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Cypress Avenue

Music Review: Astral Weeks album by Van Morrison

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In October of 1968, the album Astral Weeks was released to the world.  The vinyl disc was produced by Van’s then manager Lewis Merenstein, who two years later would produce another pastoral masterpiece, Vintage Violence – the debut solo album from John Cale of The Velvet Underground.

The musicians on Astral Weeks were jazzmen pulled from the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as from the Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus bands.  The only musician from Van’s own stable was flute player John Payne.

OK, let’s dive in, shall we?

Side One: (titled) “In The Beginning”

The album kicks off with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” seven minutes of pure bliss, opening with the lines: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream, where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop – could you find me?  Would you kiss-a my eyes?  To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again, to be born again…”  The combo of the upright double bass and acoustic guitars almost sounds like a chorus of cellos, majestic in every way.  I’m immediately hooked.  It’s the sound of being in love, the sound of melancholic memories, the feel of a spiritual quest.

Is there a song by any other artist that makes one feel this way?  No.

The mood and tempo drop down on “Beside You,” which opens with a bit of Spanish meets classical guitar, while the lyrics are brought to life via a roaming vocal.  This is followed by one of Van’s all time outstanding works, “Sweet Thing” – a standard among standards in the massive Van Morrison catalog.  The opening chords and the words that accompany them: “And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first and I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst and I shall watch the ferry-boats and they’ll get high on a bluer oceans against tomorrow’s sky and I will never grow so old again and I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain…” – sound so familiar to me, like an old friend. Perhaps a lover.

“Sweet Thing” has the magnificent sound of high-hat cymbals (crashing like water on the beach), the upright bass grounding it, the ringing acoustic guitars and a magical and mystical flute.  Oh, and there’s a string section on this song.  Larry Fallon did the arrangement.  Every time I hear this song, I feel like I’m high as a kite.  It’s a euphoric feeling, an energizing sound.  Just beautiful.

Seven minutes of “Cypress Avenue” closes out side one.  I prefer the 1970-1974 live versions of this, but that’s another discussion.  When Van sings “I’m caught up one more time, up on Cypress Avenue…” and the harpsichord responds to those words, we’re only 23 seconds in; it’s already surpassed most pop songs ever written.  As the song continues it’s lyrically simple but feels complex.  Van sounds like he’s in pain. This is THE BLUES, but in some kind of euro-classical setting rather than the south side of Chicago.  It’s a cross-cultural masterwork.

The strings give “Cypress Avenue” a bit of a “down on the bayou” feeling, thus America is well represented.  Van is in pain, his tongue is tied every time he tries to speak; he’s overwhelmed.  He may also be stoned or drunk.  “It’s too late to stop now.”  Indeed.

Luckily for us, we have another side of the LP to explore.

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Side Two: “Afterwards”

“The Way Young Lovers Do” is an exercise in acrobatic genius.  The way the guitar and rhythm bounce along.  The vibraphone keeps it moving, providing a much needed “bright” and upbeat percussive feeling that the horn section supports as well.  It’s sort of an upbeat Stax/Volt thing that uplifts the vocal.  The vocal is simultaneously playful and mournful.

And then we have ten full minutes of “Madame George” – of playing dominoes in drag.  Like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” it’s a long story song. But it could also be “Madame Joy” – there’s some fun going on here, a nod to William Butler Yeats’ wife Georgie. (Yeats was and is a Morrison favorite.)  In 1974, Van – who rarely praises his own work, said that “Madame George” was his own favorite song.  For me, it’s far from my favorite moment on this album.

But “Ballerina” is pure bliss.  This could have been written and sung by Tim Buckley, right after he recorded “Buzzing Fly” on Happy/Sad.  Speaking of which, Van’s vocals here are as expressive, as vibrant, as reaching in feeling as anything recorded by Buckley in 1968-’69.  Damn, this is good.  More blues, more longing mixed with hope.

“Ballerina” is not the strongest track on the album, but it’s equally as essential as the best songs.  “The show must go on… Keep on pushing.”

It all comes to a close with “Slim Slow Rider.”  There’s an empty sound as it starts, lots of “space” and air in the sound.  I can hear the fingers of the bass player on the strings.  The guitar and the vocal are plaintive, the soprano sax “calling from way over yonder” – adding both a jazz and a blues element.  It’s the sound of an open field in Ireland and the sound of the ocean, maybe on the Massachusetts shoreline.  “I know you won’t be back, I know you’re dying, and I know it too…”  This is an implied sequel to “TB Sheets.”

“Slim Slow Rider” fades out much too quickly, it’s only 3 minutes long.  In the CD age, they’d have kept it going, but on vinyl it needed to fade.  My guess is, if there’s one song that is a bit longer on the original master tape, it’s this one.

“Rider” ends the album on an almost hollow, existentialist note.  Yet I’m not sure how else it could have ended as the performer, the artist, is exhausted.  He’s emotionally spent, fully burnt out.

Sometime in the early 1990s, one of the Irish daily newspapers referred to Van as a “rock star.”  The next day the paper received a scathing letter in which Van stated in no uncertain terms that he was not a rock star – and that anyone who followed his career from its beginning would know that he plays jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.  He was correct.

Although Astral Weeks is considered a classic in the rock genre, it’s more unique than that. You might say it’s a blend of jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.  The most apt description of the recording is to simply say, “It’s Van Morrison.”

Highly recommended.

Pat Thomas

Pat Thomas works with a record company based in Seattle and Los Angeles.  He’s also an author.  Like the fictional character Zelig, he seems to always be in the place where it’s happening, no matter where or when that may be.

 

 

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Film Review: La La Land

La La Land – Insipid But Entertaining

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This 2016 Academy Award nominated musical (a record tying 14 nominations), written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the wunderkind creator of the astonishing Whiplash) is this year’s can-do-no-wrong romantic comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

La La Land is a bold resurrection of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1940-50s musical with a blend of nostalgia (using filtered-lens cinematography and period costumes) mixed with the novelty of contemporary millennial life in Los Angeles.  A flip-book of competing images of vintage and modern L.A. with twirling skirts and old-fashioned dancing, La La Land is all about dreaming for the big break in Hollywood.

An undeniable paean to the joy and ecstasy of following your passions, this film also touches upon the sacrifices to one’s personal life, to missed connections and to other dreams that will never come true.  Part “Never-Never Land” and part “Singing in the Rain.”  However, the conventional storyline – love versus ambition – never rises above being forgettable.

Perhaps the most interesting interlude in the film, however, is Mia and Seb’s friend, Keith (John Legend) whose relaxed approach to the commercial aspects of being a musician challenge Seb’s dogmatic “purist” views of selling out to music venues.  The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and La La Land is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise.  I loved this observation.

The cinematography and special effects are the best part of this movie.  Except for the song “City of Stars,” the music is more competent than dazzling.  You’re more likely to remember what you saw than what you heard.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Where is La La Land going?  Is this Hollywood couple going to make it after all?  Should we care?  The film suffers from what it is supposed to parody:  Hollywood’s addiction to artifice and self-congratulation.  (Amen, sister!  – Ed.)  By the end, La La Land is an imperfect film that entertains, partly because it is a pleasant surprise to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

Sometimes a movie comes along that is entertaining and refreshingly light when we desire that intensely.  Right for this moment, viewers can forgive La La Land for being a not very good but deliciously tasty confection of sound and color.  I expected more given all the awards and accolades.

Diana Y. Paul

Diana Y. Paul is a retired Stanford professor, an expert on Buddhism and an author (Things Unsaid: A Novel).  You can read more of her reviews at the Unhealed Wound blog:

http://www.unhealedwound.com/

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The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

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Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

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Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

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One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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The Long and Twisting Road

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I Let You Go: A Novel by Clare Mackintosh (Berkley, $26.00, 384 pages; Penguin Publishing, $16.00, 400 pages)

British author Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, works at many levels.  For those who enjoy intrigue there are multiple twists and turns right up to the end.  Solid writing and character development should satisfy most readers who are simply interested in a good story.

In this story, a little boy named Jacob is tragically killed in a hit and run incident, and a persistent law enforcement officer, Kate, will not let the case go.  Jenna Gray seeks refuge in a remote tourist spot named Penfach.  She is ultimately apprehended and charged with the murder, but, from the start, things are never what they seem.  Surprises abound throughout.

Roy, Kate’s partner and superior, sorts through the complex feelings he has for her as he struggles with the realities of his marriage and family.  Jenna attempts to learn to trust again after a lifetime of heartache.  Strangers regularly indulge in random acts of kindness.  And still, evil lurks and must eventually be conquered.

Mackintosh chooses to consistently shift points of view and tells the story in both the third person and first person and through the eyes of multiple characters.  This creates some choppiness in the narrative that would likely not be evident in a second or third novel, or coming from a more experienced novelist. Most readers should, however, be able to work through this without it affecting their enjoyment of what is otherwise a good suspense story.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

I Let You Go is available in both hardbound and trade paperback editions.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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A Six Pack of Mystery Novels

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A Death at the Yoga Cafe: A Mystery by Michelle Kelly (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 261 pages)

What could be more wholesome than a yoga studio/vegetarian cafe in a small English village?  Everyone knows everyone else; Keeley Carpenter, the proprietor of said studio/cafe, is dating Ben Taylor, the local detective.  The bucolic atmosphere in town abruptly shifts when a prominent citizen is found murdered.  Of course Keeley, who is a curious and bold young woman, jumps right in and does some detecting of her own.  It’s a recipe for danger!  This book has a bonus feature.  Scattered among the chapters are instructions on yoga poses.  The most appropriate entry is corpse pose, which is located at the end of the chapter in which the murder is discovered.  Death at the Yoga Cafe is the second book in a series featuring Keeley Carpenter.

Well recommended.

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Teetotaled: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 291 pages) 

The era is the 1920s and the action takes place in and around New York City.  Widowed socialite Lola Woodby and her former cook Berta Lundgren have teamed up to form a business, the Discrete Retrieval Agency.  Lola’s husband died leaving her penniless after years of enjoying the high life.  Their cases have mostly focused on finding lost pets for well-to-do clients.  A high stakes case finds its way to their office/apartment.  A diary belonging to the daughter of Lola’s mother’s best friend must be purloined.  The revelation of corruption, war crimes, envy, greed and determination uncovered by the lady detectives are timeless, yet author Chance makes them fun to read about when mixed with her wry, droll humor.

Highly recommended.

The Champagne Conspiracy: A Wine Country Mystery by Ellen Crosby (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 360 pages)

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This book, the seventh in the Wine Country Mystery series, is heavy on detail regarding grape growing, wine production and family dynasties in present day Virginia and California as well as both locales during American Prohibition.  The lives of many of the characters are interwoven both in the past and the present.  Lucie Montgomery inherited the family estate vineyard in Virginia and she is determined to produce a high quality product.  Her comrade in wine making is Quinn Santori, a fellow with a closely guarded past.  Together they face some rather harrowing scrapes with death while planning the bottling of a sparkling wine, a new addition to their carefully crafted line.  Readers new to Crosby would doubtless appreciate a bit more character introduction.

Recommended.

Buried in the Country: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 324 pages)

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The charming fourth installment of the Cornish Mystery series set in the 1970s is an escape to a bucolic area of the United Kingdom where the pursuit of criminals requires the navigational skills of local fixture, Eleanor Trewynn.  Ms. Trewynn is a retired executive of an international nonprofit agency who now gathers donations for a local thrift shop.  Her skills at cross-border negotiation are what lead to involvement in a secret conference regarding apartheid held by a friend in the Commonwealth Relations Department.  Ms. Trewynn’s niece, Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow, is to provide security at a hotel on the coast.  There are evil spies who want to derail the event.  One crime leads to another and the reader is brought along for a wild ride through the Cornish countryside while the bad guys bumble along back lanes and impassible roads just ahead of the police.

Highly recommended.

The Reek of Red Herrings: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur Books, $26.99, 295 pages)

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This 1930s British murder mystery from Catriona McPherson featuing Dandy Gilver and her partner in detecting Alec Osborne will delight readers.  Dandy and Alec have been working together for eight years; however, the outlandish predicaments these two willingly take on here are by far the best of the series.  Christmas time or not, the two accept a job from Mr. H. Birchfield, an importer and distributor of fish, herring to be precise.  The partial remains of a human have sullied a barrel of his product.  Birchfield wants Dandy and Alec to travel to Banffshire coast and solve the “who” and “why” of this creepy occurrence.  Never mind that Christmas is but a few days away and Dandy will miss celebrating with her husband and sons.  The treacherous cliffs along the seacoast, rain, wind and seriously inbred inhabitants make for ideal subjects of this the fifth in author McPherson’s series.  Be prepared for laughs and groans as she fills the pages with puns and outlandish characters!

Highly recommended.

Murder at the 42nd Street Library: A Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

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Con Lehane presents the first mystery of his new series featuring Raymond Ambler, a mild mannered librarian at the world famous 42nd Street research library located at 476 Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Ray, as his coworkers refer to him, is the curator of the crime fiction collection.  While the collection is a figment of Author Lehane’s imagination as is Ray’s boss’s office, the rest of the library is accurately depicted in stunning detail.  Who knew that a cold blooded murder could take place within the hallowed halls of the glorious Beau Arts building that is guarded by two fierce lion statues?  The lives of several famous and infamous mystery writers are tangled into a confounding web of murders and past evil deeds.  This is no breezy read because the details matter and not all the clues lead to a convenient solution.

Well recommended.  

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

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Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

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I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

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Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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