Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Reviews-Barnes &Due, N.K. Jemisin and Stephen King

Underwood, Due and Barnes at NAACP Image Awards

In the Night of the Heat. 
This book was written by Steven Barnes and his wife Tananarive Due with creative inspiration and some input by the actor Blair Underwood.
It's the second in a series but it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. It's partly a retelling of the O.J. Simpson story combined with civil rights era mysteries. It features the writers' fallen hero, Tennyson Hardwick, one time ladies man, struggling actor, and informal private investigator/martial arts enthusiast. Hardwick turns down the request of an old girlfriend to help protect her cousin, the recently acquitted football star T.D. Jackson, from murder threats. Shortly afterwards T.D. Jackson is found dead from apparent suicide. Hardwick gets drawn into the case, much to the displeasure of the LAPD, and other more sinister parties.
Barnes lives in California and also works in the entertainment industry. Barnes has said that he thought O.J. was guilty as hell and that if he did have any hearsay inside information or ideas about how O.J. would have committed the crime and gotten away with it, a mystery novel certainly would be the place he'd put it...

So that part was fun. It was also fun trying to pick out the book sections that were written by Barnes and the ones written by Due. Both writers have pretty distinctive tones but do a good job at making the shifts in the book close to seamless. There's a lot of backstory about how Hollywood really works from the POV of disposable actors or writers. 
Thinly veiled versions of Farrah Fawcett and Bruce Willis have cameos. YMMV on that stuff.
Barnes & Due do a good job of making the violence work as part of the story. My only quibble was that I think that for this book Barnes & Due may have slightly underestimated their readers' intelligence. There's a few "Scooby Doo" moments where some antagonists seem possessed to explain everything that took place so a particularly dim reader won't miss anything. That was unusual coming from these two but this is clearly their attempt to write for a more commercial market and appears to have paid off. That aside, this was fun reading.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.
This is the first in a trilogy. Yeine Darr, a woman who is the daughter of an exiled Arameri (think Northern Europe) princess and a Darr (think pre-Colombian Meso-American) nobleman is summoned to her mother's home city after her mother has died suspiciously.
A new heir to her grandfather's throne must be chosen and somehow she must play a part. Some of her relatives want to kill her on sight; others are more sympathetic. But no one is telling her what's really going on or why her mother, the original Heir, fled in the first place.
The Arameri-her mother's people- are great wizards who have conquered the world (All 100,000 kingdoms) via the use of enslaved gods. The gods are thoroughly amoral with regards to humans. The Arameri live in a city that literally floats in the sky. The most powerful god –who is NOT enslaved- is Black.
The author has chosen to use first person narrative throughout.  In general, Mickey Spillane aside, I’m not a fan of first person narrative. Nothing ever happens unless the narrator is there.  In addition the author is a feminist who very much wants to play with and throw out traditional genre assumptions.  There‘s nothing wrong with that of course but the book really wasn't quite entertaining enough to me.  I did perhaps learn to appreciate a little of my own male bias by having to attempt to look at everything through a woman's eyes.  
It was a challenging read which is more than I can say for some authors these days. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for but considering the simpleminded group think dreck that infects most sci-fi/fantasy sections,  it was good to see someone strike out on her own, even if I wasn't sure I liked the ending.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
The Old Man's still got it. Recently released in hardcover this is a collection of four short stories, really novellas, that all center around secrets and revenge. It is very grim so be forewarned.The first story, 1922 concerns a dispute between a Nebraska farmer and his wife over what to do with some inherited land. The next, Big Driver details the risks to writers who take last minute speaking engagements. The third, Fair Extension updates the Needful Things motif, and the last one, A Good marriage will likely be especially enjoyed (perhaps "understood" is a better word) by those people who have been married for decades and are still alternately happy and disturbed that there are things about their spouse that they don't know. As an aside 1922 has a HUGE helping of regret, so much so that I could not help but be reminded of what I think of as King's greatest short story, The Last Rung on the Ladder. How appropriate then (and I didn't pickup on this until it was pointed out to me) that 1922 is set in the same town as The Last Rung on the Ladder.  
In the afterword King takes a few shots at unnamed writers who write for money as well as literary snobs. A bit off putting perhaps but he deserves his indulgences I guess. As he writes he takes what he does very seriously indeed and has no patience with those who don't. All of these stories are worthwhile. Get the book.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie Review-Winter's Bone and White Pathology

The writer Ishmael Reed had a serious issue with the HBO series "The Wire". You can read about it here.
In short Reed viewed it as relying on stereotypes about black pathology for the voyeuristic entertainment of white people who refused to critically examine their own troubles. The creator of "The Wire", David Simon, didn't care for that characterization and battle was joined. I respect Reed and have learned a lot from reading his work. But I disagree with his take on "The Wire" though I definitely see his POV. I wonder what Reed would make of the movie "Winter's Bone" which examines white pathology and poverty in the Missouri Ozarks. No Black people were stereotyped or otherwise harmed in the making of this movie. "Winter's Bone" received four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. It already won at Sundance.

The movie opens with Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) playing a tough as nails 17 year old who is the default leader of her family. Her brother and sister are too young to provide for themselves. Her mother is a catatonic depressive and her father is usually away selling or producing drugs. Methamphetamine is the drug of choice though cocaine is also shown. In short, this is a dysfunctional family. Like Michael in "The Wire", Ree takes care of things as best she can. We see her walking her siblings to school and making sure they do their homework.

The sheriff and bondsman arrive to inform Ree that her father Jessup has skipped bond. Ree doesn't really care about that but she learns that because her father signed over the family home to make bail, if he doesn't show for trial, the house will be forfeit. Because she is still a minor she would lose effective custody of her siblings.

This is unacceptable to Ree. Girl or not, Ree is still a Dolly and that means something to her.

Thus armed with nothing more than a stubborn streak, pride and an decided unwillingness to take no for an answer, Ree sets out on an epic search for her father among the local underworld members, most of whom are her own relatives (close and distant) and all of whom seem decidedly and dangerously disinclined to answer any questions or offer any assistance to help her keep her family together.
"Talking just causes witnesses" as one person sagely observes.

This movie was directed by Debra Granik and much like "The Wire" it was shot on location with many local non-actors performing in background roles and acting as formal or informal advisors to keep the movie grounded in reality. The movie captures an unpleasant part of America, from aggressive dogs kept chained in front yards to a sort of ugly Scots-Irish clannish pugnacity that underlies the actions of many characters. Stereotypical signifiers float around, such as the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, broken down machinery, outdoor laundry lines and a living room banjo-led hoedown. But Granik's skill as a director and her interest in the source material ensure that none of this ever goes over the top. The viewer never gets the feeling that she is pointing and laughing at anyone. 

The lighting of the movie is a little dim at times but other than that the cinematography is stark and gorgeous. It's the little things that let you know how dirt poor these people are. Although the defining motif for this movie is bleakness there are still a few people willing to help. Again the little touches, like bringing over food to a hungry family, teaching children how to hunt and dress squirrels, or trying to talk someone out of a bad decision really make this film work.

Taking two strong supporting roles are Dale Dickey who plays the pitiless and relentless Merab, the wife of the local crime boss (to whom Ree is very distantly related) and John Hawkes who plays Teardrop, Ree's cocaine snorting, tatted up uncle. Merab is a mirror image of Ree, older and much harder. Merab is who Ree will be in about 30 years if she remains in that area.  
Teardrop warns Ree away from any investigation. Judging by other people's reactions to him, Teardrop is evidently an extremely dangerous individual. Ree tells him that she's always been scared of him. "That's cause you're smart" is his terse response. Teardrop is not a man you want to get crossways with but Granik shows the human cost of his lifestyle.

There are a few scenes of sudden violence but this film makes its mark with the emotional pain of people refusing to care about this seventeen year old or her family. In the hands of a typical Hollywood director Ree would have been transformed into a riot grrrl capable of kicking behind and taking names in her search for her father. We would have seen cartoonish fight scenes like those of Angelina Jolie in "Salt" or Scarlett Johannson in "Iron Man 2". Fortunately the director didn't take that route. Ree's strength is not in violence but endurance.
It's what's not shown that makes this movie powerful. Violence hurts. It hurts more when it comes from people you thought you could trust. Check this one out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Music Review -Jimi Hendrix West Coast Seattle Boy

This release features four CD's and DVD footage from a man widely considered to be the greatest guitarist who ever walked the Earth (not that I really believe in "greatest" anything when it comes to art and music). It is also a deliberate attempt to emphasize Hendrix’s overlooked R&B, soul and jazz roots. So what's not to like? This must be the Holy Grail. Yes? Everyone should run out and get this, right? Not necessarily.
First off let me say what this release isn't. Unlike say How the West was Won by Led Zeppelin or Agharta by Miles Davis this is emphatically NOT a cohesive set of concert recordings or a fabled lost album.
This release will probably be of interest primarily to hardcore Hendrix fans or obsessive collectors. For the first person the desirability of this may depend on price. It opened at $69 on Amazon and is now fluctuating between $47 and $53. The stripped down version can be had for between $13 and $20.
 The second type of person obviously will buy it no matter what I write but he/she should at least pick it up used. Ok, enough caution, what about the music?

This features Hendrix as a sideman to sixties era Black American rock-n-roll/R&B stars. If you happen to like this sort of music (and I do) then you will enjoy hearing Hendrix play on cuts by Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Don Covay, Rosa Lee Brooks, King Curtis and more. If, on the other hand, you don't like this sort of old school R&B this CD may not impress. Standouts include an intense Hendrix solo on the Isley Brothers' "Have you ever been disappointed" that is reminiscent of Duane Allman's later solo on "Please lend me a dime" and Hendrix's riff on Ray Sharpe's "Help me Get the Feeling", which was later sold to Atlantic, scrubbed of Hendrix's guitar and reworked by Aretha Franklin into "Save Me". 
This disc focuses on Hendrix's early work with The Experience. Virtually everything here has been released before. These are alternate or acoustic versions and solo arrangements. Hendrix had a very heavy Dylan influence. This shows in his fanciful cover of "Tears of Rage", which almost redeems the entire release all by itself. Also included are an acoustic guitar rendition of "1983", "Little One" (not Little Wing) and a guitar/harmonica version of "Hear my Train A-coming".
This CD covers the transition from the Experience to the Band of Gypsys or as I like to think of it from a frustrated guitarist trying and failing to play bass (Noel Redding) to an actual bassist (Billy Cox) who understood where the “One” was. Noel Redding couldn't get groove if you tied him to a train track. With Cox on bass and Miles on drums, Hendrix speeds toward funk and soul. A few cuts sound eerily like Sly Stone without a horn section. The Hendrix connection to groups like P-Funk is obvious.
There are more unreleased items here. This includes "Hear my Freedom" with Lee Michaels on organ, live concerts with the Experience, and a 20 minute jam with jazz organist Larry Young.
Unfortunately this also includes "Mastermind" with Hendrix buddy Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. Sorry Mr. Lee but if I'm going to criticize Redding for being allergic to holding down the bottom, I have to take you to task being a bad singer. You need to be in the proper key and stay in tune. Yikes. This was the only cut that I stopped listening to and pressed next.
This last disc is mostly Band of Gypsys and then the later reconstituted band with Cox and Mitchell and without Buddy Miles.
The cd consists of projects Hendrix was working on before he passed away. This includes a long version of "Everlasting First", a song with Love frontman Arthur Lee on vocals. Standouts include "Suddenly November Morning", "Peter Gunn" and "All God's Children". This is the good stuff.
Final Call
Janie Hendrix, (Hendrix's sister and the executor of his estate) has said there's enough unreleased material to produce at least one new CD every 12-18 months for the next decade. While I admit that's good for her bank account I wish that they'd just put out the quality stuff now. There's actually a live Band of Gypsys studio jam that I have on cassette tape (taped off radio) as well as an Experience concert in Germany that I was hoping would be on this release. Oh well. Overall this was just barely worth it. I had heard too much of it before. I would advise others to buy it at a DEEP discount-IF you are a rabid Hendrix fanatic. If you're not, don't spend your money on this. But do pick up Band of Gypsys, not least for Hendrix’s improv on Auld Lang Syne , Who Knows and most especially his antiwar masterpiece Machine Gun . Unfortunately that last song is all too relevant today.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest

“Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi G****m”
-Nina Simone

JACKSON, Miss. - A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which it calls the "War Between the States." The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014.
"Seriously?" state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. "Wow."
Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading an 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Greg Stewart said he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It's a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.
"If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words," Stewart said. "We should respect that."

And here we go again.  As Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.  This is true of America in general, the South in particular and perhaps Mississippi most of all.  This is ultimately what these constant battles over history are about-whether it is textbooks in Texas,  Michele Bachmann’s whitewashing of the Founding Fathers or the never ending battles over the Civil War and associated symbols.  Who gets to define history?  Who gets to tell the story? That’s the question.  Here’s what one eyewitness had to say about the Fort Pillow massacre:

Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote to his sister immediately after the battle: "The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

From my POV there is simply no way to take nuanced views on the Civil War.  
The Confederates tried to break up the nation because they were concerned about their ability to keep slaves. They wanted to extend and protect slavery throughout the entire nation.  Don’t take my word for it. Read what they wrote.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war this nation ever fought.  More Americans died in the Civil War than died in World War II. The South lost. Slavery was ended. That was a good thing.  Not only did the South lose, it got its collective a$$ kicked, militarily speaking.  However a horrible thing happened postbellum. For a variety of reasons- political, pragmatic, racial and cultural- the South never really admitted that it was wrong.  
Unlike post-WWII Germany the South never had to face up to its crimes and indeed the North ultimately lacked the interest or resources to force it to do so. These were after all Americans. There was money to be made and reconciliation to accomplish. So the Black narrative of what the war was about or what slavery was like was ignored and the myth of the Lost Cause and the gentlemanly rebel took hold. Obviously these myths still resonate with many people today. The US thus lost a chance to save itself another 100 or so years of segregation, murder and exploitation.

Now I really don’t care what people put on their vehicle or what sort of shirt they wear.  
But I do draw the line at state endorsement of a man who led an armed rebellion against the United States. 
Ironically however Forrest's last recorded speech in 1875 was given to an early Black civil rights group. In this speech he supposedly urged racial reconciliation and may have defended voting rights for Blacks.

Is this just a question of if you don’t like the proposed license plate don’t get one?
Do you see any First Amendment issue here?   
Why are there some Americans who grasp so tightly to a belief that the Confederacy was a good thing?
Where are the Germans who hold similar views about the Nazis?   
If John Newton (slave trader and author of Amazing Grace) can be redeemed , why not Nathan Bedford Forrest?