WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in July 2014 by Audible, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

BELLWETHERS AMONG US – WHERE THEY GO, WE FOLLOW

Connie Willis_1996_Bellwether

I read Bellwether again. Finished it the other day. Each time I read it — this is the 4th or 5th time — I learn something new.

Bellwether grabbed me from page one … from sentence one. Not merely was I highly entertained by the story, but I learned a lot about chaos theory, fads, sheep, and the meaning of “bellwether,” a term I’d heard and used — and misused — for years, but never entirely understood.

It was the bellwether and sheep connection I never got. What do I know about sheep? And why would I care? It turns out, sheep and people have an unnerving amount in common.

A bellwether is a leader of sheep, an über ewe, the sheep who the flock follows. There’s no visible reason why a bellwether leads and nor any obvious reason why the flock follows. There is just something about that ewe.

What the bellwether does, the other sheep do too. The flock will follow her — mindlessly, blindly — over a cliff if that’s where she leads. The flock doesn’t know it’s following the bellwether. They just do it.

Humans have bellwethers too. We no more recognize our bellwethers than does a flock of sheep. Still we follow them. An atavistic instinct, embedded in our DNA? Some are born to lead, others to follow. A few to walk a unique path.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny. Erudite, witty, and replete with trivia guaranteed to upgrade your anecdotal skills.

Bellwether suggests answers to previously unanswerable questions. Why do people vote against their own self-interest? Why do we do so many stupid things? The answer? We’re following a bellwether. They are loose amongst us, invisible shakers and movers. Unaware of their effect on the people around them.

You should read this book. It also explains a lot of events throughout history which have never made any kind of sense. Even after you know all the facts of what happened, most of history doesn’t make sense. But if you add in a few critical bellwethers, it all comes clear.

Human life, history and relationships are illogical. They just happen. We can explain them only in retrospect. That’s what historians are for, after all. To make sense of the past because it won’t make sense by itself. Human society is chaotic. The only predictable thing is unpredictability.

I found Bellwether original, insightful, amusing and thought-provoking. Highly entertaining and funny. I can’t imagine what more anyone could want from a book. I recommend it both in print (Kindle or paper) and audio. It is a book you will read and remember.

Then read it again. There’s more to it than you will get in a single reading.

CHICAGO “NOW”

AKA Chicago XXXVI, Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

Chicago, the band, has done something most older bands are reluctant to do.  They have put out a new studio album of original music entitled “Chicago NOW.” Legendary bands with staying power such as Chicago make their living off their faithful fans at live performances and sales of older albums.  They know that only a select handful of older bands can actually sell new singles and albums.  The buying public for new music is mainly in the 13 to 34 age bracket and many of them tend to stream music rather than actually buy it.  The main buyers of CDs are in the 45 and over crowd but they are buying “catalog” music, or that is to say, classics from their favorite artists of the past.

Studio time can be expensive, both in terms of the studio cost and the lost concert performance time.  A touring band like Chicago, who spends most of the year on the road, does not like the idea of stopping for an extended length of time.  But Chicago is not ready to stop composing and recording, so how do they tour and record?  The answer came with a new recording system they call “The Rig.”  They have pushed the technology forward with a portable system so good, they record as they travel.  Much of Chicago NOW was done in hotel rooms across the country and around the world.

Founding member and trumpet player, Lee Loughnane, took charge of the project to put out a new album without stopping the show, so to speak.  Each composer of a song got to act as producer for his entry to the album and various band members helped with arrangements as well as select musicians from outside the group.  The group not only recorded on the move, they did not all have to be there at once.  Members would record their parts at different times.  Hank Linderman, a long time studio engineer, was the coordinating producer.  A “collaboration portal” was set up and tracks were sent at all times, from Chicago and contributing musicians.  The result is a stunning contribution to the Chicago catalog and worthy of their best early efforts.

The title track, released as a download prior to the album début, has now worked it way into the current tour performances.  Written by Greg Barnhill and Chicago band member Jason Scheff, the number was produced and arranged by Scheff.  It is an energetic start to the album.  Scheff also contributed “Love Lives On” and is co-composer to founding member Robert Lamm’s  song, “Crazy Happy.”

While the horns section technically remains in tact with founding members Lee Loughnane on trumpet and James Pankow on trombone, founding member and woodwind player Walt Parazaider appears in the videos but in fact only played on three of the recordings.  Now at age 69, a variety of health issues in recent years has limited Parazaider’s time on the road.  Long time fill-in Ray Herrmann is also credited on three of the songs, though he is not listed as a band member.  While Herrmannn is now a frequent performer, the audience does not always realize it.  From a distance he somewhat resembles Walt.  Other sax players contributed to the album as well.

Guitar player Keith Howland sings the song he composed with Scheff and drummer Tris Imboden, “Nice Girl.”  He also contributes, along with Imboden to Lamm’s “Free at Last.”  As expected, Lamm leads the way on this album, being credited with lead vocals on six of the songs and background vocals on others.

Previously, I wrote about “America” released last fall. It appears on this album.  Lou Pardini drives home the song and the social commentary on lead vocal and keyboards.  Also on percussion for the band is Walfredo Reyes, Jr., a more recent addition to the Chicago lineup, a talented nine guys.

Chicago

Chicago in Chicago, August 2014

RICHARD BEN SAPIR – THE FAR ARENA

The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir

FarArena

I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. He only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. I recommend you read it if you can. You can find copies around occasionally and although he was not a prolific writer, he wrote a few other novels, all of which are very good and have unique stories.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a great, gripping story too.

Happy hunting and hopefully, happy reading!

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER — SCRIPT? CHARACTERS? PLOT?

Matters of Taste – When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?


Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier

You mean … other people don’t make their own decision about how they feel after reading a book, seeing a movie or watching a television show?

Because I thought that was what we were supposed to do. You know. Think for ourselves. If not, what’s that big grey lump in the middle of our skull good for anyhow?

A high percentage of current pop culture movies and television annoy or bore us. The last one to leave us saying “Huh?” Was Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). It began with an explosion. It barely paused at any point during the next 136 minutes for dialog, character development, plot, or anything else. It ended with a really big explosion. At one point in the viewing, Garry left. He came back 20 minutes later. He said later he didn’t feel he’d missed anything. He didn’t because nothing had happened except a few more things blew up.

It got great reviews.

We are fans of the franchise. With the exception of Thor, which I thought was too dumb and poorly acted even for a late night stupid fix, I’ve enjoyed watching the superheroes of my childhood come to life and save the world. I don’t expect great art, just a modestly coherent story, handsome guys and beautiful women in spandex, and special effects.

However, I anticipate a plot. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but nothing is too little. I require dialog. In short, a script.

Explosions are not enough to carry a movie for more than two hours. If the production company is going to shell out all that money for big name stars, not to mention special effects, how about throwing a few bucks at a scriptwriter? Writers work cheap. Give it a shot, Hollywood.

I don’t care what any reviewer says. I never did. Or for that matter, what friends and family say. If they feel spending a lot of money to watch things blow up is a worthwhile trade, okay with me. In this household, I expect more. Require more.

I should add you’d never get away with that in a book. A book with no story? No character development?  Even if the plot and characters are lame, they nonetheless need to be there. Without them, it isn’t a book and won’t make the big time. Not yet, anyway. And aren’t we glad for that, at least!

WALDO AND MAGIC, INC., ROBERT HEINLEIN

waldo and magic incI’m astonished how many people have read these two novellas and miss the point. Some readers apparently can’t see any connection between the two stories. They think these novellas are in a single volume by a fluke or “to fill up space.” Either they didn’t really read them or they are conceptually challenged, unable to make a logical leap between two related ideas without a flow chart.

The point is that technology is a based on our belief it will work. As long as we believe in it, it functions. If or when we stop believing, it won’t. It’s all magic.

When we lose faith in technology, magic jumps in and becomes the new technology. The difference between one and the other is functionally negligible. The stories’ plots are irrelevant. It’s the concept that counts.

I read these books about 50 years ago. I haven’t read them since, but remember them. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the plot of whatever book I read last week. These were original concepts when first introduced in the 1940s, was still original 25 years later when I read it. Probably still original today, more than 60 years after the stories were first published.

The best science fiction is concept-driven rather than character or plot-driven. These two have stuck with me for a lifetime. Both novellas are based on a unified concept: We believe in what works — and what works is what we believe.

Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing. Chaos is king and magic is loose in the world.

Available on Kindle, in paperback and from Audible.com.

IT WAS A LOVELY WAR — A WORLD WAR ONE CENTENNIAL

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 100 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to having seen this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs. Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. All-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

NOTE: As of a couple of days ago, there were 11 copies remaining.