Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Ian Dury‘s lyric’s continue “very good indeed.” For that male musician, and for most male rockers, they are all of a piece. Music matters, to be sure, but so, too, does the lifestyle. It is what motivates pimply young men across the globe to pick up guitars and craft love songs, anthems and ditties.

Why do women rock musicians pursue the dream? The question drove me to pick up Kicking and Dreaming: a Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll. the joint autobiography of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the creative force behind Heart.  Did they do it for love? Did they do it for money? It turns out that they did it because they really liked making music together.

It is one of the oddities of the book, a strange mixture of wild tales and bourgeois sentiment. The sisters were raised in a Marine household, moving regularly but always remaining disciplined. The eldest sister rebelled, giving space for the two to explore music and eventually join in a band. The toured, they paid their dues, and then thanks to Dreamboat Annie and Magazine, they found commercial success. Accompanying the popularity were all the expected problems – relationships, drugs, personalities, and the loss of the values that propelled them to stardom.

Unusually, however, Heart did not go away. They reformed, started working with other song smiths, and then found renewed commercial success. The use of someone’s else’s work was somewhat challenging, the sister’s tells us, but not overwhelmingly so.

Heart’s commercial popularity was significantly aided by the sisters’ sex appeal. They were well aware of their appearance (and the challenges posed by Ann’s weight), and they used it to their advantage. They also clearly resent the rampant sexism of the music scene. “Barracuda” – perhaps one of their most aggressive tunes – was driven by their record company’s rumor mongering that the sisters had a lesbian affair. Yet a decade later the two were unabashedly promoting their videos, the sister’s tell us, through imagery of their breasts. It was, of course, the record company’s idea. But what was Heart’s idea?

As much I enjoy Heart – and love Magazine – the sister’s book was surprisingly pedestrian. Sure there were wild anecdotes, and yes, they truly come across as nice people, but there is little in the book that gets into their perspective, their talent, or their passion with any depth.  The process by which they create music is treated relatively lightly.  The sisters do not talk about any creative differences and their focus, through much of the book is what happens to them – and less about what they did. Sure they did – and that’s there, but they tend to see it more as a matter of fact, a matter of record.

The two did struggle – with addictions and with destructive relationships – and happily they emerged as authors in a much better place.

It is a must, however, for Heart fans and aficianatos of 70s and 80s popular culture. Nevertheless, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the next rock autobiography I come across has more substance to it.

With A Little Wine, Please

For me to write about Eric LeMay’s Immortal Milk, Adventures in Cheese, a snack was essential. I rustled about in the fridge. There was a little bit of waxy gouda left from a stop at Whole Foods. It was fine, but not really enough to warrant much prose. The havarti had gone bad, but tucked behind some pepperoni was a chunk of super sharp cheddar. A bit pedestrian, perhaps, for it was not organic and from New Zealand. I limit my Whole Foods silly cheeses. The cheddar still had a bite that enthused me.

Enthusiasm is the correct sentiment, too, for rarely have I read a short book about anything that is so completely run through with enthusiasm. LeMay does not babble and he does not go on and on and on. He does, though, incisively and with great humor, walk us through a series of adventures in and with cheeses. Fromage in all its variations is a passion that he and his wife share. They celebrate cheese and cheese making. They are humbled and exalted, and all for immortal milk, cheese.

The couple visits cheese makers, cheese fairs, cheese mongers and the cheese obsessed. Cheesophilics, I believe they are called. They taste aromatic cheeses and cheeses that make them gag. They learn a bit along the way, but this is not a didactic book. The goal is simply about enjoying and learning more about the endlessly complex world of cheese.

How does one recommend such a book? If you only read one book about dairy products . . . .  Looking for something out of the ordinary about food? . . .  Have I got a cheese book for you!

The book is worthy of a hearty recommended, too, and not just for the cheese. It is very much about love and care. LeMay conveys curiosity and good will in a manner that just makes you know that he is earnest without being a bore, a good man to share a drink and a piece of cheese. He’s also very adroit with language.

Come to think of it, it’s been some time since I’ve shopped at Murray’s. They always had a good suggestion or two.  Enjoy.

David Potash

Film, Movie or Cinema, S’il Vous Plait

Mainstream Hollywood is stale. Why see one movie over another? With downloads, streaming and a decent television, we face an overwhelming number of choices of similar items. They are distinct identities, thanks to marketing, but they are very much the same. After being sorted into recognizable categories: Action, Romantic Comedy, Sci-Fi, Drama – with a little reflection we know what each film within the category will offer. The straight jacket of genre offers endless variations on what we, at deeper level, know all too well. Why do to the two cops bicker before realizing that they are deeply bonded? Why must the aspiring lover run to the object of their love five to eight minutes before the final credits? If the scientists get excited about the prospects of their innovation, why do we know that it will go terribly wrong? After so many models of basically the same thing, can a movie do more than deliver the expected?

The one category that defies categorization is foreign, for foreign films are more than different. It takes effort to explore foreign films, above and beyond language, for the films do not fit our understanding of genres and categories. They are unfamiliar in every sense of the word. I am curious, but a mixture of wariness and contrariness limits my exploration, for a surefire way of making me cringe internally is to order me to see a movie. There’s absolutely no good reason to burden watching a film with an obligation.

Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, understands this all too well. His disappointment with the familiar, however, is tempered with a deep enthusiasm for foreign films, especially the movies of France. He wants to be a guide, but he does not hector. In his latest book, The Beauty of the Real, LaSalle walks us through contemporary French cinema by focusing upon actresses. Subtitled “What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses,” the book chronicles the roles and films of twenty some actresses, mixing reviews with interviews and broader social commentary. It is a fascinating read, not only for what we learn of French cinema, but for what it reveals about Hollywood. Sometimes contrast is the fastest way to understanding.

LaSalle highlights the wide range of roles that women have in French cinema with energy and passion, but not without his critical eye. He does not claim that these are necessarily good or great films, but he makes a compelling case that they are interesting. It is the role of women, LaSalle argues, that highlights the difference of genre in the two cinemas. Beyond the American career arc (ingenue to lover to district attorney to matron), French actresses play roles that reflect broader choices in life. Stories may not resolve into moral messages. Old women may have sex. Young women may not find love. And within this wide array of lower budget cinemas, a wealth of different kinds of films blossom.

Finding French movies is a challenge. Distribution is spotty and once you locate a film, there is no guarantee that it will meet expectations. LaSalle has convinced me, though, that it is well worth the effort. Bonne chance.


A City And The Clever Folks Who Live There

“Rollicking” is a word for the page. It is read, not spoken, and it invariably paired with “good fun.” No one has rollicking misery, rollicking shingles, or a rollicking breakfast – though good company, a delicious omelette and fine coffee are very good fun. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, shameless promoter of the city and of all things Boris Johnson, is an accomplished man. Author of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism and countless posts and articles, he recently penned Johnson’s Life of London, The People Who Made The City That Made The World. It is, at least for its first half, a rollicking good read.

In love with the city he leads, Johnson’s pseudo-history is a panegyric to London through short biographic study of approximately two dozen Londoners. Johnson’s prose is a delightful mixture of erudition and the corporeal, if not scatological. It is not surprising, for example, to read about the invention of the flush toilet or the sex life of J.M.W. Turner. Johnson admires ambition and those that live hard, work hard and play hard. His admiration for Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Hooke and Winston Churchill leaps from the page.

Johnson’s history is not history, though. It is dinner party chatter, enjoyable anecdote and observation. Enthusiasm and humor drive the stories. It is a book that was dashed off from an erudite brain and energetic personality. It is charming, as I’m sure Boris Johnson would be in person. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily have my vote.

When Running Away Makes Sense

Carissa Phelps’ memoir, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand At A Time, recounts a horrific childhood and adolescence. Born into poverty and growing up in central California, Carissa was sexually exploited by the age of twelve. She was living on and off the streets of Fresno by the time she was thirteen. Raped repeatedly, sold for sex and trapped in a culture of drugs, violence and abuse, Carissa repeatedly ran away. She ran from home, from the juvenile detention centers she was sent, and from the men and women who hurt and used her.

Always smart, always good with numbers, Carissa did not stay in school, either, until her mid-teens. With the ongoing support of a teacher and a counselor, Carissa slowly started putting her life together. She graduated from Cal State Fresno, and then later a JD and an MBA from UCLA. It was never an easy journey. Even as she began to succeed educationally and professionally, difficult choices and decisions troubled her. Steady relationships, trust and “normal” relationships with others challenged her. It is understandable, too. How does one reconcile such a life and move on?

Now an advocate, attorney and speaker, Carissa Phelps tells her story and works to help young men and women. She is a vocal presence warning of the horrors of human trafficking and childhood abuse. She is using her story to give help and hope to others.

I would like to say that the book is uplifting or optimistic, but it is not. Written in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, Runaway Girl has the bluntness of a police report. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Phelps’ uses language and the narrative to both share and hide. She cannot explain. It is impossible to do so. All that she can do for most of the book is describe. The cumulative effect is one of great sorrow.

Ms. Phelps’ strength is that of a survivor. Like a boxer who is able who is beaten round after round but remains standing, Ms. Phelps’ determination is admirable. But there is no joy in taking the beating.

Though not a feminist text, the book is a primer in misogyny. Carissa is a recurring site of exploitation and hatred. The moments in the text when she describes others treating her humanely, valuing her as a person, stand out.

At a larger level, the book makes clear the dystopian culture of poverty, drugs, abuse and indifference in our culture. The streets for many of our young are Hobbesian camps of power and exploitation. With sex and drugs are the prime economic drivers, other values stand little chance of gaining a toe-hold. The memoir also demonstrates the colossal ineffectiveness of our “system” to address adolescents who get into trouble. Happenstance is what helped Phelps survive, not planning, not thoughtful care, and most definitely not a system.

A story of success on one level, the book is also a story of many failures, many lives lost and ruined. It is, in many ways, a nightmare, a vision of what many young people must see as a life without hope or love.

Trying To Make Sense Of The Incomprehensible

Bookstores shelve books about the past under the heading of history. Historians have other preferences.

Two new books about World War II highlight the historians’ perspective. Both works were sparked by family histories and both show the strengths and shortcomings of personal history.

In The Boy Who Went to War, Giles Milton recounts the story of Wolfram Aichele, a reluctant German soldier and Milton’s father-in-law. Rachel S. Cox’s Into Dust and Fire recounts the story of five Americans who volunteered to fight the Nazis before the United States was at war. Among the five was Robert Hill Cox II, Rachel Cox’s uncle.

Wolfram’s story is fascinating. The book is described as “narrative non-fiction” It is not history, but it is not fiction, either.

Wolfram grew up in Pforzheim in southwest Germany, a happy boy in a household whose values were strongly anti-Nazi. A talented wood-carver and artists, Wolfram avoided service until he was drafted/coerced into national service. Sent to the Crimea, where he almost died of diphtheria, Wolfram was later re-assigned to France, where he was captured and subsequently sent to a POW camp in Oklahoma. Wolfram’s story and the story of his family reveals the tremendous heartache and horror of World War II. Pforzheim, for example, was firebombed by the British at the end of the war and almost completely obliterated.

The book makes clear its sympathy for many of its characters. It also emphasizes the complete lack on individual knowledge or agency of how lives were completely upended by the conflict.

Milton writes with clarity. His organization is mostly chronological and he links, when possible, local stories with broader historical knowledge. He is acutely conscious of what people knew and what they did not, and his narrative takes pains to give consideration to contextualizing the events faced by his protagonists. The prose helps the reader, too, making accounts lifelike in their detail.

Cox’s story relies heavily upon the letters of the five: three Dartmouth undergraduates, Charles Bolte, Jack Brister, and Charles McClane, and two Harvard students, Rob Cox and Heyward Cutting.  Three of the young men were graduates of St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire. They enlisted to see action, to take advantage of an historical tie between America and England, and to serve. The book describes their training in England and their hardships in North Africa. While the three took a courageous step, the machinery of the war treated them with indifference. Three of the young men died and the fourth lost a limb.

Unfortunately, Cox approach to the text is circuitous. She tries to build tension, but what results is a constant checking for which protagonist in what circumstance. It is a hard book to follow – and I have read reviews that have misunderstood information. The directness of the accounts does add to the reader’s sense of the overall contingent nature of the war, but that’s not necessarily the characteristic that one wants to emphasize. Periodization, structure and organization are problematic.

Even with these shortcomings, the heroism of the young men shines through.

Read in tandem, both works remind us that much remains to be learned about World War II. They also make clear that personal accounts and personal stories are a poor vehicle for historical argument or a broader understanding. Tolstoy’s famous description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace , a senseless slaughter carried out in fog and smoke, turns the horror of war into something transcendent. First hand accounts of lives lost and ruined are not art but their accuracy drives home a deep sense of tragedy.

Deep In The Heart Of . . . . What?

The argument in Gail Collins‘ new book, As Texas Goes . . . How The Lone Star State Hijacked The American Agenda , is neatly captured in the Appendix. Collins reprints a biannual report by the Legislative Study Group of the Texas House of Representatives. Titled “Texas on the Brink,” the report in Harper’s Index style tabulates Texas’s ranking on a host of state by state measures. Key indicators include:

  • Texas in 2nd highest in the US in terms of public school enrollment, 38th on expenditures per student, and 50th in terms of percent of the population 25 or older with a high school diploma.
  • Texas is ranked 43rd in terms of graduation rate.
  • Among all 50 states, Texas is number one in terms of percentage of uninsured children (highest), percent of population uninsured (highest), amount of emissions of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, toxic chemicals released into water, and hazard waste generated.

In fact, a ton is wrong with Texas.

Collins, in her acerbic but jokey style, eviscerates the Texas miracle in this book. She pokes holes in Texas myths, Texas decision-making, Texas culture and Texas politics. It all has a sharp tone, which can grate, but her points are difficult to refute. The Lone Star State is driven by cultural myths that simply do not align with geographic, demographic, economic, or political reality. The state is a mess and doesn’t even know it.

The kicker is Texas’s over-size impact on what happens to the rest of the United States. Blame it on leadership, the Texas committee that recommends textbooks for children,  or the durability of the cowboy and Wild West – Texas generates strong feelings in a way that Ohio cannot. And this would not interest Collins, save for the eerily power of Texas in defining America.

Reading Collins is a bit like sour candy. Tangy, tasty, and liable to leaving you feeling a tad ill if you have too much. Even though she’s funny and right, As Texas Goes  is a bit much for one sitting.


How’s a Flaneur To Get Around Today?

Taras Grescoe is a travel writer and flaneur for the 21st century. A Canadian-born global citizen, Grescoe has authored five books of non-fiction:  Sacre Blues, an unsentimental study of Quebec; End of Elsewhere, a tale of his journey from one end of the planet to another; Devil’s Picnic, Grescoe pushing the limits of fun all around the world, Bottom Feeder, a query into whether or not one can eat seafood ethically, and most recently, Straphanger. Grescoe is an engaging writer whose curiosity and excitement carry his ideas and prose. It is clear that Grescoe greatly enjoys traveling and writing. It is easy to imagine coming across him at a restaurant or train station and having a very interesting conversation.

Straphanger is a study of mass transportation systems and their cities. An avowed user of public transportation, Grescoe avoids cars whenever he can. Grescoe is also an urbanite, drawn to the juxtapositions of dense city living. His book is a first-hand journey to twelve cities – New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogota, Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal – through the lens of the cities’ mass transit. History, politics, economics and urban studies are sprinkled lightly into the mix, as are interviews and chance encounters.

The subtitle, “Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile,” addresses a recurring theme. Grescoe aims to give a compelling account of better ways to live and to get around. Here he is less successful, but not for want of trying. The book is helpful and informative, but far from authoritative or even particularly insightful. Grescoe’s argument is grounded in the excitement and expertise of a well-read tourist.

Hovering around the narrative are harder to answer questions. Was it particular conflations of leadership and opportunity that led to the development of certain cities and certain systems? Or are there lessons and models to consider? Compounding the queries is Grescoe’s approach itself. He’s an unencumbered man about to become a father. His responsibilities, as they are, consist of journeying to interesting cities, riding their mass transit systems and asking a few folks along the way some questions. Of course he doesn’t have to drive – and one wonders if he ever really grasps the day-to-day of the workers in the cities he describes. Accessing a bus or subway to get to an interview is one thing; to use mass transportation to try to juggle work and child care is another.

I, like Grescoe, feel at home in cities. I welcome density and the stimulation that comes from urban environments. I also readily acknowledge the multitude of costs that accompany driving an automobile on a regular basis. But I don’t believe that any of the above would make for supporters of public transportation. That assertion has to based on something harder, more universal, and much more practical. And that argument requires one to sit down, take root, and really learn about a city.


To Get an International Job Done

Amid partisan wrangling, international conflict, and the quantification of risk, is it possible today to do something grand on the international scale? A war, perhaps, but what about project with global implications? And can anything be done in the Middle East? To answer just that question I recently read Zachary Karabell’s Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal.

Karabell is a twenty-first century Renaissance man. He is an economist and money manager, has overseen mutual funds, and has his own firm looking at economic and political trends. He is also a Harvard educated historian with extensive knowledge of global economic development and the author of several books. Most importantly, Karabell has the background, training and perspective to explain one of the most daunting construction projects of the nineteenth century: the building of the Suez Canal.

The waterway, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, was a massive engineering feat when first completed in 1869. It did not, though, require all that much by way of innovation or cutting edge technology. What made the building of the Suez Canal such an extraordinary undertaking was the politics and the people involved. This is the focus on Karabell’s thoughtfully written study.

Many since the time of the Pharaohs recognized the value of connecting the two seas through canals. Ptolemy led one such project. The earlier efforts silted up, however, and it was not until Napoleon invaded Egypt that the idea gained traction. Numerous studies were undertaking, but none had a clear champion the vision, perseverance, connections and will to bring the idea forward. Until Ferdinand de Lesseps, a well-connected diplomat whose career derailed due to French politics in 1849, took up the cause.

Karabell patiently explains the conditions and leadership of Egypt at the time. He makes clear that while de Lesseps may take the hero’s role in the tale, Egypt’s Khedive, Sa’id Pasha, was essential in creating the political environment for the Canal’s success.  De Lesseps knew Sa’id Pasha as young man, and as Karabell regularly notes, de Lesseps multinational connections were invaluable. Not only did Egypt have to approve the Canal and provide the labor to dig the waterway, de Lesseps sought international funding of the company, as well as the support of France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and other European leaders.

Through incessant effort and skillful political management, de Lesseps increasingly engaged French government in the project. He parlayed cultural fascination with things Egyptian into support. Karabell has a firm understanding of French culture in the 1800s and regularly connects the colonial exoticism of Egypt with the domestic politics of France. The creation of the Canal basically came about through a France – Egypt partnership under de Lesseps driving vision. Opposed to the project, England may have benefited the most from the increased opportunities for world trade and maritime power.

Ultimately, as Karabell makes evident, the Suez Canal provided significant benefit at significant cost. One senses the author’s identification – with the key players in the story of the Suez Canal – and also with his admiration for the success of the project. It truly took an international vision with international expertise. And it would be an equally daunting task today.

Sam Spade on ADHD – Mystery or Farce?

The blurb on Greg Palast’s latest book, Vultures’ Picnic, describes him as a cross between Sam Spades and Sherlock Holmes. Throw in Karl Kolchak of the Night Stalker and Inspector Clouseau and it’s a more accurate appraisal. Sporting a fedora in his head shots and incessantly veering off-topic, Palast may have serious investigative skills, but there well-hidden. The Vultures’ Picnic stands as one of the most frustrating books to cross my desk in while.

A vulture, Palast tells us, is a billionaire investor/financier who holds a nation hostage for its national resources. Palast’s book is a global kaleidoscope, through space and time, chasing down the relationships between global finance, multinationals and the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals. It is an extraordinarily important topic with consequences for how we think about economics, politics, the environment and energy policy. So why cannot Palast write about it?

Vultures’ Picnic is a mishmash of notes, anecdotes, assertions and asides. Palast is so in love with the image of what he’s trying to do that he never actually does it. He may have worked with top news organizations at one point but it’s clear why he is not now. The book would registered as such a disappointment had it not consistently referenced nuggets and germs of truly important ideas.