Tag Archives: UCLA

Crawling Back to You

Breakup/Breakdown – Poems by Charles Jensen (Five Oaks Press, $12.99, 42 pages)

Can one find hope in poems of heartbreak and loss?

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This is a fascinating chapbook of poems by Charles Jensen.  These are poems about heartbreak and loss.  After all, we lose things in life, like people and laptops and places:

I understand that/purpled anger in her/face, the way she’s/aware she was/just a pitstop in/someone else’s/marriage. To know/you are not/the one, but just another one.

These are also poems about disruption, the kind that comes with rapid change, with the shedding of the present for the future:

Disruption/is the pulling apart of two independent lives. A rupture/but I didn’t know it until it was too late.  Everything we’d placed/inside those years spilled out/like blood escaping from a vein./Love, my friends, should never/be entrusted to the heart, whose job/is to push away the only thing/the world will ever offer it.

(Disruption, previously published in HIV Here + Now.)

Jensen understands that life is about accepting the changes that are beyond our control:

We shake our lives loose like a braid/untwirling at the end of a long day/I want everything and nothing that belongs to you…

And finally, there’s the notion of place.  A place is ours, if only for a transitory period.  We occupy a space for a moment, like time travelers:

I move into a one bedroom overlooking Glassell Park and/the Los Angeles Rivers and the 5 and the hills of Echo Park/between Division and Future streets.  Division runs drunk/through the neighborhood, splitting Mount Washington/into two separate lives.  Future Street rises straight up the face,/turns sharply and then goes down to just one lane, a 90 degree/curve and, from time to time, gets lost in the spaghetti of streets/only to reappear suddenly on the far side of the hill, shunning/drivers with its abrupt end in a one-way alley.  The apartment/gets a lot of light, and at night the yellow glow of porch lamps/and street lamps dot the dark landscape like a pattern for the/Lite Brite I played with as a child, plugging in plastic pegs to make/something beautiful appear…

(Between Division and Future Streets, previously published in Diode.)

I very much enjoyed reading and rereading these poems by Charles Jensen, whom I feel I now know as a friend.  If the world is something we cannot fathom, we can understand a fellow traveler who is headed down the same highway in search of peace, comfort and understanding.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Charles Jensen is a graduate of Arizona State University, and is the Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

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An Interview

Months ago, a few book bloggers (including yours truly) were interviewed by a popular writer for an online article.   For various and sundry reasons, the article never appeared so we are posting it here with the four original questions that were posed and one bonus question.book reviews

Why do you blog?   Is it for free books or just the love of reading?

I see it as performing a public service.   My reviewers and I take the time to read books and make a judgment as to whether this is worth the average reader/consumer’s money and – even more importantly – time.   These days both are seen as precious commodities.   We either recommend a book or refrain from doing so.

If you agree to be in a book tour and you  hate the book, do you review it anyway?

When this happened to me, I notified the tour leader that I was withdrawing; I had no desire to ruin someone else’s party (a debut party for the first-time author).   But I also told the tour leader that I would be writing and posting my own honest and less-than-favorable review at a slightly later date.

By the way, on Joseph’s Reviews I’ve periodically posted multiple reviews of the same book.   In one recent case, three of us reviewed the same novel.   I did not recommend buying and reading it, but two other reviewers did.   None of us claims perfect knowledge, but we try to clarify for the review reader how and why we each arrived at our own position.   Sometimes the difference in perspective can be due to different life experiences, or even recent positive or negative events in our lives.

Why do you think you’re “qualified” to review books?

I have a degree in Communication Arts, wrote music and entertainment reviews in college, and earned a law degree from a major university.   I’ve also taught, done significant writing and editing as a government Public Information Officer, and done some pre-publication work for a publisher based in England.   However, I think the key prerequisite for being a reviewer is the ability to be completely honest about one’s views.   It is just one opinion, but it should always be a frank and honest one.

Does you blog have anything to do with your own writing (i.e., did you start it because you were writing a novel or are the two totally unrelated)?

Because I enjoyed writing reviews at a period when (in the words of The Who), “I wore a younger man’s clothes,” I elected to do something similar with my adult leisure time.   I was an avid reader of music reviews when I was in college, and I often loved the critics whose opinions I most often disagreed with – those who didn’t necessarily sway my own views but whose consistency and tenacity I admired.

Writing an engaging, and hopefully, convincing book review is a bit like trying to fashion a proper legal argument.

If you had the power to do so, what one thing would you change about the book publishing industry?

A number of years ago, when you purchased a blank music recording cassette, part of the purchase price went to reimburse artists for lost royalties.   The same is true today when you buy a blank CD-R.   I would like to see a small part of the purchase price for each book – hardback, paperback or e-book – used to fund a central editing clearinghouse.   In my fantasy, all books would receive a final read and edit prior to publication.   The clearinghouse would have to issue a stamp of approval before the publisher could actually release the book.   (Crazy people and speed readers such as I would likely work at the literal publisher’s clearinghouse.)

There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up a “finished” book and finding it loaded with typos and simple mistakes that should have been corrected in the editing and fact-checking processes.   For example, my wife was just reading a novel that placed the UCLA campus in Brentwood – which is likely a major surprise to the tens of thousands of students on the grounds at Westwood!

ucla-campusJoseph Arellano

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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Runnin’ Down a Dream

33 Days:  Touring in a Van.   Sleeping on Floors.   Chasing a Dream.   by Bill See (Lulu; available as a Kindle and Nook Book download)

Bill See’s account of a band on the run has its moments but…  If L.A.’s Divine Weeks was chosen as one of the best bands in the mega city by the hallowed Los Angeles Times in 1987, one has to wonder why its four members (George, Bill, Raj and Dave) decided they needed to make a tour of the Pacific Northwest, Canada and the mid-west to southern United States to prove their worth.   If you believe See’s words, it was not for a lack of ego:  “Sometimes you can tell the crowd wants it…  you have to understand something.   We really do believe we’re operating on a totally different plane than other bands…  we’re completely full of ourselves…”

Well, you can see videos of Divine Weeks on You Tube and judge for yourself.   To my eyes and ears, this was a decent band for the time (the late 80s), but nothing special – not great nor horrible, and on a par with what you’d see in a typical Sacramento club during this era.   Was Divine Weeks on the same plane as, say, Jane’s Addiction?   Absolutely not.   (Personal disclosure:  I was not a fan of Jane’s music, but their musicianship was beyond question.)

What 33 Days does offer is a glimpse of what life is like on the road for a struggling traveling band.   In itself that’s an interesting tale, but See detracts from it by spending a bit more time than is necessary telling us about his off-and-on relationship with quasi-girlfriend Mary.   It proves to be both distracting and tiring.

The best moment in the narrative is when See explains, early on, the power of music.   “Ever since I’ve known music, I’ve felt that my life could be lifted up by it.”   This is admirable but the egocentric prospective winds up making this a band biography that is less than the sum of its parts.   This reader came to feel as if only truly got to know two members of the band – the Paul McCartney-like Bill and the George Harrison-like Raj.   It felt, in the end, as if something was missing.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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Heart and Soul

One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers (Gallery; $26.00; 272 pages)

Spunky, vivacious and charming are words that easily describe Stephanie Powers, the actress best known for her role in the television series Hart to Hart.   Yes, her character on the series also matches up with these adjectives.   Don’t be fooled by appearances or roles, for when it comes to intellect and curiosity, Ms. Powers leads the Hollywood pack.   Her memoir, One from the Hart, is filled with fully developed recollections of a life lived all over the globe.

Although Powers’ formal education concluded with her graduation from Hollywood High School, readers will be treated to the best in grammar and word selection.   Powers set out to make up for a lack of college education by committing to reading through the literature list for students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   With that goal accomplished, she has maintained a lifelong course in learning.   Her curiosity and willingness to expand as a person has resulted in a remarkable memoir that is well-developed and engagingly narrated.   This reviewer felt as though she had been included in the circle of friends that Powers has grown over the last several decades.

Yes, Powers is talented musically and as an actress.   Yes, she is remarkably beautiful.   Underneath this Hollywood veneer beats a heart that truly loves people and animals.   Her actions speak for themselves for she is the driving force behind the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya.   Given her enthusiasm for education, it is no surprise that Powers founded the organization to honor the efforts of her long-time love William Holden.

This engaging book includes photographs from Powers’ private collection that serve to document the remarkable events in her life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Note:  Hollywood High School, the home of The Pharaohs, also produced two notable actors who would come to be known to the world as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

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The L.A. Times Book Festival Goes Trojan

L. A. Times Festival of Books Comes to USC

The Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California today announced that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of the Southland’s most cherished and engaging weekend celebrations, will kick off its 16th storied year in a new home at USC’s University Park campus from April 30 to May 1, 2011.

Angelenos of all ages interested in famous authors, celebrity appearances, speaker panels, superstar chefs and local musicians will have something extra special to look forward to as the celebration debuts downtown.

“After 15 years on the Westside, we are very excited to move the Festival of Books to its beautiful new home and have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with USC to ensure we grow bigger and better in the future,” said Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.   “Attendees and exhibitors can expect more to see, do and experience in addition to great access and a refreshing change of scenery.”

USC President C. L. Max Nikias said, “We are thrilled that the festival has a new home here.   The Festival of Books is known for sparking just the kind of intellectual curiosity and energy that are at the heart of USC’s mission.   The festival is a great fit for our world-class faculty authors and writing programs, as well as for our literacy work in the community.   USC and the Los Angeles Times are two of the oldest institutions in Los Angeles, and it’s fitting that we would be joining together for this event that is so important to the intellectual life of Southern California.”

The move allows for increased attendance due to USC’s central location, proximity to public transportation, abundant parking and newly enhanced campus facilities.  The Times and the university will work together to best utilize the University Park campus to expand programming, provide exhibitors and sponsors with the benefit of more  useable space and other concession opportunities.   The Festival of Books previously was held on UCLA’s campus in Westwood.   (Noted the L.A. Times: “UCLA is a bigger campus, but USC spokesman James Grant said his university had plenty of room for the festival’s many outdoor activities and indoor seminars and lectures.”)

Last year, more than 140,000 people enjoyed the nation’s largest public literary festival, where more than 400 authors blended with hundreds of exhibitors representing booksellers, publishers, literacy and cultural organizations.   Poetry, mystery, politics, young adult, comic book, graphic novel and manga all flavor the festival’s author readings, book signings, intimate Q&A’s, comedy, children’s activities and more.   The event, which is free to the public, delivers a celebration of all the written word inspires.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was created in 1996 to promote literacy, celebrate the written word and bring together those who create books with the people who love to read them.

Source: USC News, September 22, 2010 (Used by permission).   Information on the L. A. Times Festival of Books will be available at: http://latimesfestivalofbooks.com .   Pictured above: USC President C. L. Max Nikias and L.A. Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.

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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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