Book Review: Once Upon a Team by Jon Springer


Author: Jon Springer
TitleOnce Upon a Team: The Epic Rise and Historic Fall of Baseball’s Wilmington Quicksteps 
Publication Info: Sports Publishing (2018)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Mets By the Numbers
Summary/Review:

Generally, I would not be prone to pick up a book about 19th-century baseball in Wilmington, Delaware, but I know the author, and I appreciate his writing on baseball.  Jon Springer uses a wealth of primary documents to provide a lot of detail and quotes about the rough and tumble early era of professional baseball.  It’s common to think that “baseball as a business” is a recent phenomenon, but in these pages are stories of players jumping from team to team for better contracts, teams moving to new cities hoping for more profits, and snarky sportswriters covering it all.

With a preamble on the history of amateur and professional baseball clubs in Wilmington, the heart of the book focuses on the 1884 season of the newly formed Wilmington Quicksteps.  1884 is a year where professional baseball supersaturated America’s cities. The National League and their rival American Association were joined by the upstart Union Association.  The new league set out to challenge the reserve clause, the means by which teams retained rights to players after their contracts expired, keeping players in a state of indentured servitude.  Nevertheless, the Union Association found it difficult to lure away talented players from the two existing leagues.

The Wilmington Quicksteps began 1884 as part of the Eastern League, a minor league that was a forerunner of today’s International League.  Lead by colorful characters like Oyster Burns and The Only Nolan, the Quicksteps dominated the rest of the teams in the league.  The downside to this is that the team was so far ahead they had trouble drawing spectators and found themselves in a financial pickle.  The Quicksteps played exhibition games against major league teams passing through Wilmington in order to bring in spectators and money, and often played competitive games.

By August, with clubs in the Union Association folding, and the Quicksteps seemingly too good for the Eastern League and in need of a financial boost, it seemed like a natural decision for Wilmington to join the Union Association as a replacement team.  But fortune was not on Wilmington’s side.  They played only 18 games in the Union Association and won only 2 of them.  The experience brought the Quicksteps to their demise, and the Union Association was unable to return for the 1885 season.

This well-researched book is an engaging read and will be of interest to anyone curious about baseball history.

Recommended booksA Game of Brawl by Bill Felber, Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball by Jerrold Casway, and Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State by Don Harrison
Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music.  Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.”  Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.

As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw.  They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.

This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind.  It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself.  It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.

Recommended booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***

Album Review: The Switch by Body/Head


Album: The Switch
ArtistBody/Head
Release Date: July 13, 2018

Thoughts:

Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame) and Bill Nace recorded five extended tracks of crunch, feedback-looped guitar solos with limited vocals. The tracks are layered and mesemerizing as they slowly build and change. If you’d like some discordant, atmospheric music as the background to catching up on reading the news, you could do no better.

Rating: ****

Bridging Boston’s Bicycle Divide


Imagine you’re driving a car in Boston.  You want to get somewhere quick so you decide to take Storrow Drive, the limited access highway along the Charles River.  But as you approach Storrow Drive you see a sign informing you “PLEASE WALK CARS ON ACCESS AND EXIT RAMPS.” Now, you’ve been driving your car on city streets and will be driving your car on Storrow Drive, that’s what an automobile is designed to do, so you’d expect you’d also be able to drive between the two.  But the sign says you must put the car in neutral and get out and push the vehicle, no matter how inconvenient and possibly dangerous that is.

Imagine now that you are a pedestrian walking the sidewalks of Boston.  You decide to take a stroll along the Charles River along the scenic Esplanade.  But when you get to the bridge crossing Storrow Drive, you a sign sign instruction pedestrians to “PLEASE BRACHIATE ACROSS THE BRIDGE.” Again, you might expect as a pedestrian that your means of locomotion should remain as walking for your entire journey, but for this part of your journey you must get in touch with your inner primate and swing by your arms across the bridge.

Sounds absurd? Insulting? Inefficient?  Possibly injurious?

And yet, a bicyclist in the city of Boston hoping to connect to and from the Paul Dudley White Bike Path along the Charles River will see these signs on every bridge across Storrow Drive:

The Paul Dudley White Bike Path is in every the bicycle equivalent of Storrow Drive, a bicycle highway connecting Boston neighborhoods and the city to the suburbs. In a city where Mayor Marty “Car Guy” Walsh informs bicyclists that they are responsible for their own deaths “because cars are going to hit you,” the Paul Dudley White Bike Path is one of the few places in Boston where bicyclists of all ages and ability can feel confident and relaxed to bike without the risk of vehicular violence from automobiles.  And yet, to merely get on or off this bicycle oasis, one must face the inconvenience and indignity of not being able to use a bike for what it was built to do. Speaking for myself, walking my bike for extended distances – especially up inclines – causes a soreness in my hips that I never get from riding a bike.

As Bostonians we must ask why certain forms of transportation are given the space to allow large numbers of vehicles to move at high speeds unobstructed (cars) while other forms of transportation must share limited spaces (pedestrians and bicyclists)?  Why is the solution to conflicts of use to single out one form of transportation to be completely restricted from use on connecting routes?  These questions must be resolved by improving facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians, reducing motor vehicle capacity where necessary, throughout the city.  Until that time, riding one’s bike across the Storrow Drive bridges (yielding to pedestrians where necessary) remains and act of civil disobedience.

Book Review: Upon Further Review by Mike Pesca


AuthorMike Pesca
TitleUpon Further Review
Publication Info: Twelve (2018)
Summary/Review:

This collection of essays posits many “what-ifs” from American sports history, focusing less on “what if this team won the game instead of the other team” and more on general trends in sports history that changed on split decision or error.

Some of the essays are just really silly and played for laughs.

“What if the Olympics Had Never Dropped Tug-of-War?” – Nate Dimeo.  Honestly, a world in which the world’s top athletes fought for the gold in tug-o-war would be a good place.

“What if Basketball Rims Were Smaller Than Basketballs?” – Jon Bois keeps the one-note gag going for EIGHT PAGES.

“What if Game 7 of the 2016 World Series Had Turned Into Every Sports Movie Ever Made?” – Josh Levin. If that final game of the Cleveland Indians-Chicago Cubs World Series wasn’t absurd enough, imagine if it had ghosts, a dog, and an ape joining in?

Some posit that the long term outcome wouldn’t change much.

“What if the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Had Lost the World Cup?” – Louisa Thomas recounts everything that actually happened after the USWNT won the 1999 World Cup with the idea that the attention the team drew was a bigger motivator in what did (and didn’t) happen in in the aftermath.

“What if Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991”.- Ben Lindbergh.  Turns out that the 1990s/early 2000s would still have been an era of great offensive output but with fewer outliers, so Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens would not have been quite so great, and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire probably wouldn’t have been all that remarkable at all. Even the popular idea that the McGwire/Sosa home run race “saved baseball” is challenged by evidence that baseball was already rebounding, and whatever gains it gave were lost to fans who stopped watching after the PED crisis was exposed.

Some decide that on the whole, things would have ended up a whole lot better.

“What if Jerry Tarkanian Had Beaten the NCAA and Liberated College Basketball?” – Jonathon Hock.  College basketball should pay it’s players and in this world they create a successful league.

“What if the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?” – Robert Seigel writes from an alternate reality where the Dodgers stayed in Brooklyn and became a dynasty and Brooklyn became a prosperous independent city.  Somehow in this reality, New York still gets the Mets, but the Giants and the Cubs move to California.

“What if Bucky Dent Hadn’t Homered Over the Green Monster in 1978?” – Stefan Fatsis. Technically, Fatsis’ story is from the perspective of his younger self skipping school to cheer for the Yankees at Fenway, so it’s supposed to be disappointing when it results in the Red Sox starting a dynasty and the Yankees wallow in mediocrity, but I definitely think that’s an improvement.

Some see a world where things end up much worse.

“What if Baseball Teams Played Only Once a Week?” – Will Leitch.  Baseball becomes a weekly EVENT like football & Leitch tracks the changes which are all awful.

Some imagine a world where niche sports are much more popular.

“What if Horse Racing Was Still the Most Popular Sport in America?” – Peter Thomas Forntale.  Horse racing maintains it’s mid-20th century popularity by consolidating under one organization, linking tv broadcasts with college football games, and making state lotteries based on horses rather than ping pong balls.  The result is the opening of a luxury track in Brooklyn by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“What if a Blimp Full of Money Had Exploded over World Track Headquarters in 1952?” – Paul Snyder. A somewhat more ludicrous premise leads to a similar outcome as the horse racing essay, where track & field ends up attracting the nation’s top professional athletes.

Some focus on broader social issues.

“What if Muhammad Ali Had Gotten His Draft Deferment?” – Leigh Montville.  In this essay, Ali regains his prime years as a boxer, but loses his place as a heroic icon.

“What if the United States Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?” – Shira Springer.  It would’ve been the right thing to do, and according to Springer it was both an opportunity to stand up to Nazism and nip the IOC sportocracy in the bud.

“What if Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” – Julian E. Zelizer.  Apparently Richard Nixon loved to play football but wasn’t very good at it.  Zelizer hypothesizes that youthful success on the gridiron could’ve made Nixon less bitter and paranoid, and thus a better leader and President.

These are some fun what-if’s.  Perhaps someday I’ll write my own.  Here are the topics I have in mind if you want to take a stab at them.

  • What if the Mets fully renovated and rebuilt the Polo Grounds and played there for decades instead of moving to Shea Stadium?
  • What if the NASL survived?  Or even, what if the American Soccer League of the 1920s-1930s survived?
  • What if Major League Baseball brought in 2 to 4 complete teams from the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, instead of just signing the best players?
  • What if VAR existed in 2002 and after review, Torsten Frings of Germany was called for a handball in the World Cup Quarterfinal, giving the USA men’s team a chance to score?
  • What if kickball became a professional sport?
  • The New York Knicks have only won championships in seasons when my mother was pregnant.  What if she had a third child?

Favorite Passages:

A better argument can be made in the other direction. What if he hadn’t lost that time? Those missing years were what defined his career, what made his life so different from all the other boxers who came along before or have come along since. How could he have been the Greatest of All Time, the icon of icons, an important figure in politics and art and everyday life if he had plugged along on a normal athletic arc? How could he have been Muhammad Ali if he simply… boxed? Blessed with speed, strength, and charisma, Ali worked to achieve great mastery of the skills of his sport. But it was this ordeal, these troubles, that made him everything he became. – Leigh Montville

Without football, we’d have a lot less to argue about on sports radio, which would possibly mean a lot less sports radio. I admit that does make the demise of football sound like the polio vaccine. – Jason Gay

t should be noted that while gambling adds to racing’s appeal, it is one part of the mosaic. No sane person would lecture you on the history, pageantry, strategy, or majesty of pulling the arm of a slot machine. Racing is built on all of those things. But the lottery, table games, and slot machines do offer a steady dopamine gambling rush that racing can’t hope to compete with. Consider racing a sip of single-vineyard Barolo from a hand-blown crystal glass, whereas a scratch-off ticket is like taking a deep pull off a bottle of Mad Dog. – Peter Thomas Fornatale

In other words, there’s solid statistical backing for the intuitive sense that with earlier testing, we wouldn’t have seen the standout seasons that define that era in modern fans’ minds—particularly those by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. Those players probably would have aged out of the game earlier or failed to post stats that defied credibility. Which likely means that the home run records of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron would still stand, instead of Bonds’s single-season and career marks looming over the sport like the now-regarded-as-unbreakable women’s track times that suspected steroid users Florence Griffith Joyner, Jarmila Kratochvílová, and Marita Koch recorded in the 1980s (although that trio was tested). While other factors might have made the mid-to-late nineties and early-to-mid aughts a high-offense era regardless, testing could have compressed the range of individual stat lines such that the sport would have looked more like 2016, when the league as a whole hit tons of home runs but only seven players topped 40 (and the leader hit 47). Without the disillusionment caused by those instinctively asterisked 60-and 70-homer seasons, more recent outlier years wouldn’t have prompted as much skepticism from fans and writers. It’s also possible that fewer players would have sought out PEDs, not only because testing could have functioned as a partial deterrent, but also because clean players would have felt less pressure to keep up with their blatantly performance-enhanced peers, as Bonds reportedly did after seeing the fanfare that greeted McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run heroics. – Ben Lindbergh

it’s such a difficult game to play, is the constant churn of games. In Barry Svrluga’s The Grind, a book chronicling the toll a 162-game Major League Baseball season takes on everyone who’s a part of it, most players say that the hard part of baseball isn’t baseball; it’s that there is always baseball. This is why baseball is sneakily as physically taxing as any other sport, if not more so. Sure, in one individual baseball game, players move less than in the other sports. But over a season, one game almost every day for six months is grueling. It is an endurance test in a way no other sport is. The baseball season today begins at the beginning of March for Spring Training and extends into October—late October if you’re lucky. NFL teams play sixteen games a year; the NBA and NHL play eighty-two. Baseball doubles that and occasionally throws in two games in one day. It leads to a numbing, often disorienting march that affects the lives of everyone connected to the game. – Will Leitch

Once-a-week-baseball does up the hype, the excitement, and the drama. It imbues the once pastoral sport with a football-esque insistence. It strips away nuances that can be observed only after repeated viewing. It accelerates the sport’s resting heart rate and obviates the languorous tobacco spitting and sunflower seed expectoration that characterizes optimal dugout bonding. I wonder if the words clubhouse or ballpark would be applied to a pursuit with such crisis-level stakes. I cannot see an organist leading a swaying crowd in a sing-along of a song written in 1908 in a sport with so much on the line; there is nothing languid when baseball is played at this pace. I cannot see the administration of a hot foot being countenanced given the seriousness of every moment. I cannot see a chicken becoming a beloved team mascot. In short, though I am the author of this alternative supposition, I have to say I believe it would be horrible and would ruin everything I love about baseball. Which means, of course, it would be incredibly popular and remunerative. – Will Leitch

Recommended books: The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, Almost America: From the Colonists to Clinton : A “What If” History of the U.S. by Steve Tally, and It’s Game Time Somewhere by Tim Forbes
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Astral Weeks by Ryan H. Walsh


Author:Ryan H. Walsh
TitleAstral Weeks
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This book’s title is named after Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks. The Irish singer/songwriter and his newlywed wife Janet Planet spent much of 1968 living in Cambridge where he wrote many of the songs that appeared on Astral Weeks as well as latter releases such as “Moondance.” The connecting thread of this Secret History of 1968 is Morrison touring New England with a band of Boston musicians, shifting from rock & roll to a folk jazz sound, and being awfully cantankerous and drinking too much while doing so.  The actual album was recorded in New York City with jazz session musicians, Morrison’s Boston band mates only allowed to observe what was happening in the studio, as much as Walsh tries to sell this as a Boston-based album.

A better title for the book might be Things that Happened in and Around Boston in 1968 (and a Few Years Before and After for Context).  What the book lacks in having a cohesive narrative it makes up in having lots of interesting stories of Boston in the age of the counterculture. This history is often overlooked compared with what was going on in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere that year, but it is no less interesting for being forgotten.

The other major thread of this book is the Fort Hill Community, a commune or cult based around the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury lead by the messianic Mel Lyman.  The Lyman Family seemed to have their finger into every aspect of the Boston counterculture including the folk music scene (Jim Kweskin was a member), avant guarde filmmaking, and the popular underground newspaper Avatar.

In addition to Van Morrison, Walsh covers the Boston/Cambridge music scene which was shifting from the folk revival to psychedelic rock.  Unfortunately, MGM executives targeted Boston as the next big music scene and marketed a number of Boston bounds as the “Bosstown Sound.” Fans and critics saw through the cash grab and roundly rejected the Bosstown Sound.

While Boston bands were flopping, a New York band, The Velvet Underground gained a large following in Boston and played many shows in the area.  A teenage Jonathan Richman recognized Lou Reed on the street and became the VU’s superfan/mascot.  Walsh notes that in later years as original members of the Velvet Underground left the band they were replaced with Boston artists so that the final Velvet Underground album in 1973 was actually the work of a Boston bar band.

The Velvets home away from home was the South End night club The Boston Tea Party (pictured on their White Light/White Heat album).  The Boston Tea Party became the go-to place to see the latest and best music acts of the late 60s.  At the same time WBCN-FM began experimenting with a freeform rock format, first on overnights, then 24-hours a day, playing many of the same bands that performed at the Boston Tea Party and broadcasting concerts.

On television, WGBH broadcasted the experimental television program “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?” which was part talk show, part film collage, and featured an episode that could be watched on two stations at the same time if you happened to have two TVs.

Boston also played a role in four widely diverse films in this period:

  • The Boston Strangler – a real crime drama starring Tony Curtis filmed at the time the case against Albert DeSalvo was still active.
  • The Thomas Crown Affair – a heist film with lots of scenes shot on location in Boston and vicinity.
  • Titicut Follies – a controversial documentary exposing the poor conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (or would have if the movie hadn’t been banned for two decades).
  • Zabriskie Point – Italian director  Michelangelo Antonioni’s attempt at a American countculture drama that cast a non-actor found at a Boston bus stop as a lead character.  Both the youthful leads in the movie ended up associated with the Fort Hill Commune.

Late in the book, Walsh recounts the night James Brown saved Boston by playing a concert at Boston Garden broadcast live on WGBH.  The negotiations with the square Boston mayor Kevin White and his young assistant Barney Frank are particularly amusing.  This plays into the bigger story of racial tensions in Boston and a shift to more radical civil rights actions in the African-American community.  The Lyman Family ties in once again as the all-white commune had strained relations with their Black neighbors in Roxbury.  Surprisingly, Walsh does not cover the Tent City protests in the South End which were one of the most significant events in Boston in 1968 (unless I dozed while listening or something).

If you’re interested in Boston history and/or the counterculture, this is a good book that will fill in some overlooked parts of history.

 

 

Recommended booksBaby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Rating: ****

City Stories #2 – A Throbbing, Pumping Madhouse


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist.   Today’s story recounts my visit to Derry, Northern Ireland in early February 1998.  If you want to read of my adventures as a child barfly in Brooklyn, check out City Stories #1 – The Pigeons.

 

In six weeks touring through Ireland and Britain, I travel via train, bus, ferry, bicycle, and often by foot.  Uniquely, I arrive in Derry, Northern Ireland by car.  John and Johanna, a couple I met at the hostel in Coleraine who invited me to join them on their outing to the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast, generously offer to drive me to Derry as it is along their planned route into Donegal.  I should be grateful, and I am, but there is a certain beauty to solo travel — setting your own pace, visiting the places only you want to see, and not having to yell directions over the sound of the radio to two people completely incompetent in the art of navigation.

I stew in the backseat, counting down the kilometers to Londonderry from the road signs.  I can also tell we are getting closer by increasing displays of the symbols of sectarianism.  We pass through villages painted entirely in blue and red along the curbs and up the light poles, letting us know that the residents are Unionists, the Protestants who prefer that Northern Ireland remain a province of the United Kingdom.  Then we pass through villages of the Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite the Six Counties with the Irish Republic and paint their curbs and lampposts in green and orange.   The territories are well marked and grow increasingly so as we approach Derry, the hotbed of sectarian warfare.  As the sun sets and the skies darken, the territorial colors are less noticeable, but as we pull into the city, I notice something else.  All the windows on ground floors of the houses and businesses are covered with metal grates.  I see only a few unprotected windows and without fail, they are shattered.  The car pulls up to Steve’s Backpackers Hostel, my lodging for the next three nights.

Even after entering the hostel, I cannot rid myself of my generous yet irritating companions.  John tags along with me and collars the hostel employee on duty for a lengthy discussion regarding directions to Donegal.  It’s half and hour before I can even register at the hostel.  Instead, in that time I sit in the cozy kitchen – which as in many hostels doubles as a reception area – sipping complimentary tea, and slowly realizing that all the decorations on the walls contain scenes of political violence.  Newspaper clippings show Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) men leading baton charges against infuriated protesters, the wreckage of a burning bus, and lines of soldiers marching through otherwise peaceful suburban streets.  Steve’s Backpackers evidently wishes to make it known that Derry is not a place travelers visit for Broadway shows, exotic scenery, or pink sand beaches.  Which begs the question, why have I come to Derry?

Raised by my parents as a student of modern Irish history, Derry fascinates me as a the flashpoint of the Catholic civil rights struggle in the 1960’s and the ensuing decades of sectarian warfare understatedly termed “The Troubles.”  By visiting Derry, I hoped to see the places I’d read about and somehow make them more tangible and see beyond the black-and-white of a Catholic struggle against British repression, perhaps even see other sides of the story beyond what I learned from my parents and from books.  An additional motive is something of a false bravado.  Part of me wants to see friends’ faces light up as they exclaim, “You went there!”  I know full well that in the midst of cease-fires and peace talks, there was no safer time to be in the province.  In fact, the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement would occur just months after my visit.  Finally, I want to visit Derry for the snog.  Despite all expectations to the contrary, Derry holds a reputation as a party town with a lively pub and nightclub scene.  A sidebar in the 1998 Lets Go Ireland travel guide comically describes how at the end of the night, young men and women partner up on the sidewalks outside of Derry’s pubs for snog – the local slang for what Americans call necking.  Being painfully shy and rarely fortunate in the arena of casual romance, I reckon it’s worth a shot.

John and Johanna finally depart, and Brett shows me around the hostel.  Brett is a slender, clean-cut man of about the same height and age as myself, and like most of the people I meet in Ireland, he is from Australia.  Steve’s Backpackers is another stop for Brett as he works his way across Europe.  The hostel itself is no more than a couple of row houses joined together, the rooms filled with bunk beds.  The rooms are cozy and cluttered, no attempts at making the sheets conform to a standard pattern, and there are raggedy curtains tacked back from the windows.  The whole place exudes a comfy and casual atmosphere; well worn and comfy like an old shoe.  I love it.  The only single bed in the dorm room on the second floor is free, so I drop my bag on it to stake my claim.

In the hallway, a door is marked with a sign labeled “MAP OF BATHROOMDERRY,” the sociopolitical geography of Derry summed up in a lavatory.  A hand-drawn map replicates the bathroom, marking the toilet as Bogside, a pun on the slang term for toilet as well as the name of the working class Catholic neighborhood where Steve’s Backpackers is located.  The bathtub is marked Waterside, again a pun, as it is also the name of Derry’s largest Protestant district.  The Craigavon Floor connects the toilet and the bathtub on the map just as the Craigavon Bridge crosses the River Foyle tying together Bogside and Waterside.  In a bit of silliness, the mapmaker labeled other features of the bathroom as Sinkside and Doorside, although these lack parallels in the city of Derry.

Back downstairs, I sip another cup of tea and study my guidebook until interrupted by the hostel owner himself.  Steve, a rosy-cheeked Scot with a cherubic smile, comments on the snog sidebar and asks with a gleam in his eye, “Do you think that’s a good way to market Derry to tourists?”

“Sure,” I reply, “Why not print pamphlets that say ‘Derry, the Snog Capital of the World.'”  Together we create a marketing plan destined to draw legions of horny young adults on snog pilgrimages.  Referring back to the description in the guide, I ask, “Is it really like that?”

Steve winks, and responds, “You’ll have to find out for yourself.”

He introduces me to some other guests and I accompany them to the Rivers Inn Cellars, an historic pub within the walls of Derry – and more importantly the place where one can get the cheapest pint of Guinness in town.  My companions are Bailey, an art student from Northern California who is tall, slender and has a coif of black hair reminiscent of a New Wave rocker; Mickey Murphy of Portadown, Northern Ireland who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic Rowan Atkinson, so much so that some of our group take to calling him the “Irish Mr. Bean;” and a petite, dark-haired German woman named Jutta, an activist in the Nationalist cause making an extended residence at the hostel.

As fellow travelers to Derry, we all know a friend or family member who warned us against traveling in Northern Ireland.  We agree that it’s safer to be in a city in Northern Ireland than one in America.  The elevated police and military presence due to the Trouble make ordinary crimes less common.  Bailey declares, “No tourist has been killed here in over thirty years.”  As it to defend the reputation of his homeland for violent behavior, Mickey counters with a story of a riot he experienced the previous summer.  A French photographer, fresh from the battlefields of Bosnia, told Mickey that that violence in Derry was worse than any he’d seen in the Balkans.

“When they riot in Derry,” comments Mickey with a touch of pride, “they know how to do it.  They plan ahead!”

I ask if the snog scene in Derry is for real.  Bailey is not impressed.  “The pick-up scene is easy here, but its weird.  The other night I was snogging this Derry girl, and she kept stopping me, saying ‘Please don’t stick your tongue in my mouth,’ and ‘Please don’t put your hand on my ass.'”  Apparently, one can find snog in Derry, but will be disappointed if you want something more.

I enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the Rivers Inn Cellars with my new friends, listening to Mickey tell an amusing story about Ireland’s Gaelic Football All-Star Team’s drunken and destructive tour of America, or agreeing that “The Simpson” are the perfect representation of the American family.  Then begins the typical hipster-traveler talk that stirs my dread and envy.  Bailey tells of smoking pot and playing chess in a café in Amsterdam, and then he and Mickey compare the best cities in Europe to buy and sell drugs.  I feel relieved when someone says it’s time to move on to the Strand Bar for live Irish music, so I won’t have to discuss or defend my drug-free existence.

We exit through the main gates in the city walls into the car-free zone of the city center, a pedestrian strip lined with pubs, clubs, and shops.  As in Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities, driving in the center city is restricted to prevent car bombings.  The resulting pedestrian area is a lively place for shopping by and for partying by night, and the Strand is one of the many businesses that benefits.  This popular bar and nightclub – a “throbbing, pumping madhouse,” as Brett describes it to me the next day – contains four floors of entertainment.  We head to the basement where a band called Against the Grain plays to a throng of Derry youth.  Like many bar bands, Against the Grain draws on an arsenal of classic rock covers and traditional Irish standards, but this being Derry, their set list also includes a number of political tunes, or “Republican songs” as Jutia terms them.  A song about Joe McDonnell, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who died in prison during the hunger strikes of 1981, particularly stirs up the audience.  Sung in first person, the song relates a litany of abuses by Britain and the Unionists that McDonnell believes justify his actions in striking back.  The kicker comes in the chorus:

“And you dare to call me a terrorist

while you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you have done

You have plundered many nations divided many lands

You have terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”

As these words are sung, the crowd surges toward the stage, singing in unison, and pumping their fists in the air.  The transformation from carefree youth dancing and swaying to this demonstration of political unity is disjointing.  Even though I’d heard “Joe McDonnell” played before in America, I find myself pondering the lyrics with new insight, unable to let go of the fear and horror I find within the words even as Against the Grain and the audience swing back to happy sing-a-longs of love songs by Van Morrison.

Last call comes shortly afterwards, and we find ourselves pouring out into the street, mingling with the multitudes from the other floors of the Strand and the neighboring pubs.  This is the time to match up for snog, should Let’s Go be believed.  Still overwhelmed from the performance at the Strand, and exhausted from a day of traveling, I’m more interested in going to bed, alone, at the hostel.  That is if I can find the hostel.  I am able to pick out Jutta from the boisterous multitudes and she agrees to lead me back to the hostel.  Jutta tells me she accidentally left her jacket behind at the Strand, but the doors are locked and she can’t get back in to get it.

“I’m so angry I lost my jacket,” she says.  She speaks English with a German accent, but I can also hear an Irish lilt in her voice.

I try to be encouraging. “You can go back in the morning, it will probably still be there, don’t you think.”

“I don’t care about the jacket!  I just want the Bloody Sunday pin that’s on my coat.  It was given to me by Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin at the Bloody Sunday rally.  If anyone touches that pin…”

“Who’s Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin?”

“She’s the wife of Mitchell McLaughlin, the party chairman for the Sinn Fein in Derry.  I met her at the rally and she gave me a pin.”

“Oh,” I said dumbly, feeling amazed that I am walking with someone who has connections with the political wing of the IRA.    We walked along in silence a bit as Jutta’s anger simmered down.

“You like that band?”  She asks.

“Yeah, they were pretty good…”

“I see them quite a bit.  I’m disappointed they didn’t play my favorite song, ‘Sean South of Garryowen,’ do you know that song?”

“Of course.”  I heard “Sean South of Garryowen,” a Nationalist anthem, numerous times at the Irish folk concerts my parents took me to as a kid.

“This band usually plays that song, but they set the words to a Protestant song, ‘The Sash.’  A Republican song to Protestant music, it’s pretty cool.”  I thank her for explaining that to me, and share her disappointment in not hearing the song, although I probably would not have recognized the irony had I heard it played without an explanation.

The next morning I set out to explore the city so nice they named it twice, Derry or more officially (depending on your religiosociopolitical leaning) Londonderry.  Doire is the name given to the area by the city’s patron St. Colmcille, named for the oak groves of his beloved home.  In the seventeenth century, under British colonialism, the capital of England was granted control of Derry adding London to the city’s name.  Today, Catholics still refer to the city only as Derry, and while some Protestants may insist on calling it Londonderry, pretty much everyone ends up calling it Derry for short.  I walk along the fortified walls of the city, never once breached in battle, granting Derry the nickname “The Maiden City.”  A lot of local lore and the ancient root of the Troubles date to 1689 when the city’s Loyalist population defended itself against a siege by James II’s Catholic forces, until finally they were relieved by the armies of King William III.

A portion of the walls are open to pedestrians and I am able to go out as far as the west wall to look out over the Bogside, gazing uphill towards the neat lines of nearly identical row houses covered with a faint haze of smoke from the coal fires that heat the homes and give so many Irish cities a perpetual scent of sulfur.   In the foreground, the words “NO SECTARIAN MARCHES” are spelled out across the balconies of a modern, concrete apartment block. The pedestrian pathway along the top of the wall ends where a metal-frame tower stands fitted with close circuit cameras to keep an eye on the Bogside.  This tower and an adjacent barracks, Bailey informs me later, stand in violation of the Geneva Accords ruling regarding the proximity of military installations to schools.  An elementary school lies a hundred feet away below the city walls.

Heading back toward the main gate, I enter the ancient defensive tower of the city of Derry, today home to the Tower Museum.  Through engaging audiovisual and interactive displays, the museum traces the history of Derry from it’s founding by St. Colmcille to The Troubles of today.  I’m impressed that a section on 18th-century emigration discusses Irish Protestants sailing from Derry to settle in colonial Virginia, my hometown of Williamsburg getting a mention.  The museum does not shy away from current history as an entire gallery is given over to a street scene much like those I saw on the drive to Derry with the curbs and light posts painted in tribal colors.  The exhibit explains the symbolism of sectarianism and oral history videos show local residents speaking candidly of their experiences during the Troubles.

Outside the walls I explore what Steve describes as Derry’s outdoor folk art museum – the murals of Free Derry Corner.  The name comes from a famed sign painted on the end of a row of houses (the rest of the houses are now demolished, but the one gable wall still stands) that states “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY.” The signs dates to the early 1970’s when the Bogside was a “No-Go Zone,” completely under the control of the IRA, the British military unable to break through for three years.  Political murals decorate much of the city’s working class neighborhoods, and Free Derry Corner is home to the most artistic murals, which cover the entire sides of three-story high buildings.  A pair of striking murals use photographic realism to show scenes from Bogside riots: a man in a gas mask holding a Molotov cocktail and women banging trash can lids on the pavement to warn of approaching police.  Many of the murals commemorate Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972 when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators, killing fourteen, sealing the end of the peaceful civil rights movement and the birth of the modern IRA.  These range from portraits of the dead accompanied by calls for justice, to the more subtle mural which pictures two children running around the Bloody Sunday memorial, blissfully ignorant of their home city’s tumultuous past.   Other murals that depict a more hopeful future contain pastoral scenes, a symbol of the peace that nationalists believe will come from unification with the Irish Republic.

I walk along the River Foyle to the foot of the Craigavon Bridge that crosses over to the Protestant Waterside on the east bank.  Here stands a statue of two children reaching out across a gap, a symbol of a hoped-for peace and unity between Derry’s Protestants and Catholics.  I don’t cross the bridge but explore the murals of The Fountain, a small Protestant neighborhood on the west bank of the Foyle.  The mural tradition in Derry actually began among the Protestant community nearly a century earlier, and here I see one of the oldest surviving murals, a tribute to King William III, as always depicted riding a white horse.  Several Fountain murals contain the ubiquitous Red Hand of Ulster, a hand that in both gesture and color screams “Stop!” usually accompanied by the slogan “No Surrender.”  The murals of the Fountain reflect the siege mentality ingrained in the Protestant community (a minority among the larger Catholic population of Derry) since the actual Siege of 1690.  One mural even carries the legend,

“For as long as one hundred of us remain alive we will never, never in any way consent to the rule of the irish.  For it is not for glory we fight, nor riches, nor honours — but for freedom alone, which no man should lose but with his life.”

Tributes to the Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) picture a man in full military dress, rifle-raised in a threatening posture.  Judging by the murals, the Fountain seems to be saluting a military operation as opposed to the more community-minded efforts of the Bogside.  I find no murals in the Fountain with images of a peaceful future, just remnants of a strife-torn past.  I try to look at these murals with an open mind, but they just creep me out, and so I decide to call an end to my tour.

Back at the hostel, I discuss the murals with Brett and Mickey, and look at Brett’s photo collection of the murals.  When we get to a picture of the King William III mural I saw in The Fountain, Mickey makes the sound and gesture of spitting on King Billy.  Wondering what reaction I’d get, I tell Mickey that I actually live in a town named after King William III.  “What do they call it?” he exclaims, “Bastardsville?”  No, they don’t actually, but when I get home and tell my friends this story, the new nickname gains currency quickly.  I decide to refrain from informing him that I also graduated from the College of William & Mary.

That evening I go out to Peadar O’Donnell’s, a pub known for good traditional music.  While sitting at the bar, a short, burly man in his fifties with wisps of gray-blond hair covering his bald pate stumbles in and looks about trying to locate the toilets.  I point him in the direction of the sign that read Fir Leithras (Irish for men’s restroom).  Returning from the toilets, the man claps me on the shoulder, thanks me for saving his life, and buys me a pint of Guinness.  He introduces himself as Joren from Sweden.  I tell him my name and that I am from Virginia.  Neither of these seemed to make an impression on him. Instead he takes to calling me “Wyoming,” and begins telling me about his one visit to the United States for an anti-nuclear demonstration in Washington, DC twenty-five years earlier, repeating several times “You were not even born!”  I try to correct him on my name and home state, but am met only by reiterations of his trip to Washington.

The third telling of this story is interrupted when the door opens again and two young women enter the pub.  I’m stunned because they are the most beautiful women I’ve seen since arriving in Derry, and even more stunned when the race to bar and embrace Joren.

“There you are!  We’ve been looking all over for you!” they exclaim.   My appreciation of Joren grows as he introduces me to Olivia and Elaine, both students at the local university.

“This is Wyoming, he saved my life!”  The three had met earlier in the day at the Strand, and somehow became separated.  Olivia with short, black hair and a bewitching gleam in her eye tells me that they are from County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, and explains to me the reason why they look so different.

“We’re not like these Derry girls.  You see them with their hair all sprayed up and a lot of makeup caked on.  They like to wear clothes that show a lot of skin.”  While Olivia catches up with Joren, I switch to talking with Elaine, who has long, curly brunette hair and a captivating smile.  When she learns that I am from America she tells me she’ll be studying abroad in Boston next year.  I tell her that I’m planning to move to Boston, I am hopeful that we will meet again.  As the band strikes up the opening chords of a song, Olivia interrupts our conversation.

“I love this song,” she whispers reverently.

“What song is it?” I ask.

“‘Ride On,’ Christy Moore.” she replies.  I shake my head, not recognizing the song title.  She looks me in the eyes and sings, her own eyes reflecting the glow of the peat fire. ” Ride on, see you, I could never go with you, / No matter how I wanted to.”  I am transfixed, feeling for the moment as if she sings just for me.

The four of us emerge from Peadar O’Donnell’s laughing and capering across the pedestrian zone as Elaine and Olivia demonstrate their Irish step-dancing skills.   We return to The Strand, continuing our conversation at the bar on the lower level (much less crowded and noisy than the night before as no band is playing).  Joren takes his leave for the night, thanking me profusely one last time and acknowledging me as a Rocky Mountain state I’ve never been to.  Olivia and Elaine tell me they’re going upstairs to meet a friend, but ask me to wait down below.  I wait for a long time, and finally getting frustrated I head upstairs and find them in animated conversation with their friend.  I try to get their attention, but my efforts fail, and feeling rejected, I storm out of the pub.  I walk home to the hostel feeling drunk, lonely, and depressed.

The next day I take a day-trip to the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.  I enjoy the museum, but being the off-season the grounds are mostly devoid of people, emphasizing my feeling of loneliness from the night before.  It feels good to return to the vibrant authenticity of Derry.  At the hostel I find most of the hostel staff and guests gathered in the TV lounge watching a fast-cut British program where ordinary men and women comment about members of the opposite sex.  One of the men on the show expresses his frustration at how another man at his university proclaimed that he would have sex with every woman in the residence and had women lining up at his door, and he wonders why women went for these bad guys.  Brett commented, “Women show respect for men by not having sex with them,” adding “I’m the most respected man in the world when it comes to women.”

Cheered by the companionship and silly conversation, I am ready to go out for the night.  After all, I came to Derry partly for the nightlife not to watch television.  I am unable to interest anyone in joining me, as they prefer to lounge about at the hostel.   I return to Peadar O’Donnell’s, half-hoping to find a Swedish matchmaker who will introduce me to Irish women.  Instead I meet Brooke, the Australian woman I’d met previously in Killarney and Dingle, freshly arrived in Derry.  We take a table and catch up on our respective travels.  Like Brett and nearly every other Australian traveler I meet, Brooke is working part-time and taking long breaks to travel around Europe.  She tells me when she finishes her circuit around Ireland she will return to London where she has a job lined up.

“Next year, I want to go to America,” she says.

“Really, which parts?”  I ask, offering my assistance.

“I’d like to go to New York and the West Coast, and maybe a side trip to Atlanta.”

“A side trip to Atlanta?”  I ask puzzled.  I pull out my pocket address book that has a tiny map of the United States.  Unfortunately, it’s so tiny that Atlanta really does look close to New York, so I have to find other ways to convince her.  “They don’t have good trains or buses like they do in Europe.  It will probably take you at least a day to get there from New York.  You’re going to want to fly if you really want to go from New York to Atlanta.”

A woman at the next table introduces herself into the conversation.  Her name is Carmel, a Derry resident, and despite her bleach blonde hair and an excess of make up, she is quite attractive.  Her sister and boyfriend, a tough looking gent from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, soon join her.  I tell him that I might stop in Newcastle later in my holiday, an he takes it upon himself to educate me in the ways of the Geordies (the nickname for Newcastle’s blue collar residents), which seem mostly to involve sprinkling one’s sentence with profanity.

“I love the American accent,” Carmel tells me flirtatiously (I swear she even bats her eyelashes), but due to the looming presence of her spit-and-sawdust boyfriend, I decide not to use that too my advantage.  Instead I decide to call it an early night, my last night in Derry, not once having “caught snog,” but still feeling happy.    I walk home to the hostel, which now does feel like home, or more so since I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve felt so at ease after three days as I do here.  And the warmth and generosity of Steve’s Backpackers makes the biggest difference.

Over breakfast, Steve tells me a story about Halloween in Derry.  Everyone in town dressed up in costumes and hit the pubs and clubs.  A group of men entered one bar costumed as terrorists, but it turned out they actually were terrorists, shooting several people.  A riot ensued, and Steve describes witnessing the surreal scene of the RUC clubbing Elvis Presley and chasing Batman down the street.  The story seems to sum up Derry: funny, a bit bizarre, and terrifying all at once.  Outdoing themselves in hospitality, both Steve and Brett load me up with advice of what do on my next stop in Belfast and then walk me to the door of the hostel.   We pose for a picture together under the hostel sign.  I find it really hard to leave, and begin making plans to return.

(NOTE: 20 years later and still haven’t made it back).

Book Review: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
TitleSt. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Narrators:  Ariel Sitrick, Zach McLarty, Patrick Mackie, Nick Chamian , Jesse Bernstein, J. B. Adkins, Kathe Mazur, Arthur Morey, Kirby Heyborne, Deirdre Lovejoy
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2010
Previously read by same author: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Summary/Review:

This collections of short stories deal with themes of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, loss and grief, and animal nature of humanity.  They are deeply in the magical realism genre as these coming of age stories include fantastical elements. My favorite stories include “Haunting Olivia” about two brothers looking for their lost sister who sailed away on a crab’s exoskeleton, “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers” where a boy with prophetic dreams goes a camp for children with sleep disorders, “The City of Shells,” told from the perspective of an outsider girl who gets trapped in a giant conch shell,  and “From Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration” which is an ordinary boy’s perspective on a pioneer journey when his father is a Minotaur pulling the wagon.

Recommended booksThe Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Rating: ***

Book Review: Warlock by Andrew Cartmel


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
TitleWarlock
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Previously read by the same author: Through Time: An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who
Summary/Review:

Andrew Cartmel was the final script editor on the original run of Doctor Who on tv from 1987-1989, and is known for allegedly having a master plan for the Doctor’s story that would be revealed over time.  Interestingly, he never wrote a screenplay for a Doctor Who tv  screenplay, so it is in books that one gets to see how he’d tell a Doctor Who story.  And this one’s a doozy.

The Seventh Doctor is living in a cottage near Canterbury with Ace and Benny, using the cottage to carry out research while sending his companions on missions. Benny goes undercover with a top secret drug enforcement agency (called IDEA) in New York to find out about a mysterious new street drug called warlock, while Ace becomes involved in a pair of animal rights activists working to undermine animal testing at a nearby research facility.

What’s stands out about this book is that the Doctor is hardly involved in the story at all, and it can also go chapters at a time without checking in with Ace or Benny.  Full plotlines are carried out by the characters Cartmel invented for the story including the NYPD detective Creed, IDEA agents, the lab researchers conducting experiments, and a couple named Vincent and Justine who have psychic powers (and were introduced in an earlier Cartmel novel).  It’s a tightly-plotted crime drama with just hints of science fiction/fantasy underpinning.  There doesn’t even seem to be an extraterrestrial element unless you consider, …. well I won’t give away the ending, but readers will probably figure it out well before then.

The strangest thing about this book is that a reader with little to no knowledge of Doctor Who could pick it up and read it as a solid, standalone novel.  And it’s a strange book which includes things such as human consciousness entering animals, a woman suddenly forced into prostitution and just as quickly rescued, the complete destruction of Canterbury cathedral, and a couple sneaking into Buckingham Palace to have sex, and these are all relatively minor plot points.  Whatever you’re expecting from a Doctor Who story, this novel will defy expectations.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Photopost: Camping at Wolfe’s Neck Farm


Last week we celebrated the end of the school year with our somewhat annual stay at Wolfe’s Neck Oceanfront Camping in Freeport, Maine. We tented in the woods by Casco Bay, roasted marshmallows, biked nearly everywhere, shopped in Freeport, visited the Wolfe’s Neck Center farm, and most significantly, we went hiking with goats!

Related posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 7


Fresh Air :: The Pediatrician Who Exposed the Flint Water Crisis

Interview with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha who exposed the Flint water crisis.  She also discusses growing up as a child of Iraqi refugees.

99% Invisible :: Right to Roam

I’ve always been amazed by how Britain protects the rights of walker/hikers to cross land that’s privately owned.  Whereas in the US, one is liable to be shot for doing so.

Ben Franklin’s World :: Brian Regal, The Secret History of the New Jersey Devil

If you’ve ever heard the legend of the New Jersey Devil, you imagine it as a cryptozooligical creature inhabiting the Pine Barrens.   Turns out that the story originates instead with a 17th-century colonist named Daniel Leeds who published an almanac that ran afoul of the Quaker authorities!

Disney History Institute :: Winsor McCay and the Origins of American Animation

Early animation originated as part of a vaudeville act featuring a trained dinosaur.

99% Invisible :: Beyond Biohazard

A video podcasts explores the effort to let future generations know that something is dangerous without using language or symbols that won’t be understood.

Hit Parade :: The Deadbeat Club Edition

The first part of the story of how two very different New Wave acts emerged from Athens, GA in the 1980s.

TV Review: Luke Cage (2016)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

Luke Cage is a Marvel series about a man in Harlem with bulletproof skin and superhuman powers who reluctantly becomes a vigilante hero. Unlike Marvel movies, the series has a lot of space to breath allowing characters space to grow and creating an atmosphere steeped in the culture and history of Harlem. It’s more violent than I typically enjoy in my entertainment but the absence of nonstop action-adventure also makes the scenes of violence more pointed and realistic. There’s also some brilliant acting. Mike Colter holds his own as Luke, but his supporting cast really make the show. Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, an idealistic NYPD detective trying to cleanup the neighborhood, Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple who basically has super nursing skills and acts as friend and mentor to Luke, and Mahershala Ali plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a nightclub owner and an organized crime leader. And then there’s Alfre Woodward, who is wonderful in everything she plays, as Mariah Dillard, a city councilor and cousin of Cottonmouth who wants to improve Harlem, but is not above looking past and even encouraging Cottonmouth’s criminal activities. The show also has terrific music with live performances by artists Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, Jidenna, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Method Man (the latter has an extended cameo that is hillarious, albeit absurd).

I felt the season was strongest in the first 6 episodes which almost feel like there own story arc with a new season starting in episode 7. The mood and the atmosphere of Harlem was especially strong in these episodes, and Luke Cage’s story intersected with social problems of the carceral state, violence in Black communities, and gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods. The latter half of the season is more action-adventure oriented, with increasingly silly plot twists, and overall feels more, well, comic book-ish. The biggest problem is that Cornell Stokes is replaced by a new antagonist who is nowhere near as well-developed or acted (more on that below).

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE REMAINDER OF THIS POST.

The sixth episode ends with Cornell Stokes arrested and the story arc seemingly complete, but hints that police and political corruption will make it harder for charges against Stokes to stick. We seem to be set up to explore that outcome in episode 7 when in a shocking twist, Mariah brutally murders Cottonmouth, and the opportunistic Shades helps her pin it on Luke Cage. This would seem to set up Mariah as the main antagonist, but she actually fades into the background for many episodes, which is a shameful waste of Alfre Woodward, Netflix! Instead, a new villains emerges in the form of Willis “Diamondback” Stokes, played hammily by Erik LaRay Harvey, who is supposed to be the brilliant arms dealer behind the crime organizations of Harlem, but comes of cartoonish as he spouts bible verses and basically just kills everyone for no good reason. Diamondback is just not as compelling a villain as Cottonmouth and the back end of the season suffers for it.

Album Review: All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do by Milk Carton Kids


AlbumAll the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do 
Artist: Milk Carton Kids
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Just Look at Us Now
  • Mourning in America
  • One More for the Road
  • Big Time
  • I’ve Been Loving You

Thoughts:

The folk duo of  Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel – tight harmonies, introspective lyrics, and understated instrumentation.  This is the first album recorded with a backing band, but nevertheless the instruments are restrained, adding resonant bass notes, thumping bass drums, and country twang only to support and emphasize the vocals.  Of course, the instrumental performances should not be overlooked, and the 10 minute long “One More for the Road” is highlighted by solos that are not at all indulgent.  While much of the album is inward-looking as you’d expect from contemplative folkies, “Mourning in America” is a standout political track.  I don’t listen to folk music nearly as often as I did about 15-20 years ago, but this is a standout album.

Rating: ****

Book Review:  In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Djibouti.

Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
TitleIn the United States of Africa
Translator: David Ball, Nicole Ball
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where Africa, unified as a single nation, is prosperous and has colonized the rest of the world. White people try to escape poverty and war as refugees to Africa.  One could put together a concordance as long as the book to all the references of things in this topsy turvy world that are allusions to our world.  After a few pages of this it moves beyond satire and feels more like the author trying to demonstrate his cleverness.

Unfortunately, the plot and characterization is pretty thin.  The main character is Malaïka (aka Maya), a child born in France but adopted by an African doctor.  The story follows her life and her journey as an adult to return to France and meet her birth mother.  To add to the overall experimental style of the novel, it is written by an unnamed narrator addressing Maya.

This novel is short but a complicated read.  I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff that just went over my head.

Rating: **

Album Review: Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington


AlbumHeaven and Earth
Artist: Kamasi Washington
Release Date: June 22, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “Fists of Fury,” “One of One,” “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” “Journey,” and “Will You Sing.”
Thoughts:

I feel like I really don’t have the knowledge and vocabulary to review jazz.  Of course you could probably argue that for my rock and pop reviews too.  But the new album by the tenor saxophonist, bandleader, and composer from Los Angeles, Kamasi Washington, seems a significant addition to the jazz ouevre.  Washington and co record epic tracks of epic length in two parts of an hour each, with the sound veering from cinematic scores to psychedelic rock to funk to symphonic fantasia.

Rating: ****

Related Post: Album Review: Harmony of Difference by Kamasi Washington 

Quick Poll on Music Discoveries


If I were to do another deep listen on an artist or band’s career work and write a Music Discovery, what artist or band would you like to read about?

Monthly Mixtape – June 2018


Holy cow!  We’re already half way through this year.  Here are a few of the  new songs I was listening to in June. What are YOU listening to?  Let me know in the comments.

 

The Orb :: “Rush Hill Road”

Poptone :: “Go!”

Petal :: “Better than You”

Bob Moses :: “Heaven Only Knows”

Luluc :: “Heist”

Previous Posts: