck.

Peace (into tomorrow as well as today),
Kevin

Book Review: Photos Framed

This is a quick read, but one that might require a few reads, if that makes any sense at all. Not because it is confusing. It is so interesting. I am one of those people who has come to photography late, thanks to the emergence of mobile devices for visually capturing the world (and double-thanks to the work of my friend, Kim Douillard, whose photography and image prompts always get me thinking at odd angles).

Photos Framed, by Ruth Thomson, is a collection of very famous photographs. What Thomson brings to the table is the curation and reflection on the composition of these famous photographs. In tight text alongside the images, she explores the back stories of the images and photographers. She also pulls out small moments (literally … cropped shots sit alongside the full image) from within the larger visual frame, asking questions about lighting, perspective, colors, textures and more.

Sure, I’ve seen the famous images of Migrant Mother (Dorethea Lange), The Horse in Motion (Eadweard Mybridge), The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville (Robert Doisneau), Afghan Girl (Steve McCurry), The Cottingly Fairies (Elsie Wright), and Tank Man (Jeff Widener). Thomson showed me aspects of these famous images I never saw or considered before.

She reminds us that images are story, with contexts. To ‘read an image’ is to dive through the lens at many levels. That doesn’t mean these photos don’t stand on their own. They do. What it means is that each one can draw you in further, if you choose to go on that journey. Photos Framed is a nice tour guide.

Peace (well-lit and standing still),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Texting Amy(Bot)

sol16(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity on Tuesdays through the year. Hosted by Two Writing Teachers, we look for the small things in life to write about. You write, too.)

I can’t help but think of Slice of Life when I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal. In fact, someone in Slice of Life may have recommended her first book – Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life — and if that was you (was it you?), thank you, you. I love that book, and have read it more than a few times (which is not something I often do with books. I am a one-and-done kind of reader, unless something resonates, and then I am loathe to lose that book or lend it out to anyone).

So, imagine my happy surprise to be wandering through our city library and there before me was a brand new book by Amy. It’s called Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Just like her other book for grown ups (she writes children’s picture books, too), this one is a gem, filled with wonder of small moments and an underlying sense that this Amy is one warm and endearing person who sees the world through a lens of insight and humor. (She’s the kind of writing who bakes an apple pie and ships it FedEx .. just for being the 100th person to respond to a prompt … that’s a writer who cares about her audience).

Check out her talk about her rather impromptu collaborative project The Beckoning of Lovely

The gimmick of this book is that is a “textbook” — sections are set to resemble those college tomes of yore, titled “history” and “science” and “math” — but the writing is focused on life itself (one math equation is all about love), and Amy’s life (her remembrance of an uncle beloved by many brought me nearly to tears), and the shared essence of all our lives. Oh, and the other part of the gimmick? There are moments in the book where you are invited to “text message” with a bot set up by Amy and her friend. Really.

Texting RoboAmy

I know it’s weird but I found myself enjoying my texting with the AmyBot very much. Part of me wondered, will Amy read these texts some day? Does it matter? The responses were whimsical and lovely, and some led me to her website where I could hear her reading or see images of other readers or take a poll (I chose Curly) or … listen to her selected music as I read the last section of the book, which ended on the theme of endings, with a very creative assortment of endings of other novels.

In the midst of the CLMOOC Pop-Up Make Cycle for Digital Writing Month, this kind of book – the ones that offer an invitation to the reader to engage in digital media — makes me wonder: is THIS digital writing? Even though her book is paper and bound (in my version anyway), the author’s extension and invitation to engage with our phones and on the web as we read her words, to add to a collective gathering of other readers in a community setting and to be part of the “story” that Amy is telling … that seems to have many of the hallmarks of what I consider Digital Writing. I’d love to know what you think. You can leave a comment at this post. I don’t have a KevinBot set up for this.

Here at Slice of Life, we try to do what Amy does. We see small but envision big. The moments that too often slip past our vision — those are the ones I try to write about when I write my Slice. Others do, too. What you realize that only when you start to actively notice the world, in all of its smallest pieces curving in an arc around all of us, is the point when you realize how consequential everything really is. Nothing deserves to be forgotten, but we forget so much. So much of our lives gets lost.

Amy’s books can feel at times like short-attention-theater. She brings us into a moment, and then it is gone. Poof. But the outline of her moments are small works of art, painted with a sense of kindness and wonder and generosity. How lovely is that? How much do we all need more of that? Much. We need much much more.

Thank you, AmyBot. Thank you, Amy.

Peace (it’s me, world),
Kevin

#DigiWriMo Book Review: The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music

 

This book — The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music (A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip-Hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap) by Paul Edwards — is wonderful mix of research, insights by Edwards, and voices of oral histories by many rappers and artists on the Hip-Hop scene, talking about influences and origins of the music and culture.

The history of rap angle didn’t uncover much new for me (but I still enjoyed it), as I am interested in the music as an art form. I did appreciate all the elements of the research that Edwards has done into how the music is made (and was made, as things have changed over time with the emergence of technology). Many of the musicians here talk about the past production of hip-hop, of scouring records for beats and bass and then finding ways to isolate sounds, pulling them together to form the backbeats.

In particular, the use of Flow Diagrams by rap songwriters was something I had not come across before. Some rappers use Flow Diagrams (of various sorts) create columns for rhymes, and move across the columns as they rap. This allows for intentional internal, double-word and other kind of rhyme patterns. In the book, some rappers talk about setting up these kinds of charts as ways to use rhyme for rhythmic elements — words as beats and off-beats. I love when the process of writing is exposed like that.

(This flow diagram comes from a Genius page about a Pharcyde song. The annotated page is from Edwards.)

Interestingly, much of the discovery of how to use samples from other tracks was often accidental. A rapper/DJ/producer tries to do this, only to discover that. They were smart enough to have their ears open at all times for opportunities, and when mistakes happened that sounded good, they took that and ran it with. The early days, it was not about the money (as it seems to be today), but about pushing the art-form into new terrain, and impressing others on the scene.

Of course, litigation for using unlicensed sounds made the old-school way of remixing sounds nearly impossible, so the collage-like, layered production work that went into albums like Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys (and the Dust Brothers production team) or landmark tracks by Run-DMC, NWA and Eric B & Rakim might never be replicated now (without huge financial support from a company on the licensing side).

But I figure this … there are still plenty of people making tracks and creating new sounds on their own, and it is likely that those tracks are finding paths to listeners. Like so many businesses, the music industry is being upended, or has been upended, by technology and social media. While that may have diminished the field of music listening to some degree (it’s a time when all radio stations seem to be owned by corporate interests, and radio DJs have no say over what is being played, the landscape becomes rather hum-drum .. radio that I listen to here is nearly identical to radio that you listened to there), it has also opened up doors for more intimate connections to more niche bands and musicians in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

I also wondered about the connections to what we think of as Digital Writing, and now remix and a new lexicon of song/writing construction might fit under that umbrella. It raises the question: when is writing a song a form of Digital Writing? Is it? It seems to me that Flow Diagrams and borrowing snippets seems to have interesting ramifications about language.

Edwards, whose book bio calls him “the Aristotle of Hip-Hop Poetics,” does a fine job here of exploring the historical perspectives of hip-hop music but he seems to conclude that its best days of innovation are far behind it, now that hip-hop is the touchstone of pop culture and a cash cow. I don’t quite agree, or maybe, I have faith that innovation is happening — even if many of us don’t see it. I just hope we can eventually hear it.

Peace (sing it),
Kevin

Book Review: Lincoln’s Spymaster (Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye)

So, I realized the only way I really knew the Pinkerton name was through visuals of the Pinkerton ‘goons’ busting up labor riots with force and violence in the late 1880s and early 1900s. That’s part of the Pinkerton story, of course, but the origin of Allan Pinkerton as the first “spymaster” for the federal government during the Civil War is fascinating.

Samantha Seiple explores Allan Pinkerton and the origins of his detective company in Lincoln’s Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye, using plenty of rich primary sources to bring to light how undercover operations helped Lincoln’s efforts in the Civil War, not to mention Pinkerton’s thwarting of at least one or two assassination attempts on Lincoln’s life before John Wilkes Booth did the awful deed after Pinkerton left the government.

Seiple brings us right into the cloak and dagger operations, as well as showing how Pinkerton built up a business of spies that eventually led to the formation of the Secret Service and then the FBI. The use of primary images really helps show the reader the time and place of the stories woven here.

Plenty of rough characters come into play, too, from Rebel Rose Greenhow, during the Civil War, to Jesse James and his gang of bank robbers in the era after the war. Pinkerton is shown here as smart, tough, stubborn and dedicated to his job, at all costs. His own sons took over the company and helped steward it into a large investigative firm that is still around even today.

I suspect this non-fiction book will appeal to some of my students, and the storytelling is solid and informed. Pinkerton’s techniques of “tailing a suspect,” going “undercover,” and placing informants into enemy terrain are the stuff of spy stories, and most of these were first used in real life by Pinkerton and his detectives.

Peace (no longer undercover),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Diary of Wimpy Kid (Double Down)

Eleven books into the Wimpy Kid series and Jeff Kinney still has the ability to make my inner middle school spirit laugh. Interest in the series has significantly dropped with my sixth grade students. Only one student ordered the book via our Scholastic account (two, if you count me, ordering one for my sixth grade son). Years ago, I could count a dozen orders or so.

But with Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, Kinney continues to be funny and insightful to the inner lives of a middle school boy, and all sorts of pop references dot the story. It opens with a reference to The Truman Show movie with Jim Carrey, and a character who slowly becomes aware that others are viewing/reading their lives. Greg wonders if anyone is watching him life unfold.

Yes, Greg, we are.

I chuckled at the ways in which Greg finds a cool place in the Speech/Language pull-out class (because that was me in elementary school — working on my S sounds), and the taking up of French Horn to join the school band (in order to get invited to a party). Lots of sight gags and funny moments are in Double Down.

Look, it’s no literary work of art. It’s entertainment. My son read the entire book in one short session on the couch. I read it in an afternoon between doing dishes and the clothes wash. We were both entertained, and I see now that my son has dug out his collection of Wimpy Kid books to re-read (again). He reads deeper and much more complex stories than Wimpy Kid, but he still finds pleasure in the world of Greg Heffley, as imagined by Jeff Kinney.

Books are like that.

Peace (in the kid),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: March (Book Three)

 

With phrases like “rigged” and “voter fraud” dominating our headlines in recent weeks of the presidential campaign, it’s informative to read US Sen. John Lewis’ final book in his graphic autobiography series in which Lewis details the Civil Rights Movement’s push to force the federal government to enforce laws that allowed black voters to register in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Civil Rights story puts the current events in perspective, particularly when you read about the violence and the unfairness of the voting system. Plus, the hate. You can’t escape the hate. Lewis’ story also reminds you of how far our nation has come, even if the headlines give us pause. And yes, it also is a call that we still have far to go when it comes to race, prejudice and injustice.

March: Book Three is the final installment in Lewis’ re-telling of his work as a young leader with the Civil Rights movement. The three books are framed around the famous Selma March that changed the way the nation saw the unfairness of the Alabama laws, and other states that were also discriminating against black voters. Like the first two books in this series, March: Book Three is a powerful piece of raw, visual storytelling. Lewis’ voice is front and center, as is his struggle to remain peaceful and true to his beliefs in the face of institutional violence. In the first Selma March, now called Bloody Sunday, Lewis suffered head injuries from a police officer’s baton.

Here, Book Three begins where the last book left off — with the bombing of the church in Birmingham where four girls were killed and dozens others injured — and ends with the Selma March. Woven in and out of the past is something more current — Senator Lewis watching Barack Obama becoming the first black president of the United States, something nearly unimaginable in the turbulent times of the 1960s.

Like the other two books, this one is not appropriate for middle school readers (and certainly not for elementary students) due to violence and language, but it will resonate with high school readers, particularly those who know only the larger stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The March graphic novels give us the nitty gritty details of organization and resistance, and the slow shift of change. It also reminds us of the dedication of so many people who sought to change our country’s fabric. Many paid a terrible price for their work.

Note: Lewis is listed as one of the authors of the March series, along with Andrew Aydin. The artwork in the series was done by Nate Powell.

Peace (let it be),
Kevin