#Prepare


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

Yesterday we purchased a fragrant fir and put it in our living room.

The lights and the ornaments are on the tree.

Stockings are hung from an archway (urban apartments have no chimneys).

When I was a kid we always made these preparations for Christmas in mid-December and we keep to that tradition today. Unlike the contemporary rush to get everything up at Thanksgiving – or earlier – and then tossing everything on the curb on December 26.

I prefer to ease into Christmas, taking some time to open my heart before opening gifts, and then wallowing in the long Christmas that follows.

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Book Review: Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky


Author: Mark Ribowsky
TitleDreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by
Publication Info: Liveright (2015)
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to believe that Otis Redding was only 26 years old when he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967.  His accomplishments as a singer, song-writer, and producer left behind a colossal legacy for someone so young. Ribowsky’s biography examines Redding’s life as an artist depicting him not only as a talented singer and musician, but the creator and defining star of soul music (I feel that Ribowsky gets a bit hagiographical in this sense as much as I admire Redding’s musical greatness).

The biography explores Redding’s upbringing in Macon, GA – a city that also gave us Little Richard and James Brown – his rise to fame as a stunning stage performer, recording with Stax records in Memphis, and becoming a soul superstar in the mid-60s.  A lot of key moments in Redding’s life are covered in depth including writing and recording “Respect” and how that song was transformed into a defining hit song by Aretha Franklin, covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” even though he wasn’t very familiar with the song and ended up improvising new lyrics, his standout performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival, writing and recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and his tragic death.  Ribowsky is also interested in detailing Redding’s role in the rise of Stax Records, defining a Southern soul sound grounded in being the music of the black community in contrast to Detroit’s Motown Records attempts to produce crossover hits.  While Redding did not have hit songs on the pop charts in his lifetime, he managed to have great success and wealth by keeping recordings in the charts for long periods of time, and concurrently with The Beatles, using the long-playing album as a vessel for pop music artistry instead of the single.  The Beatles are also Redding’s fans and loaned him and his retinue limousines every time they performed in London.

While Redding is known as a big-hearted and friendly person, Ribowsky doesn’t shy away from his dark side.  The culture of Stax Records involves casually adding one’s own name as a writing credit, swindling other artists from royalties, and in-fighting among the stable of artists, something Redding was not above participating in.  He was also involved in a shoot-out in Macon that somehow miraculously was kept out of the news coverage of the time.  Worst yet, according to at least one women in the band, Redding and his crew were guilty of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct on their tours.

If you’re interested in Otis Redding and soul music, this is an excellent study of the man and his times, and outside the bits of hagiography, and excellent biographical work.

 

Rating: ****

#Focus


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

Over the past year, I’ve been learning to use my SLR camera.  An important aspect of photography is focus.  Not just that the photograph be “in-focus,” but where one puts the focus.  One can take several photos of the same exact thing with the focus on the subject, the focus on the background, the focus on the foreground, or no focus at all, and the photos will each tell a very different story.  Focus is an aspect of the news today as the focus is often on celebrity, scandal, and wealth. These foci often blur out the full story of the poverty and suffering of the everyday people.  I’m getting all metaphorical again, but focus applies to our everyday lives as well.  Do we focus on the bad and obscure the good?  Do we focus on our own selfish needs and ignore the suffering of others?  What stories do we tell ourselves and how do they change when we change the focus? And what is the story of this banana and reflected light?

Album Review: Soul of a Woman by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings


AlbumSoul of a Woman
ArtistSharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Come and Be a Winner,” “Rumors,”  “Searching for a New Day,” and “Call on God”
Thoughts: It’s hard to listen to this album without feeling tearful, not just because of the music, but the knowledge that Sharon Jones’ voice was silenced forever with her death last year.  The final Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings album seems to recognize her mortality with more down tempo tracks, calls for reconciliation, messages of peace, and finish with the gospel hymn “Call on God.” It’s not intended as a final statement, but it’s what we get and serves as a reminder of the beauty and power that the great Sharon Jones brought to the world.
Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 9th


99% Invisible :: The Nut Behind the Wheel

A history of how the auto industry and road engineers avoided including safety measures in their designs in their cars and highways leading to countless deaths, and how they blamed everything on the driver.  Yes this should make you think of firearms manufacturers.

Fresh Air :: The Golden Age of Comics

An interview with Cullen Murphy who took over writing “Prince Valiant” from his father in the 1980s.  Murphy remembers how special the full-color Sunday comics section was for children, and the community of comic artists in Fairfield County, CT.  Not mentioned in the interview, Murphy and I went to the same high school, albeit he attended well before I did.

Hidden Brain :: What Can A Personality Test Tell Us About Who We Are?

Hidden Brain examines personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs.  Scientific or a glorified form of astrology?  Worse still, how employers are misusing these tests in personnel decisions.

Fresh Air :: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg discusses “The Pentagon Papers” and top secret plans for nuclear war that he discovered as a national security analyst in the 1960s but was not able to reveal to the public at the time.  A chilling look into the United States’ militaristic past and present.

Hub History :: Boston and Halifax, a lasting bond

One hundred years ago, a collision in Halifax Harbor caused a munitions ship to explode, devastating the city and causing thousands of deaths and injuries.  Boston responded by sending a train with medical personnel and supplies to help the survivors.  To this day, Nova Scotia continues to thank Boston by providing a Christmas tree every year.

60 Second Science :: Yeti Claims Don’t Bear Up

Science disappoints us again by showing that evidence of the Yeti is genetically just a bear.  Well, not “just,” because bears are important to, and these studies tell us more about them.

The Bernie Sanders Show :: Our Budget Priorities with Elizabeth Warren

Two of our few remaining sensible Senators discuss important things that make sense.

Decode DC :: The Changing Race of Immigration in America

A history of immigration to America focusing on who was allowed to “become American” and who was excluded, and the government’s role in all of this.

#Mend


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

In the 1950s, a highway overpass was built through my neighborhood, cutting the neighborhood in half, while allowing drivers going from the outskirts of the city to downtown to zip through.  Over time, the induced demands of driving brought traffic to a crawl, and the overpass began to decay.  Two years the state demolished the overpass and began construction on a new at-grade road with amenities designed to mend the neighborhood back together. The project is approaching completion but remains very divisive.  Some people didn’t want any changes made at all, some people wanted a new overpass, some people think the plan doesn’t go far enough to reverse the damage of automotive priority.  Everyone is frustrated by the two years and counting of disruption due to the construction.

It occurs to me that while “to mend” is considered a net positive in the outcome, the process of mending can be frustrating, painful, and destructive.  If that’s not a metaphor for our lives and relationships, I don’t know what is.

#Simplify


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

Simplify. That’s a complicated word.

I could simplify by decluttering my home of the excess possessions that pile up if I had the time. I could simplify my schedule if it ever felt like I had the energy to do much more than the bare minimum to raise children, hold down a job, and be a responsible adult.

Simplicity is complicated.

“Simplify” is a verb that looks like it’s just one more thing to do.

I think I’ll seek simplicity in being rather than doing.

Book Review: Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick


AuthorMatthew Quick
TitleEvery Exquisite Thing 
Narrator: Vanessa Johansson
Publication Info: New York : Hachette Audio, p2016.
Summary/Review:

Not sure what to make of this book. Nanette O’Hare is a good student and star soccer player at her high school, but an outsider who spends her lunch time with her English teacher.  When her teacher introduces her to an out-of-print book about a disaffected teen railing against conformity, Nanette’s life is changed and she finds and befriends the book’s author. While Nigel Booker refuses to discuss his novel, he does encourage Nanette to rethink her life, leading her to quit the soccer team and reconsider going to college.  He also introduces her to a boy her age who is also a fan of the book and a tortured poet, Alex.  Alex is kind of the manic pixie dream boy of the novel which is kind of a tragedy since neither Nanette nor the author seem to want to realize that he is a colossal douche.  I won’t go into any spoilers but a lot of things happen that push Nanette to the edge of her sanity and increase her resentment against everyone she knows.  I think the problem with this book is that so many characters are so one-dimensional and villainous, that it undermines the generally well-rounded and contradictory characterization of Nanette herself.  Maybe I’ve just finally outgrown teenage rebellion?

Recommended booksThe Pigman by Paul Zindel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: **

#Gather


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

Even if you’re koi, you can still enjoy a gathering.

One of the most memorable quotes from the 1994 film Clerks is one I find relatable, albeit it comes from an otherwise unlikable character.

Dante Hicks: You hate people!
Randal Graves: But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?

I’m clearly an introvert and I get anxious in crowds, but nonetheless I love gatherings.  Parties, parades, sporting events, concerts, and big events – as long as I have a comfortable spot on the edge of the crowd and avoid getting cornered for chitchat, I love them!  The great discovery of my 30s was that I can enjoy gatherings and being among people on my own terms and not the way other people define socializing.  Of course, Jesus said ” For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” and this type of gathering is the most rewarding. My favorite gatherings are face-to-face with a colleague, or a couple of friends, or best of all, with my children, one snuggled in each arm.

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

#Journey


For Advent this year I’m participating in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation on the word for the day.

Every day I have a journey.  By train, by bus, by bike, by foot, sometimes by car.  I sometimes wish that transporter technology so I can spend less time in transit and more time doing the important things – playing with my kids, cleaning the house, working, sleeping, what have you.  But until the technology to split me apart at the molecular level and deliver me somewhere else instantaneously arrives, there will always be the journey.  So I make the best of it – read a book, listen to music, enjoy the scenery, and look around at my fellow pilgrims on the journey, appreciate their humanity, and hold them in prayer.

Book Review: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick


Author: Anna Kendrick
TitleScrappy Little Nobody
Narrator: Anna Kendrick
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

Anna Kendrick is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive, so it’s reassuring to read her memoir where she shares her insecurity and feelings that she is a misfit.  On the other hand one my wonder why someone who is a  talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive has anything to complain about.  Luckily, Kendrick’s memoir is full of humor and perspective on her life story.  She tells of being a child actor on Broadway commuting from Maine to New York for auditions and living in a tar-stained Los Angeles apartment with several roommates even as her fame grew, but she’d still not seen the financial reward.  There’s a lot of insight on her relationship to boys and men and how she’s grown to assert herself.  And then there’s her hilarious takes on celebrity life such as the ridiculous things a woman has to go through for photoshoots and red carpet occasions.  It’s a different type of celebrity memoir, funny, honest, and beneath the surface, a little bit sad, but ultimately persistent.

Recommended books: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Rating: ***1/2

#Awaken


For Advent this year I’m going to try to participate in the #AdventWord project from Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar with a daily meditation.

Today’s word is Awaken, which is a loaded word for me.  I’ve always had trouble sleeping and feeling rested.  When I was younger I struggled with insomnia often staying up the entire night and then needing to sleep through the day.  In the decade I’ve had children, I’ve gone from not being able to sleep to always wanting to be to sleep.  I have sleep therapies in the form of a CPAP which help some, but still I find myself in a sleepy fog most of the time.  I think this has contributed to my also not being awake to my family, friends, co-workers, and other people around me.  So a challenge this Advent is to work and pray for a spiritual awakening.

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 2


The Story Collider :: The Bats and the Bees

A reluctant field researcher finds purpose in showing drunk 17-year-olds how to tag bats with microchips, and a bee researcher who is allergic to bees.  Science!

Radiolab :: Stereothreat

Research into the effects of negative stereotypes and the difficulty of replicating that research.

Hit Parade :: The Queen of Disco Edition

Things I learned about Boston’s own Donna Summer: 1. she got her start in the Munich production of Hair where she became fluent in German, 2. she wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, 3. she and her producers basically invented electronic dance music, and 4. she continued to have club hits into the 2010s.

Afropop Worldwide :: A Brief History of Funk

A brief but beautiful story of funk with many funky classics and interviews with Bobby Byrd and George Clinton.

Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate

A new podcast that tells the story of the Watergate scandal with an as-it’s-happening approach focusing on long-forgotten key players in the scandal.

30 for 30 Podcasts :: The Lights of Wrigleyville

The story of the contentious battle between theChicago Cubs and their residential neighbors to install lights in Wrigley Field in the 1980s.

More Perfect :: Mr. Graham and the Reasonable Man

The story of a legal case that underlies our current crises in policing in America, and the legal fiction of the “Reasonable Man.”

Album Review: Rest by Charlotte Gainsbourg


AlbumRest
Artist: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses,” “Deadly Valentine,” and “Dan vos airs.”
Thoughts: The single “Deadly Valentine” is the standout track on Gainsbourg’s first album in six years, one that reflects on grief and loss on the death of her half-sister.  While there is an allure of a woman’s voice singing breathily in French, most of the album is full of synthesizer crunches and disco beats that sound like very generic electro-pop.
Rating: **

Album Review: Half-Light by Rostam


Album: Half-Light
Artist: Rostam
Release Date: 15 September 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Bike Dream” and “Don’t Let It Get To You”
Thoughts: Half-Light is the solo album debut for Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend. Like his former band’s recordings, the music here incorporates World Music sounds ranging from reggae to Brazilian Batucada to Indian raga, with layered musical effects and Rostam’s tenor rising above it all.  I have kind of mixed feelings, about the album although I warmed to it on repeated listens, but I still feel he’s trying too hard as a producer to make “art” losing himself in the process.
Rating: ***

 

 

Album Review: If All I Was Was Black by Mavis Staples


AlbumIf All I Was Was Black
ArtistMavis Staples
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Little Bit,” “If All I Was Was Black,” “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” and “Try Harder”
Thoughts:

One of my favorite musical trends of 2017 is the appearance of the legendary Mavis Staples as guest artist on various recordings.  First, Arcade Fire released “I Give You Power” on the eve of Inauguration Day in January:

Then staples added her gospel chops to Benjamin Booker’s statement on police killings of black people “Witness.”

Next Staples joined Pusha T on the virtual hip-hop/electronic band Gorillaz’ Trump-inspired track “Let Me Out.”

Now, at last, we have a full album of new songs from Mavis Staples herself reflecting on our fraught, divided times and what we need to do to fight against it.  Frequent Staples’ collaborator, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, produced the album, appears on one track, and wrote all the songs (quite remarkable when you think that means he wrote the title track).  Staples’ versatility that makes her such a strong asset as a guest artist with distinctly different bands is seen here as well as the music mixes gospel, soul, blues, folk, and Americana.  Lyrically, the civil rights icon is still fighting the good fight but recognizes that she has limitations and that she’s still called to love her enemy.  Mavis Staples’ legacy is already well-established, and this album is probably not going to be what she’s remembered for, but nevertheless it is great to have her voice confront the issues of our times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Album Review: Utopia by Björk


AlbumUtopia
Artist: Björk
Release Date: 24 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Arisen My Senses,” “Blissing Me,” “The Gate,” and “Tabula Rasa”
Thoughts: The latest release from Björk is a dense aural soundscape with the singer’s notable voice layered over musical instruments, electronic noises, and sound effects.  The first three songs are the strongest, with the rest of the album hard to differentiate, although I do like “Tabula Rasa” simply for the novelty of hearing Björk swearing like a sailor. The down tempo nature of the music combined with bird and whale calls makes it all feel like an elaborate nature sounds relaxation tape.  I miss how Björk would incorporate upbeat melodies and dance rhythms into her earlier recordings.  Nevertheless, if you like Björk, this is more of Björk being Björk, and than can never be a bad thing.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
TitleThe Buried Giant
Narrator: David Horovitch
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)

Previously read by the same authorA Pale View of HillsAn Artist of the Floating World, and  The Remains of the Day 
Summary/Review:

I went through a phase in the 1990s when I read every Kazuo Ishiguro book up to that point. Since then, I’ve completely failed to read any of his new books as they were released.  I decide to make up for that by reading his most recent novel.  While his earlier works are set in the 20th century and have first-person narrators reflecting on their interior lives, and the melancholy of everyday life, this novel is quite different.  The Buried Giant is set in England at a time after the Saxon invasion when the Britons and Saxons are living side-by-side in an uneasy peace.  The novel focuses on an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have low social status in their community and are suffering from a forgetfulness that’s plaguing the land.  They decide to visit a son that they vaguely recall living in another community, and as they set off on their journey, the seemingly historical fiction begins to take on elements of fantasy.  King Arthur lived and reigned in recent memory and the meet his aged nephew Sir Gawain as well as a Saxon warrior Wistan, and a boy named Edwin who is feared to have been bitten by an ogre.  Others encountered on their journey are a mysterious ferryman, duplicitous monks, and the she-dragon Querig who is responsible for the mist that is causing the forgetfulness. As memories returns, the characters begin to question if they want to remember as forgetting has helped them heal and put aside guilt.  It’s a deeply meditative and atmospheric book that works as a fantasy story and a highly symbolic parable.

Recommended booksThe Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Rating: ***1/2