Saturday, June 30, 2012

We are the Music Makers

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.

- Arthur O’Shaughnessy, The Music-Makers
There is ample evidence in the scientific community to support the notion that music can enrich your life. The very act of listening to music alters the brain in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. Listening to music engages our cognitive faculties and in subtle ways provides a creative impetus for those tuned into such seemingly abstract concepts as a Muse. Creativity, it is believed, is best acted out with active neural circuits, which, like our muscles, require exercise. Music helps exercise the brain, as do other activities such as reading, writing, painting, and of course, the playing of music.  
A creative person should be at the height of effectiveness when all the neurons are firing. At least that’s one scientific explanation I’ve heard, and it does make sense. Some scientists believe that the brain responds better to music than to basic language structures. There is certainly a profound connection between memory and music. Music helps children recall basic facts such as the order of letters in the alphabet.
The pure enjoyment of music also triggers memories. Most of us can easily recall the first time we heard a favorite song. Those of us that grew up during the counter-culture revolution of the 60s were inundated with a remarkable musical experience. Music became the center-piece of our lives. I can recall with startling clarity when the first time I heard Elvis Presley singing In the Ghetto in April or May, 1969. I think that was the year The Beatles sang Hey Jude. It is with fondness that I can remember listening to Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, eagerly flipping over the album to play side two (and careful not to scratch it), thoroughly pleased with the money I spent on an album now universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. I knew it was a masterpiece from the moment I first heard it. I’ve been fortunate to see the legendary Jimmy Buffett up close and personal many times and I can easily begin humming A Pirate Looks at Forty. I remember his early albums with equal fondness for his later work.
Music has always been a part of my life. I listen to all types of music just as I read all types of books. I refuse to limit myself. I don’t understand people that intentionally limit their experiences by sticking with one thing. They are not creative at all, and it shows.
People love to talk about music. Mention a certain artist or a song and you’ll immediately find yourself reminiscing about your musical favorites. For example, I can tell you emphatically that Stranger in My Own Home Town recorded by Elvis on February 17th 1969 is an neglected classic. Put this one on the CD player while driving and you’ll have a hard time keeping your foot off the gas pedal. Released on the Album Elvis – Back in Memphis, I don’t believe Stranger in My Own Home Town was ever released as a single. It was simply a damn good song (written by Percy Mayfield) recorded by Elvis to help fill an album. And Elvis had many such songs, little jewels he recorded that can only be found on albums. Take a listen to Long Black Limousine and True Loves Travels on a Gravel Road, both found on From Elvis in Memphis. He did a nice version of Early Morning Rain for Elvis Now and Got My Mojo Workin can be found on Love Letters from Elvis. And let’s face it, the Elvis version of Danny Boy from the album From Elvis Presley Boulevard Memphis Tennessee is a certifiable classic.
Then, of course, we have The Beatles, the greatest rock and roll band of all time. I know The Rolling Stones have claimed that distinction, and they certainly are great, but The Beatles are the greatest. Period. Some people like the early Beatles better than the later Beatles and vice versa. I like it all. Abbey Road is their best album, but then so is Rubber Soul and Revolver. And any discussion of The Beatles will lead you into a discussion about the solo careers of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. To put the matter at rest, they were all great but Paul McCartney is the number one single important songwriter and musician in the last one hundred years. Many others come close in any subjective historical assessment, but McCartney is at the top. His Band on the Run is equally as vital an album as Abbey Road or anything he did with The Beatles.
Are you one of those that saves his concert tickets as a keepsake? I am. I have tickets dating back to the 70s for concerts. Styx played at my High School. I’ve seen Three Dog Night all over Illinois. Neil Diamond, Elton John, Don McLean, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Alabama, Paul McCartney, and Jimmy Buffett are all favorite concert experiences. I saw Russell Crowe with his band Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts at the Chicago Theater. I have a nice memory of seeing Crosby, Stills and Nash at the now vanished Poplar Creek Music Theater. Clint Black singing duets with Jimmy Buffett is another cherished memory. I recently saw Matthew and Gunnar Nelson in concert. I was fortunate to see the late Luciano Pavoratti twice. Muddy Waters in Chicago a year or so before he passed and BB King and other blues greats in those years I roamed the northside.
My den is overflowing with books and music CDs. I take pleasure in listening to it and I’ve made certain that I have ample choices to pick from. I have Korngold’s Warner Brothers film scores, Bob Marley, Paul Hardcastle, Stan Getz, Mumford and Sons, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Michael Bublé, Dave Brubeck, Rod Stewart, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, Brian Setzer, The Allman Brothers and so many more.
As I wrote this I had Meet The Beatles on the CD player followed by John Fogerty and then some Diana Krall. There’s plenty more to listen to before the day is done. That’s a nice thought really; this idea that we can add quality to our lives simply by listening. Because at any given moment somewhere in the world a song is playing.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.

- William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, V, 1

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean

Originally published in 1962 under the pseudonym Ian Stuart, The Satan Bug is a real treat for fans of classic adventure fiction. As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, Alistair MacLean has long been a personal favorite. Many of his books are being reprinted by Sterling Books and are available through Barnes & Noble booksellers everywhere. For my money, MacLean is one of those unique writers who could craft a nifty plot and add large doses of action scenes combined with strong characters and make it work, even if the plot was at times implausible. In the case of The Satan Bug the plot is so good it could make today’s headlines. Private Detective Pierre Cavell has been asked to assist in a search for several missing vials of a paralyzing toxin along with a state-of-the-art bio-weapon called The Satan Bug, which is, naturally, capable of destroying life on earth. Techno-thrillers such as this really didn’t become a staple among writers until the late sixties and so MacLean was at the forefront of a now commonplace genre. This type of plot would be put to good use by Michael Crichton and others. The writing is spot-on and there are elements here of the old “drawing room detective” plots where the principals gather in a room and discuss the various knowledge they’ve accumulated about the matter at hand. MacLean adds plenty of action so that these scenes never slow down the narrative. Stylistically, MacLean belongs in the same class as Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming, two other writers that I hold in the highest regard. The Satan Bug offers more plot twists than I thought possible. There are deceptions cleverly disguised as deceptions and some truly suspenseful action scenes that hold it all together. The Satan Bug is not only vintage MacLean but a top notch techno-thriller.

I’ll be reviewing additional Alistair MacLean titles as I acquire the new editions from Sterling. Meanwhile here is a link to a fantastic site devoted to MacLean just click HERE!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

To the Stars by L. Ron Hubbard

To the Stars was originally published in the February 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It sold for twenty-five cents. That landmark issue also featured stories by A. E. van Vogt, Lawrence O’ Donnell, Poul Anderson, Roger Flint Young, Cleve Cartmill, and Katherine McLean. Hubbard’s story was the first of two parts and by far To the Stars was the issue’s highlight.

 The now famous letters-to-the-editor page – Brass Tacks – included a missive from a fan named Rudolph W. Preisendorfer from Cambridge Massachusetts who comments that L. Ron Hubbard’s story The Auto-Magic Horse was the best of the October issue. “This novelette is literally bidding for sequels,” Preisendorfer wrote, “and I am certainly looking forward to them.” To the Stars appeared at the tail-end of the pulp era. Paperbacks had begun to proliferate and the magazine market, while still a viable influence, had taken a backseat to television, radio and films. American culture was in transition. The Cold War had begun in tandem with the Atomic Age. Nothing would ever be the same again. Even then we looked back nostalgically at those pre-war Depression years, but the American cultural mind-set was clearly focused on the future. What influence these cultural elements had on Hubbard’s thinking is unknown, but some logical assumptions can be made. His researches into the human condition had begun prior to World War II and the catastrophic events at Hiroshima and Nagaski undoubtedly had an effect on the writer-turned-philosopher. This, then, is L. Ron Hubbard in 1950. He was a man in transition, writing about people in transition, but embracing the future.

Intentionally or not, To the Stars is a reflection of the era in which it was written. It is, in hindsight, the forerunner of science fiction’s next wave which would quite naturally become known as “The New Wave” by the mid 1960s. The opening line is among the best known in literature: "Space is deep, man is small and time is his relentless enemy.” And so begins the gut-wrenching saga of Alan Corday, an engineer shanghaied at New Chicago and facing the interstellar path known as the “Long Passage.” The basic elements of science fiction are but a framework upon which Hubbard draped an elaborate mosaic that is part love story, part adventure story, but “pure science fiction,” as he would later call it.  And there are classical elements of tragedy in Corday’s plight.
The 1950s was science fiction's golden age and To the Stars remains one of those influential books that helped define a generation. It is unlike anything else that Hubbard wrote, although its tone and themes are closely aligned with his 1940 masterpiece, Final Blackout. There are no hidden meanings or obtuse symbols in To the Stars. It’s a tragedy, and by definition this is to say it documents the downfall of certain characters whose plight is determined by the action of others. It is also a morality play; a device wherein the author personifies his characters with moral qualities. These qualities can be such abstractions as death, or charity. In Hubbard’s creative hands the story cautions against certain indulgences but he does so in such a skillful manner that one never senses he is being preached to.

Because Alan Corday has been kidnapped and taken aboard the interstellar trading starship Hound of Heaven, he is destined to lose contact with those he loves on earth, especially his fiancé. Six weeks of time aboard the Hound of Heaven amounts to approximately nine years of earth time. The scene in which Corday eventually returns to earth to confront his aged fiancé is a moving and memorable scene. Hubbard wisely avoids traditional space opera elements and keeps the plausible scenario intact. In fact it’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully written, and one of the genuine classics of early science fiction. But more importantly, To the Stars has withstood its own test of time as a viable classic of literature.

To the Stars was immensely popular when it first appeared and it was reprinted in paperback under the title Return to Tomorrow. This is how I first encountered it sometime in the early 1970s. The current hardcover edition from Galaxy Press is a collector’s item. The star chart endpapers, deluxe binding and glossy metallic dust-jacket that partially reproduces the 1950 magazine cover make this a choice piece of literature for the home library. 
 Visit Galaxy Press HERE!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The English Major by Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison’s The English Major is another feather in the cap for one of America’s greatest novelists. A slightly comedic extrapolation on growing “older” The English Major is part road trip and part rumination on the plight of American males past the age of fifty. After his wife leaves him Cliff decides to take a road trip across the United States and soon begins an affair with one of his former students who hitches a ride with him. Meanwhile, his ex-wife Vivian is badgering him and his son, a successful Hollywood producer, expresses concern for his well being. Somewhere along the way Cliff decides to rename the states he’s traveling through (for example, to Cliff’s way of thinking Alabama should be Chickasaw). Told in the first person by Cliff, we are treated to his northwoods intelligentsia and outdoorsman philosophies as he circumnavigates his way through several misadventures. Far from slapstick, but often silly and still at times meaningful, Harrison weaves a compelling portrait of a man at a crossroads in his life. I read The English Major the same week I read Harrison’s latest poetry collection, Songs of Unreason, which I highly recommend. Harrison’s novels, novellas and poetry are the among the finest literature available today. Harrison’s writing is often lyrical, often Rabelaisian and ultimately memorable. In a poem titled “Broom” he touches again upon the theme of loss and discovery: “To remember you’re alive/visit the cemetery of your father/at noon after you’ve made love/and are still wrapped in a mammalian/odor that you are forced to cherish.” Jim Harrison has long been one of my favorite writers and both The English Major and Songs of Unreason are welcome additions to my overflowing bookcase.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick

It is nearly three o’clock in the sweltering morning of September 2, 1974. In four hot, still hours dawn will hemorrhage like a fresh wound in the sky over the eastern Muchingas, the great, towering walls that confine the upper reaches of the Luangwa River in Zambia’s Eastern Province. In the anemic wash of a dying Central African moon, three canvas tents gleam bluely in a sparse grove of sausage trees near the water’s edge.

- opening lines from Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick

Like Hemingway before him, Peter Hathaway Capstick mastered the art of masculine literature. Unlike Hemingway, Capstick was predominantly a non-fiction writer. Death in the Long Grass was his first book, published in 1977, which he followed with other books of equal quality. Capstick was a sportsman, specifically, a hunter of big African game, and he made no apologies for this. As one would expect, such books are unpopular with environmentalist groups or animal lovers. When Death in the Long Grass was published it was a sensation and remains one of the best hunting books I’ve read. Raw and brutal with prose that his critics found florid but I found refreshing, Death in the Long Grass is a modern classic.

Divided into nine chapters (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Hippo, Crocodile, Rhino, Snakes and Underrated Killers) Death in the Long Grass offers both a play-by-play description of hunting in addition to historical details and anecdotal histories for each of his subjects. At the onset Capstick demonstrates zero tolerance for “mouth-foaming Disneyism, with ten or more hours of thinly veiled, antihunting, network wildlife shows...” and makes his point quickly that “the sport hunter is more responsible for wildlife conservation, through habitat preservation and species management...than any preservationist group...”

Capstick takes it a step further and provides the best, realistic explanation of a hunter’s mentality: “Lions are hunted for the same reason that people skydive, race cars, or, in extreme cases, play Russian Roulette. They are hunted for the oldest of motives: the challenge of man against a fast, deadly animal on the animal’s terms. When you pick up a rifle and take the first step on a lion hunt, you know that you are taking a fair chance of being maimed or killed. It is the clearest case of not just the ancient confrontation of man against beasts, but also of man deliberately putting himself in harm’s way. It is, in fact, man against himself.”

Capstick’s anecdotal histories are as fast paced as a thriller novel and certainly better written. With an eye for detail and rich with practical knowledge and scientific insight, Death in the Long Grass can be enjoyed by non-hunters willing to suspend their disagreement over hunting and learn the craft of storytelling from an intelligent and realistic outdoorsman.

Peter Hathaway Capstick died in 1996 but his books remain in print. In addition to Death in the Long Grass interested readers are encouraged to seek out Death in the Silent Places and Death in the Dark Continent among others.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury - Live Forever!

Ray Bradbury kept his muse close to him and in return he was blessed with the gift of words. Few writers have treated their muse so well and reaped such a harvest. He took us to Mars and all the way back home to Green Town, Illinois. He revealed to us a deep sea monster and the meaning of love on a night when the sound of a foghorn filled the sky. He told us a story about Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and October would never be the same again. He tumbled words into a cup for us and I, for one, drank deep and tasted the pungent dandelions and felt the sweet breath of summer all at once.

From Bradbury I learned history is important and that good things could happen if people only tried. It was the way he loved words and let them play across the page until they jostled awake and peeked out from beneath sleepy lashes to ask “What magical things will we discover today?” 

I met him but once, on a stormy night in Chicago in 1996. I made the long walk from the train station to the bookstore with the cold rain pelting my face. I pushed out of the rain and rushed impatiently into the bookstore having made the journey to secure an autographed copy of Quicker than the Eye. I waited in line with two hundred other ecstatic readers. When my moment arrived I thanked Ray for our sporadic correspondence. He was gracious, warm-hearted and kind to us all. 

Bradbury is too often referred to as a “science fiction” writer. The label does him an injustice. What Ray Bradbury produced during his lifetime is Literature. Genre labels are nothing more than a convenience that detracts from the essence of storytelling. In his introduction to An Illustrated Life he stated: “I am, in essence, a nineteenth century writer. Consider the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, or Mark Twain. Not since their time have there been many writers who illustrate their concepts with such unforgettable images. I’m lucky to have been raised on these writers.”

Bradbury’s work is populated by the ghosts of his past. In one of the letters I received from him he recalled with fondness his father’s love for golf: “I used to caddy for him when I was a kid. When he retired, he played golf almost every day of his life. I still have his favorite driver put aside in my office!” 

There is no limit to Bradbury’s depth of insight into the human experience. What few words I write here can never do justice to his contribution to literature. Certain of his book and stories are mandatory reading assignments in most schools, as well they should be. Like so many others I discovered him in High School with R is for Rocket, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles and I have been a fan ever since. He had a profound and lasting influence on my life as a reader and a writer, a common theme among the tributes from writers that began immediately upon learning he had passed away on June 5th at the age of 91.

Some years back when thumbing through some old paperbacks I came across a story of his titled Doodad in a paperback edited by Roger Elwood and Sam Moskowitz, Alien Earth and Other Stories (Macfadden-Bartell, 1969). This was Doodad’s only reprint appearance so I wrote Ray and asked him about it. His reply came in less than week. “Thank you for your kind letter about Doodad, which is one of my lost stories. I’m going to bring it up when I make a new collection and if my editors agree, it will go in. I’d almost forgotten about it and I deeply appreciate your mentioning it to me.” Remarkably, Doodad has yet to be reprinted and its absence remains an anomaly in his long career. I am grateful now that I helped him rediscover one of his lost classics, but I’m wondering why it hasn’t resurfaced. Perhaps one day his publisher will see fit to finally include it in a collection. 

Another of my favorites was an early story called The Candy Skull and in the last letter I received from him he said: “My recollection of The Candy Skull, if I’m correct, is that it was fairly good. Most of my early Dime Mystery and Detective stories were done when I was much too young and I hadn’t yet learned completely how to be a short story writer.” As it turns out, The Candy Skull has been reprinted several times but Ray was a tad hard on himself and declined to include it in either The Stories of Ray Bradbury (2001) or its seminal follow-up, Stories: One Hundred of His Most Celebrated Tales (2003).

What I remember most about meeting Ray that one, precious time was his infinite patience in answering questions. I recall that he told me he still had hopes for yet another – a definitive - film version of Fahrenheit 451. And I recall that a few hours later as I walked the nearly deserted rain-swept length of Michigan Avenue very late that night I felt energized by having been in his presence, and the cold stinging rain bothered me not at all. Now Ray Bradbury is gone but I refuse to feel empty because his life and his work have enriched us all. I prefer to celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing. We are lucky to have had him among us. Great writers are immortal and Ray Bradbury will live forever in books. 

Photographs of Ray Bradbury by Thomas McNulty copyright © 2012 
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: Mad Shadows by Joe Bonadonna

Mad Shadows is one of those rare works of fiction that I’m glad I read. It is so well written and so imaginative in its realization of setting and characters that I find myself envious of its author, Joe Bonadonna. This guy can write and his imagination leaves me in awe. Mad Shadows is a collection of stories set in the world of Aerlothia. Writing in the grand tradition of Robert E. Howard these stories all feature Dorgo the Dowser,  a hero with an edge. Bonadonna refers to these stories as gothic noir in his afterword and I couldn’t agree more. The six stories offered here are beautifully realized, moody pieces with memorable scenes, characters and plots. The first story, Mad Shadows, pits Dorgo against some shadow creatures and something called the Demonheart. This initial tale sets the mood for the entire book and is one of my favorites. In each of these stories there are deft plot mechanizations that add depth to the story and this is what I appreciated as well. In The Secret of Andaro’s Daughter Dorgo is given a map against his will which leads him down a complicated path of treachery and deceit involving a missing coffer and the supposedly the secrets of transmuting base metal into gold. The surprise ending won’t be revealed here. You’ll have to read the story to see what happens. The Moonstones of Sol Lunarum  Dorgo is asked to help find said moonstones which come from Khanya-Thoth and in The Man Who Loved Puppets (another favorite) he encounters a witch intent on reviving her dead sister at a terrible cost to the village children. The fifth tale, In the Vale of the Black Diamond, Dorgo sets out to find a magical diamond in order to use it and spare a friends brother from Virulian lung disease. An outstanding adventure, In the Vale of the Black Diamond is the best piece of heroic fantasy-adventure I’ve read in years. The final tale, Blood on the Moon, is a werewolf tale befitting the amazing world Bonadonna has created. Blood on the Moon is the perfect coda to such a collection, a riveting and entertaining story. These stories are all interconnected by events and characters but can be read individually. His writing is imagistic: “Pale mist, stained the color of blood, drifted through the silent streets of Okalin like a floating vapor of dragon’s breath (p.292).” The bottom line is this – when they talk about the “New Pulp” literary movement in fifty years Mad Shadows will most certainly be one of the penultimate volumes in any discussion. Masterpieces like In the Vale of the Black Diamond and Blood on the Moon are all the proof I need that Joe Bonadonna has written a lasting and vibrant book. Kudos!