Sunday, April 26, 2009

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

If you have been reading my blog over the past year or so, you are aware that I have had more than a passing fascination with the battles in the American courts over the teaching of Intelligent Design, aka Creationism, in high school science class. Having read multiple books on the famous 2005 case in Dover, PA (check the archives of this blog if you're interested in reading my thoughts on those books) I decided that I would turn some of my attention to the trial with which it is most often compared, the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, TN.

I ran across Edward J. Larson's Pulitzer prize winning account of the trial in a display my local library set up to honor Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and was absorbed by this book from start to finish. Although Larson's account of the case is exhaustively detailed, it is also beautifully written and highly worth reading.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews by David Frost

Before I delve into my thoughts on this book, I'd like to apologize for the long delay since my last post. This was going to be my year of blogging weekly. Ah well. My wife and I had our first child the second week in February and, needless to say, things have been a bit busy. Hopefully, I can get back on track with more regular blogging. Thanks.

Richard Nixon's resignation has always been an oddly fascinating moment for me. I was almost ten years old when he resigned and for some reason, the event left it's mark. Back in the late 90s, when the Bill Clinton impeachment comedy was playing out in Congress, there were a lot of people saying that what Clinton had done, essentially lying about cheating on his wife, was "worse than Nixon." Curious to see if they were correct, I found myself reading everything that I could get my hands on about the Watergate scandal. After watching the recent movie, "Frost/Nixon," David Frost's account of these historic interviews became yet another addition to my ever growing "Nixon Library."

While the movie was a fascinating story based on the real events, the book itself is less than fascinating. I did find parts of it interesting and worth reading but, much of it was tedious. The problem isn't with the story, Nixon was a tremendously flawed and endlessly fascinating individual, but with Frost's writing which is perfunctory at best.

The last third of the book is devoted to long excerpts from the actual interview transcripts. Again, parts of this are fascinating and I'm sure it would be riveting to actually watch or hear the interviews however, much of the dialogue is stilted and just doesn't transfer well to the printed page.

Because I have a strong interest in the Nixon administration, I am unwilling to entirely write this book off but I will say that those with only a casual interest in the Nixon administration should probably skip this one. This is a rare case where I really think the movie is better than the book.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Amoeba's Secret by Paul McCartney

It is always interesting when an artist of Paul McCartney's stature and accomplishment goes on a late career roll. Often, a string of records that would have been heralded as a watershed period earlier in an artist's career is downplayed or simply ignored. It's as if we take the genius of legendary artists like McCartney for granted. Before we can acknowledge the greatness of their current music, we require them to eclipse not only their finest work but, even more difficult, our memory of their finest work, which is tangled up in nostalgia for wherever we happened to be in our lives when we first heard it.

Beginning with the release of "Driving Rain" in 2001 and carrying through "Chaos and Creation In The Backyard," "Memory Almost Full" and especially last year's incredible "Electric Arguments" (released under his now not so secret alter ego The Fireman) McCartney has been quietly making the best music of his post Beatles career and some of the best music of his entire career. I don't know if it was the death of his longtime wife Linda or a new found desire to prove that he is still a vibrant, adventurous artist with something to say but Paul McCartney has without a doubt made some of the best music of the decade.

"Amoeba's Secret" is a four song live ep that was recorded at a rare in-store appearance Paul made with his band when "Memory Almost Full" was out. It includes a rocking version of "Only Mama Knows," from that same album, a rare live airing of an obscure Wings b-side called "C Moon," the playfully nostalgic "That Was Me" and a rambunctious airing of "I Saw Her Standing There." The thing that really jumps out at you is just how much fun McCartney, his band and the audience are having. It's really hard to believe that this is a man in his sixties and hard to think of a time when he has ever sounded better.

For those of you who have been ignoring what amounts to a period of rebirth for one of the most important artists of the rock era, do yourself a favor and spend seven dollars on this funky little ep. Or better yet, you can buy the download for a mere four. Either way you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Best American Short Stories 2007, Edited by Stephen King, Series Editor Heidi Pitlor

When I was a kid, even before I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a short story writer. Not an author or the more generic title of "writer," but specifically a short story writer. As an adolescent, I would sit in my room and read the short stories of O. Henry, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe and pretty much anyone else I could get my hands on. I certainly read lots of novels and probably more nonfiction than someone my age would usually read but, it was the short stories that made me dream of one day becoming a writer.

I guess I still carry this dream around or at least the love for great short fiction. While cruising the Amazon Kindle Store trying to choose a new book to read on my beloved Kindle reading device (if you don't know what that is and you're even a semi serious reader, you owe it to yourself to visit the Kindle page at Amazon) I ran across a new collection of short stories by Stephen King. I've always loved his short fiction so, I clicked the link to read the descriptions and reviews of the book. In the description it mentioned that King had rekindled (that's probably an unfortunate pun, since I was reading about this on my Kindle) his interest in writing short fiction while editing the 2007 edition of the popular "Best American Short Stories" series.

While I still plan to read King's new collection, my interest immediately shifted to this anthology. One of the great things about Stephen King is that he is not only a gifted writer, no matter what the literary snobs sometimes think, but he is also one of the world's foremost fans of fiction and his selections for this yearly collection did not disappoint.

The titles and authors of the powerful stories in this book are too numerous to mention here so I'll just say that there wasn't a week story in the bunch and there were several which had me thumbing to the author notes at the back of the book to find out what else they had written. I hadn't read one of the annual best of books for several years and I had forgotten how strongly they reaffirm my belief that short fiction is not dead and, like blues or jazz in clubs all over the world, is still being practiced and honed to a fine art in dozens of literary magazines just outside the window of mainstream fiction.

The question is, did this collection make me want to be a short story writer again? I would say yes but that particular dream has never completely died.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Already Free by The Derek Trucks Band

The first time I ever heard The Derek Trucks Band was a few summers ago when I saw them open for the Allman Brothers Band at the Plain Dealer Pavillion in Cleveland, Ohio. They were already onstage when we arrived at the venue and I just remember being enveloped by the sound of this singing slide guitar. At first it sounded like the ghost of Duane Allman risen from the dead but as I found my seat and settled in to the music, it started to feel like a completely different thing. The band had elements of blues, jazz, world music, jam band music and pretty much any other style you can think of. At one point, they played a version of the John Coltrane arrangement of "My Favorite Things" that changed the way I looked at that song. The next time I listened to Coltrane play it, I found myself thinking about that live rendition, with Derek Trucks' slide guitar taking role of Coltrane's saxophone.

The next day I bought "Songlines," which was their current album at the time, and was pretty much astounded by it. I had heard Trucks play with the Allman Brothers many years before - I think he was still a teenager - and he sounded good but his playing was a little immature. Young musicians, especially those roaming into blues and jazz territory, often sound like they need to live a little bit to flesh out the blood and guts in their playing. By the time "Songlines" came out, which was 2006, Trucks had been on the road as a member of the Allman Brothers for ten years or so, first sharing guitar duties with Dickey Betts and later with Warren Haynes. His playing had not only matured, it had moved far beyond his early musings as a near perfect imitator of Duane Allman into a full throated, distinct voice to be reckoned with.

Two years later, we have "Already Free," which takes the passionate, unique jazz and blues of "Songlines" many steps further and sees the band developing into a force to be reckoned with. The album was recorded in Trucks' home studio, with the whole band playing together in one room. From the opening cover of Bob Dylan's "Down In The Flood" through the deep south gospel groove of "Sweet Inspiration" and the introspective, funk/blues of "Get What You Deserve" this album positively crackles with electricity. The record is a bit of a mixed bag of blues, jazz, gospel, alt country etc., but the distinct personality of the band and that slide guitar somehow hold it together as a cohesive listening experience that works best when taken as a whole, as opposed to playing just a song or two.