Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

Not the Rolling Thunder Review

In Wendy’s absence Jack gets to do the Monday book – on Tuesday

The Dylan Companion – Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman

As some of you will know I am a BIG fan of Mr Dylan/Zimmerman. So I’ve read many books about him (and by him). This is among the better ones, though.

Thomson and Gutman have assembled a grand collection of essays and articles spanning the period from 1962 through 1998 and more or less presented chronologically. Some are fairly lightweight and ‘of the moment’ while others are quite weighty and academic. All, however, have a good deal of authority.

Of course there are many well known names here – Robert Shelton, Paul Stookey, Alan Ginsberg, Richard Farina and Joan Baez. But there some unlikely and little known ones too.

Everyone knows that Bob Dylan famously re-invented himself when he arrived in New York in the early 1960s – following in the wake of many other American idols (such as Buffalo Bill Cody or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot). What caught my attention in this collection were the pieces that pointed out how single minded he was in building his new persona. The interview with his early New York girl friend Suze Rotolo is revealing in that respect, as are a number of others. Also revealing is that he was clearly already a fine performer before he hit New York!

Because the final pieces are from 1998, there’s nothing about the ‘never-ending tour’ that still continues, but there a few that shed some light on Bob’s reasons for performing live and the tensions between his public and private lives.

Correction – the afterword in the 2000 reprint does briefly touch on his continuing tour.

As the title suggests, this is a book that can be dipped into at leisure while residing perhaps on your bedside table.

Finally – although there are no essays or articles here by the man himself, he is quoted extensively throughout.

“Come Gather ‘Round people”

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Music hath Charms to soothe – – –

Jack’s Wednesday Blog Post on Thursday –

I’ve been teaching guitar for many years, off and on, mostly pretty informally although occasionally as part of an organized program.

But we do a fair bit of bartering around here, so that’s what I did when our friend Beth’s husband Brandon wanted lessons. He’s Wendy’s Chiropractor and Beth is our very long suffering Veterinarian. So in return for my guitar lessons Wendy gets adjusted!

It’s very interesting to re-live the traumas of tender fingertips and cramped fingers through the experience of pupils, and very hard to connect back to that time in your own life. It’s also so difficult to hold yourself back and try to keep to the pace of the student and not force them too far too quickly.

What helps in this case is that Brandon happens to have a very nice well set up guitar. There’s nothing more dispiriting than trying to learn on a hard to play instrument. Where Brandon’s existing knowledge departs from mine is that while he reads music he has taught himself to play piano by ear.

So, in this case it’s really just a case of memorizing a series of chord shapes then practicing until the fingers get used to their positions. I generally start people off with the A and E chords then pick a well known tune that only uses those chords, such as ‘He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands’. The first exercise is just to slowly hum the tune while changing between the chords at the appropriate places. That’s a good way to get used to how the sound of the chords underpins the melody.

In between times and just add a bit of variety I like to do some work on posture and how the guitar should be held and positioned as well as checking the tuning of each string either with a tuner or using the ‘5th fret method’.

Of course the real work is being done by Brandon in between lessons – that’s how he will get the fingers toughened up, and trained to move easily between the chords. I always love to see the progress from one week to the next and that’s a great delight.

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The Monday Book

Jack gets to write the Monday book review this week –

Molvanîa : A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry – Santo Cilauro et al.

molvania

This is a very funny spoof travel guide to a fictitious Eastern European country and is presented as part of a series called ‘Jetlag Travel Guides’.  Cilauro and his co-authors capture the character of the ‘Lonely Planet’ guides wonderfully and the humor mostly succeeds by sitting on top of that.

This is the kind of book that you can happily dip into wherever you want as there’s no narrative involved, however I have to admit that I eventually began to feel a bit uneasy as I did just that. Why uneasy? Well, I have visited quite a few Eastern European countries and like anywhere they all have their pros and cons. Some of the humor in this book began to come over as cruel and I wondered how I would have felt if I came from Romania or Slovakia (two places I have visited a number of times) instead of Scotland. In fact they could have easily done the ‘Jetlag Travel Guide’ of Scotland that could have been just as un-flattering.

But that’s just me and I should try to take a step back and give the book more of a chance.

The humor works best where you can see that the authors had great fun inventing the language, place names and culture as well as choosing photographs and compiling maps. There’s a very funny advert for ‘Go Touro Molv’ under 25 group travel too.

There’s obviously a lot of enjoyable work here by the folk who put it together and it’s in the detail that the funniest nuggets are to be found.

As an example let me present a paragraph from ‘Where to Eat’ –

“Lutenblag’s dining scene is vibrant and ever changing, with new establishments opening every month or so and older ones regularly being closed down by sanitation inspectors. Sadly, some restaurants, particularly the tourist oriented ones, often fall into the habit of ’embellishing’ tourists’ bills – – -”

I bought this book at ‘Downtown Books and News’ in Asheville NC – a really excellent bookstore!

 

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The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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Keep Calm and – – -?

Jack is doing the Monday book this week –

Crime Control as Industry – Nils Christie

Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I visit inmates at our local Federal prison each month, and I’ve been doing that for over four years. It’s against that background and in that context that I’m reviewing this book – – –

One thing I had inevitably learned in my conversations with inmates was that there seemed to be an enormous economy surrounding prisons in the US, then research showed me there was a very disproportionately high number of African-American prisoners, and the overall percentage of the population behind bars in this country was among the highest in the world (the three highest are China, Russia and the US).

Christie’s book is mainly concerned with western European countries and the US, and focuses on the very different attitudes and approaches to crime and punishment in them.

Nils Christie is a Norwegian criminologist, and his world-view is naturally affected by where he is based and grew up. The first thing that caught my attention in this book was that (at the time it was written – 1998) there was a waiting list in Norway for folk to serve their prison sentences! The number of prisons was small and there was a consensus that people shouldn’t be crammed in, so folk carried on with their lives and waited to be told when there was a space for them. The sentences were fairly short in most cases and only the most serious actually received prison time at all. Despite this, crime figures were low compared to other countries.

What on earth was going on here?!

What Christie goes on to unravel is the very definition of crime, the need for ruling elites to create and then control a ‘surplus population’ and the market led industry that operates that control. At its crudest (which is always), the market needs a level of unemployment in order to suppress wages and allow the economy to compete with others around the world (this is exactly the thinking of the recent winner of a certain Presidential election). That ‘surplus population’ in the US has historically been mainly black, so there are residual racist reasons feeding into the equation as well.

So, where are we now?

Christie is/was tentatively optimistic that reason would prevail and that his Norwegian model would set an example, however, other more recent research suggests otherwise. The growth of private prisons, the economic market surrounding State, Federal and private prisons, the increase in the ‘surplus population’ and the demonization of anyone who isn’t a WASP.

Maybe the fact that I’m a WASP and can write this is a good sign? There again, maybe an algorithm has already identified me as part of the ‘surplus population’?

 

 

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Stand and Deliver!

 Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

Tricking, treating or guising?

We had three hundred kids plus their supervising adults through the bookstore last Saturday. They were ‘trick or treating’ as these Americans say. They filed in over three hours, snaking through the place to the kids’ room to choose a free book, getting handed a cafe cookie and having a photo taken of them in costume before leaving for the next port of call.

trick-treat-crowd

A small number of the 300 waiting to enter

I wondered about that American tradition so I did some investigating – it turns out that it means “give me a treat or I will play a trick on you”. So, in other words, what would be described in an English or Scottish court as ‘demanding with menaces’!

There’s been a fair bit of discussion on facebook over the last few days about the different Halloween traditions on the opposing sides of the Atlantic, and even about the various names for the vegetable that gets carved into a lantern for the occasion.  I was forced to take part, if only to promote the correct name for the said vegetable.

In Scotland the festival was, for me, always ‘Guising’ (dressing in disguise) and the lantern was carved from a tumshie (a large turnip) and the kids had to perform a poem, song or joke in return for their gift. It was always a family event too, with games – dookin for aipples or trying to snare a treacly scone dangling from a string by mouth with your hands behind your back.

The name of the vegetable? I’ve heard Turnip, Swede, Neep and Tumshie (rutabaga over here) . It was always a tumshie in my youth. But when I grew up and became a responsible adult I was once asked to join an EU funded international environmental education project led by a Danish organization that had a license to grow hemp (don’t ask!). They suggested various Acronyms for the shared undertaking and one of them was NEEPS! I immediately agreed – of such is inter-cultural understanding achieved, although no-one understood why we’d agreed so quickly and enthusiastically.

Long may these weird things continue to confound us, and I can still remember the smell of a candle burning inside a hollowed out tumshie or neep!

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The Monday Book: SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky

The Monday Book falls on a Tuesday this week due to Celtic Festivals and kitten spays.

suiteIrene Nemirovsky was a Ukranian-born Jewish woman who lived in Paris and enjoyed a successful writing  career. She planned five short novels to be part of a book titled Suite Francaise, but she had only written two and drafted the third when she was rounded up, deported, and murdered.

What’s amazing about the first novel “Storm in June” is how accurately it describes something ongoing. Nemirovsky never got the luxury of time to contemplate what she saw, so her characterizations of the upper class family, the pompous writer, the sweet middle-class couple, and the nasty antiques dealer fleeing (or trying to flee) Paris sprang almost fully formed as she watched it unfold in front of her. I wonder who (or how many) of her colleagues she skewered in the darkly hysterical portrait of the famous author and his mistress as they flee, first in pomp and style, then with whatever diminishing wits they can gather about them.

Then there’s “Dolce,” from which a film is/has been made. It’s more of an expected war story: women whose husbands are prisoners in Germany house German officers as occupiers; add community sentiment and stir. It’s fairly predictable. But “Storm in June” is amazing in its details of what human hearts turn into when combined with fear, breakdown of social order, and a few sudden chances to change everything. Nemirovsky saw through a lot of veneers.

The manuscripts were finally published in this century, when her daughter opened the suitcase and read them, realized they were novels rather than journals, and sent them to Denoel, a large publishing house. “Storm in June” is pretty much genius, making you laugh and sob at the same time.

How many people did we lose in that storm, who would have made us laugh or cry today?

 

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