Archive for August, 2009

Book Review: Central Park in the Dark by Marie Winn

Author: Marie Winn
Title: Central Park in the Dark
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
ISBN: 9780374120115 

Summary/Review:

This series of essays follows Winn and her cohorts over a decade spent observing the wildlife of an urban place, New York City’s Central Park.  Winn tells of encounters with red-tailed hawks, grackles, moths, slugs, robins, and owls and brings to life the excitement of waiting patiently to be there for the fly out of your favorite bird.  The title comes from the need to be in the park before dawn or after sunset to observe the natural goings-on, something that is perceived as a dangerous thing to do.  There are a lot of elements to this book that make is natural for me to like – New York, Central Park, quirky people with unusual hobbies, discovering the unexpected in a very accessible place – and yet I didn’t like the book as much as I want to.  Perhaps its the heavy detail offered by one who’s into intensive scrutiny whereas I just want a general overview or perhaps its the bad jokes that get less funny with repetition.  One things for sure, this book is best read like birding – slowly and with great patience over many days, not rushed through.

Recommended books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe, and Pigeons by Andrew Blechman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

Author: Howard Zinn, Paul Buhle, & Mike Konopacki
Title: A People’s History of American Empire
Publication Info:
ISBN: 0805077790

Summary/Review:

When I was a kid I inherited my uncle’s Mad magazine collection which had some comic books mixed in including a three-part series about the Civil War.  This was a hagiographic history where all the soldiers called one another “Billy Yank” and “Johnny Reb” done in the style of Classics Illustrated. 

A People’s History of American Empire is a very different comic book history.  Based on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as well as Zinn’s own life this is a graphic depiction of the times in American history where the nation failed to live up to the standards of liberty and equality for all.  Mainly this involves the repression of people within the United States (Indians, blacks, immigrants, and labor), wars in foreign lands (Phillipines, Vietnam, and Iraq) and intervention into the  autonomy of other nations (Iran, El Salvador, and many more) for the benefit of powerful and wealth American elite. A comic version of Zinn narrates the book frequently turning over the story to characters contemporary to the events described. Interspersed in this narrative are stories of the social movements in America such as Civil Rights, labor, and anti-war.

I particular found it interesting in the parts that covered events I’d only heard of or knew nothing about, such as:

  • The Black 25th Infantry who fought valiantly at San Juan Hill but were denied credit.
  • The Jitterbug Riot
  • The counter-cultural protests of R&B fandom in the 1950’s.
  • The Diem Regime and South Vietnam “essentially a creation of the United States.”
  • The Second Battle of Wounded Knee
  • Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

This is a good introduction to the other side of American history in a brief and well-illustrated manner.

Recommended books: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****

100 Favorite Albums of All-Time (40-31)

Previously:

40. Rubber Soul by The Beatles (1966)

Picking Beatles’ albums for this list is challenging.  How do I leave any out?  Rubber Soul is among the Beatles’ most innovative and sophisticated works with a number of great songs, so I can’t leave it off the list. Favorite tracks include: “Norwegian Wood,” “The Word,” and “I’m Looking Through You.”

39. Escondida by  Jolie Holland (2004)

Got this CD as a gift (thanks Camille) and was bowled over by Holland’s timeless voice and the crazy percussion on “Mad Tom of Bedlam.”  Wow! Other highlights include “Sascha,” “Amen,” and “Damn Shame.”

38.  Live Noise by Moxy Fruvous (1998)

Moxy Früvous was  one of those bands were never quite the same on studio albums as they were in concert.  This live collection captures the band’s on-stage banter and improvised songs as well as their greatest hits. “The Drinking Song,” “Michigan Militia,” and “Johnny Saucep’n” are among the musical highlights.

37.  The Roches by The Roches (1979)

Another public library discovery, the debut album of the Roche sisters captures their beautiful harmonies and witty & insightful lyrics.  I never liked any of their later work, but it’s easy to love an album that begins with the autobiographical theme song “We.” Other standouts are “Hammond Song,” “Mr. Sellack,” and “The Troubles.”

36.  When I Go by  Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer (1998)

The first of three masterful albums for this folk duo.  Carter’s dream-inspired lyrics and Grammer’s haunting fiddle made for music both fresh and old-fashioned at the same time as in the title track. Some other memorable tunes include “The River, Where She Sleeps,” “Lancelot,” and “Kate and the Ghost of Lost Love.”

35.  3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul (1989)

I’d probably listen to more rap music if De La Soul’s mix of clever wordplay, eclectic sampling, and inspired mixing were the standard. Hip tracks include “Say No Go,” “Plug Tunin’,” and “Jenifa Taught Me.”

34. Theorems and Compositions of the Last Action Rocker by Hum Machine (2003)

This Wisconsin rock band falls in the category of “bands with a guy I sort of know who seem to have vanished from the internet” (see Johnny Most).  Good thing I still have this rocking album. Favorites include “Twisted Niche,” “Bring it on Pepeon,” and “Mechanical Devices.”

33. Viva by The Velveteens (1998)

Speaking of obscure bands, The Velveteens are a ska punk band from the College of William & Mary that I saw play once at Homecoming and liked enough to pick up their album before they vanished from the face of the earth.  Memorable pieces include “Wasted With the Cooper,” “Port Authority,” and “Yak Farm.”

32. Live at Tir na nÓg by  Vinal Avenue String Band (1999)

This folk/bluegrass/old time band featured Kris Delmhorst, Sean Staples (later of The Resphonics and The Benders), and Ry Cavanaugh and played a weekly gig at the tiny Tir na nÓg pub in Somerville.  I was a regular patron on those nights and while the band and the pub are no more, this recording survives. The Gillian Welch cover “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” “Tir na nÓg,” and “Front Porch Song” lead off the highlights of this album.

31. Channel 1 – A Compilation Of Output Recordings (2000)

Twisted Village is a record store in Harvard Square that specializes in all manner of music with no commercial potential.  Not having much knowledge of what to pick up there I decided I couldn’t go wrong with a compilation and scored this beauty.  The album contains some great electronic music – some tracks are for dancing, some are for meditating.  “Calamine” by Four Tet, “High-On Tech” by Sonovac, and a cover of James Brown’s “Superbad” by LB are among the many strong tracks.

Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Title: A Fine Balance
Publication Info: Books on Tape, Inc. (2001)
ISBN: 0736684425

Summary/Review:

This novel – epic in length – tells the story of four people in Mumbai, India who come together during The Emergency of the mid-1970’s.  They are:

  • Dina Dalal – a young widow who takes up clothing manufacture to maintain her independence from her controlling brother.
  • Ishvar Darji – a kindly tailor from a low caste background who comes to Mumbai to work for Dina.
  • Omprakash – Ishvar’s more unruly nephew who works with him as a tailor.
  • Maneck – a young man from a mountain village studying at the university and staying with Dina as a paying guest.

In the first part of A Fine Balance, Mistry tells the life stories of each of these characters which actually could be four gripping novellas in their own right.  Then the story is told of how they all come together under one roof and after a rocky start forming a friendship.

This novel is marked by stark descriptions of poverty and injustice in India which Mistry none-too-subtly lays at feet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime.  This novel does not have a happy ending, but there is joy and love in the brief time of friendship of the principal characters that shows that their is some hope in the most dire of circumstances.

Favorite Passages:

She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.

Recommended books: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Côte d’Ivoire

Author: Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
Title: Aya
Publication Info: Drawn and Quarterly (2007)https://othemts.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php
ISBN: 1894937902

Summary/Review:

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is set in Yop City, a working class neighborhood in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970’s when the nation was prosperous and chic.  Abouet deliberately sets out to tell a story about Africa that is not about poverty and warfare.  The story is centered around the daily lives and flirtations of three young women.  <SPOILER> Of course there is some heavy stuff here when one of the young women becomes pregnant and is forced into marriage with the son of a wealthy Boss, but Abouet plays if off for comedy with the grown-ups as comic caricatures. </SPOILER>.  Oubrerie vibrantly illustrates this book bringing out the beautiful colors of the clothing and the city as well as the humanity of the characters.  I learned about this book via The Hieroglyphic Streets, where you can find more reviews, and apparently there are sequels that are worth checking out too.

Recommended Books: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Faith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince

Author: Greg Prince
Title: Faith and Fear in Flushing
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2009)
ISBN: 1602396817

Summary/Review:

Greg Prince, one of the co-authors of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing – the most intelligent and literate Mets blog there is – writes about his 40 years as the guy everyone knows as the big Mets fan.  Part memoir, part baseball history this book explores the ups & downs of fandom in parallel with the events of his life.  If this sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar in concept and execution to Fever Pitch.  That is Fever Pitch the autobiographical book by Nick Hornby about his love for the Arsenal Football club, not the wholly fictional romantic comedy film about the Red Sox.

Prince’s ruminations on the Mets are a pleasure to read for the most part although he does have a tendency for repetition especially in the more navel-gazing portions of the book.  As a fellow Mets fan, I enjoyed reliving the Mets good years and many fallow years from the perspective of another fan.  I think this book could be enjoyable as well to someone unfamiliar with the Mets or with baseball, especially since it gives a literary perspective on the game that breaks from the mold of Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers.

If there’s one thing I quibble with in this book is Prince’s characterization of Mets fans loving the Mets but hating the players.  While I think that negative attitude has become prominent in the past five years or so, historically that “win or your a bum” kind of thinking has been more of a Yankee fan ideology.  Mets fans used to be opposite, the cult of the underdog, a humanistic approach to accepting the players despite their flaws and celebrating their accomplishments and commiserating with their failures.  The Mets were a team the ordinary guy could identify with and thus players like Marv Throneberry, Lee Mazzili, Mookie Wilson, Butch Huskey, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo became local heroes despite never leading the league in anything.

At any rate, I find it harder to be a Mets fan these days not because of the Mets but because of the hostile and vulgar attitude of my fellow “fans.”  This book gives me hope because it shows that there are still thoughtful and literate fans among our numbers.

Favorite Passages:

Blogging revealed itself to me as Banner Day’s logical and technological successor.  Mets fans are always dying to tell you about being Mets fans.  We each fancy ourselves Mr. Met, except Mr. Met is mute and never stops smiling, whereas we never shut up and expend loads of bandwidth contemplating, complaining, and, only on infrequent occasion, complimenting.  -p. 255

I don’t love the Mets because it gives me license to behave as a “crazy fan.”  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to give one’s mental well-being over to the fickle physical fortunes of a batch of youthful millionaires.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to risk vast quantities of disappointment in the longshot search for a modicum of solace.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to think the angst I incur as a preoccupational hazard is, in fact, maybe its own reward.  But I’m a big fan.  I’m not a crazy fan. – p. 270.

Recommended books: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, Mets by the Numbers: A Complete Team History of the Amazin’ Mets by Uniform Number by Jon Springer, and Playing Hard Ball: A Kent Crickter’s Journey into Big League Baseball by Ed Smith.
Rating:

Book Review: 722 Miles by Clifton Hood

Author: Clifton Hood
Title: 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (1993)
ISBN: 067167756X

Summary/Review:

772 Miles is a thorough overview of New York City’s subway system from the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit system in 1904, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation in 1923, the city-operated Independent Subway System in 1932.  According to Hood there was only a decade or so of financial success for the privately owned subway companies, largely built on real estate speculation in areas of the city opened up by the subway lines.  Then began a long decline in which corporate fiscal interests tangled with public interests and the subway began to lose out to the automobile in expanding the city. Hood likes to point out that in art representing the subway in the 30’s and 40’s that people are often sleeping.  Fear of crime was not a concern in this age when subway safety was concerned more with the trains themselves going off the rails. Even the consolidation of the subways under municipal control in 1940 was a failure in Hood’s view.  This book was published in 1993 before the subways were revitalized and repopularized, so it makes me wonder that if there’s ever been a Golden Age for the New York City subway that we’re living in it right now.

This book is a bit dry and kind of business-focused as opposed to the social and cultural history of the subway, but it’s not bad for a short history.

Recommended books: Subway Style by The New York Transit Museum, Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, and Change at Park Street Under; the story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy.
Rating: ***

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,109 other followers

%d bloggers like this: