Books: Brian Arsenault Takes on Kafka’s “The Castle” and Writes To Son Brent About It

April 29, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

Hey Brent,

You asked me to tell you more about the class I’m taking on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I’ll start with Ed. who’s teaching, or rather leading, the class.

I’ve taken literature courses with Ed before: Kerouac’s The Road, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio so I knew the course would be worth it.

Like Kafka, Ed’s a Jew and he started us off with what he self consciously acknowledged would be a Jewish interpretation of the novel, if indeed it is a novel (more about that later). Ed said that an essential aspect of Jewish life since Biblical times was the lack of “a place to stand,” a place to belong, a place of permanence.  Suddenly main character K’s relentless attempts to belong in a community that does not seem to want him took on a new meaning.

It also seemed to me that, agree or disagree with him, Netanyahu’s ferocious attempts to secure Israel’s continued existence made greater sense than ever. He will battle to hold on to a homeland, a place to stand, a place to be, against all enemies and one in particular. Iran, with its avowed intention to remove Israel from the earth.

Not being a Jew, though, I had to seek my own meaning, not in contradiction but in my own frame of reference. And what I found was the world turned upside down, with conventional reality no sure barometer of truth.

In Voltaire’s Candide, passengers on a ship without food calmly discuss cutting off one buttock of an attractive young lady to roast. The discussion seems reasonable enough; the collected crew and passengers are basically agreeing on a course of action that will save all. Yet they never seem to consider that their meat will involve the horrible mutilation and almost certain death of a young woman.

In The Castle, a family’s fortune is ruined and they become despised outcasts because one of two sisters, Amelia, declines the salacious written advances of an elderly member of The Castle‘s officialdom. What becomes the focus of the community’s ire, seemingly irrationally, is Amalia’s rudeness to the messenger by tearing up the note and throwing it in his face.

Somehow, in a single long monologue, the other sister, Olga, shows K that, looked at a certain way, the whole incident was Amelia’s fault and the family’s fortunes would have been saved, even advanced, had she gone to the offending official. It’s all very reasonable except Amelia would have had to accept thorough degradation. That never comes up.

We also learn throughout the novel, and particularly later on when our assumptions are all challenged, is that what was clear from K’s perspective was not at all the viewpoint of others in the village. A point Ed wonderfully illustrated when, after a particularly vigorous class discussion, he pointed out that we were all coming at the same information from the different slants of our backgrounds and perceptions of reality.

Kafka might have chuckled at that though I don’t think he chuckled often. What he did, though, was have a successful career in business where he was thought effective, efficient and kind but he considered himself a terrible failure.  Regarding his writings, Kafka asked that after his death everything should be burned.  He was only 42, long suffering from tuberculosis. A friend, fortunately, preserved Kafka’s writings and sought their wide publication.

The Castle is not an easy read, far from it. It is dense, repetitive, frustratingly vague, full of subtle twists and turns. The young grow old, the angelic turn soiled, even doorways are lowered as people pass through (Lewis Carroll anyone?)

High art is often difficult. If one considers Vince Guaraldi, say, as compared to Thelonious Monk it’s easy to like, and I do, those cheerful, youthful, Peanutsful melodies of Guaraldi. Monk on the other hand can be a difficult listen, with all that dissonance and melodic shifts. Yet there is little doubt which is the greater artist.

A friend of mine who has also taught me a great deal about literature says he thinks in 50 years no one will read Joyce or other challenging writers. Our devices will hand us ongoing easy entertainment and we just won’t make the effort for the hard stuff. I think he’s a bit pessimistic but I worry about how right he might be.

Finally, is The Castle a novel? That same question has been asked of Joyce’s Ulysses. Neither conform to our notion of a linear storyline which is a basic tenet of what we think of as a novel. Neither provides full resolution of the conflicts and issues within. Neither writer may think there is a resolution.

I think Ed said it best. One reads The Castle for the details, for the differing perception on what is real and what is illusion. The person K seeks most in the book is the elusive Klamm. I read one critic who said Klamm is a Czech word, or close to it, for illusion.

And in Chapter XX we find:  “illusions are more common than changes in fortune-”

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To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Books: “The Orphan Sky,” By Ella Leya

March 20, 2015

By Don Heckman

I am delighted to tell her many fans, here at iRoM and across the international musical world, that Ella Leya, Azerbaijani-born Hollywood composer/singer/author, was invited by First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama to the recent Nowruz reception held at the White House. And the honor was well deserved, acknowledging Ella Leya as one of the most prominent Azeri-Americans for her vital contributions to the cultural heritage of both her native and adoptive
countries.

Ella Leya

Ella Leya

Ella Leya has become an effective and influential emissary of Azerbaijani culture in the United States, bringing a growing awareness of her homeland to American audiences. Her life journey has been featured in major USA media and her songs have appeared in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve.

Her debut novel, The Orphan Sky, is the first novel about Azerbaijan to be written and published in the United States.  Among the many accolades it has received, legendary Chicago Tribune journalist Rick Kogan has noted that “this book belongs on the desk of every cultural attaché around the world as a beautiful, poetic introduction to Azerbaijan.”

I first met Ella Leya a decade ago when I interviewed her for a Los Angeles Times story about her intriguing album, Russian Romance, in which she sings songs in the Russian romance style — an expressive, often sentimental art form combining lyrics by well-known Russian poets with Gypsy-tinged, often blues-like melodies and Middle-Eastern rhythms.

And I was immediately convinced that I’d just met a born storyteller — a view that broadened as soon as I heard her other recordings — Queen of Night and Secret Lives of Women, the latter dedicated to history’s most famous and infamous femme fatales: Sappho, Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Princess Diana.

But I never anticipated that those impressive story-telling skills would come together in the pages of the semi-autobiographical The Orphan Sky. Nor did I realize that Ella’s rich, extensive music background – as an award- winning classical pianist and a convincing jazz singer/songwriter – would also play a powerful role in the novel’s irresistible tale of love, destiny, and art.

Ella, who now lives in London, explained the creatively symbiotic linkage between words and music in her debut novel in a conversation we had for a story in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Words,” she told me, “are my musical notes, formed through melody. I follow its rhythm, syncopations, harmonies, dissonances, climaxes until I reach that sacred place of creative freedom where I can pour my heart out on paper.”

Set at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, The Orphan Sky, its story inspired by Azerbaijan’s Legend of Maiden Tower, reveals the ancient soul of 20th century Azerbaijan, chronicling the life of Leila, a young pianist, as she searches for her identity  amid the travails of her beloved country. The tale, which blends a Romeo and Juliet story in a coming of age narrative, also has a strikingly contemporary subtext, revealing the deep historical roots that have impacted Azerbaijan’s role in the troubled complexities of the present day Middle East.

The Orphan Sky has been endorsed by such iconic music and literary personalities as Maxim Vengerov, Quincy Jones, Tracy Chevalier, and praised “as visceral and exotic as any spy novel and as authentically convincing as The Kite Runner.”

It’s no surprise, therefore that The Orphan Sky has already piqued interest from several top film directors considering a film adaptation of this superb contemporary tale.

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To read iRoM posts, reviews and essays by and about Ella Leya click HERE.  Her website is at http://ellaleya.com,


Book Review: “Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?” A Memoir By George Clinton With Ben Greenman

October 21, 2014

By Devon Wendell

Finally the official autobiography of funk music’s most innovative architect is here.

There have been many books on George Clinton and the P-Funk legacy; many including interview excerpts but this is the first time we get the pure “uncut” details of Dr. Funkenstein’s life. Clinton has teamed up with best-selling Brooklyn fiction and nonfiction writer Ben Greenman (The Slippage and Meta Blues (co-written by Questlove) to help present a candid, personal look inside Clinton’s life, which has spanned more than half a century in the music business.

This book has Clinton cover his entire life. Clinton was born literally in an outhouse in North Carolina. He then became a popular hairstylist in Plainfield, New Jersey where he formed his barber shop quartet in the early ‘50s. After being inspired by Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers, he formed The Parliaments which started off as a doo-wop group that sang on street corners. After Motown came on the scene; Clinton’s sound became slicker as he and The Parliaments tried to get signed to Motown’s label.

After a brief stint writing for various Detroit labels and recording many popular sides with The Parliaments, including the mega-hit “Testify” on Revilot, Clinton and the other members of the group couldn’t keep their suits clean like The Temptations or their sound. George also began absorbing the influence of ‘60s psychedelic rock and absorbing plenty of LSD as The Parliaments morphed into Funkadelic.

From then on there was no stopping Clinton. Funkadelic fused the influences of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Sly And The Family Stone. Funkadelic became one of the wildest, most outrageous, and subsequently one of the first post-Hendrix black-rock groups of the time. Clinton had lost the rights to the name The Parliaments at the time and Funkadelic became his main focus.

Funkadelic was mainly an underground force to be reckoned with during early ‘70s. Mainstream success had eluded Clinton until he had gotten the rights back to the name The Parliaments and signed with Neil Bogart’s label Casablanca in 1974. George simply changed the name to Parliament. With the major contributions of Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Garry Shider, and every artist in George’s funky collective, both Parliament and Funkadelic took the ‘70s and by storm, changing black music forever. Clinton was the first artist to present funk as both an attitude and a way of life which is clear in every chapter of this book.

George Clinton

George Clinton

From tales of the mothership landing onstage in front of thousands of P-Funk fans in the late ‘70s, to gruesome stories of drug abuse, crooks, and lawsuits, readers of this memoir get an inside look as to how this conceptual genius thinks and continues to move forward in an ever changing music industry. The odds were always stacked against Clinton and his ever-growing group of vagabond musicians but he has never stopped looking to the future and has never given up hope. Like Miles Davis; Clinton has never been one to get stuck in or by nostalgia.

A seemingly countless number of hip-hop artists have sampled P-Funk’s music beginning in the 1980s to the present. But, instead of dismissing the art form, George has encouraged the hip-hop community and even has incorporated his own “Rhythm and Rhymes” into the genre. Clinton also collaborated with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy and many other hip-hop innovators. And he has produced and collaborated with such alternative rock bands as The Red Hot Chili Peppers And Primal Scream during the ‘90s who were heavily influenced by Funkadelic’s guitar driven funk.

Fans will be overjoyed by Clinton’s details, never heard before, of Parliament/Funkadelic recording sessions and tours. Clinton’s humorous wit, intelligence, and unique philosophies make this one of the most entertaining autobiographies or “memoirs” to surface in many years.


Book Review: “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,” by Chuck Haddix

July 21, 2013

By Brian Arsenault

When I first heard Bird: The Savoy Recordings so many year ago I thought that Charlie Parker must be from a different place, a different planet, somewhere in a galaxy far far way.  And I was sort of right.

He was from the remarkable jazz planet of Kansas City, Missouri in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. Ben Webster, Lester Young, Count Basie and many others were part of that place and time that spawned the greatest of them all.

In his soon to be released Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,  Chuck Haddix takes us on Parker’s journey from mediocre musicianship in KC to world renown fame in New York, LA. and Europe. But Haddix starts in that remarkable time in Kansas City.

It is one of the ironies of history that Missouri — from whence vicious rebels, from Quantrill to Bloody Bill Andersen to the James Brothers, raided free state Kansas on behalf of the Confederacy — became in Kansas City a rollicking free wheeling center for black musicians in large black neighborhoods of all kinds of commerce, intermingling with white ethnic neighborhoods, often quite comfortably.  The state of Kansas, meanwhile, stayed largely white, conservative in religion and politics.

Haddix gives us a feel for all that and if he spends too much time listing all the musicians in all the bands that ever played in the city and its environs, well, he is the Director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  The home of a very fine music department, by the way.

Haddix’s work is very important because Parker is so very important. A history of Bird is, among other things, the history of bop jazz, unimaginable without him. Bird was a very great American artist among other great American artists.

What is it they say near the start of The Lord of the Rings: “History becomes legend. Legend becomes myth.”  Something like that.

And Charlie Parker is shrouded in myth.  The myth of enormous appetites: in alcohol, in drugs in food, in intimate relations.  Haddix notes for one thing that Parker was married simultaneously to Rebecca, Gerri and Doris.  That’s at the same time, folks, while also living in a common law marriage with children with a woman named Chan.

Rather like Jack Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty and women in On the Road. Dean of course was a huge bop fan.

Haddix doesn’t gloss over any of Parker’s sides — unreliable, not showing up or showing up stoned for gigs, constantly disappearing in an ongoing search for drugs, chumping friends and business associates for money.  But Haddix is never sensational or salacious about it. He also shows us the generous Parker, the loving if frequently absent father, the kindnesses to lesser musicians, the enormous charm and charisma.  How else could he have had so many women, several of whom tolerated his massive infidelities.

With great artists you sometimes get great ranges in behavior.  Hemingway was capable of great kindness and great boorishness.  Joyce’s long suffering wife, Nora, frequently had to seek his drunken self in midnight Trieste, the booze paid for by money he scammed from his brother.

There’s more than a little hint of racism when whites nod sagely at the news that a black musician was, well, you know. Papa Hemingway would have had no trouble keeping up with Bird at the bar.

An artist must ultimately be judged by his work.  Who are we lesser beings to judge a life other than our own (if we dare)?  And in a very readable style Haddix shows us what a significant, brilliant musician Parker was. You may not get all the descriptions of Parker’s musicality if you aren’t musically schooled. I didn’t. But you will get Bird’s significance to American music, our greatest art form.

This is important.  Parts of our own history gets lost to us because they are seldom taught.  And any history of music in America without jazz is simply irrelevant.  And you cannot write a history of American jazz without Bird.

I said at the beginning how dazzled I was on first hearing Parker’s playing.  I was heartened in the book by Dizzy Gillespie’s remark that he’d “never heard anything like it before.  The way he assembled notes together.”  Yeah.

Gillespie is rightly credited by Haddix as the “co-founder” who actually inadvertently coined the name bebop. He and Parker were intense competitors and marvelous collaborators.

Critic and jazz historian Ira Gitler in the liner notes to my battered copy of Bird: The Savoy Recordings quotes drummer Stan Levey who played with Parker in the 1940s:

“My first impression of Charlie’s playing was that he was sort of a Pied Piper. I’d never heard anything like it.  I didn’t really know what he was doing but it made me feel good to listen to him.”

That’s about three of us so far who’d never heard anything like it.  Despite Parker’s many imitators and inheritors, I still haven’t.

I read much of the book listening to those Savoy recordings from the mid-1940s when Parker was arguably at his very best.  There’s a song called “Meandering” and it’s not full of the Parker famed double time and eighths and sixteenths.  It’s simple little ballad, a soft melody. It made me stop reading and just listen. Listen. It’s my greatest hope for the book that people will listen to Bird yet again or for the first time.

Charlie Parker began playing and hanging around clubs at 12.  He was gone at 34. Chuck Haddix has illuminated all that he did in between.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Books: Giveaways and Ruth Brown — “If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Keep Sittin’ On It”

May 26, 2013

By Michael Katz

Today, in preparation for the June 1st release of my new novel Dearly Befuddled, I’d like to say a few words about book giveaways. Since I am a proud holder of an MBA in finance from the University of Wisconsin, I approach this topic with a good deal of reticence.  It violates a founding tenet of business, as articulated by one of the great titans of industry, Father Guido Sarducci: “You buy-a-something. You sell it for more.”

Mike Katz Befuddled Book coverBut in the world of Internet book commerce, the giveaway has become something of a practiced art. The theory goes like this: you give your book away for a few days. Lots and lots of people “buy it,” swelling your “sales.” This appears to make your book a best seller on one of their many Best Seller Lists (“Number One On Amazon’s Alien Romance Sports Bicycle Repair Great Restaurants of Austin List!”) The people who bought your book for free read it and write glowing reader reviews. The public sees your suddenly inflated rating and glowing reviews, then decides they must purchase your book, as well as your backlist of E-books. Real money starts showing up in your bank account. Sports Illustrated swimsuit models start lining up at your front door. (Example enhanced for marketing purposes…)

I should point out that there is an entire industry built around these giveaways. Sites and services charge fees in the hundreds of dollars to publicize your giveaways. In other words, you, Dear Author, are paying real American dollars (or gold trinkets, depending on your political persuasion) to give away your own book.

I know some people swear this method works. Personally, I am skeptical. For one, I think folks place little value on things they get for free. For another, I actually tried it with my Sussman/Glick comic mystery trilogy. Over the past year I gave away hundreds of copies of Last Dance In Redondo Beach and The Big Freeze, and saw only a minimal sales bump.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is one of the most famous cases in business history, as taught in business schools throughout the nation. It involves a young woman who owned a small used furniture store. She had in her possession a valuable chair. A customer felt she was overcharging, and wanted her to, in the vernacular of the times, “give it away.”

Thanks to our sister institution, the Katz of The Day Online Business School, we have a transcript of the case discussion, as discussed by the famous marketing professor, Dr. Ruth Brown. The clip omits the first few words of the discussion, so I present them here to you in front of the actual presentation.

Ruth Brown:

“I own a second hand furniture store, and I think my prices are fair;

That is until this real cheap guy came in one day,

Saw this chair he wanted to buy, but he wouldn’t;

Claimed the price was too high…

If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Sit On It.”

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To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.


Books: Scott Yanow’s “The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide”

May 23, 2013

By Don Heckman

The jazz encyclopedist is at it again.  Scott Yanow, who must have reviewed every jazz recording released since 1975, when he turned 21, has published his eleventh jazz book. Not to mention the myriad of magazine and newspaper reviews, bios, press releases and more that he has written along the way.

Following in the pattern of  his previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists:The Ultimate Guide is filled with detailed information.  But this tome is an even more remarkable accomplishment than such Yanow works as as his previous books on Swing, Bebop, Jazz Singers, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Trumpet Kings and Jazz on Film.

In it, Scott includes biographies, musical commentaries and comprehensive recording data about his subjects, managing to assemble an extraordinary amount of information about an equally extraordinary number of guitarists.

He opens with a thoughtful essay about the role of the guitar — and the banjo, as well — in the history of jazz.  Next up, he offers five far-reaching, all-inclusive guitar player segments:

– “The 342 Great Jazz Guitarists”

– “44 Other Historic Guitarists”

– “175 Other Jazz Guitarists on the Scene Today”

– “They Also Played Jazz Guitar” (including such multi-instrumentalists as Bobby Hackett and Bobby Sherword, and such genre-crossover players as Willie Nelson and Peter Frampton).

– “Jazz Guitarists On Film”

In total, it all adds up to just about everything one could ever want to know about the guitar in jazz — from its earliest role to the present, from the banjo to Pat Metheny’s Pikasso Guitar.  In short, like all of Scott Yanow’s previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide is a vital reference source, one that belongs in the library of every serious jazz fan.


Book Review: “101 Essential Rock Records” by Jeff Gold

December 2, 2012

 101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols

by Brian Arsenault

Thank you, Jeff Gold.

The vinyl LP needed someone to wax poetic about it and do a big book about it and you did. You notice I didn’t say coffee table book because that phrase has been used mostly pejoratively for a long time. So I’ll just say go get a copy of this big beautifully illustrated book and put it on a table where you can pick it up frequently and know what an art form once looked like.

There also are some neat essays done mostly by people you know — like Graham Nash, Iggy Pop, Suzanne Vega and some you may not.

David Bowie’s is one of the most intriguing wherein he observes that The Velvet Underground and Nico “. . . was so savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It could give a fuck.” Exactly so and that’s what was scraping at my mind at a less articulated level for all these years since I first heard Warhol’s evil little band of demons.

Not all the writing is as good a Bowie’s and there’s a lot of “the first record I bought” stuff here but I think that’s what they all were asked to write about so no complaint. And the memories are just as dear to famous boomers as the rest.

So are the album covers.  One of the things I think Gold and Jac Holzman, both record executives, understate in their introductions is the importance of the jacket — its size, its pictures, its often wildly artistic presentation.  Compare that to something as small as a CD with its tiny lettering and postage stamp photos. With LPs, you could look at the band and read about them and there were the song titles and who produced it and all that good stuff.

Have you noticed that after shrinking to elf size, cell phones have suddenly grown larger to give you a screen on which you can actually see something. LP jackets gave you a lot to see.

What I think Gold and Holzman may overstate is the resurgence of vinyl. Thanks, Jac, for validating my long standing feeling that LP sound is “warmer and more sensual” but I’m not sure the vinyl record (what a quaint word, record) “is alive and doing well.”

Thanks again, Jeff, for the book but I’m not sure what it means that in 2011 vinyl sales were up more than 37 percent over the prior year.

I checked with the young, anyone under 40, and they aren’t abandoning iTunes and downloads. I think your optimism may just be based on boomers having enough disposable income to indulge their taste for vinyl.  It may not be all that different from collectors of first editions, old locks and keys or even model trains, God forbid.

The reissue, or even loving preservation or restoration of the classic Thunderbird, won’t stop the coming and ultimate dominance of the Prius and other such modernities.

Still, whatever its ultimate fate, those of us who love vinyl cannot help but dig (old vinyl word) its seeming current comeback and appreciate the presentation of so many of the great albums of that era. An era stretching from the coming of the Beatles in the mid 1960s to 1979 when cassettes — now there was a truly despicable technology — had their brief run as king of the music buying public.

Jeff — you invited readers to point out oversights in your listing of 101, so I will.

I understand the reasoning behind your presentation of the version of a record from its country of origin.  But really, Jeff, only the USA and the islands off the coast of Europe, England and Ireland, really matter.

To omit Meet the Beatles in favor of its British counterpart Please Please Me is to ignore the greatest musical force that ever hit America. Nothing was the same after its arrival, as you well know.

Another odd omission is Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, almost certainly rock’s first true concept album and a simply fantastic rock LP. “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona” taken to guitar operatic levels.

And how about the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, an album of exceptional grace and beauty on which the band actually sings on key (most of the time) and creates a true piece of Americana music.

Yet much credit is earned for including the Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West, which gave many Beatles fans their first look into the complexity possible in rock and the blues base from which it came. I mean Bloomfield and Bishop were the other two B’s in that remarkable band.

Equal praise for the often overlooked Forever Changes by Love, an album of heartbreaking beauty and poetry within a psychedelic enigma.

Well, I could go on and on. This is a book as much about the music of a generation (or two or three) as it is about the vinyl form and there’s much pleasure to be gained.

If  Kramer(of Seinfeld) ’s concept of a coffee table book that’s an actual coffee table were to be realized, this would be my choice for enshrinement.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


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