Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

I’m a sucker for almost anything by Gary D. Schmidt. Other than First Boy, which I thought was kind of lame (and never bothered to review), I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by him. Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Okay For Now were both amazing, but my favorite was The Wednesday Wars. When I finished I wanted to shout "Chrysanthemum!" (If you’ve read it, you’ll understand.)

Schmidt's latest book, Orbiting Jupiter, is a little closer to Lizzie Bright in tone, except with a modern setting and situation. Jack, a 12 year old boy, lives with his parents on a farm in New Hampshire, and they’ve just taken in a troubled 14 year old boy named Joseph. Joseph got into some trouble that landed him in a youth correctional facility where he tried to strangle a teacher. But Joseph’s troubles surround his daughter – yes, Joseph became a father at 13. Her name is Jupiter and he’s never seen her, but he desperately wants to!

My fear was that Schmidt was trying to write 'John Green' – you know, the troubled and damaged young person(s) yearning for understanding and validation? But Schmidt handle’s a potentially touchy topic with perfect tact; the book never becomes maudlin or mushy and avoids the crassness and foul language that peppers so much of YA these days. And his writing is perfectly beautiful, almost poetic.
“Sometimes miracles are all around you... Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess - but I've never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.”
But with Schmidt it’s all about the characters. You can’t help but LOVE Jack and Joseph, Jack’s parents, several of the more understanding teachers at school, and even the cows! This is a short book but the reader is drawn into it at light speed (I nearly read it in a single sitting). A warning, however: Schmidt is not one to write a pat ending where everything works out perfectly. Instead, he mixes the bitter and the sweet in a way that the rest of my family never finds entirely satisfying, and you might want a box of tissues handy. For me, the ending kind of wilted the ‘Chrysanthemums!’ I was about to offer. But it's still a very good book. (I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The dreams in which I'm dying..."

I've always loved music, but growing up in the early 80s I especially loved new wave.  I still remember liking the sound of "Cars" by Gary Numan when it was new in 1979.  In fact, it was the 'different' songs like "Pop Music" by M and "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls that really resonated with me, and I got used to the 'are-you-kidding-me?' reactions from others.  Even though new wave was very popular where I grew up, most of my friends listened to rock and pop music so I always felt like I was on the musical outskirts.  I guess I still feel that way.
"In the U.K.... new wave was initially code adopted by journalists and disc jockeys eager to be perceived as cool but too nervous to actually use the word 'punk' with all its threatening implications. In America, new wave was an umbrella the size of a circus tent. It covered synth pop, ska, goth, alternative rock, bubblegum, Eurodance, industrial, new romantic, blue-eyed U.K. soul, and electronic dance music. It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands who wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots. It was an insane asylum whose patients were predominantly ambiguous, untouchable males with sucked-in cheeks, 3-D makeup, and wedding-cake hair."
Seldom have I laughed as much as while reading Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein.  I didn't have MTV at home so I didn't know a lot about the bands I loved – and I was surprised at the HUGE EGOs many of the new wave "artists" had – Limahl of Kajagoogoo and especially Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen – particularly considering their relatively modest popular success.  Some really saw themselves as "artists," and sometimes eschewed the popularity that came, while others actively and determinedly pursued it (Duran Duran).  And there was no shortage of competition and jealousy among them:
Curt Smith, Tears for Fears: 'People say, ‘music’s not what it used to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ Most of the stuff we listened to sucked. What you remember is the really good stuff. But there was a ton of crap in the 80s. For every one of us, there was a Flock of Seagulls.'
Mike Score, A Flock of Seagulls: 'The word that springs to mind is jealousy. Curt Smith may be living in a little fantasyland that Tears for Fears was something spectacular.'
The book is made of edited interviews with 3 dozen new wave bands.  It's got a little history of each band (as well as a 'where-are-they-now' follow up) and focuses on an important song.  But it's all the little bits of info that I found so interesting, like how Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls got his iconic hairdo, or Adam Ant giving fashion tips to Michael Jackson (the famous red hussar jacket), and how OMD drove an old car with mushrooms growing in the floor even while their songs were at the top of the charts because of the evil record companies. The only band profiled that I didn't know was The Normal, and the only other band I don't have any music from in my collection was Joy Division (I'm more of a New Order fan).  Still, the book sent me scurrying to listen to songs I somehow missed – like "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam Ant and "Being Boiled" by the Human League – and digging out CDs I haven't listened to in a while (New Order).  Not all the chapters were interesting – ABC, Spandau Ballet, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and even Howard Jones (whose music I LOVE) – but I had so much fun reading it and wish there was a follow-up with more bands.  Just a few of the highlights for me (mostly paraphrased rather than quoted in full):
  • Peter Hook of New Order: 'Musically, I love Adam and the Ants. They’re one of my favorite groups. But it was very difficult for me as a Northern male to relate to the dandy look. We would’ve been laughed out of Manchester had we even considered it. Bernard [Sumner] and I used to go out in London with all them lot… We looked like working-class yobs, and everyone else was dressed up as a pirate.'
  • Kim Wilde: 'When it was a hit in America, they were like, 'Why East California'? Why not all the way over to the west? I was trying to come up with any excuse why my dad might have written 'to East California,' and if you ask, he'll just say 'Cause it sounded better'... When I feel self-conscious about saying 'New York to East California,' I think of The Police singing 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,' and I don't feel so bad.'
  • Andy Rourke, The Smiths: 'Morrissey used to buy his – I was going to say 'shirts,' but they were actually blouses – from a clothing place for fat women in Manchester. These women's blouses that nobody wanted became Morrissey's trademark. He used to like tearing them up and throwing them into the crowd.'
  • Midge Ure: 'People consume music in a very different way. It doesn't seem to be as all-important as it used to be for us. Kids have got computer games and a million other things to keep themselves entertained. We had music and our imaginations, and that was it.'

Monday, December 7, 2015

Just thirty seconds

Last summer I was able to visit a place I've wanted to see for a long time: Pearl Harbor.  I think my wife and kids were a little bored by it, but I appreciated seeing a place that was so important to 20th century American history.  And while the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a demoralizing shock for the American people, I'd like to talk about the response that came less than six months later.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle, American bombers staged a daring raid on the Japanese mainland that came as a complete surprise – to both Japan and America. If you've seen the movie Pearl Harbor, you might remember the Doolittle Raid at the end, which is a bit dramatized but not so far off. But what it doesn't convey is the huge impact such a small raid had on the war. The Japanese went from "fearless to fearful," their sense of isolated security and racial superiority suddenly threatened, and Americans realized they were still in the fight.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the account of one of the pilots of those bombers, Capt. Ted Lawson, that implausibly took off from aircraft carriers. They had to take off much further from Japan than planned due to their sighting by a small monitoring ship (which was sunk) and didn't have enough fuel to fly to safe bases within China. The planes nonetheless completed their bombing missions – a pin prick, really – then made their way the best they could to the coast of China. Most planes crash landed and Lawson and his crew were severely injured (Lawson's leg had to be amputated). Spread out along the coast, only a few were captured by the Japanese but most managed, with a great deal of hardship and the self-sacrificing help of the oppressed Chinese, to escape and return to America.

I found the book much better written than I had expected and it caused me to cringe numerous times as I read what the crew went through in their ordeal. First-hand accounts are valuable, but can be limited in scope and even self-serving, but Captain Lawson's account is very well done. It's a short and easy read that gives the reader an insight into what went into such a daring raid.  (Winston Groom's recent book gives an excellent explanation of just how important for morale this incident was – and he even gives it a great deal of credit for turning the tide of the war.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Listening to the holidays

I probably should have posted this a couple months ago, but here are a few short audiobooks I enjoyed last year – and am listening to again this year – with holiday-themed stories.

Halloween is already past, but one of my favorite spooky movies to watch with the kids is the 1949 Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow narrated by Bing Crosby.  My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Spjute, probably showed it to us five or six times, and I still enjoy watching it each year.  Written by Washington Irving in 1820, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has Ichabod Crane, the superstitious new school teacher in the little hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, falling for the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, while making an enemy of the dashing local hero, Brom Bones.  As he returns home late one night from a harvest party, he runs into the ghostly Headless Horseman.  Even though the book is short, it's not the easiest to read simply because it's written in a narrative style (ie. someone telling a story) and contains no dialogue.  But read by Tom Mison – the Ichabod of the television series – it's a very enjoyable listen (especially for all the women who think he's sooo handsome).

Christmas Eve, 1914 by Charles Olivier is a very nice dramatization of the so-called "Christmas Truce" in the early part of WWI.  It's portrayed through a letter written after the war by an officer but with the live-action-memories happening at the same time.  The focus of the story is on the lead-up to the actual "cease-fire," the different personalities in the British trenches, and the awful waste of life in war.  I thought the audio version did a great job of heightening the tension that must have been felt when the enemy approached with the request for a cease-fire.  I don't know that it's meant to be historically accurate – with the planned British offensive for Christmas day and all – but it was very nicely acted out and worth listening to.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is another favorite for the holidays, and I've enjoyed getting together with friends and family in years past to read it on a Sunday afternoon and evening.  It's the well-known story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly old man who has a change of heart when visited by several ghosts on Christmas Eve.  Tim Curry (who – interestingly enough! – played Pennywise in Stephen King's It) reads this version.  His voice is sometimes a little too rummy and muddled to be understood perfectly, but he does a very good job of reading this timeless story.