Sunday, November 13, 2005

Five Books, Five Minutes

Brenda summed up the opinion of many readers when she wrote, "If you're pressed on time or having posting problems, please consider abandoning some other feature but keep the book discussion. It's one of the highlights of my Sunday mornings." Far be it from us to dampen the first day of anyone's week, so here is another Five Books, Five Minutes. Participating in this discussion are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Jess, Ty, Ava and Jim, Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude, Betty Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man, C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review, Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix, Mike of Mikey Likes It!, Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz and Wally of The Daily Jot.

Jim: We've got five books and we'll work our way through them. Longtime readers grasp that the title "Five Books, Five Minutes" is in reference to Folding Star who used to run the website A Winding Road and offered in depth critiques of books. We don't do that here. You've got a number of people addressing what stood out to them in the book. Sometimes the book itself will serve as a jumping off point to a discussion. We prefer that to book summaries which so many papers are fond of running and calling them "reviews." First up is Margaret Cho's I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Ty, set us up.

Ty: Margaret Cho is a standup comedian whose act addresses any and every topic. She shies away from nothing and that includes addressing the Bully Boy. Cho's an activist who blends her art within her activism.

Wally: Thank you to C.I. for the book. I'll say that first because there's really not time to run around looking for books at home [South Florida] right now. What stood out most for me was what Ty was just talking about, the blend of art and activism. Last week, we reviewed a book by The Onion. I laughed at the whole book and I still would. But while we were discussing it, the point was made that the aspects dealing with politics did so in a silly manner that really didn't deal with politics. Like if Bully Boy gave a speech on the economy, the joke would be that his tie strangled him or something. I'd laugh at that still if it was written humorously, but this is really the first time I've noticed the difference between being silly by itself and being silly to make a point in a book I've read. I really enjoyed this book.

Betty: Agreed. It was a pleasure to read this book. One of the points she underscores that I nodded along with as well laughed along with was how a person can be born in a society but still be seen as outside of it by the larger culture due to skin color or some other difference. She makes the point throughout the book, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that America is all of us. Eliminating one aspect of it, or one freedom, is declaring war on America and what the country is supposed to stand for.

Dona: What I admire about Cho's comedy, and this book, is the I'm-not-going-to-apologize-for-who-I-am-or-beg-you-to-like-me. Her persona is strong and she's not selling out or denying her own power.

Mike: I had a lot of favorite parts but the first one I said to myself "I've got to quote this" was on page 29:

Bush is a liar and a thief, and uses God's name like they grew up together in
the 'hood, like they got thug love. Bush still believes in the joining of
church and state, which is antithetical to why this nation was born in the first
place. Bush still is our own worst enemy, and now that Saddam Hussein has
been captured and photagraphed in his big baggy underwear, that shoots Bush up
the charts to Public Enemy #1.

Jess: Cho's a revolutionary comic, my opinion. She's paved her own way and I love her turn of a phrase. Writing about family dynamics, she notes the elephant in the room but adds to that phrase to make it fresh: "The are so many crimes left unpunished, debts unpaid, white elephants in the middle of the room that no one will even offer a peanut to."

Jim: Revolutionary comic sums up the book and her style to me. I enjoyed the Patty Hearst style cover --

C.I.: Patty Hearst from her Tanya period.

Jim: Right. Ty picked Cho's book. Ava picked our next book which is Joan Baez's And A Voice to Sing With.

Ava: To give credit where it's due, this was suggested by a reader in Ohio. This is one of the two books we read that were recommended in e-mails. Dona and I have been working our way through Joan Baez's music catalogue and are huge fans so this was a book that we were interested in reading. Jess, Kat and C.I. had already read this book but it was new to the rest of us. For those who don't know, Joan Baez is a singer who became famous performing folk music and was and is an activist who fights the good fight, as they say.

Kat: And who's new album is entitled Bowery Songs. Pick it up. It's a great album.

Jim: I'll be honest, I flipped to the chapter on Dylan first.

Dona: Bob Dylan. How very "enquiring minds want to know" of you.

Kat: Okay, I want to comment there because apparently the PBS "documentary" has put a number of myths in people's heads. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were an item. He rode her star to his own fame. In this country, but he didn't return the favor for her in England. To argue, as some are doing, that Dylan gave us so many beautiful songs and Baez is an activist and that's why they fell apart is insulting and wrong. First, Baez gave us many wonderful songs. Both in songs she covered, the Child ballads for example, and later in songs she wrote as well as ones she covered. Like Cho, there's no line between the art and activism with Baez. Now Dylan wasn't an activist. He benefitted from being seen as such and he wrote some strong songs early on. Now let's deal with a reality that apparently many are unfamiliar with. Some of his earliest well known songs are using the melody of folk songs from years and years before. Dylan's melodies haven't been noted in years. There's a reason for that. If any artist was buried in the sixties artistically, it was Dylan although some critics continue to insist that the body be put on display.
As for why they broke up, that's a personal thing between them but since people seem to want venture guesses, they should be informed enough to know when Dylan got with Jakob's mother.
They should also realize that the attention he received came as a result of him being part of a scene and when he falls out of that scene and goes to live in Woodstock, he's far removed from any inspiration as albums quickly reveal. Our "brave" Bob Dylan has not only not produced any proof of songwriting genuis in the years that Bully Boy has been in office, he's had nothing to say about it in recorded song. A lot of people have stood up and been counted, Bruce [Springsteen], Bright Eyes, Patti Smith, Cowboy Junkies, Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones, Green Day, go down the list. But the "king" is dead and has been musically for years. There is no excitement around a Dylan recording and the last time there was excitement, it had less to do with the actual overly praised album and more to do with the fact that he had almost died. "Hurricane" was a bad song but it was the last time he tried to make any contribution. A Judy Collins can find a way to make something of his later work but let's not pretend that he's done anything of value in many, many years. The myth is insulting to anyone with a basic understanding of the period and you won't get a basic understanding from a myth making PBS "documentary."

C.I.: Kat was offended by something I linked to that argued a reason why Dylan and Baez split.

Kat: That was the most simplistic reading. As noted in this book, and noted plenty of places elsewhere, while Dylan and Baez are "a couple," Dylan gets sick, in London, and when Baez goes to his room, she encounters a woman she's never met before -- Sara Dylan, Jakob's mother. I didn't watch the PBS special, I sat through The Last Waltz when it played in theaters and felt that Martin Scorsce drained all the life out of the music. I wasn't in the mood for the "star making machinery" that would be on display in a documentary by him on Dylan. Between that and his "book" that we were all supposed to be thrilled by, I have no idea what people are smoking. But Dylan was supposed to be talented writer. Chronicles is neither brave in its disclosures or well written. Let's call crap "crap" and be honest about it.

Elaine: (laughing) Come on, Kat, tell us what you really think?

Kat: I'm sorry to go off like this but just because someone sees something on their TV does not make it reality. By now, you'd think we'd all be aware of that.

Dona: No problem. The differences between Dylan and Baez go to the point of Baez's life which is the subject of And A Voice To Sing With.

Jess: I enjoyed the whole book, I couldn't pick a favorite part if I tried. I thought she was forthright and far from full of herself. I enjoyed the discussion of the music industry, especially the problems with Portrait and CBS, as much as I enjoyed the discussions of performing in Spain and her work with Amnesty. There's no division -- art, activism, it's all a part of the life of Joan Baez.

Cedric: I'll note that she marched with MLK because that's important and should be noted. I enjoyed the book and especially enjoyed that she was able both to laugh at herself and to take responsibility for her actions. I don't like autobiographies generally because it seems like it's all fluff. This wasn't fluff. A relationship ends, she's willing to take whatever part of the blame is hers. I especially enjoyed reading about Ring Around Congress and found it dismaying that so many people worked to stop it. Read the book to find out about that.

Jim: Read the book period. We all loved it. Let's go with the book Betty picked next. Betty?

Betty: Ava and Ty compile a list of books that readers suggest we review here. It is a huge list and I doubt we'll ever get to all of them. There was a title "Wisecracker" and that was all. I found the title interesting and searched online to find out what it was about. It seemed like a book worth reading so I suggested that we go with it. William J. Mann is the author and the full title is Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star.
And the sticker on the front cover of my library copy says it won the Lambda Literary Award.

Wally: This was an interesting book that in some ways could have been fiction to me because I really knew none of the people in it for the most part. The story was interesting but the author told the story in such a way that it will pull you in even if, like me, you're thinking "Who's William Haines?" or "Who's Conrad Nagel?"

Rebecca: But there are famous names in the book as well. Cary Grant. Joan Crawford who was a good friend to William Haines. Just to clarify. It was really interesting and it honestly made me think of Ava and C.I.'s review of Freddie.

Wally: Me too!

Rebecca: It wasn't a big deal that William Haines was gay. I don't mean that he didn't suffer any prejudices and obviously he was a star --

Elaine: Of silent films.

Rebecca: Of silent films so that helped as well. But then the Code comes in and suddenly it is a big deal and you have these people marrying to further or save their careers. Which Haines didn't. He stayed with his lover. But back to the review, you really can see how gay comes to be portrayed as "nancy" or "nelly" onscreen as a way of Hollywood protecting its own ass. By portraying it as one stereotypical way, it allows for a lot of people to fly under the radar. Which is why, to this day in many cases, gays come off as stereotypes in films and TV shows.

Elaine: Right. Rock Hudson can do the stereotype in Pillow Talk when Doris Day is told, by Rock Hudson but don't ask, that Rock Hudson is gay. It lets everyone see the "normal" side of Rock Hudson and then the side where he pretends he's gay. Since Hudson isn't like that when he's not pretending, I know this is getting confusing, then Hudson's not to gay to the average American at the time.

Ava: In our review, we were talking about how Hollywood still relies on that stereotype and how, in Freddie, you're not dealing with the other stereotype of hyper, straight masculinity, largely because the peformers can't pull that off. But they also can't let go of the stereotype of "gay" onscreen. We both laughed at how Freddie Prinze Jr. and Brian Austin Green, bored and boring actors, rushed to hit the end of alphabet to show the extreme view that Hollywood has passed off as "gay" for so long. We did more things in that review, including some private jokes, but that was one of the points we were attempting to make, whether we made it or not --

Rebecca: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, you both always hate your reviews, we know. But seriously, this book is really a road map of where we were and how we got to where we are in terms of portrayals.

Mike: It's weird to realize that William Haines was like the Tom Cruise of the silent films and yet we don't even know his name these days, or most people don't. Maybe it's because he did silent movies.

C.I.: Well Turner Classics sometimes shows them. As well as the films of Ramon Navarro who is of that period and was also gay. But, and I don't mean this to take anything away from Haines, it underscores that popularity and what lasts aren't always the same thing. There are many huge movies in recent years that will not be remembered thirty years from now. They don't hold up. On the other hand, a lot of the films that weren't blockbusters in recent years, will hold up and will find the audience that they missed in their initial release. Getting back to the book, we should note that Ronald and Nancy Reagan pop up in the book and that, at Nancy's urging, Ronald is actually comforting to Haines' longterm partner after Haines' death. I don't say that to humanize Reagan, whom I detest, but to make sure it's out there because I don't want to be unfair. He couldn't do a thing while the AIDS crisis raged but in their own lives, they did know gay people. Nancy's godmother was a lesbian.

Rebecca: Right, Nazimova. Did that make the CBS Reagan mini-series that the right was up in arms over?

Jim: Our fourth book was Ken Emerson's Always Magic In The Air: The Bomp and Briliance of the Brill Building Era. I'll let C.I. set us up unless Jess wants to?

Jess: How about I start and C.I. can grab whatever I miss? This is a book about songwriters in the fifties and sixties, chiefly in the sixties, from New York and the Brill Building and other publishing companies in that area. This includes songwriting teams like Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann who wrote "You Lost That Lovin' Feeling," Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich who wrote "Chapel of Love," Burt Bacharach and Hal David who wrote "Walk On By" and Carole King and Gerry Goffin who wrote "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." I just listed one song per team that I mentioned but they all wrote many hits. The book chronicles the rise of these songwriters and their publishers and how the arrival of the Beatles and the concept of artists writing their own songs would mean the end of the line for many. C.I.?

C.I.: Phil Spector is credited as co-writer, along with Mann and Weil, on "You Lost That Lovin' Feeling" so before any e-mails come in on that, let's note it. Spector has a reputation for taking credit he hasn't earned, actually he has a new reputation these days, so readers can decide for themselves whether he earned that credit. I don't know that I buy into the narrative.
I'm not talking about Jess' narrative, I'm speaking of the book's. It's popular, and it's certainly pleasing, but pop music, by it's nature, is full of changes and turn arounds, or was before Clear Channel got ahold of it, and I'm not sure that the writers wouldn't automatically have faced similar struggles had the singer-songwriter not emerged. Certainly Bacharach and Davis can't use that excuse because they were working with Dionne Warwick who did not write her own hits and when they elected to split up their partnership, at that time they were still writing for Warwick who was having hits. For that narrative to succeed, you have to put a great deal of faith in Gerry Goffin and depending on the month or day, Goffin's story changes. In this book, he sees Dylan and wants to write important lyrics and that leads to the crack up and is the end of the line. In other Goffin narratives, he comes to realize that those lyrics aren't what he can write and his later career is quite pleasing, such as writing the lyrics to Diana Ross' "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" A Rolling Stones is a rare thing. Most musical acts have a short shelf life. Not all. But most do. At any moment, look at the top twenty singles of a week and check back in ten years and see who's still able to make a living in the music business.

Kat: I found the writer insulting to Carole King. He always seemed to be down grading her talent or getting a jab in.

Jess: I felt that way too. And I'm sorry but he can have the hard on for Neil Sedaka all he wants but I've never been impressed with Sedaka and don't think he was ever all that talented.

Wally: I know the book lists his songs, but I kept wondering who Neil Sedaka was? I really didn't know any of the songs. I knew stuff like "Da Do Run Run" and "One Fine Day" and "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" but I was scratching my head anytime Neil Sedaka came up.

Rebecca: I felt like he was insulting to women throughout. He has a low opinion of the women involved in that time period and it comes through in the writing.

C.I.: I would agree absolutely. I would take that further in fact and am guessing Betty will.

Betty: We're talking about the treatment of blacks, right? Yeah, I felt like he was insulting to pretty much every black person in his book. I cringed at the Righteous Brother song that was performed to Darlene Love and didn't enjoy the author's excuse for it. I also didn't enjoy the continued put downs of Motown. HDH wrote a lot of strong songs that are still with us today.

C.I.: Brian Holland, William Dozier and Eddie Holland. Responsible for many hits but I'll note "Reflections," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Stop in the Name of Love" --

Betty: Don't forget "Baby Love!"

Cedric: Or "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)."

Rebecca: Or "It's The Same Old Song." And while his focus may be on one area geographically, he seems to be unaware that Ashford & Simpson have lasted a long time as well.

C.I.: You're referring to his comments on Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. They write songs together and are also a couple. When I read the comment, I thought about Valerie Simpson and Nicholas Ashford as well. His focus may be limited, but he writes as if he's unaware of other things. And while I can overlook a typo -- to repeatedly refer to the Drifters "On the Boardwalk" and have no one catch the error is embarrassing.

Mike: What's the error?

Kat: The Drifters recorded "Under the Boardwalk." "Under" not "On."

Mike: Okay, that song I know. I just assumed this was a song I didn't know about when I was reading the book and he was saying it was a tremendous hit for the Drifters. I was also confused by the song "He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss." I thought that was a fifties song.

Kat: Where did you hear that?

Mike: Eric Stoltz says it on a making of extra on the DVD of Grace of My Heart.

C.I.: Eric Stoltz was probably told that while he was researching the film, and by a male writer from that period, song writer. No, that song came out in the sixties.

Mike: He also says, Eric Stoltz, that it was a hit.

C.I.: Again, he was probably told that while researching his role, loosely based on Gerry Goffin. But the song wasn't a hit. It was withdrawn and didn't chart nationally. It was briefly a single in 1962.

Cedric: I don't see "On the Boardwalk" as a typo. It's not "Undre the Boardwalk." It's an error. And it's part of the reason I didn't care for the book. It should have been caught. He had an editor. They should have caught it. I've had one error and multiple typos at my site and I think there's a difference and judge them as such. There is no reason for him to mention the song but he does, twice, and he gets it wrong both times. There's not an excuse for that. "Under the Boardwalk" is a famous song that's still known by millions. To me, it speaks of carelessness on the part of the publisher. I also wonder why he didn't catch it when he was reading over it before it came out. If it had been a typo, I wouldn't have thought twice. But to have an error with something as big as "Under the Boardwalk" left me questioning the entire book.

Kat: What's most scary about this book is that it will be a bible others will build upon and his attitudes towards women and African-Americans will seep through into later works unless writers who follow up on this period are very aware.

Jess: And nobody liked this book. Betty gave up on it.

Betty: It was so boring. He kept skiping here, there and everywhere and offering a morsel of gossip and then on to shining it on about Neil Sedaka or Burt Bacharach. I want to cite one specific example of how Carole King gets treated in this book. There's a passage where not only is it asserted that she wasn't a very good piano player before becoming a professional songwriter, this despite the fact that she'd had years and years of lessons and everyone knows that King can play a piano and then some, and at the same time we're told how she chased after Sedaka and how she wasn't "pretty" and was a "groupie" and had a long term relationship with Sedaka and this and that. Only after that long paragraph does he note that Carole King states, "It was one date." He presents claims and runs with them and always sides with the males involved. To him Neil Sedaka is obviously a catch. Not to me. Carole King, in the photos in the book, looks like Carole King does today only with period hair. I don't think she's unattractive. To me, she's always looked a lot like Debra Winger whom I think is very pretty. And let's be really honest here, men lie about who they "had" all the time. It's that whole "Summer Nights" dynamic from the musical Grease. I wouldn't normally pick on Sedaka's looks but since he wants to knock Carole King, I'll note that the Count Chocula widow's peak has never been a favorite hairline of mine.

Dona: We've gone over and I'm jumping in because we need to wrap up and do so quickly.
The fifth book, suggested by reader Jay, was Krist Novoselic's Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy. Elaine, sum up the book.

Elaine: This is a list of ideas for "fixing" government. Mike?

Mike: I hated this book. I couldn't believe how much I hated this book. I talked to Elaine about it and asked her, "Are you hating this book as much as me?" and she was.

Elaine: I don't know what to say. It's a "list." It's not a book. It's a primer on some concepts.

Mike: This guy was in Nirvana so I was surprised by how boring and cut and dry this book was. List is more like it. I mean who's going to read this book?

Elaine: The topic is politics. So Mike and I doubted that many people not interested in politics would pick up the book. If you're interested in politics you already know concepts like instant run off voting and don't need a section of a book that just explains to you what it is. This is actually a glossary. It's not a book.

Mike: Even when he's briefly talking about Kurt Cobain, the book is boring. He might make a great politician but he's no writer.

Jim: We'll close on that. Hopefully you got a sense of the books we covered and whether we enjoyed them or not, you have some idea if they're right for you. We recommend Margaret Cho's I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, William J. Mann's Wisecracker and Joan Baez's And A Voice to Sing With.
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