Friday, March 30, 2007

In Search of the Blues:
Black Voices, White Visions
by Marybeth Hamilton
One of the most interesting of recent books on the blues is Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues (Cape). What’s noteworthy here is that this is a study of blues collectors, those who went out and collected songs and, later, those who collected records and rediscovered those who made those recordings. Hamilton’s story begins with Howard Odum and ends with the eccentric James McKune. This is a book that debunks myths and describes an interesting but weird world in which obsession and issues of racism and exploitation are never far off the page. For me, it immediately becomes part of a welcome blues revisionism that includes Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta- Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and Stephen Calt’s biography of Skip James, I’d Rather Be the Devil. All books that tell it like it was rather than like many would have liked it to have been. If anything, I wanted Hamilton’s book to be longer. More about early collectors. More about McKune. And others, like Fahey and Calt, who followed him. And what about Brits like Mike Ledbitter and Paul Oliver? But perhaps all this was outside the scope of Hamilton’s remit. Also missing was just why the music was so relevant, not just as a social phenomenon, but as a musical experience. On the other hand, what’s refreshing about Hamilton’s book is it’s amateur approach. Well-researched and well-thought out, even if somewhat incomplete.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A bit more on Pete Dexter’s Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires. In case, you haven’t come across the book or its various reviews of it- all of which have been laudatory- it’s a collection of Dexter’s columns which he wrote some years back for the Philadelphia Daily News, the Sacramento Bee, Esquire and Sports Illustrated. These days, of course, Dexter is one of the best slice-of-life novelists around, author of Train, Paris Trout, The Paperboy, God’s Pocket and Brotherly Love. In fact, I was more impressed with this collection than I thought I would be. The short vignettes- most of them coming in at around 1500 words- about loners, loser and eccentrics, including a fair dose of killers, psychos, athletes and ordinary people, including himself and his family- have not only withstood the test of time in a way that most collected journalism does not, but constitute short stories on their own. Or seeds of novels, such the column that would later form the basis of the excellent God’s Pocket. Normally, in a collection like this I’ll pick and choose, skip the stuff I don’t like. But in this case there was nothing for me to skip over. Reading it also has made me come to the conclusion that isn’t anyone who writes quite like Dexter, who can be so tough and so tender- bordering occasionally on sentimentality and a somewhat strained humor, the result no doubt of having to meet deadlines. Nor can I think of anyone able to use the genre of column writing as Dexter did, who could be, one the one hand, so economical with words, yet so expansive in his thoughts. Breslin may have reinvigorated the genre- well, not exactly, because before him there was the likes of Heywood Broun not to mention Mark Twain and Mencken- but Dexter digs deep, and invariably comes up with the goods. Sure, sometimes he falls short of that perfect final line that’s meant to neat sum everything up. And I could have done with fewer entries about his bloody cat. Nevertheless, this is a book that every writer should read. Now I’m going to go back to his novels, which I’ve only partially read.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What I’ve Been reading:

Pete Dexter- Paper Trails
Megan Abbott- To Die For, The Song Is You.
David Peace- The Damned United.
Jess Walter- Citizen Vince
John Barker- Bending the Bars
Marybeth Hamilton- In Search of the Blues

What I’ve Been listening to:

Ry Cooder- My Name is Buddy
The Five Royales- It’s Hard But It’s Fair
Elmo Hope- Plays His own Compositions
Chuck E. Weiss- 23rd & Stout
Buck Owens- Sings Harlan Howard
Eddi Reader- Peacetime

Friday, March 02, 2007

No Bed of Her Own by Val Lewton
Martin Scorsese calls Val Lewton’s noir horror films, like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, “beautifully poetic and deeply unsettling...some of the greatest treasures we have.” But Lewton also wrote novels. Published in 1932 by Vanguard Press, reprinted in 1950, and back in circulation thanks to Scottish publishers, Kingly Reprieve, No Bed of Her Own is the best of his nine novels, and served as his Hollywood calling card. According to Russian-born Lewton, “When RKO was looking for producers, someone told them I had written horrible novels. They misunderstood the word ‘horrible’ for ‘horror’ and I got the job.” Of course, Lewton’s novel is very good. A dark tale, it follows Rose Mahoney as she descends the ladder of degradation, ending up on the mean streets of Manhattan, doing whatever it takes to survive, including prostitution. This story of greed and desire might have been adapted for the screen if not for the Production Code. Snapping the rights without reading the novel, Paramount saw it as a vehicle for their star Miriam Hopkins. They quickly realised the book was unfilmable, and turned it into a gambling story, entitled No Man of Her Own, starring Gable and Carole Lombard. Like his films, Lewton’s novels were knocked off quickly, some within forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, No Bed of Her Own would suggest themes Lewton later explored in his films, such as, how life can suddenly throw a person into worlds they never expected to inhabit. This is as much a Depression classic as Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. Get it while you can.