Book Review: More Real Life Rock

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I recently read through, and reviewed, Greil Marcus’ earlier collection of columns about pop culture, music and politics — Real Life Rock — without realizing that he had a brand new collection out called More Real Life Rock. So I grabbed that one, too, and, as with the first, I enjoyed most of what Marcus has written in these Top Ten formatted short pieces of analysis and insights, almost always with some connection to music.

While the first collection covered a span of time from 1986 to 2014, as Marcus jumped from different platforms to host his column, this second collection is more modern day, with a big part taking place during the Trump years. The years covered in this one is from 2014-2021, and again, was hosted in a variety of places.

The insights of Marcus are always intriguing as he mixed quotes and editorials and reviews of music and shows, and sometimes, friends writing in to him about the world, and yet, he always seems fixated on some central artists of the past — Bob Dylan and the Band continue to get featured quite a bit, sometimes in celebratory mode but just as often, with a critical eye. Sleater-Kinney gets lots of ink in this collection, and that’s a good thing.

I appreciated learning about many musical artists that I had not heard of before, and it’s clear that Marcus has a veracious appetite for music and art, and through the reading of these columns (which ran in places like Barnes & Noble online magazine, Pitchfork and others), one can make a connection to the larger world, of how art intersects with culture and politics. His playfulness with skewering the Top Ten format is appreciated.

I won’t say I agreed with all of his views, and that’s OK. He can have a biting way with words, particularly if he doesn’t like something or finds it lacking in integrity or originality. I prefer that voice of his in this context, as it resonates through the entire collection of pieces. Apparently, he’s once again without a platform home (I wonder what editors think of his pieces), but I read that he is might be moving his Top Ten column over to Substack as a newsletter in the near future, so I might wander over and see what he’s up to there.

Peace (and criticism),
Kevin

Book Review: Six Walks (In The Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau)

Six Walks | Tin House

Ben Shattuck’s wonderful new book — Six Walks (In The Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau) — is built on a quest, of sorts. Shattuck wants to wander, and he uses six different adventures that Thoreau wrote about in various books and journals as a guide to leave home and explore. Where Thoreau goes, so goes Shattuck.

The result becomes more of an internal journey, as Shattuck uses the explorations (Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Maine, etc.) as a way to think about his own world, in the quiet of contemplation from being alone (mostly). Throughout the book, Shattuck weaves in the voice of Thoreau, in his many complications as a person and writer and thinker, while making his own observations of nature and the world.

Quite a bit of time passes between the first three walks and the last three, and Shattuck’s own life has changed, as he is engaged and has a child on the way, and the gap between that earlier, uncertain life and the one where he finds love as a force of stability gives the writing balance and ballast.

I enjoyed his observations of the forests and sea coasts and lakes, and the ability Shattuck has for weaving narrative from those observational strands, never flinching from difficult stories nor worrying about celebratory ones. And Thoreau hovers like a ghost in the book, his words and own travels guiding Shattuck forward into the wilderness of discovery.

I could see this book, and the model of the hikes inspired by another writer, as a possible text for folks who participate in the yearly Write Out adventures.

Peace (in the farther woods),
Kevin

Book Review: Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a legend in rock music criticism, a longtime voice on the scene that often cuts through the surface of music to go deeper by observing the cultural moments and the lens of musical history. He can be witty, supportive and insightful, and he can just as quickly be harsh, snarky and critical. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s clear on what he thinks about a particular artist, song or cultural moment.

In his book Real Life Rock, Marcus gathered together decades of columns in various publications (starting with The Village Voice and ending in The Believer) of a column by the same name of the book, where Marcus uses the Top Ten list concept by examining music, culture, art, books, television, politics and whatever else caught his attention at the moment. (Note: he also has a new book out, with more recent columns)

For each of the ten topics in any given column, he mostly opines in only a few sentences, although there are other times when he takes liberty with the space offered, writing a short editorial beneath any given topic. You can tell he has found something passionate, and has sunk his hooks into an issue. His breadth of knowledge is pretty impressive.

Common artists emerge across time for his opinion (often skeptical but sometimes celebratory): Bob Dylan, cover albums, the Mekons, Lucinda Williams, Bonny Prince Billy, Sleater-Kinney, Allison Krause, and more.

I flipped to a page in the book, and here are the topics at a glance, which give a sense of the wide scope of Marcus interests:

  • Dido’s Thank You song (and what Eminem did with it)
  • Live concert of Rock Your Baby (Portland) by Dick Slessig Combo
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco (Woody Guthrie covers in Mermaid Avenue Vol.2)
  • Shalini (singer from North Carolina)
  • Thread Waxing Space (art display in NYC) – life casts of musicians

Reading his pieces across time (1986 through 2014) is pretty fascinating, and even if I skipped through many of his pieces as I sort of did a power reading tour of musical criticism, Marcus’ voice is always loud and clear, confident and critical. I didn’t always agree with him but I always kept on reading him. The rewards in terms of tiny nuggets of insights were always worth the time.

Peace (in books about music),
Kevin

Book Review: Flooded (Requiem for Johnstown)

Rosemary's Reading Circle

Ann E. Burg’s Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, a novel in verse, is a powerful set of interlocking character stories, informed by historical record, that lays bare the tragedy of the dam that burst in the working-class town outside of Pittsburgh, and all that died as a result.

Even worse, the story reminds us that the powerful and wealthy (ie, Andrew Carnegie, etc.), who bought the abandoned dammed-up lake for summer recreation and then failed to invest enough in its upkeep and maintenance, are clearly to blame for the 1889 disaster, and were never really held accountable. They blamed nature, not themselves.

Flooded is told in poetic verse, through the voices of children of the town as they prepare for Decoration Day, honoring veterans of the Civil War. Burg stitches together their stories and voices through some researched historical records, and with the freedom of a fiction writer. The result is a moving quilt of life, from the eyes and lives of young people, brought into the chaos of the flood, and the destruction of the town, and the loss of many, many lives, on that day when the dam breached and the water ran downhill.

The river, too, has a voice here, as it weaves its own story in between narrative sections, with narrow text formatting to visually show the winding path of its waters, and warning us of how it might never be tamed, and is always wild.

The last section of the book, where Burg uses anonymous letters and numbers as identification, is both insightful and, at times, both despairing and hopeful, the wishes of the dead for the survivors to carry on, to press ahead, to make something good in the world, to remember the stories. She even uses faded font texts to indicate those whose lives were taken, their ghost voices rises from the pages like distant music, and those who survived, devastated by loss but intent on moving forward.

As I read Flooded, I was reminded of the great 1874 Mill River Flood in my area of Western Massachusetts, in which a dam burst, towns were destroyed, lives lost or forever altered, and the wealthy — who ignored the upkeep of the dam, were never held accountable. Sound familiar? That river is one I walk by all the time, and the memorials erected and reminders we have (including a map of the flood on a wall of our house) is never far away from our thoughts. And I have Burg’s structure in my mind now, too, and how stories can be told.

Peace (comes after a time),
Kevin

Book Review: Bibliophile (Diverse Spines)

Any book, about books, that introduces me to a wider possibility of stories and selections is always something I am interested in. Add art, and I’m hooked. For Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Jamie Harper and Jane Mount gather and feature a breathtaking collection of books of all genres — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, picture books, etc. And as the subtitle suggests, the focus is on diverse stories and diverse authors and illustrators.

There were many books and writers I had not yet encountered, and I dogeared a few pages in my book, to go back to remind myself of the discoveries when I am needing something new to read. Even just flipping through this collection, it’s a joy to see a celebration of books and covers, with snippets of insights from Harper and Mount on every page.

And if you like this one, be sure to check out Jane Mount’s last collection, just entitled Bibliophile. Like this newest one, it is also a visual feast and celebration of books of all sorts.

Peace (in the spines),
Kevin

Book Review: Respect The Mic

How cool is it that Hanif Abdurraqib (one of my favorite cultural critics, writer, podcaster) is helping to promote young people’s spoken poetry out of Chicago with this new collection: Respect The Mic (Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry From a Chicagoland High School)?

Pretty cool, and Abdurraqib, along with a handful of others (Franny Choi, Peter Kahn, Dan Sullivan) provide the textual introduction to the many poems shared here from Spoken Word Clubs in two Chicago high schools. The result is a gathering of powerful youthful poetic voices, along with small biographical snapshots of where the young poets are now (in college, or at work, or with family).

The themes of these poems run the gamut from family life in urban center, to friendships (strong and frayed), to survival in difficult conditions, to social unrest and social justice. These poets all have something to say.

Peter Kahn is one of the main teachers with the Spoken Word Club, and his story of finding a root with spoken poetry (which he also explains in the book) is a spark of inspiration for other educators. Notice how students led the way with their passions and interest.

I’ll admit, though: reading poems in the book that are meant to be performed live can be a bit strange, as the reader yearns to hear the pauses, the inflection points, the rising and lowering of cadence in the lines, the emphasis on this word over that, this phrase over that, the presence of the poet standing in the center of the stanzas. (See some videos from the Spoken Word Club)

Overall, a celebration of young poets is worth celebrating, and Respect The Mic does just that — it brings Chicago slam poetry onto the stage, and their words sing off the pages. (Note: the book provides a helpful link to information and resources about Spoken Poetry: https://spokenword.oprfhs.org/ )

Peace (and poems),
Kevin

Book Review: Serpentine (His Dark Materials 3.6)

I admit: I didn’t have the right frame of mind as I read this short novella about a familiar character: Lyra. I am an avid reader of Philip Pullman and eagerly await the next book in his most recent series The Book of Dust. This small book — Serpentine — is a sort of in-between, set in the time when the first series (His Dark Materials) ended and the current series (Book of Dust) begins.

I didn’t realize that it was little more than an lingering idea of Pullman that came to fruition during a charity auction, and it was then that the story he wrote and sold off was pulled into this small novella, filled with evocative charcoal illustrations by Tom Duxbury. The story isn’t really a story, and would confuse anyone not familiar with the two series. The book is more of a written sketch of Lyra and her daemon exploring the notion of being separated, and what that means, as they head back north to ask questions of an old acquaintance about their situation.

Not much happens, plot-wise, and little is revealed, but the narrative here does connect to The Book of Dust and forms a bit of a bridge between the two series, which Pullman explains was his whole idea for conceiving Serpentine. I borrowed this  novella from the library, so it was a quick afternoon read that pulled me back into Pullman’s world for a bit, and that’s worked just fine.

Peace (connected by a string),
Kevin

 

Remixing Ain’t Burned All The Bright (Found Poem)

Aint Burned Bright Found Poem Remix

Yesterday, I mentioned loving the new visual/text novel by writer Jason Reynolds and artist Jason Griffin — Ain’t Burned All The Bright — and after reading it multiple times, I realized that if you did random flipping through its pages, a poem would almost always emerge. (I started to read the book, thanks to a shared birthday invitation from two National Writing Project friends: Bryan Crandall and Paul Hankins).

Which led me to a remix that became a found poem. (above)

The words in the poem are all from pages in the book, and the collage which I created to reference the book’s cover and the inside pages where I “found” the words is designed to celebrate and hint at the book’s beautiful pages.

I actually tried this a few different ways, with different apps and approaches, and landed on this one, which merges the words onto the image through an app that combines media in interesting ways.

Here is the poem, as text:

or the way we treat
the world
high enough to fly off
and catch air
and maybe grab some sky
and somehow even become
its own rain cloud
to see a split second
and maybe
seeing each other’s mess
as a breath of fresh air

A Found Poem Remix
with appreciation for the words of Jason Reynolds and the art of Jason Griffin in ‘Ain’t Burned All The Bright’

Peace (in wonder),
Kevin

Book Review: Ain’t Burned All The Bright

Ain't Burned All the Bright | Book by Jason Reynolds ...

I read Ain’t Burned All The Bright, the new book by Jason Reynold and Jason Griffin, five times in three days — the first, to just read it. The second, to read the words. The third, to read the images. The fourth, to flip and remix the pages, and wonder at how such efforts could surface even more stories. The fifth was to remix it … I’ll share that tomorrow.

How to explain this book? It’s a three-sentence text (long sentences, but still, just three) by Reynolds spanning over pages and pages of beautiful and evocative collage art by Griffin, and each flip of the page is another surprise.

The “story,” such as it is, can be read a few different ways, I suppose, but it has themes of the street violence and protest of the last few years, hints at the effects of Covid, and a family, in which the narrator is one of the children, struggling to hold it all together. The book is in three parts — three breaths – with a refrain of breathing in and breathing out.

It’s serious and it’s joyful — and it is this teetering of emotional zigzag that resonates so strongly through multiple readings. The mom is stuck in front of the television the whole book, watching the news. The dad is isolated in the parents’ bedroom, coughing up a storm. The brother is playing a video game and the sister is on her phone, and our narrator is just trying to break through all this clutter of life to get their/our attention.

These scenes of life inside an apartment, and the way the text (typed, cut and pasted) unfold against the small works of art by Griffin (really, every page could be framed and hung on a gallery wall) demonstrates the power of multi-literacies at work in tandem with each other.

Add the “is anyone still here?” question/answer authors’ section at the back of the book, where the two Jasons (friends since college), talk about where the seeds of this collaborative came from, and it’s all just a powerful, magical textural/artistic experience unlike any other.

I’m going back in to read it for a sixth time (rare for me). It’s that kind of book.

Peace (breathing in/breathing out),
Kevin

Book Review: The Most Important Comic Book on Earth (Stories to Save the World)

The Most Important Comic Book on Earth: Stories to Save ...

Where did I read about this one? I’m no longer sure, but The Most Important Comic Book on Earth (Stories to Save the World) certainly had a title that caught my attention. It’s a huge tome, filled with more than 100 comic/graphic novel stories about the planet from dozens of writer and artists, and all with a highly activist global bent.

And all of it designed to raise awareness about Climate Change and spur us into action – right now.

The quality of the art and stories is hit or miss, I’d say, but the stories and comics that resonate were powerful statements about taking action and the book itself is a fundraiser for various environmental organizations. Some of the stories here are one-pagers. Some are multiple page stories. There are fictional stories. There are non-fiction looks at people and organizations fighting against for-profit corporation and countries negatively impacting oceans and habitats.

More than a few of the stories here are painfully difficult to read, as they envision our planet and world where no or little action has been taken to address climate change and the impact on animals, ecology, humankind.

But as the book moves along through various themes (from changing the system, to protecting the world, to restoring the damage, to inspiration for the future), the collection ends with some positive stories centered on how regular people can’t wait for the politicians to take action — we have to have it in ourselves to make change, through collective organization and deeds. Interspersed with the comics are one-page informational texts, with research and information about individual action.

The overarching message of the collection: It’s not hopeless, but neither is it inevitable that we can do what we need to do to save our planet. The comics and graphic stories here are designed to alarm and to inspire us into action. The most important comic book on Earth? Maybe it is.

This collection might be appropriate for high school readers, but some unsettling stories of environmental and ecological collapse might be a bit too much for younger readers, in my opinion. Or not, if the point all along is to jar us into action.

Peace (planted and nurtured for the future),
Kevin