Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lullabies for Little Criminals

I've become addicted to This American Life in the last year. TAL is the long-running radio program from Chicago Public Radio that is broadcast on NPR in the States, but for awhile now has been available as weekly podcasts (free! but consider pledging). Hosted by Ira Glass, TAL is usually a documentary or two, a personal essay, a bit of humour, held together by the week's theme. TAL has a stable of excellent writer/performers and contributors, some of whom have gone on to fame and fortune, like David Sedaris, others well-known amongst, well, public radio listeners / Volvo drivers / latte drinkers shall we say (Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Anne Lamott). The Library has a 2006 CD of some of TAL's greatest hits and a DVD of the TAL TV show from 2007.
Recently I was surprised to hear a piece by Jonathan Goldstein on TAL. As a CBC Radio listener I have heard his Wiretap program for years. But apparently Goldstein was a TAL producer in 2000-2002, and continues contributing to TAL. And even more suprising, in googling Goldstein I discovered his long-time partner is writer Heather O'Neill, author of the 2007 CBC Canada Reads winning novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. And apparently she is a TAL contributer as well.

Okay, perhaps only surprising to me. But maybe you can ask Heather if Jonathan is really as neurotic as his on-air personality when the Q & A session happens after her reading tonight in Edmonton. Lullabies for Little Criminals is this year's "College Book of the Year" at Grant MacEwan College, where the whole campus is encouraged to read the same book. The author spends a few days on campus and does a public reading. Tonight is Heather O'Neill's public reading: Thursday, January 29th @ 7:00pm, Conference Theatre (5-142), GMCC downtown campus.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

City of Thieves

The Second World War's terrible 900 day Siege of Leningrad ended 65 years ago on this day. The siege began September 9, 1941 when German troops surrounded the city as part of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in "Operation Barbarossa". Around 3 million people lived in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) at the start of the siege. By the time the siege was lifted it is estimated that a million people died, mostly due to starvation. (Pictured at left, a Russian soldier stands by an eternal flame marking the 65th anniversary, from BBC News)
Faced with invasion, even opponents of the Soviet regime threw themselves into the defense of "the city of Peter, the city of Lenin, the city of Pushkin, of Dostoevsky and Blok, the city of great culture and great achievement". These last lines are from a radio broadcast in 1941 by a Leningrad resident, one of Stalin's political enemies - the famed Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. She vowed, "I, like all of you now, live with one unconquerable belief - that Leningrad will never be Fascist." You can read about Akhmatova's interesting life in Elaine Feinstein's book, Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova. (Portrait by Nathan Altman, 1914, from the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Akhmatova, like some other high-profile citizens such as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, was evacuated from Leningrad in October. From her exile in Tashkent she wrote the poem "Courage":
We know what trembles on the scales,
and what we must steel ourselves to face.
The bravest hour strikes on our clocks:
may courage not abandon us!
Let bullets kill us - we are not afraid,

nor are we bitter, though our rooftops fall.
We will preserve you, Russian speech,
from servitude in foreign chains,
keep you alive, great Russian word,
fit fo
r the songs of our children's children,
pure on their tongues, and free.
American writer Debra Dean's novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad (2006) focuses on the life of one of the Leningraders, a young woman working at the famed Hermitage Museum. The novel begins with the woman, now an elderly Russian emigré in present-day Seattle, preparing for a family wedding. Fighting Alzheimer's, she has trouble remembering day-to-day basics, but is able to think back to her youth, especially to the days of the siege.

One of the buzz books of 2008 was David Benioff's excellent thriller, City of Thieves, set in Leningrad during the siege. Benioff is the author of the also-excellent thrill
er, The 25th Hour (2003) which became one of Spike Lee's best films, with the screenplay by Benioff. After The 25th Hour Benioff wrote screenplays for the films, Troy, Stay and The Kite Runner, and is working on an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice. And he married actress Amanda Peet in his spare time! (Benioff and Peet pictured at right, from Men's Vogue)

In City of
Thieves, Benioff tells a thrilling and darkly humorous story of two men faced with an impossible task during the Siege of Leningrad. 17-year-old Lev Beniov is caught looting a German paratrooper's corpse. Kolya is a young Russian army deserter. Both men face execution for their misdeeds. But Soviet Colonel Grechko decides to spares them both if they can manage to find a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake in the starving city. The impossible mission takes them around Leningrad and behind enemy lines to the Russian countryside. An intriguing premise and setting and engaging characters make this a superb novel.

Simple Gifts

Songs are amazing things. So simple (verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - verse - chorus) but so powerful. One of President Obama's best lines, in his election night acceptance speech, alluded to Sam Cooke's civil rights' song, "A Change is Gonna Come":
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." - Barack Obama

"There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will" - Sam Cooke
Independent "freeform" New York radio station WFMU celebrated Obama's inauguration with an hour of versions of "A Change is Gonna Come" (including one by Montreal band Arcade Fire). The Library has versions on CD by Seal, Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin (but, alas, not Sam Cooke!) You can read about the song in Peter Guralnick's excellent books:
There must be something in the air as two CBC Radio programs have focused on books about songs in the past couple of days. On Sunday on Tapestry, very enthusiastic guest host Robert Harris talked to author Bill Henderson about his book Simple Gifts: One Man's Search for Grace. Henderson's book recounts how a chance encounter with a hymn so moved him that it brought him back to the church he left as a youth. On Tapestry they talked about the stories behind two of them, "Simple Gifts", and "Amazing Grace". [Listen to both songs on Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel's CD Simple Gifts.]

As Harris and Henderson noted, the latest wrinkle on the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts" happened at Obama's inauguration. The super-quartette of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill performed (or pretended to perform apparently) "Air and Simple Gifts", a piece John Williams arranged for the inauguration based on Aaron Copeland's arrangement of "Simple Gifts". Many might be most familiar with the tune via "Lord of the Dance", a song written by English musician Sydney Carter in 1963 using the melody with new lyrics. Canadians like me might remember the song thanks to Canadian musician John Allan Cameron ("The Godfather of Celtic Music") who performed the song on his 1970s-era TV shows on CTV and CBC. I have a suspicion that my childhood home had an LP with the Irish Rovers performing the song as well! And just last year the rock band Weezer used a bit of the tune on their song "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)". on their "Red" album. A memorable tune never dies!

Today on Q on CBC host Jian Ghomeshi talked to Ted Anthony about his book Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (2007). [Listen to the podcast here] Edmonton writer Barry Hammond called the book "one of the best reads this year" in Vue Magazine. Anthony writes of his obsession with the song most of us know as "House of the Rising Sun" by 1960s English rock band, the Animals. But that version is just one of hundreds of versions of the song, and Anthony's book is his story of his research and travels around the world to discover more about it.

Finally, another intriguing book looking at the power of song: I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure as Related in Popular Song by Graeme Thomson. The review in Toronto's Eye Weekly last week gave it 4 stars, noting:
"Graeme Thomson’s book is more than just a cornucopia of the splendidly grim and myriad ways we speak of death in rhyming couplets backed with a catchy beat. It’s a brain-teasing query into the strange, abstract place death occupies in our culture. That’s not to say it isn’t fun. He begins with a mad dash through death’s appearances in songs — from folk and murder ballads to teenage death songs of the late 1950s."
Have a look at Thomson's blog for more notes on deathly music.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Long Time Coming

Where were you when the world changed? On the Mall in DC? Huddled around a TV in an office? Alas, I was in a meeting discussing library statistics. Ah well, the big day was election day back in November anyway. Besides, I watched President Obama's fine speech online at lunch without the glitches or lagginess that the live online feed had for some. Regardless - a momentous day for our friends south of the 49 and a pretty darn good one for the rest of the world.
For those of us toiling in the salt mines of books and words, Obama's election is gratifying as finally the smart guy won! Perhaps the tide has turned for anti-intellectualism as the go-to play in political playbooks. Elvin T. Lim has some thoughts on this in his recent book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. Clearly Lim's book went to press before he heard a few of Obama's speeches, for the book flap notes:"Why has it been so long since an American president has effectively and consistently presented reasoned, intellectually substantive arguments to the American public?"

Interestingly, George W. Bush may have seen the tide turning, for up popped "Bush's Brain", Karl Rove, in the Washington Post this week with a rather surprising tale ("Bush is a Book Lover") of how he and Bush are actually bookish men. Indeed, they have an annual contest to see who can read the most books. I agree with Martin Levin in his Globe & Mail Books blog post: "Excuse me, but I'm skeptical: When does somebody with that (presumed) workload have time to read a book-and-a-half a week? .... [Bush] simply didn't talk about books, or refer to them. He doesn't seem bookish."

Obama is not shy about making his reading choices known. He might just make reading cool! Motoko Rich even asked in the New York Times, "For Books, Is Obama the New Oprah?" Iconic book reviewer Michiko Kakutani made a case that "From Books, New President Found Voice", and included "A Reading List That Shaped a President":
Other books Obama has been identified with recently:
We may test this turn in the tide soon if we have a federal election in Canada. We'll see if Michael Ignatieff is demonized as a pointy-headed intellectual just like Stephane Dion was last time. Ignatieff has at least a dozen books to his name, with his latest, True Patriot Love, being rushed into publication for this spring.