Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America"

While reading "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America" by Linda Tirado (G.P. Putnam's Sons [Penguin]), many descriptors will come to mind.  Enlightment.  Victim.  Attitude.  Understanding.  Perspective.  Anger.  Introspective.  And, the most interesting part is that at times you will apply these to author Tirado and her chronicled experiences, and at other times you will turn the mirror on yourself.

Tirado explains in raw, clear, and unsettling terms what it's like to be poor in America.  She has an admittedly bad attitude at times, fueled by how she believes others, mainly "the rich", see the poor.  To Tirado, the rich believe that the poor are lazy, make terrible decisions, and are themselves the main reasons that they can't escape poverty.  Through her narrative about trying to hold down multiple jobs, obtain survival-level, absolute necessity-only healthcare, and find affordable transportation and clothing, not to mention feeding self and family, Tirado explains why the poor can't escape being poor.

Tirado doesn't claim to be an angel or a saint.  She has anger.  She doesn't help her own situation at times.  But, it is clear that she is far from lazy.  She shares terrible experiences of condescending attitudes while trying to get basic dental care and being presumed to be a meth addict.  Tirado does not want sympathy - she wants understanding.  "Hand to Mouth" will give the reader a vivid understanding of poverty.

And more - Tirado also gives us a glimpse of how she perceives the work routine of the rich.  She tells us about a new job in a typical office environment and how, in a meeting, she describes all the nothing that gets done.  From someone who has worked hard at multiple labor-intensive jobs, her most shocking insight is the waste of time in "rich" America.

You may or may not like Linda Tirado or her message after reading her powerful book.  But you will never view the working poor the same way again.

Penguin Books provided an advance reading copy of "Hand to Mouth" for review.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: "Descent"

On the surface, "Descent" by Tim Johnston (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) is a mystery/thriller novel.  Set in the central Colorado Rocky Mountains, "Descent" tells the story of the abduction of Caitlin Courtland, an 18-year old out for a run in the mountains with her younger brother Sean, while marriage-reconciling parents Grant and Angela remain in their vacation cabin.  Sean is struck and injured by a driver of a modified sport utility vehicle, causing Caitlin to face the choice of staying with her brother or riding with the stranger down the mountain to where her cell phone will regain service.  Caitlin ultimately chooses to ride, and then becomes imprisoned by the driver.  Her family then must endure the ordeal of a lost child and sibling, as they spend months and years in a futile search.

"Descent" is much more than a typical mystery.  Guilt abounds through the Courtland family, each feeling that Caitlin's abduction and disappearance is somehow their own fault.  Author Johnston wraps the reader into the guilt with an intense subtlety.  Through the actions of Grant, Angela, and especially Sean, we feel their guilt rather than being told about it.  Sean is referred to as "the boy", telling us about his self-image, never allowing himself to truly grow from his 15 year old self.  Grant never leaves Colorado, even long after the official searches have ended, staying with the father of the local sheriff, Joe.  Joe's brother Billy, a black sheep character, is a conflict for the Courtlands.  Billy has run-ins with both Grant and Sean, and is a "bad man", described by Grant in a particularly tense standoff.

Mr. Johnston's skill at bringing depth to "Descent" is very admirable.  At times the cost of the depth is a story that moves at a deliberate pace,but it is well worth it.  When the story picks up the pace, you will not want to put the book down.

Many mystery stories have a point of plot convenience, where the reader must suspend disbelief momentarily and go along with an unlikely event that is there to progress the story.  There is a slight moment like this in "Descent", but Mr. Johnston addresses this with great skill.  The story flows amazingly from that point forward, and any "Oh, really?" thoughts a reader may have are quickly erased.

"Descent" is a fine, gripping, and involved novel, and an excellent choice for a Wintertime read

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Albums of 2014

I still have a few posts to make before closing up shop for a while, and here's one:  my choices for the best new Christmas albums of the year.  Here are my Top 5:

Rough Shop - "Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree".  I reviewed this one in depth earlier, and it held it's position as one of the best new albums of the year.  A great addition to your Christmas music collection from the band from St. Louis.

Tom Dyer - "Xmas - 30 Years in the Making".  I didn't get a chance to write about this collection in depth this year, but I will make amends early next season.  But, Tom Dyer's collection of Christmas songs recorded here and there over 30 years is brilliant on the order of Substance W.  "No Lou This Christmas" was recorded in 2013 as a tribute to Lou Reed, "Propane Santa" is one of the best true stories turned into song ever.  Totally enjoyable.

Thisbe Vos - "A Jazzy Christmas".  Thisbe Vos' Christmas record came to us through crowdfunding channels, a little late in the season, but what a record.  Thisbe's album is one of the most beautiful and perfectly realized jazz Christmas records I've ever heard.  From the amazing arrangements through Thisbe's great musicians to Thisbe's perfect vocals, this is one of the best.  Thisbe's record, along with the next entry, were my choices for Christmas morning music while we unwrapped presents.

Elizabeth Chan - "Christmas in the City".  Elizabeth Chan keeps getting better and better.  Her vocal performance on "Christmas in the City" the album shows maturation and growth, and her songwriting just keeps getting closer and closer to the heart of the Christmas season.  "Christmas in the City", the song, is the best holiday city-song I've ever heard.  It's hard to write a good song about Christmas in any city without being trite and cliche, but Elizabeth has not only written a good song about Christmas in New York, she's written a great one.  Good news - Elizabeth is already working on a 2015 project - I can't wait!  "Christmas in the City" was also a part of our Christmas morning this year.

Kat Tingey - "Ring Out Wild Bells".  Kat Tingey's Christmas album took precious time away from the rest of my Christmas music collection this year - I just kept listening and listening, and couldn't take it out of the player!  This is an extraordinary album of originals and standards.  Kat's vocal phrasing is absolutely to die for.  (I've gotta get out and get Kat's other records). This is my pick for best new Christmas album of the year.  And, to add another anecdote, I'm still a physical CD type of guy, and just can't embrace the download-only culture yet.  So, I was trying to order a CD via Kat's website, and there were some technical issues.  Kat and I chatted to resolve the issue, and I dropped a hint to her about loving signed CDs.  You can see the result in the picture :-)  Love this record.

Just a few other notes about records released or re-releases this year.  I liked Idina Menzel's record a lot, but didn't love it.  Idina is fantastic, but the arrangements seemed bland.  I grew to like Pentatonix's album after my wife brought it home from Target.  Pretty slick-sounding, but very nice for the season.  The jazz comp "It's Christmas on Mack Avenue" was a fave, although I found it a bit uneven.  The re-released classics from The Williams Brothers and Frank Devol were great additions to the collection.

Darius Rucker - had no interest, and maybe heard one song on Sirius.  Seth MacFarlane - had absolutely no interest in this one, and heard "Baby It's Cold Outside" too many times (Sara Bareilles - please put out a Christmas album!).  Actually, I heard "Baby It's Cold Outside" way too many times overall, not just Seth and Sara.  It's in desperate need of some re-touching to make it a little more pleasant.

A final note - our friend Stubby was at the top of his game this year, and I would have probably not found Kat Tingey or Thisbe Vos without him.  Many, many thanks to Stubby for all his work prior to and throughout the holiday season.  As a blogger who has trouble getting a couple of posts out per week, I really appreciate all the effort Stubby puts in for our behalf.  You rock (around the Christmas tree!) my friend.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve 2014

I'd like to wish all of you a Very Merry Christmas,  a Happy New Year, and a Joyous Holiday Season!  Thanks you for visiting my little blog, and I hope you have all enjoyed the music this year.

I plan to wind down the year and season with a few more posts, so please keep checking in through the New Year.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Saint Patrick's Cathedral Choir

My final share for this season is "Saint Patrick's Cathedral Choir Sings Christmas Carols", a beautiful recording of spiritual selections from the St. Patrick's Choristers.  St. Patrick's is an iconic New York City cathedral on 5th Avenue, immense and moving in its presence in the city.  The Choristers, as represented in this recording, are a group of thirty boys and twenty men.  Their renditions of these classic Christmas carols should help make your Christmas Eve a joyous occasion.

Without further ado, please enjoy the Saint Patrick's Cathedral Choir for your Christmas season!

download link

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mixtape Evolution Pt. 2

After a year of two of mixtape rookie regret, I decided to re-do my Christmas comps.  Now, I had been making mixtapes of non-Christmas music for several years, so it wasn't inexperience with mixtapes in general, just lack of a good Christmas library.  When time for version 2 came, I had added a few more Christmas CDs to the collection, and I also borrowed a bunch of Christmas records from a buddy.  Lennon.  The Boss.  Beach Boys.  This may have been when "A Very Special Christmas" entered the picture.  The first year I produced "Christmas Music I" and "Christmas Music II", retracking and replacing the old tapes.  These were pretty good, but I still was prone to artist overkill - too much Beach Boys, too much Mannheim Steamroller.  No, not too much Elvis - you can't have too much Elvis :-)

And, along with artist overkill, I included songs that may have been OK at first, but over time I grew to hate.  Did I say "songs"?  I meant "song", as in "Grandma Got Run Over...", well, you know.  Ugh.  I quickly got to the point of never wanting to hear it ever again.  But it was on my awesome mixtape!!  What to do?

Christmas Music I

Well, what I did was endure for a few years.  And make "Christmas Music III" a year or so later, and then "Christmas Music IV".  You can see by the cassette case inserts that I, II, and III used the same early laser printer font, and IV branched out to some other wild and crazy typestyle.

Christmas Music II

These weren't bad, really.  They were enjoyable apart from some minor aggravations (which, after all these years, I still unwittingly introduce from time to time).  I find it amusing that I have the songs listed on the CD inserts but no artists.  Due to space, I'm sure, but some of the songs I have no idea who the artist is.  And I'm not sure I have a cassette player in the house.  I think maybe my son's truck still has one.

Christmas Music III

So, these sufficed until the CD years, when these did serve as the basis for the track sequence on my first two comp CDs, that I still play to this day.  We'll talk about them in a later post.

Christmas Music IV

But, how on Earth will I go from a 90-minute cassette to a 76 minute CD?!?!  I'm losing 14 minutes of music!  More to come...

Icons of the '70s

Nope, not the Bee Gees.  Nor the Starland Vocal Band or the Bay City Rollers.  I'm talking icons of retail - at your door and on daytime television.  It's Avon and the Longines Symphonette, together for you!

Who remembers "Avon Calling!"?  And who remembers seeing TV ads for Longines Symphonette records?  I sure do.  Did anyone else call the Avon representative the "Avon Lady"?

Anyhoo, Avon sponsored a Christmas record by the Symphonette, and here it is for you.  It's really pretty good Christmas music.  A couple nice little medleys.  Some less frequently recorded Christmas songs in "Babes in Toyland" and "Hansel & Gretel".  All in all, a pretty good little record.

Please enjoy "Avon Wishes You A Happy Holiday and a Joyous New Year" as per the front cover.

Good stuff :-)

download link