Saturday, March 21, 2009

What I've Been Reading. . .

Inside Drood, the mammoth new, 784-page novel by Dan Simmons, is a skinny book trying to get out.

Reading it, I felt the way I used to feel, years ago, when I still read books by Stephen King: I knew I was going to hate myself in the morning, but I kept reading anyway. Afterwards, I was tempted to send the author a bill for all the time I was never going to get back.

It's impossible to adequately summarize a book of that length in the space I'm going to give myself here, but the conceit of the book--narrated by the Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins--is that Charles Dickens may be in thrall to a mysterious half-Egyptian named Drood, who's leading Dickens to perform all manner of hellacious acts, including murder.

I read, and liked, Simmons' The Terror, the story of an English expedition lost in the Arctic that also uses historical figures and is based on real events.

Drood, however, seems contrived, and the best I can say for it is that Simmons paints a nuanced, complex portrait of Victorian London, a city of gentlemen in fine clothes, women forced by hunger to prostitute themselves, and heaps of horse manure by the Thames. Obviously, he's done his research.

Which might explain why the book is so long--after researching so much, he hated leaving anything out. Drood did send me, briefly, back to the Dickens biographies I own, and to the library for a biography of Collins, where I found that, instead of inventing, Simmons has simply repeated what others found about both men's lives.

Much shorter, and of more consequence, is
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan's follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. The argument here is what Pollan calls the American Paradox: "The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become."

Instead of worrying so much about what we eat, Pollan calls for us to go back to the eating habits of our grandparents and great-grandparents and to eat less meat, more fruits and vegetables, and to get our food from the perimeter of the supermarket, instead of the aisles, which feature processed, laboratory-created food.

One of the most telling anecdotes in the book has to do with the soup experiment. Seems people in other countries rely on how full they feel to know when to stop eating, whereas Americans rely on external cues, like whether the plate or the bag's empty.

One academic--a professor of marketing and nutritional science--did an experiment where he set up bowls of soup to fill from the bottom as people ate.

"Those given the bottomless bowl," Pollan reports, "ate 73 percent more soup than the subjects eating from an ordinary bowl; several ate as much as a quart. When one of these hearty eaters was asked his opinion of the soup, he said, 'It's pretty good, and it's pretty filling.' "

Dan Simmon's Drood is the literary equivalent of that bottomless bowl.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jimi Hendrix on TV, 1965

A friend sent me the link to this YouTube video, which purports to show Jimi Hendrix's first filmed appearance, from a 1965 TV show.

"Astral Weeks" P.S.

I haven't changed my mind about "Astral Weeks Live" after listening to it again. But I was struck by how some of the music is more rooted in the blues than in the studio album.

Many of the lyrics--for all the Celtic mysticism qualities--were AAB blues, like this verse from "Slim Slow Slider":

Saw you early this morning, with your brand new boy and your Cadillac,
Saw you early this morning, with your brand new boy and your Cadillac,
You're gone for something and I know you won't be back.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Astral Weeks" Redux

For years, Van Morrison was one of the few recording artists whose new album I'd buy without hearing it first. After a while, though, disappointed too many times, I stopped because I'd listen to his new albums once or twice and then never again.

But when I heard a few months ago that he was going to do Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl, I was intrigued. It's a classic Morrison album--perhaps the classic album--one that defines his career.

For that reason, I wish I could write that this new live version is better than--or at least as good as--the original.

It's not.

I've only listened to it once, so it's just possible it may grow on me, but my initial impression was that it wasn't especially well-recorded, with too many of the instruments almost buried in the mix. Worse, Morrison's singing really came alive until "Sweet Thing," the third track on the album.

Even then, I felt he was holding back, and I found myself wondering if it was his legendary shyness or whether, like Bob Dylan, there's a part of him that just doesn't care what the audience thinks.

Another problem, are the absences of Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay (who died in 1994) and Richard Davis, the bassist who's played with everyone from Eric Dolphy to Janis Ian. Their replacements try, but Bobby Ruggiero plods where Kay danced, and while David Hayes does a fair job of channeling Davis, he lacks Davis's gravitas and authority.

Is the reason I don't like Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl more because I'm comparing it to the original instead of judging it on its own merits?


But I like both versions of Love's Forever Changes, the original that came out in 1967 and the 2003 live version with a band that was actually Baby Lemonade. I've listened to the live and studio albums one after the other, enjoying how guitarists Rusty Squeezebox and Mike Randle embellish original guitarist Johnny Echols' parts, and marvelling at how Arthur Lee compensates for not being able to hit the notes he could have nailed 35 years before.

The same's true of Smile, Brian Wilson's 2004 release of what's been called "the Great Lost Beach Boy's Album." Van Dyke Parks's new arrangements tie together threads that were left loose earlier, different, but not better or worse, than the earlier album. And, while Wilson's voice is far more ravaged than Lee's, you understand listening to him that (like Lee) he's lived what he once only wrote about.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

He Worked For the Post Office Too

Just finished Victoria Glendinning's Anthony Trollope and now trying to decide whether I'm up to the six volumes of his Palliser novels. I finished the first some years ago, but chickened out at the prospect of reading five more.

As a writer who agonizes over every word, I'm in awe of the amount Trollope produced--scores of novels, stories, essays, travel books. He set himself a goal of so many hundred words a day, rising early to write before going to work as an administrator at the British Post Office.

(Some people credit him with inventing the letter box, but Glendinning says he only supported the real inventor in getting it adopted by the PO and placed on city streets.)

One of the small pleasures of Glendinning's biography are the books she quotes from, books with titles like "Reminiscences of a Literary Life," "Things I Have Seen and People I Have Known," "Collections and Recollections by One Who Has Kept a Diary" and, my favorite, "Memoirs of an American Prima Donna."