Friday, November 11, 2022

Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom by Carl Bernstein

For those readers seeking to find new and interesting insights in Watergate or juicy disclosures about Carl Bernstein's work with Bob Woodruff, this book is NOT for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for an engaging narrative about the growth and development of an eager, smart, observant kid who became a first-rate newsman in the environment of Washington, DC, this is the book for you. 

Raised in an observant Jewish family in Washington, Bernstein early discovered that formal education wasn't for him. However, when he discovered the news room of the (late) Washington Star, he found a school that provided him all he needed: skills, insights, structure, friends, and a lifetime career. 

Beginning as a copy boy, a runner who picks up news in progress and moves it from desk to desk, Bernstein moved quickly into taking dictation on the phone from reporters in the field, to filing news himself, to getting bylines for the stories he wrote. In other words, he became a professional newsman while still a teenager. Because he loved prowling Washington neighborhoods, he often found himself on site when interesting things were happening. He was a quick learner and accurate in his descriptions and reporting. 

The mentors he found at The Star, as well as the bad examples he was smart enough to identify and avoid, provided him with the education his infrequent attendance at the University of Maryland never accomplished. After five years of what can best be called an apprenticeship, he left the failing Star to join a colleague at a newspaper in Newark, Nj, a far cry from the excitement of Washington. After working for several other papers, he returned to Washington and has spent most of the rest of his distinguished carrer as a reporter for the Washington Post.\

Carl Bernstein

This is a lively, fun-filled book worth your attention. You'll learn a lot about the news business in a most enjoyable presentation. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Book Review


Named to The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year in 2018 as well as short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, Washington Black captures the reader quickly dropping onto the island of Barbados on a plantation in 1830. The story is told by Washington Black, a young slave who doesn’t know whether he’s ten or eleven years old. He has no memories he considers worth remembering while he lives on a plantation under the strict and sometimes violent vigil of on older slave woman he knows as Big Kit. Work and frequent beatings in blinding heat are the constants in his life. 

One of the sons of the plantation’s owner, Christopher Wilde, known as Titch, plucks young Wash out of his miserable life to assist him in launching a strange lighter than air vehicle…a doomed to failure venture, which leads to Wash’s being burned almost beyond recognition, and to his escape with Titch to America. There follows a strange, often frightening, journey to escape a slave catcher, and learn to live on his own in America and, later, Canada. Throughout his travels, his skills as a draftsman/artist grow along with his interest in marine life, which turns out to be his greatest skill, beyond survival. At first seeming a little strange, the novel turns into a page turner as Wash continues his search for the meaning of his own existence. 

Author Esi Edugyan, is a Canadian writer educated who studied at the University of Victoria and Johns Hopkins University. She has published three novels and one work of nonfiction. Her works have earned a number of prizes and mentions for major awards in fiction writing. 

Esi Edugyan 

Washington Black captures a reader at the start and retains interest as he struggles to learn who he is as well as where he might fit in as he grows in self-awareness through a series of harrowing and then satisfying growth experiences. Edugyan’s writing has narrative drive along with close observation and character development. I bought the book from ThriftBooks and it is available in all the usual outlets. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

My American Journey by Colin L. Powell


Colin Powell's journey from being the son of immigrant parents from Jamaica and growing up in a working class environment in Queens, New York, New York stands as a shining example of the possibilities for ambitious, upwardly mobile people. A graduate of Queens College and ROTC, he rose to become the highest ranking officer in the American armed forces as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Serving under mostly Republican Presidents (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) he maintained, in the best manner of an American soldier a neutral political stance while striving go serve each administration in which he worked with the best advice he could, while leading four often competing military services. His story is filled with wit, wisdom, and insight. Until the end of the book, he expresses no political philosophy. At the end, he outlines a moderate governmental viewpoint, which would be a model for us, today, to seek to follow. He turned down an offer from President Bill Clinton to run as his Vice-Presidential running mate, and refused to run for President after retiring from the Army in favor of going home to his wife a family.

Colin Powell emerges as likable yet determined to create change in the armed services where necessary and to effect American foreign policy where action, often wished for by the men he served under, would have cost American lives for no good purpose than to meet political goals.

My American Journey provides exceptionally interesting insights into our problems today while still relevant and meaning, despite having been published a dozen years ago. Highly recommended

Monday, March 28, 2022

Rock of Ages: A Junior Bender Mystery by Timothy Hallinan


Junior Bender is driving along the street with his teenage daughter Rina, when she pops the question he’s been dreading. She asks what he does for a living. Bender, a career thief, specializing in high value thefts for underworld denizens, gulps, considers his obligations, and decides to answer her questions honestly while spending the weekend engaged in his profession. 

One of the delights of any new Tim Hallinan novel is that you don’t need to have read the preceding novels in the series to catch up with the characters. In Rock of Ages (Soho Crime Jun 07, 2022 | 336 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9781641292184) we find protagonist Junior Bender, with his teenage daughter Rina at a legacy rock concert featuring bands that might have been well known fifty years ago. As a brick wall collapses, a musician is killed and the stage is set for Junior to track down the murderer, protect his daughter, continue his storied career as a master thief, and provide plenty of thrills and laughter for his legion of readers. 

The plot of Rock of Ages once again takes Junior into the friendly but risky world of uber gangster, the not quite retired, elderly and still dangerous Irwin Dressler, who remains dangerous despite being completely charmed by the ingenuous, smart-as-a-whip Rina. Dressler wants his investment in a dicy legacy rock tour which he has helped finance for four aging fringy rock promoters/gangsters. The final concerts take place in a fifty year old movie palace, no longer the great venue where major Hollywood blockbusters had their world premieres. connoisseurs of aging movie theaters and fading rockers will find this lively novel particularly delightful, as will Hallinan’s fans as well as those not yet familiar with his work. 

Two of Tim Hallinan’s series, Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty often mix first rate detective fiction with the problems inherent with fathering teenage girls and being a responsible family member while also engaging in a dangerous occupation. Achieving such a balance in a conventional occupation remains challenging enough. Succeeding within a life of danger and possible death creates tensions and risks that feed the imagination of hungry fiction readers. Doing so with humor and wit turns Rock of Ages into vintage Hallinan. As always, he mixes vivid descriptions, twisted plot-lines, and quirky characters to serve up a delightful frolic through the shady Hollywood underworld. 

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan lives in Southern California, where has based two of the three protagonists for his quite different series of novels. He has received high critical praise for his three series as well as increasingly widespread recognition for his Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok, where he once lived a portion of each year, and his Junior Bender series set in LA and surroundings. He has also served as a consultant to the movie and television industry on a range of issues. For more information, look here.

Rock of Ages (A Junior Bender Mystery) by Timothy Hallinan will be published on June 7th, and is available from all the usual (Amazon, Target, and bookstores everywhere). I found the book to be filled with good laughs, sharp insights, and believable relationships surrounding revealing insights into the sadness of aging rock groups, the decline of once great movie theaters, and the terrors of fatherhood. It does not require prior reading in the series to enjoy, although I recommend all three series as worthy of your attention, if you have not encountered Hallinan’s work before. 

A digital copy Rock of Ages was provided to me by the publisher in return for an unbiased reading and possible review. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

On the Bus with Bill Monroe by Mark Hembree - Book Review


It was the late seventies. Mark Hembree was an itinerant musician playing bluegrass with a Denver-based band called Monroe Doctrine. The band broke up, he moved back to Wisconsin, and a few months later happened on a chance to audition for Bill MonroeThe tryout went well, but he was still surprised when Monroe called a few days later and offered him the job. Two weeks later, he joined the band. That was the beginning of five years learning to work with the father of bluegrass music, a lesson that was never completely learned, always evolving and completely unpredictable. 

Hembree’s approach to writing On the Bus with Bill Monroe is anecdotal, and incidental, as if it were based upon stops along the way or incidents on the bus. Each brief chapter presents a complete incident illuminating an aspect of life on the road with Bill Monroe, his character, its hardships, quirks, strengths, needs, great vision, ability as a teacher, and sense of the immortality of  his music. 

Mark Hembree approaches Bill Monroe from a distance of forty years after spending five years in his band, using a macro lens to put a microscope on his experience. He adds nuance to his time with Monroe, putting the man’s life into perspective in ways that nothing else I’ve read about Monroe has succeeded in accomplishing. His writing is fresh, illuminating, open, and delightful.

Hembree’s chapter on legendary fiddler Kenny Baker may define his writing style as well as any. Instead of providing an encyclopedic discussion of  one of the defining fiddler's roles within the band, Hembree paints in haiku-like fine strokes, defining the man, his music, and his greatness. If I want to learn more, this provides me with the platform from which I can dive but it’s all I need to know to begin to understand the importance of Baker and his music to Bill Monroe.

Meanwhile, encounters with Monroe himself illustrate all the strengths and flaws that come together to make up his genius. His tight-fistedness alongside his sometime generosity, his flintlike hardness beside his sometimes warmth and understanding, his commitment to his originality and awareness of change. And so many other internal contradictions making up this complex genius.

More than one hundred and sixty musicians came and went during the history of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, some became famous in their own right, others are hardly remembered today. Each contributed in some way to the legend of the man and the music. But Bill Monroe assured the purity of his music, retained a constancy uniquely his own, always recognizable, whoever was in the band, no matter where in they were, from the smallest Appalachian village to Jerusalem, to the White House.

Mark Hembree

Mark Hembree joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1979 after a stint playing bass with Monroe Doctrine. He played with the Monroe until 1984, when he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band as a founding member with Alan O’Bryant, Pat Enright, and Mike Compton. After a bus accident, he retired to a publishing career in Wisconsin and now edits and writes as well as playing bluegrass with the Mark Hembree Band and western swing with the Best Westerns

Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys play Rawhide


The White House - 1980

Many books have sought to capture the quality of the man who created such an enduring legend, planted such vibrant and rich seeds, commanded such fear and respect. There’s almost an industry of scholarly study devoted to discovering the real Bill Monroe. Perhaps the incidents and anecdotes Mark Hembree brings together with his light, mostly humorous touch do as good a job as any of the much heavier pieces of serious scholarship. He presents a complex genius who emerged from poverty, illiteracy, and the Great Depression with a massive chip on his shoulder as well as great, unrecognized ability, fighting for every advantage he could achieve. The details are available in the many books. The core personality emerges in the stories lovingly, humorously, and admiringly told by Mark Hembree. On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Bluegrass Music by Mark Hembree is published by the University of Illinois Press, a volume in the series Music in American Life. It is available in April of 2022 from all the usual outlets.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin

In many ways the story of Rounder Records (Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin (Equinox Publishing, April, 21, 2021, 320 pp, $29.95) and the story of bluegrass music grew together when three college students from Tufts University began heading to Appalachia during the 1960’s to enjoy, record, and collect this music. Now, Bill Nowlin, one of three Rounder Founders has written the entire story of Rounder Records from close up. The book shows some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a writer broadly interested in the world of music and a world beyond, without ever losing its focus on the birth, development, and integrity of its subject, a record label of distinction and longevity.

Rounder Records, founded by Bill Nowlin, Ken Irwin, and Marian Leighton Levy in 1970 was unusual for independent labels in having three founders with different tastes, who sought out music to record from a wider palette than many early independent labels. Rounder emerged just as a yearning to discover the roots of the then popular folk revival was cresting. The three Rounder Founders set out to find, record, and collect the music of those roots, at first in the American South, but soon expanding to a much wider, more comprehensive world.

Rounder Founders

Marian Leighton Levy, Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin

Reading about the early adventures of the Rounder Founders is a little bit like watching puppies playing in their infant box when one considers the size Rounder grew to, and the speed with which it achieved a level of maturity. They hitch hiked to North Carolina and Virginia, haunted record stores in Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan, attended live shows at small venues, earned free tickets by promoting those shows, built a cut-and-paste recording business at little or no cost, all as an adventure without thought to making it a career. As many of the other new labels left folk music for rock and roll, the field opened to allow three dedicated young Boston students who hung with what they loved, to begin to prosper. It’s the story of three “counter culture” kids doing what they loved with passion and conviction while discovering a lifelong enterprise that worked out for all of them. 

In the early 1970’s, the recording industry was still pretty informal, especially among the multitude of independent, one person operations. Rounder benefitted from having three partners who worked hard while trying to be fair to artists and buyers simultaneously. Over time, and with added success, they remained true to their original ideals while, of necessity, having to become better organized and more businesslike. Nevertheless, for those who know them, the Rounder Founders still give off a whiff of counter culture kids from the late sixties and early seventies. There’s an informal construction to the book, as early friends pop in with memories along the way. Reading the book often feels like a conversation with many people from many eras. 

Originally collecting, recording performances, and producing these often rather highly specialized recordings focused on previously obscure performers in Appalachia, expanding to early bluegrass festivals and musical gatherings. Over time, their interests took them to cajun and zydeco in Louisiana, reggae and ska in Jamaica, and to Africa for both traditional and contemporary music. All of this became a part of what turned into an international catalog of over 3000 recordings. Meanwhile, the Founders always took care to represent the interests of the performers in terms of both publication and payment. In order to accomplish these sometimes contradictory goals, they took extra care in choosing partners to collaborate with.  

In order to manage this huge collection, Rounder’s business model had to expand as they kept tight control over their expenses. Rounder grew into both a recording company and a distributor, eventually leading them to partner with many other small companies to become a major distributor of niche roots music labels. The Founders learned to be nimble and innovative, while always looking out for the welfare and artistic/economic welfare of the artists they signed. During these periods of expansion, challenges, and opportunities, Nowlin’s narrative describes in detail the corporate interactions and complexities, often with the help of long lists. 

Ken Irwin expressed the criteria the company used for selecting music to record, saying, “There are three things we look at when we’re signing artists. One, do we like the music and do we feel that it will hold up over time? Two, do we like the people and their representation? Three, do we think we can make money from it?” Furthermore, if the music doesn’t pass the first test, the next two questions were never even asked. (p.204) As the music recording and distribution environment changed after the introduction of the CD, to digital online distribution through iTunes, Spotify, satellite radio, the role of music publishers and labels became increasingly less prominent. Rounder’s practice of being both a promoter of historic, regional, or local performers became viewed as important but less commercially viable. As such, their business changed as they focused on identifying excellence, publishing materials only available through national archives or private collections. 

I read Vinyl Ventures in a print edition with Spotify and YouTube at hand, so I could sample the albums and/or performers Bill Nowlin writes about in his clear, informal, narrative style. The e-version has built in links taking readers directly to Spotify versions of the music. Digital Sources often provided me with a setting for the places where the music was made in addition to providing invaluable insights into the range of music Rounder recorded. I was able to find and hear every artist I looked for on one or the other outlet, but I can’t verify the availability of every one. Nevertheless, since it’s inevitable that many musicians referred to in the book are unfamiliar to many readers, using such sources increases the pure pleasure of this book. 

Bill Nowling

Bill Nowlin is the author or editor of nearly 100 books ranging from this history, through other books about music, more than twenty titles concerning the Boston Red Sox, other baseball titles, political history, fiction, and more. He is a graduate of Tufts University and the University of Chicago, as well as being one of the original three Rounder Founders. He taught Political Science at UMass Lowell from 1970 - 1982. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, he claims to have traveled to more than 130 countries, but says there’s no place like Fenway Park.

Rounder Founders

One of the many delights of Vinyl Ventures lies in Bill Nowlin’s seemingly idiosyncratic asides into his travels, love of baseball, and other interests. One particularly useful segment describes the decline and fall of both the recording and book publishing industries to the allures and dangers of digital publishing found on pages 249 - 254. These five pages alone, devoted to the world’s digital environment changing before our eyes would make the whole book worthwhile, even if so many other delightful insights, observations, and useful elisions didn’t exist. 

For a person whose experience with Rounder Records grew from encountering bluegrass music relatively late in life with limited familiarity with popular folk and country music, encountering a book like Vinyl Ventures is simultaneously a daunting experience and a mind-opening revelation. The range of enthusiasms, deep scholarly exploration, and sometimes daunting physical challenges, even exposures to danger in order to collect and catalog a significant portion of the world’s music, is difficult, at best, to describe. Bill Nowlin with an expansive writing style sometimes losing track of chronology captures the courage, imagination, and capacity for risk taking, both personal and financial, the Rounder Founders exhibited in building their company.

A problem with books like this one is the possibility of becoming mostly a list of artists recorded, trips taken, awards won, problems overcome, and changes made. All those elements lie within this highly readable account, yet it includes the human experiences of the Rounder Founders as they built a recording empire based on their enthusiasms while including the broad range of interests they pursued. Their recorded music and choice of artists reflected and taught the world the broad range of music and cultural experience available, exposing the musical roots of who we are as people and who we can become. Therein lies the thrill and the charm of Vinyl Ventures