Monday, June 19, 2006

"She Got Up Off the Couch..." by Haven Kimmel

The full title of this book is: She Got Up Off the Couch And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana.

It's an autobiography about growing up in the 70's in a very small town, in a rather odd family. Make no mistake, this is a very small town, with all of its advantages and disadvantages. I was born in 1970. I have a few photos of myself like this.

I don't even know where to start, there's so much good stuff between these covers! I have decided that the only way I can do justice to a book that made me laugh and weep in equal amounts, is to just let it speak for itself...

*The couch in the den was the color the crayon people called Flesh even though it resembled no human or animal flesh on Planet Earth, and the couch fabric was nubbled in a pattern of diamonds. It was best to prevent the nubbles from coming into direct contact with one's real Flesh, so there was usually a blanket or a towel or clothing spread out as a buffer. Also no one wanted to pick up the blanket, the towel, and the clothing and fold them. Or even pick them up. So it was a fine arrangement.

*As we walked toward our bicycles, Julie reached up silently and pulled the burr out of her hair; dozens of flame-colored strands came with it. She tossed the whole mess down in the junkyard, where, for just a moment, it blazed up, and was consumed.

*I slept in my clothes all summer, so I could just hop up in the morning and go. I was working on simplifying my life, which I had discovered could be done very easily if I ceased to do the following: wash my face, brush my hair, brush my teeth, wear shoes.

*On television, Granny said, "I've made some possum stew," which I frankly couldn't improve. Beverley Hills, wherever that was, looked like the grimmest, most unhappy place in the universe.

*Oh I hated school, it was mean to make me go, my fingers got all crampy around a pencil and my sister said I had the handwriting of a psycho murderer.

*I stared at Mother as if looking at her alien replica...I had never cleaned my room one time in my life as was abundantly clear from walking up the stairs, something Mom didn't do, hallelujah. That room was beyond hope or help and I'd thought it wise to surrender.

This woman is my hero because she has written a memoir that alternately makes me want to write my own and devastates me because I don't know if I can ever write something as funny and moving and heartbreaking and funny as she has.

If you grew up in a slightly odd family, or in an isolated place, or in the 70's, you have to read this. If you're from Indiana you should read this. If your mother was depressed and nobody knew it, or if you were, or are, then you should read this. You know what, read it regardless. It's just that good.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Inkspell" by Cornelia Funke

Have you ever found yourself, while reading a particularly wonderful book, wishing that you could slip into it and experience it with every sense? In Cornelia Funke's "Inkspell" the characters have done that, but the experience isn't always pleasant in the Inkworld.

I can't tell you about this excellent sequel without some background on its predecessor, "Inkheart." In it, a young bookbinder reads a story out loud to his wife and small daughter, but accidentally reads his wife into the story, while reading three of its characters into his world.

It's such a fascinating concept. I thought Inkheart was very good, except for my complaint that there was too much back-and-forth with the characters imprisoned by the bad guys and escaping.

Inkspell shifts the setting and with it, the atmosphere. This time around, instead of story characters being trapped in our world, our "real world" characters have been taken into the Inkworld. As with many fantasy stories there is magic, a villain, and a road trip. The characters have a chance to really develop now, given shadings and backstory that really fill out questions left unanswered by the first one.

The author of the fictional book Inkheart, Fenoglio, in now living in the world of his making. To his surprize, the story has gotten completely out of his control. He attempts to rewrite it as it progresses but the results are not always what he expected or wanted. As in the first one, his creations have odd feelings towards him. I personally, as someone who fancies herself a writer, had to stop and think about some of the characters I've created.

I found this story more enjoyable, maybe because this world is different and special. The characters struggle to decide which of the two worlds they belong in. Many of them can't decide anymore where it is that they belong. How many of us can relate to that?

I was pleased that the most compelling figure in the story, Dustfinger the fire-eater, got more focus this time around. He was not ever intended by his author to live very long. Always aware of his own impending death, Dustfinger is back in the world he loves so much, but can't ever let himself enjoy it.

Saying anything else about the plot will spoil it for you if you want to read it yourself, which you should if you enjoy fantasy stories. This volume is very much like The Two Towers, because it takes place in a very beautiful world but bridges the gap between two worlds and two stories. Yes, there will be a third installment from the Inkworld.

When you get these books in your hands, take the time to appreciate the artwork. Each of the cover illustrations has significance and is beautifully done. The packaging looks like a fantasy story should look. Each of Inkspell's chapters starts with a quote from another book, and ends with a small illustration.

A central theme is the way books are treated and handled. Silvertongue made his living by "healing sick books" and there is always a conflict between those who are careless with books and those who gasp in horror every time a page is wrinkled. I'm a freak about my books. I don't let them get dog eared or let the spines crack. A creased cover on a paperback damn near puts me in tears. I felt the pain every time a book was mishandled! It was torture! Thankfully books are treated with nearly worshipful respect in many places in this story. The passage describing the creation of a new book with leather-wrapped wooden covers was a bonus.

Keep in mind when you read this book, and its prequel, that the author, Cornelia Funke, has written them in German, and then they were translated into English. Considering some of the delicate sentences and images, the occasional awkwardness can be excused.

Reading this out loud with my kids was an interesting experience, because this is all about the power of reading aloud. Silvertongue won't do it anymore because he is afraid of his unwanted gift, but his daughter Meggie is using it for all she can. As with many talents, it's a blessing and a curse.

It's a beautiful story that will not only stay with you for a long time, it may change the way you think about reading, and about the power of words.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dixie Chicks: Taking the Long Way

I am approaching this review with dread.
I have to do my first "bad" review. I refuse to just skip over this one. Why? Because I'm rather irritated by this album. It could have, no, it SHOULD have been so much better.

I'm also dreading this because I'm going to break some of my unspoken rules:
-Don't compare an album to a predecessor
-Don't lean too heavily on what my professional recording engineer husband says
and most of all...
-Don't talk about politics. Ever.

Here goes...

I bought this album as soon after its release as my budget would allow. Not only have I totally appreciated the Dixie Chicks in the past, but I knew that this was a Rick Rubin production, and he is one of my heroes. He has consistently brought out the best on the artists he's worked with. He is responsible for bringing Johnny Cash back into the recognition that he so very much deserved. I couldn't wait to see what he could do with an act as talented as the Chicks.

Boy was I wrong.

People, I don't know what your opinion of the Dixie Chicks are. Chances are you either love them or hate them because at this point I don't think there is much middle ground. But none of that matters now, because this album is lame.

I should have guessed from the packaging. The three women look beautiful, if perhaps a little too thin. They've always been presented glamourously but they're pictured here in as urban as setting as you could find. Dark, harsh lighting, posed in front of some very expensive black car, looking like Julia Roberts in movie star mode.

I should have known from the press before the release. "It's a rockier sound." Whenever I hear "rockier" used to describe something, I know, without a doubt, that it will not rock at all.

I knew it when I played it for the first time in my dining room...and turned it down. That's not a good sign. I turned it back up again. I got bored. I turned it back down. It failed the dining room test.

We took it on a car ride of over an hour. It sounded terrible. Even I, with my non-professional ears, could tell that the recording is a mush of noise. It's like every single track had to have each instrument and each vocal as loud as possible. It isn't that it's just not a pleasant listen. It's a painful listen. It failed the Jethro-Jetta test. Spectacularly, fully failed.

This album lasted the entire drive. There are 14 songs, each about four minutes long. It was torture. When would it end already??

While my husband was deeply offended by the careless handling of the entire recording process, we were both horrified by the complete lack of what made this act so great, and that would be MUSIC. It's not a very musical piece of work! Where are the melodies? Where are the banjo and violin and mandolin? Where, oh where, are the HARMONIES? Where is the complexity and the sensitivity?

Natalie's voice is a force to be reckoned with, and here it's treated like a weapon- it's a vocal assault. In some places the Autotune is so strong it could be a Cher track.

Lyrically it's bland. There is not much poetry here in any sense. The title track is basically a repeat of "Long Time Gone" from their excellent 2002 release, Home. Only this song doesn't have any of the previous song's cleverness or humour. My least favourite lyric is from a song called "So Hard" which contains the lyric, "It's so hard when it doesn't come easy." Oh dear.

A big deal is being made that each song was co-written by the Chicks. All I'm going to say about that is this: Writing songs is something to be proud of, but performing other people's well-written songs is nothing to be ashamed of.

The Dixie Chicks couldn't make another country record. They have lost their conservative Christian type patriotic audience, and they know it. After Natalie's public crack against The Prez, and the ensuing CD smashing parties and yes, the death threats, they are going for a different audience. Somehow, an idea has come up that moving away from country and into pop is a sophisticated career move. I see it as a totally commercial career move. By taking the risk of alienating part of the audience, an artist attempts to gain a wider audience. With some of theirs already done, this, as far as I can tell, is an attempt at a crossover.

It's so boring though, they might as well have hired Mutt Lange and done another boring Shania Leppard album. At least that way they would have had some catchy, scientifically developed hit songs.

This hurts me people. I really wanted to love this album.

I wanted them to be able to rise above the scandal. I wanted them to prove that America is a country built on freedom, like everybody says it is, and that you can criticize your elected leader and not be put to death.

It's much deeper than that though. Nobody is publicly put to death, but an artist can be commercially put to death. They can be frozen out by radio stations and record stores.

I have to say, yes, it was disrespectful and even rude for them to state that they were ashamed that Bush is from Texas. But that did not deserve death threats.

Just an extra note concerning Rick Rubin: What the hell happened???? Just week before, another of his projects, Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers, was released, and it's brilliant. I'm not the only one who thinks so, it turns out. I can't figure out how he could go so terribly wrong with the Chicks. I don't believe it's because he's not familiar with country music. I'd like to once again point out the work he did with Johnny Cash, which was, for the most part, perfectly stripped down and essential.

Did he phone it in? Did he put an underling on it? Was he sick with a terrible head cold?

It's hard to say what caused this underwhelming, uninteresting, unlistenable disaster. I just feel that this is not the record I hoped the Dixie Chicks would come back with.