Monday, November 11, 2013

The Hangman's Daughter

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Whenever I go to New York City I make a pilgrimage to the Strand bookstore.18 miles of books, how could I not?! During my last visit I became overwhelmed, and after 45 minutes of wandering, snatched The Hangman’s Daughter from the “books everyone loves table.” To my surprise, the book was a lot of fun. 

Originally written in German, this mystery novel set in 17th century Bavaria has both an interesting plot and a plethora of historical detail. When the body of a local child turns up in a river with suspicious markings, the townspeople assume dark magic is afoot. Despite the lack of tangible evidence, the town midwife is accused of witchcraft. Jakob Kuisl is an unlikely detective (oh, and the town hangman) who stands out as the voice of reason in a world that is ready to accept witch hunts and gruesome medieval medical practices. Can the hangman prove that the midwife is innocent before it’s too late?! You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Those critical of language and authenticity may find the translation too modern but I found it approachable. An engaging whodunit!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Starstruck: Photographs From a Fan

Starstruck by Gary Lee Boas

I've spent a considerable amount of time with the square amateur photo book that is know as Starstruck. I first discovered it in the little library of my friend's basement/record studio. Often when someone is trying to get the tambourine part just right or the bass amplifier needs adjusting, I pick up a good book to browse... with pictures.

Starstruck is a collection of candid celebrity photos by Gary Lee Boas. The time frame ranges from 1966 (when the photographer was 15) until 1980. Boas was essentially an obsessed fan who would wait around Manhattan to catch stars going in and out of theaters, restaurants, clubs, etc. Although some shots are fairly washed out or rather out of focus, they're all completely fascinating. There's a charm to these shots and one can't help but admire Boas's obsession. Well, maybe "admire" isn't the right word!

Even with images of massive celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Stewart or Jack Nicholson, the real star of this book is New York City. Accidentally, Gary Lee Boas gives us an excellent overall snapshot of the world's greatest city at an electric time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

John Lennon once stated "Nilsson's my favorite group." 

Harry Nilsson, the tenor with the golden, three and a half octave  vocal range/the brilliant songwriter/the ultimate interpreter of songs/the boozer/the raconteur/the sometimes screenwriter, lived the most of his 52 years. His life was a colorful one that began with much sadness. Despite his setbacks and despair, Nilsson managed to keep his spirits high and he chose the path of adventure. He sang the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, released a brilliant run of albums from 1966-1980 (with music ranging from ballads to Beatlesy pop to country send-ups to wild rockers to standards from the Great American Songbook to Calypso to rude comedy numbers), conceived the animated children's classic The Point!, collected a couple Grammy's, raised hell with Ringo Starr and other music royalty, started a film production company and eventually settled as a family man.

Using a myriad of resources, interviews and quotes from Nilsson's unfinished autobiography, Alyn Shipton writes a loving biography without sensationalizing the life of this sensational artist.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie [DVD]

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie a film by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller

Saying Morton Downey Jr. was a complex man would be the understatement of the century. Son of a famous singer, Jr. began his career in show business as a vocalist himself. He had a small hit with in 1958 with the haunting tune "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams". He later worked in radio and eventually became involved with the world of sports by first buying an American Basketball Association team and later co-founding the World Baseball League.

What brought Morton Downey Jr. national attention was his short run on the syndicated Morton Downey Jr. Show based out of New Jersey. The host who grew up hanging around the Kennedy family, became a loudmouth, conservative screamer on his late 80's program. The documentary pulled many clips that made the air where Downey Jr. gets in audience members faces and says some of the most horrific and offensive things you will ever hear in your life. His show seems to be pure theater and unfortunately it paved the way for future trash television such as the Jerry Springer Show.

Like him or not, Evocateur is a massively entertaining film. It's an excellent documentary of the strange life and quick rise and fall of a man whose life was filled with controversy.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The We and The I [DVD]

Director Michel Gondry is mostly know for his heady, comedic films with cunning in-camera effects such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind & The Science of Sleep and innovative music videos from Björk, Beck and the White Stripes. In The We and the I, Gondry scales back and tells a story via a bus ride through the Bronx. The French director workshopped this script with a group of teens over the course of three years and the result is this wonderful film.

We see the complex dynamics of high school relationships as we join a group of students after their last day of classes. There's bullying, gossip, swagger, flirting, fighting, some genuinely funny conversations and many heartfelt moments, too. Throughout, the dialog is natural; we almost feel as though we're watching a a documentary at times.

Despite this austere approach to filmmaking, Gondry's presence is still felt with the occasional use of non-digital effects. A small boombox shaped bus rides around town at the intro. Later, we see an interesting scene where he superimposes a pizza shop directly through the window of the city bus. These moments perfectly interject surrealism and introduce lightness into this very realistic movie.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Made In California [Music CD]

Made In California by the Beach Boys


New paragraph: this Beach Boys box is something to behold. Set up like a high school yearbook with large glossy photographs, interviews, articles and fake advertisements, Made In California is a thing of beauty. We flip to the last page and we see six cds filled to the max with hits, album cuts, rarities, outtakes and live versions. The set commemorates 50 years of Beach Boysdom from Brian's "Surfin'" demo right up to their 2012 single "That's Why God Made the Radio".

Made In California has enough newly unearthed material for completests, music scholars and other varying degrees of nerd. It is also consistent in high standards so it doesn't feel too overwhelming for someone who is just discovering that this group isn't a band that only sings about surfing and cars. You need not have to comb through sub-par tracks.

Obviously, the genius Brian Wilson is at the forefront of the productions here. We truly realize how special the body of work he had produced and see the heights of creative genius and musical innovation. Wilson can safely be put alongside Gershwin, Copland and Ellington in the Hall of Great American Composers (this building does not exist). His baby brothers shine as well; Dennis, the drummer/rebellious middle child, is represented with a multitude of brilliant heart-aching ballads (mostly unreleased until now) and Carl, the finest singer of the lot, is clearly the soul of the Beach Boys. The latter comment becomes evident as you make your way through the recordings... trust me on this.

If you're familiar with their catalog, look out these newly issued gems "Sail Plane Song", "Sound of Free", "California Feelin'", "You're Still A Mystery" and "Where Is She?". For those unfamiliar to the Beach Boys, how I envy you to be able to experience hearing this wonderful music for the first time.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Hombre by Elmore Leonard

In this hardboiled Western, Elmore Leonard writes a short, gritty tale where a group travels via stagecoach through the Arizona desert. Our trusty narrator, who is conversational with the reader and serves as a moral compass, is under the employ of the stagecoach/horses owner. Bickering begins at the outset and when the stagecoach comes under attack by a group of outlaws, these early differences of opinion result in chaos. A mysterious Apache, John Russell, is their only hope in making it out of the desert alive.

Simon & Garkfunkel: The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970 [Music CD]

The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970 by Simon & Garfunkel
Simon & Garfunkel never felt like a singles band to me. Sure, there's the massive, mega-hits: "Mrs. Robinson", "The Sound of Silence", "The Boxer", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Cecelia", etc., but Paul Simon's songwriting abilities were never simply tunnel visioned to the radio dial. All five of Paul & Artie's studio albums are classics that are meant to be heard front to back and then back to front again. With the Columbia Studio Recordings boxed set, we can hear every song, every angelic harmony, every sweet acoustic guitar move and every perfect arrangement.  

Six or seven years is not a whole lot time in the grand scheme of things, but Simon & Garfunkel made it count with their prolific run as Columbia Records recording artists.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni  by Helene Wecker

Mythical creatures from Jewish and Arab folklore come alive in 19th century New York City when a Golem (a clay creature made only to serve another) and a Jinni (a fiercely independent being made of fire) trapped in human form find themselves living in adjacent neighborhoods.

The book begins with two separate plot lines... The Golem, though a fully formed woman, comes to life in the hull of a ship headed towards America and soon finds herself masterless in a world that she doesn't understand. The Jinni on the other hand, awakes on the floor of a tinsmith shop in little Syria after a thousand years trapped in a bottle. As the novel continues the stories of the characters become entwined and, in a beautiful example of storytelling, all of the pieces of Wecker’s mythical world fall into place, leaving the reader satisfied yet sad to reach the end.

This genre bending novel has elements of historical fiction and fantasy. Wecker has clearly done a lot of research and paints a vivid picture of New York’s little Syria and Bowery neighborhoods during the turn of the century. Lovers of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Night Circus will enjoy the rich detail and intricate plot line.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III [Music CD]

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III Soundtrack by Liam Hayes

Recently I was discussing Roman Coppola's A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, a film that a mere 27% of Rotten Tomatoes voters enjoyed (thus proving my hypothesis that 73% of the population is completely nuts). In any event, I closed out my mini-review mentioning Liam Hayes's "brilliant score". Well, ask and ye shall receive! Forbes now owns the soundtrack. Thanks, Genie!

Coppola learned of Liam Hayes through his cast member/cousin, Jason Schwartzman. Hayes, a Chicago resident, has been releasing soulful/ 1970's-ish style/indie-rockish music since the early 1990's. The songs are hooky with a sometimes classic, "Philadelphia sound" arrangement. On top, his voice could be likened to the tenor of a Mr. John Lennon. 

The affinity for 70's sounds (pianos, tasteful synthesizers, horns) work perfectly with Charles Swan's groovy universe; a marriage made in heaven. Many of the songs were pulled from Hayes's back catalog as a solo artist and also from his tenure in the group Plush. "A Glimpse Inside", almost the film's theme, was written especially for the picture and here we can listen for Hayes's tremendous vocal range. Another highlight is "So Much Music", an anthem discussing the undying spirit of a musician. Hopefully Hayes is good on this sentiment because he's a truly talented artist.