Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
During this busy holiday season, parents and other adults are scrambling about in search of the perfect gift for their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Well, look no further!
Consider a gift that will entertain and educate kids of all ages and bring your family closer together. Give the gift that keeps on giving - the gift of reading! Reading with a child/children and encouraging them to read independently are two of the most significant things an adult can do to influence a youngster’s life.
Of course, good books make wonderful gifts. Kids naturally enjoy the magic that a book brings as they go over the story and illustrations, (many times, often more than once), practice their reading skills and perhaps learn something new in the process. Magazine subscriptions also make great recurring reading presents.
But maybe the best option for a reading themed gift is to bring a child to the Kalamazoo Public Library sometime during their holiday break. If you time it right, you can attend one of many programs planned for children. Then you can sign up the little guys for their own library cards, which come complete with plastic carrying cases and lanyards. And even though it is free of charge, the amount of pride and joy you’ll see in the little ones’ faces when first presented with it, will form a pleasurable, lasting memory for all gift givers.
Once armed with the card, the child has the entire library’s collection at his or her disposal. They can choose their own books, audiobooks, magazines, CDs, and DVDs. Of course, librarians are always on hand to aid your young ones in the selection process, helping to match the child with books covering their particular interests, and on their reading level as well. Best of all, this process can be repeated again and again. Just return the items and pick out new ones as many times as you like. Truly the best gift of all. And one that will keep on giving for a lifetime!
Set against a backdrop of 1980s New York City, when crime-rates were high and rents were low, and the obscure and counterintuitive straight edge punk rock scene; Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, is a vivid depiction of the passion of youth and the complexities of life and situation that can turn us humans on a dime and send our futures spinning in a new directions. I was drawn to this book by the music. Being a long time, punk rock icon, Ian Mackaye fan; I was always intrigued by the straight edge scene that zealously renounced drugs, drinking, sex, meat, ect., yet slam danced itself to a pulp to the most assaultive music available. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover in Ten Thousand Saints a novel with unforgettable characters, all of whom are realistically imperfect, flawed, and troubled, but who are treated with such compassion and care by the author that you really cannot stop reading until you discover their fates. A great debut that will leave you waiting to see what Henderson produces next.
Ten Thousand Saints
Soul Mining, a recent memoir by Canadian musician and producer Daniel Lanois, journeys through the complex process of creating and recording some of the most popular albums in recent history—from million selling releases by U2 and Peter Gabriel to important works by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, and dozens of others, not to mention nearly a dozen albums of his own.
As a producer (Lanois calls that “a stupid title”), he is responsible not so much for the instrumentation (although Lanois does contribute readily) but for the way the instrumentation sounds. Lanois has worked endlessly—obsessively—to capture the essence of each artist he works with and has the unique ability to make his recordings seem warm and alive, often using vintage instruments, vintage equipment and unorthodox recording techniques. Tech heads will appreciate juicy details about the equipment and instruments he uses (although he readily admits that he doesn’t give away all of his secrets), while others might enjoy learning about his own rise to sonic stardom; from a homemade recording studio in his mom’s basement to a converted old movie theater in Oxnard, California, to his current state-of-the-art studios in Toronto and L.A.
I’ve long been a fan of Lanois’ ambient collaborations with Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Michael Brook. But Lanois has also produced some of my own longstanding favorite commercial releases – Peter Gabriel’s So and Birdy soundtrack, U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo debut, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, and Lanois’ own Acadie. Yet after reading this, I felt compelled to go back and dig more deeply into several other titles... Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers, Achtung Baby and All You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, and Willie Nelson’s Teatro.
Clearly, Lanois derives great satisfaction from all his past projects and speaks highly of each and every artist he’s worked with. Some projects, though, were not without their obvious challenges. In the middle of recording Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan decided to move the entire operation from California to Florida and continue in Miami with a new band. (Can you imagine?) Lanois later jumped at the chance to make an acoustic record for Neil Young (“I’ve been waiting all my life to make a Neil Young record,” he admits), only to have it morph “under full moon and forever skies” into an anti-commercial (though incredibly interesting) “electro” venture aptly titled Le Noise. (Neil’s theory: “If it sounds dangerous, you’re on the right track.”) Lanois’ current venture is a project called Black Dub, which includes vocalist Trixie Whitley, daughter of the late Chris Whitely. Black Dub appears in Detroit on June 9th and Chicago on the 10th.
If you’re a fan of Lanois’ work (or of the artists he works with), Soul Mining is a fast and interesting read.
Here’s a clip of Daniel Lanois discussing his craft in his Toronto studio...
Soul Mining: A Musical Life
In the summer of 1985 I drove to Kalamazoo (I had just turned 16 and I had just acquired my driver’s license. This was my first drive of more than 10 minutes duration) with two of my close friends from our small town of Stevensville, MI to attend the Fresh Fest at Wings Stadium. The Fresh Fest was the first multiple act rap music concert to tour the country, and brought a taste of hip-hop music and culture to many area's of the country for the first time. The concert featured headliners Run-DMC, along with the Fat Boys, Whodini, pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash (sans the furious five), and an assortment of break dancing crews and graffiti artists. This was before the ubiquity of MTV and before the internet leveled the information playing field and information was not as free and easy as it is today. My friends and I seemed to be the only people in our town who knew about rap music and only because we were hip to a fuzzy but listenable signal that, on a clear day, reached across the lake to us from WGCI 107.5 in Chicago and back then only occasionally played hip-hop music. The Fresh Fest was the first time my friends and I saw hip-hop culture live and in person and it blew our minds it was so cool! And yet we had no clue that we were witnessing the first leaps of a cultural phenomenon that would evolve into a multibillion-dollar industry not only dominating the music industry but gaining global cultural influence. These memories have come pouring back to me while reading The Big Payback, Dan Charnas’s authoritative and comprehensive history of the business of hip-hop music. Charnas leaves no stone unturned as he chronicles the amazing story of hip-hop and the artists, entrepreneurs, record executives, and hustlers who made it what it is today. If only I had kept that Run-DMC t-shirt that I bought at the Fresh Fest!
The Big Payback
When I picked up The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, the memoir of veteran bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards, I was expecting to read the story of a person, a living legend, one of the last of the original Mississippi Delta bluesmen. But what I got instead was a story of a people—a first-hand glimpse at life in rural America during and after the Great Depression. That was a pleasant surprise.
Edwards paints a captivating portrait of the way life was… for himself and for others. His stories are brutally honest and refreshingly candid. “That song, about the ‘killin’ floor,’ that mean they got you so down you can’t do nothing for yourself. I been there! That was some bad times back when I was a boy.”
His name might not be a household word... like say Muddy Waters or BB King, nor does Edwards claim to be a “father of the blues” like some of his contemporaries. But he was certainly there... right in the middle when it all began; sharecropping in Mississippi, jumping freights with Big Joe Williams, gambling with Little Walter, playing the juke joints and barrelhouses with Sunnyland Slim, fishing and hanging around with Elmore James, hitching rides and playing small town whiskey houses with Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson, recording for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. Edwards even claims that he was drinking with Robert Johnson the night he was poisoned.
And then there was Chicago in the ‘50s – “Everybody was in Chicago by then,” says Edwards. He found himself playing with the likes of Magic Sam, Big Walter, Junior Wells, Elmore James, and Kansas City Red.
Edwards just celebrated his 95th birthday on June 28th, “...one of our last living links to the roots of the music,” says Josh Hathaway of Verse Chorus Verse. He’s the “real deal” …and he’s still at it. Edwards will be in Chicago on August 31st, and has dates booked well into 2011 as part of “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts” —you can catch him on that tour in Ann Arbor on February 10.
“The blues is something that leads you,” says Edwards. “I’d always follow it. I’d get up and go wherever it took me. And everywhere the blues took me was home.”
The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing
“Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by faith, and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents” (Patti Smith).
Most of us probably recognize Patti Smith as the rock icon who helped pioneer the CBGB’s era New York underground scene of the 1970s that brought us bands like Talking Heads, Television and Sonic Youth. Her 1975 album, Horses, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 50 rock albums of all time.
Still others might recognize her as an activist, artist and poet, who was highly influenced by the works of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The Velvet Underground influence might seem obvious – John Cale produced her first record – but she says that wasn’t a conscious effort.
Regardless, her use of words, be they her own or interpretations of others’, is a craft that few others have equaled. Her take on Teen Spirit is quite amazing... if not articulate.
After decades of publishing her poetry in influential works like Babel and Auguries of Innocence, Patti’s latest book, Just Kids: from Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: a life of art and friendship, is her first foray into prose.
Using stark, simple imagery, much as she does in her music, Smith tells of her relationship with Robert Maplethorp, her lifelong friend, lover, and the genius behind the lens in many of her early photographs. (It’s Maplethorp’s image of Patti that adorns the cover of her first album, Horses.) Described as “a beautiful love letter to her friend,” Just Kids tells of their days exploring (or creating) the New York underground scene of the late 60s until Maplethorp’s untimely death in 1989. A worthy and interesting exploration.
Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII is a book with a CD that tells a story seldom heard. Take-Off is a great introduction to swing music and features recordings of some of the all-women swing bands that came into their own during the war. More than half of the tracks on the CD included with the book Take-Off were performed by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sixteen piece band that was integrated at a time when, in many locales in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was actually illegal for black and white musicians to play together. The Sweethearts toured there, but not much. For the most part, they played sold out shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and other cities in the North. In 1945 they traveled to Europe with the USO.
Check out the book Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, illustrated by 2010 Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney. Marilyn Nelson’s poems speak in the voices of some of the instruments in the band: Tiny Davis’s trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, or bandleader Anna Mae Winburn’s baton reminiscing from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop about struggles and glory gone by. The Sweethearts, and the other swing bands featured in Take-Off, played music based in the blues and filled with driving energy and joy. Why not place a hold on the books right now?
Sweethearths of Rhythm
“Fast for a few days. Don’t have a lot of people around. Be alone and quiet. You’ll start to hear yourself, feel yourself. You’ll hear from the you that’s not the you your family, society, or history created.”
Perhaps not the sort of advice that one might expect from a legend of hip hop music; but Robert Diggs (aka RZA, The Abbot, Bobbie Digital), producer, rapper, author, actor, film director, creator and spiritual leader of the hip hop juggernaut The Wu-Tang Clan, is full of surprises, contradictions, and inspiration in his new memoir meets eclectic spiritual guidebook The Tao of Wu. Mixing 5 Percent Nation Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist beliefs with kung-fu film philosophy, chess master wisdom, and his own gritty life experiences, RZA writes about a youth spent bearing witness to the rise of rap music, searching for true knowledge through religious pursuits and kung-fu movies, but never far from the swift violence and grim realities that surrounded his upbringing in the housing projects of Staten Island. After being acquitted on an attempted murder charge in the early 1990’s, RZA set his mind upon walking a righteous path and literally walked from one end of Staten Island to the other, as he puts it “like Da’Mo walked from India to China”, thinking about his life and music and formulating plans and musical ideas that would eventually manifest in the legendary Wu-Tang Clan.
The Wu-Tang Clan's music.
Ghost Dog: the way of the Samurai - Fantastic Jim Jarmusch film for which RZA provided much of the musical score and appears in an iconic scene at the very end of the film.
Digging for Dirt: the life and death of ODB - chronicling the chaotic life and tragic death of one of the most celebrated members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Check the technique : liner notes for hip-hop junkies - Features a chapter on the Wu-Tang Clan.
Blakroc - collaboration album with indie rock blues band The Black Keys and several hip hop luminaries including a great track featuring lyrics and guitar playing by RZA.
The Tao of Wu
More and more, books themselves are more than just books. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Can You Hear It? is a book with a CD in which works of music are paired with works of visual art in ways that offer the opportunity to enjoy each work more fully.The Hiroshige print Chrysanthemums, which features a hovering bee, illuminates a recording of Flight of the Bumblebee.A movement from Copland’s Billy the Kid accompanies a Frederic Remington painting.The text of Can You Hear It? invites the reader/listener to look for elements in the works of art and, at the same time, to listen for particular motives or allusions within the sound recordings. Listen for a bit of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” within Saint-Saëns’s “Fossils” from The Carnival of the Animals. That piece of music is offered in juxtaposition with The Calavera of Cupid by José Guadalupe Posada. The end result is that both works are expanded.
Can You Hear It? is a little bit Music and Make Believe, a little bit art appreciation, and a lot of interesting fun. You’ll hear the familiar and, most likely, something new. The sailor/composer Rimsky-Korsakov experienced keys as colors. The key of C for him was white (not surprising, I suppose, if you look at the piano keyboard) while B major was a “gloomy dark blue with a steel shine”.Synesthetic or not, there’s a certain purity in listening to music without including any visual programming. You can paint your own pictures in your mind. On the other hand, since many people use music as a kind of background dressing anyway, there’s a kind of potentially rewarding discipline in choosing the visual foreground in a very intentional way. Either road you choose, you'll find lots of good material here.
Can You Hear It?
May Erlewine’s great song “Rise Up Singing” celebrates the restorative power of singing. Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook collects words, chords and sources for 1200 songs from many folk traditions as well as the commercial music industry. This venerable print resource is organized by topic from America to Work. My favorite topical section is Play. That’s where you’ll find so many of the songs you’ll remember from childhood. But this songbook isn’t only for kids. There are protest songs as well as sacred rounds and chants from a variety of traditions. Rise Up Singing is easy to use. The songs are indexed by artist, by culture, by holiday, and by subject. The title index includes first lines and alternate titles. And Pete Seeger’s introduction is worth reading even if you go no further. One thing that makes Rise Up Singing different from many other vocal fake books is that, except for the Sacred Rounds and Chants section, there is no musical notation to express the melodies of the songs. That leaves more room for lyrics in this portable book from Sing Out. Because the book is meant for group singing environments, there’s usually someone in the group who knows the tune. If you’re thinking of a popular or folk song, a show tune or kids’ song, it may very well be here.
Rise Up Singing