Book Review: The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy


Author: Tara Clancy
TitleThe Clancys of Queens
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Tara Clancy is one of my favorite storytellers from shows like The Moth, Risk, and Snap Judgment, so I was delighted to receive a free advanced review copy of her memoir through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Clancy describes her childhood in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s moving around to live with her cop father in a repurposed boat shed in Broad Channel, a virtual commune of elderly relatives at her Grandparent’s house in Brooklyn, and weekends at her mother’s wealthy boyfriend’s estate in the Hamptons.  Young Tara navigates these three different worlds with aplomb and even with the tough challenges of poor kid in the city manages to maintain a sense of humor and adventure.  This is an inspired memoir and a joy to read.
Favorite Passages:

“By then, age ten, I was already a tried-and-true child chameleon, a real-life little Zelig who knew how to go from being barfly at a Queens local hangout to a summertime Bridgehamptonite to an honorary septuagenarian at the drop of a dime.  Despite all that (or maybe  because of it), there was one role I didn’t always like to play: kid.  More specifically, rule-abiding kid.”  – p. 111-112

Recommended books:

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, Lost In Place by Mark Salzman, and All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDondald

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


Author: Helen Macdonald
Title: H is for Hawk
Narrators: Helen Macdonald
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2015)
Summary/Review:

After the death of her father, Macdonald works through her grief by adopting and training a young goshawk, Mabel whom she calls “Thirty Ounces of Death in a Feathered Jacket.” This lyrical book is part memoir and part reflections on nature. It also is informed by T.H. White’s The Goshawk. While I’ve never read that book The Once and Future King and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography are among my favorite books, so I appreciate the back door biography of White. And I can’t help but love Mabel. 

Recommended booksT. H. White: a biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? by George Clinton


Author: George Clinton
TitleBrothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

The memoirs of George Clinton, the talented songwriter and band leader and creator of P-Funk, starts with a story of band members and their costumes having trouble getting to a show in Richmond in 1978.  This is coincidental in that I saw George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars play in Richmond in the 1990s, although that was at University of Richmond which felt incongruous since it’s about as far from Richmond’s black community as one can get.

Clinton traces his story back to coming of age in New Jersey and from his barbershop pulling together the singers and musicians of the area to create The Parliaments, a 50’s-style doo-wop group that evolved into a Motown-style soul act.  Inspired by the likes of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, as well as psychedelic blues rock acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Clinton creates the blueprint for P-Funk.  Two bands with largely the same personnel would alternate recordings with two takes on funk: Funkadelic inspired by the psychedelic rock and Parliament taking the soul/R&B approach.  With a revolving roster of performers, a whole new mythology of P-Funk, stunning stage shows, and an innovative approach to music, Clinton would dominate the 1970s music scene.  The volume of music released not just by Parliament and Funkadelic, but many of the offshoot bands like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, is remarkable, and they all toured together on a tireless schedule of concerts.

The wheels come off in the 1980s, and while Clinton has some success as a solo artist and with new versions of the P-Funk All-Stars, much of the later part of the book is consumed by descriptions of Clinton’s drug abuse exploits and endless legal squabbles.  And yet, Clinton becomes something of a respected elder statesman of funk, writing and producing for the early Red Hot Chili Peppers whom he saw as the white band that would bring funk to the mainstream.  He also had a great influence on hip-hop, encouraging sampling of P-Funk sounds, and working with young rappers.

Clinton is one of the great musicians of the 20th-century, and this book is at its best when he’s talking about creating the sounds of funk, his love of music, and the talented musicians he worked with.  This book is at it’s worst when Clinton describes smoking another vial of crack or belabor his legal vendettas.  If you like funk or are interested in music and how it’s created, this book is worth a read.
Favorite Passages:

“Even without the music, I loved living in Newark, in part because I was royalty. All you had to do was look at the signs. One of the main drags in Newark was called Clinton Avenue, and there was a whole area called Clinton Hills. They were all named after the early American politician George Clinton, who had been the governor of New York and the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some days the world seemed to revolve around me, a George Clinton who could go walking down a street named for him in an area named for him.”

On dropping acid for the first time in Harvard Square, which I believe should be on a Cambridge historic plaque: “The next day we went over to Harvard Square and all of us took some. That was a Noah’s Ark day, rain so hard you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, and the gutters were filling up with water, making little rivers in the street. We dropped acid and stood looking at the rain: sometimes it seemed to slow down, sometimes each individual drop came into perfect, sharp focus. And then, all of a sudden, everyone started taking off their clothes and wading in the rivers the streets had become. There were students, but there were faculty members, too. There were couples and there were single girls. There were fat people and skinny people and every other kind: older white women naked there in the water, with polka-dot freckles on their titties, and dozens of cute little girls getting bare-ass naked. Everyone was in the water, flopping around like fish, just feeling it.”

“Somewhere along the way it became clear to me that we had a strong young group of players who were, to us, what the Funk Brothers were to Motown, and because we were so deep into psychedelic rock we started adding the -delic to it. The result was Funkadelic. I think I had the idea for the name first, but you’ll probably get a debate from two or three others. Everyone knew that it felt right, though. White rock groups had done the blues, and we wanted to head back in the other direction, to be a black rock group playing the loudest, funkiest combination of psychedelic rock and thunderous R&B.”

“In truth, underneath the image, I was a much more reserved, centered, circumspect person. In fact, that’s why I was able to carry off those crazy looks. It was freedom generated by misdirection, and it allowed me to focus on my real self, the identity I was nurturing away from any kind of spotlight.”

“For that matter, the two bands could continue to function as separate entities, where Parliament was a group of singers backed by a band and Funkadelic was a band backing a group of singers.”

“When you parody something, you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you’re taking something seriously. So isn’t parody the most serious form of imitation?”

“Funkadelic had always been a hybrid of other things—at first, of the original Parliaments and the psychedelic rock that was happening all around it—and the second wave of musicians reaffirmed my belief in the way to grow. Absorb youth and you will be absorbed by youth. Take on new influences without fear and you need not fear what is new. Change the people around you by changing the people around you.”

“I never wanted that responsibility, not the responsibility of a political spokesperson like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, and not even the responsibility of a musical spokesperson like Bob Marley. He was almost like a Dalai Lama. Critics and fans were thrusting him into that position even before he knew he was in it. We went the other way, played so crazy that nobody wanted to be connected to us at that level.”

“So in my mind, the concept of Mothership Connection wasn’t just Star Trek in the ghetto, but pirate radio coming in from outer space. It’s not thought of in that way as much, at least anymore, but that’s at the heart of the album.”

“When I got money, I didn’t think about jewelry or cars or houses. I thought about experiences. Again, some of them were sex, and some were drugs, but most of them were rock and roll. I kept studios running all the time. I cut tracks with all the artists I knew and shaped them into songs, which in turn were shaped into records. What did I need with possessions? I had a spaceship and that was going to be enough for a long while.”

“Maybe funk itself was a form of evolution. Maybe if you refused to participate in it, you were holding yourself back. We had already created and deployed Star Child, an agent of interplanetary funk. Did he have the secret for improving the species, funkateer by funkateer? There had always been a strain of self-actualization in our music, though it had also always been sharpened by humor and irony and dirty jokes.”

“When people start out in groups, everybody imagines making it, but no one thinks hard about what that means. Does it mean being a star, staying in the top hotels, headlining arenas? Or is it enough to be able to do what almost no one in the world does, and sustain a career as a professional musician? The mere fact of surviving in this industry is a huge victory. But survivors forget that the alternative is annihilation. They think that the choice is between a good career and a great one. They reach for stardom. And those unrealistic expectations are compounded by creative ability, or the lack of ability. People don’t have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do as artists. I knew my limits. I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.”

“Living things find nourishment where they can. The point of music is to take what exists and to make it matter again, in your own style, with your own stamp. To talk about “original” and “unoriginal” is as unoriginal as talking about genres or categories. You never want to be in a bag, let alone someone else’s bag. Music is music, and bands become what they are. They play because they want to, and audiences sense that and listen because they want to.”

“The grace note with Public Enemy is that I had something to do with their name. For years, I didn’t know that it was my voice saying “Public Enemy” on their record. They had sampled from “Undisco Kidd” and slowed the vocals down.”

Recommended books: My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte and Life by Keith Richards
Rating: ***

38 Things About Me and Star Wars


38 years ago in May 1977, Star Wars made its debut changing film and cultural history.  I’ve never been a Star Wars superfan, but I liked the movies as a child and grew up alongside the franchise.  With The Force Awakens premiering this week, here are 38 random thoughts about me and Star Wars.

  1. I was 4-years-old when I first saw Star Wars.  It’s possibly the first movie I ever watched in a movie theater.  The earliest I can remember, at least.
  2. I watched the movie with my sister and father at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts (on Martha’s Vineyard).  The seats slid back and forth to allow the user to adjust the seat back to upright or slanted position. My sister and I slid back and forth in the seats a lot, to my father’s annoyance.
  3. I most likely fell asleep during the movie since for years afterwards I thought our heroes escaped from the trash compactor and then got medals.
  4. R2-D2 was, and remains, my favorite character.
  5. It would be another 6 years before I saw the movie again, something that’s hard to believe when movies these days are readily available on video, cable tv, and streaming on the internet shortly after release.
  6. I watched it on HBO at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn.  The image was very fuzzy because my grandparents didn’t actually subscribe to cable tv, but somehow picked up HBO from their neighbors.
  7. In the intervening years, what I knew about Star Wars was informed by a picture book that had an audio cassette accompaniment.  I’m pretty sure that this audio cassette include scenes & characters cut from the film that were later restored in the Special Edition.
  8. I had a large number of Kenner Star Wars action figures and toys that I played with often, accumulating a large well-loved collection over the next 7 or so years.
  9. I made up my own stories with the action figures, many involving Luke & Han having to work with Darth Vader against a common foe.
  10. We also had a 45 of the disco version of the Star Wars theme by Meco.
  11. My mother got really good at singing the Star Wars theme by clucking like a chicken.  She only does it for family members, so don’t ask her.
  12. Because the movie was called Star Wars when I first saw it (and for 20 years after), I still call it Star Wars even if it’s more fashionable to call it A New Hope or Star Wars IV.  I liked that for the original trilogy at least there were no roman numerals and wish they’d stuck to that.
  13. I saw the Empire Strikes Back at the Ridgeway Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut.
  14. I missed most of the scenes where Luke was training with Yoda because I had to go to the bathroom.
  15. During the climactic duel between Luke and Vader, the film melted and we had to wait for the projectionist to restore it to the screen.  Twice.
  16. I was certain that Darth Vader was lying about being Luke’s father and clung to this belief for three years until Yoda confirmed it in Return of the Jedi.
  17. I saw Return of the Jedi the New Canaan Playhouse in Connecticut.  I had recently touched poison ivy and my body and face were covered with rashes and calamine lotion.  Watching this movie was the first time in days where I was so pleasantly distracted I forgot that I itched.
  18. Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars film I saw multiple times in the theaters (and after Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the first films to see again and again, period.  It was a novelty back then).
  19. I loved the Ewoks, and while it’s unfashionable to admit it, I still do.
  20. The Ewoks tv movies were terrible, however, and oddly disturbing to my young mind.
  21. I saved up proof-of-purchase tabs from Kenner products to mail in for a free (+ shipping & handling) action figure of the Emperor.  It took a lot longer than the promised 4-6 weeks to arrive.  I checked the mailbox every day for months suffering crushing disappointment every day until it arrived.
  22. There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s when Star Wars kind of disappeared from the cultural consciousness.  I was part of this and didn’t pay much attention to it during that time.
  23. Before moving to Virginia and starting college in 1991, I sold all my Star Wars toys at a tag sale.  The action figures went for 25 cents each.  I hope they’re still around getting loving care and someone is playing with them.
  24. My freshman year of college someone rented Star Wars and we all watched it over and over again.  I’d only seen it maybe 3 times in my whole life, so it was weird to see it several times in one weekend.  I also noticed things about it I’d never noticed about it as a child. Like, Luke Skywalker is super whiny.
  25. In 1997, I enjoyed seeing the Special Editions as they were released to movie theaters over a period of months. I thought the Star Wars Special Edition was a fun alternate take, although it shouldn’t replace the original theatrical run, the changes to Empire Strikes Back were mostly cosmetic, and the changes to Return of the Jedi were too cornball for a film that could use more gravitas.
  26. Unpopular opinion: I don’t really care if Han or Greedo shot first
  27. I saw The Phantom Menace while visiting my friend Vicki in Bowling Green, Ohio.  Like many, I thought it was dumb and disappointing.  I haven’t seen it again.
  28. I mean really though – Jar Jar Binks, the “Yipee!” kid, and endless podracing!  What were they thinking.  Natalie Portman was good though.
  29. My favorite memory of the movie is seeing two shirtless, shoeless dudebros from Cape Cod riding the MBTA Red Line who were planning “to smoke a bong and watch The Phantom Menace.”  At every stop one guy would ask the other if this was their stop and the other one would say “No, my brother, it’s Davis!”  They did get off Davis.  Hope they enjoyed the movie.
  30. A year later I went camping with some friends in Western Massachusetts and some creepy guys in an adjacent tent site where watching The Phantom Menace in their tent.
  31. Speaking of bad Star Wars movies, my wife Susan informed me that there was a Star Wars Holiday Special that frightened her as a child.  I’d never heard of it before, but ordered a bootleg off Ebay.  It’s just as bad as you’ve been told.  But whoever taped it initially did so from a television broadcast in Baltimore so it has all the 1978 commercials in it, which is pretty cool.
  32. I saw Attack of the Clones with Susan at the AMC Loews Boston Common Theatres. The first time we tried to watch it, we had to be evacuated due to a fire alarm just after the opening credits.  I remember watching the fire fighters casually riding the escalator on the way to investigating the fire.
  33. Attack of the Clones was better, but still disappointing. I really hated all the monsters in the pit, and Yoda acting like Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now.
  34. Saw Revenge of the Sith at the same place, and with the same feeling of “this is okay, but could be better.” It is the only one of the prequel trilogy films that I watched a second time.
  35. I’ve read all the novel adaptations of the Star Wars films.  I found the writers of the prequel trilogy actually did a better job with plot, dialogue and characterization than appeared in the film, and wish these books had somehow been adapted into the movies rather than the other way around.
  36. I also read Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn books which are excellent stories with some interesting new characters, although I think they would actually adapt poorly to film, so I’m glad they’re going a different route with the new trilogy.
  37. My children don’t like watching movies, so I still haven’t been able to convince them to watch any Star Wars films, but when I do I’m going to try Machete Order.
  38. If things go to plan I will see The Force Awakens while vacationing with my in-laws in Myrtle Beach after Christmas.  I love that I always seem to be in a different city and state when I see these movies.

Book Review: Adventures With the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman


Author:  Neil Perryman
Title: Adventures With the Wife in Space
Publication Info: London : Faber and Faber, 2013.
Summary/Review:

The Adventures with the Wife in Space is a blog which documents the experiment in which Neil Perryman (a diehard Doctor Who fan) gets his wife Sue (who is not) to watch and review every story of the classic Doctor Who from 1963 to 1989.  It’s brilliant because Sue challenges the fan community gospel of Doctor Who while also being wickedly funny.  One would expect that this book would simply be a compilation of the blog reviews with some extra content, but instead it is something better.  It turns out to be a memoir of Perryman’s life and interests (he’s obsessed with things other than Doctor Who, like Tangerine Dream and Jaws) and his marriage with Sue.  Turns out that the Perrymans are interesting people with lots of good stories.   The book also offers a behind-the-scenes view of the experiment watching Doctor Who which both strengthened their marriage while offering challenges of being an internet phenomenon.
Favorite Passages:

‘If anything, the old series has made me a fan of the new series. I bloody love it. But at the same time, I don’t need to wallow in the past. Yes, it’s nice to have it there to refer to, but you have to keep moving forward. You know, like a shark.’

Recommended books: Dalek, I Loved You by Nick Griffiths and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dalek I Loved You by Nick Griffiths


Author:Nick Griffith
TitleDalek I Loved You
Publication Info:
ISBN: Harrison Dextrose Publishing (2013), Kindle Edition
Summary/Review:

A simply book I picked up for free on Kindle is the life story of Nick Griffiths and his love of Doctor Who, particularly the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker era of the 1970s when he was a child, and the reborn show of the 2000s as an entertainment journalist.  If this was just a book about Doctor Who, it wouldn’t be very good, but I did enjoy it for everything else.  That being the life of an ordinary guy growing up around the same time as I but in another part of the world with entirely different culture touchstones.

Recommended booksFever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Doing Germany by Agnieszka Paletta


AuthorAgnieszka Paletta
TitleDoing Germany
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
Summary/Review:

This is a book I idly picked up from a Kindle sale, because I enjoyed travelling to Germany.  What a surprise that the author declares early on that she never had any interest in visiting German.  As a Polish-Canadian, moving back and forth between the two nations, Paletta’s real love is Italy.  She only ends up in Germany after meeting the man she calls M in a Cracow nightclub, falling in love, and deciding to move into his Munich apartment for three months.  That three months turns to years as the couple are engaged, married, do a lot of house shopping, and have a child.  Along the way, Paletta records the cultural adjustments of living in Germany.  Her stories are episodic, a bit gossipy in tone, and she seems unusually wed to traditional gender stereotypes.  I could offer criticisms, but forget that.  Everyone thinks that they can write a book about their travels and life abroad, but few do, so good for her.  And Agnieszka seems like a fun person who’d I’d like to hang out with, perhaps to go dancing.  So it’s a breezy travel/memoir/life adventure story, and I’ll leave at that.

Favorite Passages:

“I can also relate to keeping one’s roots and traditions alive and not changing your culture just because you’ve changed borders. Canada is great that way – it promotes multiculturalism. Germany is more like the US: once you cross the border, you’re expected to drop everything and mould yourself into a citizen of your new homeland.”

“Unlike on that typical bike, you don’t sit leaning forward; you sit up like a lady, much like in a chair. Therefore, you don’t crane your neck to look up; your head is as God meant it to be – straight on. It makes cycling dignified and comfortable.”

“M tells me it’s impolite to stare and talk to strangers here. You don’t ask how their day is going, how they are feeling. Basically, you don’t intrude because it’s none of your business. So like, they’re not trying to be rude or cold, but polite. They say good morning or God bless you but not how are you – that’s a private matter and none of their business.” (Note from Liam: this is probably why I like Germany.  They follow the same rules as Bostonians).

Recommended books: My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
Rating: **1/2