Book Review: The Lyrics (Paul McCartney)

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This is my kind of book — a songwriter taking apart each and every song, from where the words came from, to how a song fell into place, and using the process to tell a larger story of a life in music — but the two-volume The Lyrics (1956 to the Present) by Paul McCartney would be a bit too much for the casual listener. And it would be a hit on the wallet (for me, this was a combined holiday gift from my children).

While many of the songs here in this collection from McCartney’s later life were not familiar to me, the Beatles’ songs and the early Wings’ songs certainly were (my first vinyl LP was Wings: At The Speed of Sound) , and as I perused the lyrics, I could hear the songs playing in my head. Each song lyric sheet comes with a narrative that McCartney pulled together, with help of writer/poet Paul Muldoon, and McCartney’s life as a curious observer of life and explorer of songs comes through.

As a songwriter myself, I was most curious about the gathering of early drafts of lyric sheets, arrows and scratches, recording studio notes about instrumental tracks, photographs inside the studios, and the other ephemeral items from a life of making songs. You can see handwritten notes and chord changes, and doodles in the margins, and all the things that show a creative mind at work.

After watching the six hours of the recent Beatles movie, and then reading this book, I’m McCartney-ed out at this point, but I was glad for the journey into songs, and appreciate how he has long developed his craft, but also the ability to recognize, seize and develop inspiration from wherever it comes, and to always be ready for the moment when a song arrives.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Book Review: Mirror Sound

Rock and Roll Book Club | The Current

The very first songs I ever wrote and then recorded were done on a little Tascam Four-Track machine that a friend (Murph) borrowed from another friend (Eric), and we set it up in a basement room in my house. We were teenagers. We used a microphone to record some Casio keyboard drums, and layered other sounds, and added vocals (ack), and the magic of the moment when we had a “mix” of that first song was … amazing.

You can even take a listen (because I try to keep everything). The song is called Follow That Dream. It’s hard for me to listen — the lyrics, the voice, the mix … but you can hear some of what we were trying to do with our production as beginners. What you can’t hear is how excited and focused we were, to be recording songs we had written.

That memory has been lingering in my mind as soon as I began reading Mirror Sound (A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music) by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azarrad and Daniel Topete.

In this oversized (and pricey) table book — full of cool photographs of underground and independent musicians across genres and genders — the three men (Tweedy is the son of Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, but an accomplished drummer and producer in his own right) dig deep into what makes music makers creative, and how a home studio format (either simple or complex) helps these artists to chase their musical threads.

I found every page fascinating, even though I barely know any of the artists in this book. What struck me was the articulation of the creative mind at work, and the desire to make music and follow your paths, for yourself first, and maybe the world, second. These musicians are driven by the need capture the sounds and songs they hear and feel, with little regard for audience (at least, in the making of music part of things).

While some of the discussions went technical (about microphones and set-ups and software), Tweedy always seems to ground the discussion to the creative mind, and to the motivation, and to what it is about recording your ideas on your own that keeps the flame of making songs alive for each of these artists. The first section of the book is mostly photographs, intimate shots of people’s bedroom studio spaces (sometimes, it’s just a bed with a laptop and a guitar), with some enlarged quotes, and the second half is packed with interviews with the people. I enjoyed both parts, and the book itself is a beautiful piece of visual art.

After my friend, Murph, and I recorded those first songs, we were able to “steal time” at night one summer in another friend’s garage where he was slowly setting up recording equipment. We’d tinker in there, and make some tapes, and sit and listen in the car.

Later, I saved up and bought my own Tascam (which, reading here in this book, was a revolutionary product for many musicians, for its affordability and its ability to layer four tracks, or more, if you bounced tracks down) and I spent countless hours in my room, by myself, playing around and experimenting. (Murph, my friend, later went on to build his own recording studio as a business.)

These days, I mostly use an online site  to record and layer tracks, although I have an old Tascam in the basement and a cardboard box full of master tapes somewhere (probably gone bad with time).

And I am still mostly writing for an audience of one — myself, and the hope that I will stumble upon something interesting, and follow that path into a song. When it happens, there’s nothing quite like it. That’s what Mirror Sound captures on the page — that sense of wonder and magic of making music.

Peace (the muse sings),
Kevin

Book Review: Old Growth

I am pretty sure I heard about this collection from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings (now called The Marginalian and always worth a follow, for sure) and I was intrigued by the mention of essays about trees (particularly when I was engaged in the Write Out project). Old Growth (The Best Writing About Trees from Orion Magazine) is what it says — a beautiful gathering of stories and essays and poems about the forests and trees of our world.

There are personal narratives here, and there are some slightly analytical scientific pieces (but still very accessible), and there are explorations of climate change and there are the discovery of old and wonderful trees in the most inaccessible places.  There are childhood memories, and some pieces are only adjacent in theme to trees (such as a wonderful piece about the writer and his immigrant father pruning trees together). Poems fill the gaps between the prose pieces, too.

I read these pieces slowly, a few each week, in order to savor the substance of the words, and as always, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the trees and foliage of our world, and how much we often taken their natural magic and generosity for granted.

I recommend this collection for anyone who wonders, and maybe worries, about our wood companions on this planet.

Peace (rooted),
Kevin

Book Review: Atlas Of The Invisible

Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change ...

I was not familiar with James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti but now I happily am. Their latest book — Atlas of the Invisible — is a fascinating tour of data representation through mapping and visual graphing, all intended to surface and show – as the title and subtitle (Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See The World) suggest – the things we don’t see when we first look at a set of data.

Along with some intriguing writing that explains how visualization can offer another view of the stories of our times, the two authors (who worked on the book during the Pandemic) share maps and graphic on a range of topics, from Climate Change (a heat map is both illuminating and alarming); information and transportation flow across global borders, and in the case of airplanes, the pollution flow; the states of mind of people in different countries (indicated by happy to sad faces); the status of bike sharing in the world; and an end section that shows various forms of the maps of Earth, and how each has its positives and biased negatives.

There’s even an interesting textual graphic that breaks down the code of a single Retweet on Twitter, to show how much tracking information is packed inside a single act of retweeting something, and how much a social media company can know about us by gathering and collating the codes of our online activity.

This is a book that I flipped through, and then went back and read the narratives, and then flipped around inside again, and although it is a library book, I can see myself getting a copy for my collection of infographics (I still remember when there was a special collection of Best of Infographics of the Year that I would buy every January, and devour in a single sitting).

Now I am off to see if their last book — Where The Animals Go — is available from our library. (It is. Yeah!)

Peace (at every data point),
Kevin

Infographic Chart: Books, Read (2021)

Books Read 2021

I’ve read some great books this past year … and grappled with a few duds … but mostly, it was good. I still use Goodreads for keeping track but I do keep wondering if it might be time to abandon ship and move to a more open source platform that gives me more flexibility and privacy. I know there are a few out there that seem interesting. Or I may stay with Goodreads (or, Amazon, which is why I keep thinking I want to leave). Maybe I’m a lazy reader tracker …

Peace (in pages),
Kevin

Book Review: Daughter of the Deep

Rick Riordan pulls off a nice writing trick — of using Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to propel a new story forward into the future in Daughter of the Deep, his latest adventure novel for middle school readers.

In this new book, Ana Dakkar is our hero, a high school freshman pulled into action early in the story (in true Riordan form) by experiencing disaster and uncertainty, and then coming to grips with the legacy of an ancestor (Captain Nemo himself) before taking command of The Nautilus, a living submarine, that has been waiting a long time for her to arrive.

I have to admit: I had to shake off Percy Jackson’s voice in my head at the start of the story because anytime I read Riordan, I hear Percy, but soon enough, I was along for the ride with Ana, a hero in her own right, and it became a fun adventure, full of cool scientific technologies and serious family squabbles, and moments of near disaster that Ana, as an unexpected hero, has to navigate through.

Reading this novel certainly brought back memories of Nemo and the Nautilus to my head — I remember reading Verne’s book (not always easy reading, if I remember, but cool enough to keep my youthful focus) and watching movie adaptations over the years. Riordan wisely pulls out the most interesting elements from Verne’s story and weaves that into his story here (and writes an interesting piece at the start about why he wrote Daughter of the Deep).

Riordan should be admired for the work he has been doing in supporting a new generation of writers who explore cultural myths and stories in adventure- and character-packed novels in recent years with his Rick Riordan Presents … imprint. And here, Ana is Bundeli-Indian American, and it’s not just a throwaway cultural reference — there’s an important and clear line back to Nemo himself, and Ana’s character and actions are connected to her heritage at times. It’s not a hammer on the head. It’s just infused into the story. As it should be.

Middle school readers of adventure stories will enjoy Daughter of the Deep, but it would also be good for upper elementary and high school readers.

Peace (in the sea),
Kevin

Book Review: The Look of the Book

I still love wandering book stores, letting the covers of books catch my eye. The reduction of book covers to thumbnails on the screen — like vinyl record covers of yesteryear — brings with it some sense of loss.

In The Look of the Book (Jackets, Covers and Art at the Edges of Literature), Peter Mendelsund and David Alworth offer up an appreciation and an artistic aesthetic to the power of the decisions that grace the covers of books.

Both men are from the field of design and writing, and they bring a wonderful sense of “insider” information to the table for this book, which is packed full of examples, anecdotes, interviews and observations about the power of what we see when we look at the cover of a book, and how the cover works on so many levels to draw us into the story.

While they peruse the historical landscape of book design, they don’t ignore the moment we are in, where, as they remind us many times, people search for books on Google and then order books from Amazon, and where the role of the cover to catch your eye may be diminished, even if books are still going strong and seem to mostly weather any innovation that comes pop culture’s way.

This is also just a beautiful book to read and to hold, and to peruse, and yes, it’s cover is interesting, with artistic collage of book covers that appear to be layered just beneath the raised surface of material. The phrasing in the subtitle of “edges” of writing and publishing and telling stories through words and visuals was a common theme, and one that intrigued me.

I came away from The Look of the Book with new appreciation for the collaboration and teamwork that goes into book design, and loved the look at covers never approved, and how font, and space, and color, and image, and more, all play a coordinated role in the marketing of books (from the business perspective) and the inferred sense that inside the cover is a work of art, worthy of the cover.

Peace (beneath the cover),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Cold War Correspondent

Here’s another deep look at history through the graphic novel lens of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales (is it really the 11th book?), and Cold War Correspondent brings us right into the terrible heart of the Korean War (probably one of the least understood military campaigns in modern times).

What’s most fascinating (for me, at least, as a former newspaper reporter) is the lens here, as it is told through the eyes of Marguerite Higgins, a female journalist who embedded herself with troops in some of the more brutal skirmishes of the Korean War of the 1950s. Higgins was an award winning reporter for New York Herald Tribune, and constantly had to argue her place in the war with generals and admirals and others who could not believe a woman should be allowed on boats and in barracks with me.

She persisted.

And the stories Higgins told of soldiers and the battle front made headline news and won her prestige and respect, and her work opened a lot of doors for many other women who were also fighting gender discrimination in the field of journalism.

As with other books in this series, the historical period is told with seriousness and humor, making use of the panels on the page (although some pages are crammed a bit too much with information at times). This graphic novel would be a good fit for a military- or history-obsessed high schooler or advanced middle school reader. There’s a high level of violence and death, as it is war, after all.

Cold War Correspondent sheds light on the Korean War, and how close the United States and its allies in South Korea were to losing the Korean continent to the Soviet Union-backed North Korea in one of the Proxy Wars that unfolded in the aftermath of World War 2.

Peace (now more than ever),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Major Impossible (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales)

I’ve enjoyed many of the books in writer/graphic novelist Nathan Hale’s series about history, told with historical precision but balanced with a light humorous touch (and plenty of meta moments that break the fourth wall as if it wasn’t there). I found the latest book — Major Impossible — about the soldier/explorer Major John Wesley Powell … to be good but maybe not quite as good as the others in the series.

I’m trying to put my finger on why, and I think it because I had trouble keeping track of the many members of Powell’s crew in this story of exploring the Colorado River/Grand Canyon, and there was much repetition in story — boats in the water, boats out of the water, repeat — although you could argue that is what the crew did for much of the exploration of the unknown (unless you were native, then it was already well-known terrain, something Hale definitely acknowledges).

Still, even with that complaint, I found the story interesting, well-researched, human-focused (we learn about Powell himself, and his brother, through flashbacks) and full of dangerous moments. Powell’s passion for charting the territory and using scientific equipment of the time — while searching for mollusks, his passion — gave him a real dimension. And he did it all with just one arm, as he lost the other in a battle during the Civil War.

If you know this series, you know the overall storytelling device hinges on the hanging of the historical Nathan Hale, who stalls his own execution by telling stories of the past. This has been going on for about nine books now. The executioner, with mask and all, is a funny foil to Hale, and other characters at the scene of the impending execution inject humor and asides into the historical stories, sometimes even butting into the story in the comic itself. The panels are dense with text at times, potentially making this a bit difficult for younger readers. But middle and high school readers would enjoy the story.

Two other things to note: a short bonus comic at the end, based on the letters an even earlier explorer, James White, is hilarious. And the last few pages show the writer/cartoonist in his own sketches, sitting by the Grand Canyon as inspiration, and I found that really sweet and moving, a way to connect the writer to the story.

Peace (down river),
Kevin

Book Review: Campfire Stories (Tales from America’s National Parks)

Campfire Stories Book | Parks Project | National Park Gifts

We bought this book for educators who took part in a Professional Development course through a partnership between Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and then the Pandemic hit, and so we only recently were able to get the book to those past participants because the Springfield Armory was closed up. (We also sort of forgot about the books).

And I finally, too, got my own copy of Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks, edited by Dave Kyu and Illysa Kyu, and how happy I was to immerse myself in the stories of Acadia, Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Zion, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

Each section opens with an introduction by the Kyus (a married couple) about the park and then they share the research they have done to surface stories of the places, collected from library archives, and oral storytellers, and interviews with Native American elders and more. The editors purposely avoided the dominant stories of these places — the official stories, crafted by park officials — in order to explore other narratives, many from the margins.

This approach – to spend time with forgotten voices — works very well, as the collection of short essays, stories, poems and more bring the reader into the spaces from different angles, always with the awe and inspiration that each of these National Parks bring. I was almost disappointed that they only were able to do this work for six parks, but what a collection of parks!

The Kyus also framed these as “campfire stories” — thus, the title — meaning they chose narratives that could, and maybe should, be read aloud. I know as I read the stories, I could hear the voices of the writers and oral storytellers, and poets, in my my mind. The editors chose their pieces wisely.

This book was a nice addition for me to the Write Out celebration from October, reminding us all how to explore our natural spaces, and our National Parks, through story, remembering that the dominant narratives we often hear and read about spaces is merely the surface of something deeper, and richer, and discovering those voices makes for a grand adventure.

Some quotes:

Peace (in the wild),
Kevin