Monthly Archives: August 2018

Book Review — Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella

Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella by Gina Arnold is a cultural study of music festivals. Arnold is an American author, music critic, and academic. She is a lecturer at Stanford University and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and the author of several books, including the 33⅓ book on Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville. Her doctoral dissertation was “Rock Crowds and Power: Race, Space, and Representation” at Stanford University.

I almost passed on this book as I think I have read plenty on Woodstock and at my age, I really don’t have an interest in Coachella. With a few exceptions, my appreciation of new music ended around the time David Lee Roth left Van Halen. What caught my eye was a festival many people have not heard of (but one I did attend) — The 1983 US Festival. I attended Heavy Metal Day and heard Judas Priest, The Scorpions, Triumph, Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue and the headliner, Van Halen. I was the day a very drunk David Lee Roth yelled to the crowd that he forgot the f*cking words to the opening song. It was a significant buildup to a great disappointment, but that day it was estimated 350,000 people came to see them play. This was the mother of concerts as far as our  20-year-old minds believed. It also had a technology center, after all, it was Wozniak’s creation. The US meaning to unify the people and canceling out the “Me Decade” was lost in the translation. It was, however, very 1980s with corporate banners and displays. It was the age of free reign capitalism although in 1983 it wasn’t rubbed into the Soviets faces with a live simulcast to the USSR as it was in 1982. Arnold helped bring the memories back as well as pointing out the things I didn’t know about outside of the music.

Arnold looks at several festivals and how they influenced the times or reflected them. Bob Dylan going electric to Wattstax to We Are One, to raves and Blue Grass are covered along with a mention of Altamont. This is more than a history of festivals but a cultural examination of the events. Race plays a role in the music. Woodstock had African Americans in Richie Havens, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimmi Hendrix. Most festivals did have African Americans playing for white crowds. It would be expected as Rock and Roll has its roots in rhythm and blues. The US Festival was almost entirely white bands playing for white people. Women are also a subject of the book. They are very much under-represented as performers and women, in general, have been targets of violence in more recent festivals.

Half a Million Strong presents a social history of festivals in the United States and their evolution.  Festivals have always been gatherings to see and experience the unrefined performance of your favorite bands.  That experience is attempted to be captured in live albums, but still, they lack the visual experience and perhaps most importantly enjoying the music with thousands of people enjoying the same music with you.

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Poetry Review — Best American Poetry 2018

“A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise.”
Billy Collins


Best American Poetry 2018 edited by Dana Gioia is this years edition of David Lehman’s yearly poetry anthology. Gioia is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Gioia has published four full-length collections of poetry, as well as eight chapbooks.

This years edition features seventy-five poets as well as a short biography of each. Lehman opens the collection with his state of poetry address. The New Yorker still publishes poetry. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, explains:

Poetry is arguably, in some compressed and magical fashion, the highest form of expression, the greatest devotion we have to our most intricate invention, language itself.

That pretty much explains poetry and its importance to language and expression. Even so, poetry seems to have lost the common reader and many uncommon readers. Poetry seems to be on the fringe of literature even among those who attend universities for degrees in literature. I am surprised at the number of people in the field who have not read major poets. Like Lehman, I have also become concerned at the number of “internet sensations” who have published “poetry” in the form of short platitudes or trite cliches. Perhaps, like Lehman hopes, these are gateways to real poetry, but they seem more likely to be saying “I would love poetry if it were not poetry.”

This collection, as Gioia mentions, contains a wide variety of poetry: prose poetry, sonnets, free verse, but no internet sensations. The internet has skewed the popularity of poetry. YouTube readings reach millions of people instead of twenty sitting at a coffee shop reading. Poetry Slams and other events see many more people online than in person. Poetry is getting out, but not always in the traditional means. The poetry section at a Barnes and Noble is smaller than the particle physics section (not really, but close). Traditional poetry media seems to be fading. Poetry magazine has two apps. One that has the magazine and another with a poetry database and a fun “find a poem” feature. Jennifer Benka at the Academy of American Poets emails out daily poems. Poetry is still getting out, but it may not always be in book form. Television has even picked up poetry. Rugged Sheriff Longmire read John Donne, and Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I heard The Learn’d Astronomer.” Apple and Volvo have turned to poetry in their advertisements.

Not all is good though. Universities are churning out advanced degrees but not hiring. Adjunct positions are replacing tenured positions to save money. Even so, poets are adapting. No longer are new poets the young professors but baristas, bookstore clerks, professionals, and people from all other walks of life. Technology has allowed more people to publish outside of academia, and social media helps get the word out to a vast audience. Poetry is not dying but merely adapting to the new environment.

This year’s collection presents Gioia’s favorite poems. The poetry is varied and even contains a haiku-like poem — Joyce Clement’s “Birds Punctuate the Days.” Dick Davis presents “A Personal Sonnet,” keeping alive the old form of poetry. David Manson’s “First Christmas in the Village” presents imagery and new experiences in a traditional form. Mike Owens rounds out the collection by taking on social and mental health issues in his “Sad Math.”

What is lacking in this year’s collection is a clear-cut theme except, perhaps, the variety of poetry itself. The poetry is arranged alphabetically by the poet’s name and not by topic or form; there is no build up or a traditional closing poem that helps connect the collection together. All the poems in the collection were new to me, and with the variety, I can say not all of them were equally liked in form or content. This year’s selection was made special by the insight given by both Lehman and Gioia and the poetry used to support their premise. Best American Poetry 2018 is a win for American poetry.

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Book Review — The English Country House Garden

The English Country House Garden by George Plumptre is a pictorial collection of the best English country gardens. Plumptre is an English author, journalist, and expert on gardening, formerly gardening correspondent for The Times, and since 2011, chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme.

I don’t know much about country gardens. I was born and raised in the city and now living in the small yards of the suburbs. Gardening to me is more about tomatoes and peppers than about flowers. I have, however, visited and enjoyed botanical gardens. My interest in this book stems mainly from Vita Sackville-West the author and social rebel that settled down and became a world-class gardener. Her Sissinghurst Castle Garden is now part of the British National Trust. The chance to see more of this garden is the main reason I chose to read this book.

Sissinghurst is the second garden covered and one of the three essential gardens along with Hidcote in Gloucestershire and Great Dixter in East Sussex. Country gardens were an escape from the city and offered a retreat of sorts. The gardens typically are made of rooms with a central space and enclosed with plants and flowers. Paths separated Some of the rooms and paths appear quite chaotic when caught between seasons. Those rooms are not meant to be static and are planted to change with the season. Still, other gardens concentrate on open space and green like a French garden. Rousham House and Goodnestone Park are excellent examples of a cultivated open area with a sense of peace and freedom. Perhaps the most exciting gardens are those of Lullingstone Castle and Charleston. Here the gardens seem to overrun the man-made structures it has a very natural feel of nature reclaiming the land. The plants, however, are not the common weeds or invasive plants that reflect the beauty of nature.

English Country House Gardens is a richly illustrated book with detailed descriptions and histories of each of the two dozen gardens. The peace and tranquility of these gardens are expertly captured in the pages of this book. If one can’t visit the gardens, this is your best opportunity.

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Book Review — I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

I Am Dynamite! by Sue Prideaux

Sue Prideaux presents an fascinating biography on one of the most controversial philosophers of the 19th Century. Rather than focusing heavily on Nietzsche’s philosophy she concentrates on his life and and friends, particularly composer Robert Wagner. She also ties Nietzsche’s mental breakdown to his father’s mental illness rather than syphilis. Nietzsche sister, Elizabeth, is also given an important role in the formation of his fallacious public image. It was her actions that lead to his identity as an anti-Semite and forerunner the Nazis. She also had control of his papers and copyrights after his death.

Nietzsche’s philosophy, when presented, plays into his life events and creates a connection between the person and the philosophy. Thus Spoke Zarathustra was mailed to the publisher the same day that Wagner’s death was reported. Nietzsche saw this as the death of his “father” and the birth of his son. His personal experience with war seems to directly contradict the public’s commonly believed definition of the Übermensch. Reality contradicts the common perception of the philosopher.

Prideaux shows Nietzsche as a complex man in his thoughts but in many ways very human. Although his friends tended to be rich, he lived much more simply. Prideaux writes a balanced biography of one of the most maligned and misunderstood modern philosophers and corrects some serious wrongs that have no basis in fact. A very well done and cited biography that presents a true picture of the man.

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Book Review — The Best of Peter Egan: Four Decades of Motorcycle Tales and Musings from the Pages of Cycle World

The Best of Peter Egan: Four Decades of Motorcycle Tales and Musings from the Pages of Cycle World by Peter Egan is the magic of motorcycling. Egan is an American writer specializing in automotive and motorcycle journalism — widely known for his monthly car-related column, “Side Glances,” in Road & Track magazine as well as his monthly motorcycle-related column, “Leanings,” in Cycle World magazine — as well as road tests and occasional features in both magazines. Egan’s columns are chiefly autobiographical and anecdotal. He has written extensively about road trips, including detailed accounts of the failings of the vehicles, interactions with the people he travels with and those he meets.

I was sixteen when I bought my first motor vehicle. It was a nonrunning 1968 Triumph Trophy 250. I continued to ride motorcycles for the next thirty years before giving it up for the corporate look and sensibility. Before giving it up, I spent several years as a motorcycle mechanic while finishing college and graduate school. From my early years of riding, I was a reader of Cycle World, and it did take me a little while to discover Eagan’s column, I read Cycle World for the pictures. However, once I started, I was hooked on his writing.

If you don’t ride, it’s hard to describe the feeling and experience of riding. “If I had to explain, you wouldn’t understand” is a familiar refrain from motorcyclists and bikers. The thing is, Peter Egan can explain it, and you will understand and find the experience enjoyable. Egan’s attachment to British motorcycles really appealed to me. I owned five Triumphs and a BSA. With ownership of a British bike, one gets to enjoy all the charm that comes with the bike like its uncanny ability to know when you are at the midway point between home and your destination to suddenly stop running for undiscoverable causes. Egans published his first story in Cycle World is about a trip to the west coast on a Triumph with his wife. Anyone who owned an old Triumph knows how the journey ends. He was told he should have ridden a BMW instead. He said it would not have been the same. BMW did not offer the challenge. I owned three BMWs and will attest to their supreme dependability, but the machine is so refined that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a motorcycle.  As Egan would later say, after selling that story to Cycle World, would Cycle World have bought a story titled, “Young Couple Successfully Reaches West Coast on Reliable German Motorcycle”?

I could also relate to Egan’s stubbornness. Lousiana chickory coffee too expensive in Wisconsin? Ride down to Lousiana and pick up it up your self. This trip was less eventful on a Honda but mission accomplished. When you ride a motorcycle, you have a unique ability to justify trips that are really not in your best interest. I once rode 60 miles on a Triumph in 20 degree (-7C) weather to take my LSAT; not one of my best decisions, but a good story nonetheless.

Egan’s writing over four decades includes some great motorcycles (many of them British) and some trips that inspire tourism. The reader is taken to the Isle of Man and Ireland. There are also maintenance tips including how to change your oil without making a huge mess of it.  Over this last year, I came back to motorcycling, and I was surprised to see that Egan wrote about my current motorcycle a KLR650 (then KLR600) in the 1980s.  If you can only have one bike, get one that can do most everything you need.  Perhaps that bit of advice stuck with me all these years along with it being easy on maintenance, carbureted and not fuel injected, and not screaming for flashy accessories and modifications.  Still, that does not keep me off of Craig’s List or researching another bike.  Do I need another motorcycle? I’ll let Peter Egan explain that.

Available October 9, 2018

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Book Review — The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness: Two Tales of the Mythos

The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness: Two Tales of the Mythos by H.P. Lovecraft are two of the author’s most popular stories. Lovecraft was one of the first true American horror writers, and although he was not extremely popular during his lifetime, his work has gained acceptance and a large following. His biography describes his writing as: deeply pessimistic and cynical, challenging the values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Christianity. Lovecraft’s protagonists usually achieve the mirror-opposite of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality.

This Dover publication brings together two of Lovecraft’s more famous works. The Call of Cthulhu was written in 1926 and creates the Cthulu Mythos which will eventually define the writer. Cthulhu, a terrible creature, is described as:

A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.

Its description in ordinary words creep into the reader’s mind and form a vision of horror. The horror exists in the descriptions and settings rather than in a special effects type beast. The reader is invited to experience his or her own form of terror. Lovecraft uses the reader’s own imagination as a tool in his writing.

At the Mountains of Madness, the reader is introduced to a different type of terror. Working in Antartica a deep feeling of isolation develops into a fear. Missing equipment and bodies of unknown creatures make the original fear of separation seem almost pleasant. Need more terror? The Necronomicon is mentioned which is a story in itself. It is a fictional tome which had its own history written in another story.

Lovecraft art was creating a terror in the reader’s mind. He plays on fears and forbidden knowledge. He establishes creatures that haunt the mind and threaten humankind in much the same way a human would intimidate an ant. There is a sense of panic and helplessness. It is not shock and gore of modern horror but a psychological awe that invades consciousness. Although the stories were both written over eighty years ago, they still have the same effect. The times may change but what triggers fear in the mind has remained the same. The potency of these stories defies time.

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Book Review — Weird War 2

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Weird War 2 by Richard Denham is a look at the odd and experimental plans to gain the upper hand in the war. Aside from the curious, there are also some myths that are straightened out. Denham is the co-author of the popular ‘Britannia’ series with M. J. Trow. These books follow a group of soldiers and their descendants through the madness of a chain of events which will eventually lead to the fall of Roman Britain and the descent into the Dark Ages.

World War II was a conflict that killed well over 50 million people directly and many millions indirectly through displacement and famine. It is not a war that is associated with humor, but in hindsight, several programs that were taken seriously are now seen as almost comical. From sheep and cat bombs to antitank dogs there were a number of weaponized animal programs that failed miserably. There are also stories of actual products and event of the war from Fanta to Marines (not soldiers) raising the flag on Iwo Jima that are separated from their mythical in their origins. Other stories reflect heroes like the Navajo Code Talkers whose talk could not be decoded by the enemy and the allies own code breaker who was later charged as a homosexual.

Denham leads the reader through an improbable collection of stories and facts from World War II. Each item is only a page or two but provides enough information to explain the event or project. Are the stories true? There does seem to be enough supporting evidence although none of the stories are cited as the author claims there is still some disagreement among historians. Several of the stories I have had heard of before in my reading and history classes. Some, however, are very new to me. A fun look at out of the box thinking that accompanied WWII and the desire for a technological edge.

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