Friday, April 18, 2014

An Autobiography of Black Chicago by Dempsey Travis

If bookshelves were streets, you would find An Autobiography of Black Chicago by Dempsey Travis at the busy intersection of Chicago Way and Memory Lane. Stopped at this corner, the book's pages would open for you to see billboards for black-owned real estate, banking, and insurance companies and in the shop windows posters asking you to march for civil rights. And you would hear a calm, steady voice explaining to you why you have to get up early and do your part to change the world. By all accounts, black businessman and civil rights leader Dempsey Travis (1920-2009) did his part.

An Autobiography of Black Chicago was first published in 1981. That this memoir was ever written is remarkable, because in 1946 when he enrolled in college, Travis's poor reading ability forced him into remedial classes. When challenged by the probable failure of many in his situation, he applied himself and succeeded in college and business thereafter. Near the end of his book, he wrote of the importance of daily study for business people, stating that he read from ten newspapers each day.

In his book, Travis recounted what he saw in Chicago from the early 1920s to 1981 when Ronald Reagan became president. The account may surprise readers who mistakenly think that Jim Crow attitudes were confined to the South. 20th century Chicago was a very racist city, where most of the discrimination radiated from industry, unions, banks, real estate, and professional organizations, most controlled by white people. Blacks could only take the lowest paid jobs in factories, could not secure business loans, could not rent or buy properties in many neighborhoods, and were denied opportunities to join professional organizations, even when they had gotten college degrees. Fighting discrimination and making opportunities for himself and his race was Travis's mission.

Chicago was not the only stage in Travis's book. He was active in national business, professional, and civil rights organizations and eventually became an advisor to several presidents. He also was greatly shaped by a childhood trip to a funeral in Kentucky and his experiences in a racially-segregated military during World War II.

Agate Publishing put out a new paperback edition of An Autobiography of Black Chicago in 2013, preserving the essential Travis book but eliminating a collection of short autobiographical pieces by other black leaders. Serious students of Black Chicago may want to seek the older edition, which also includes many illustrations, but many contemporary readers will be more attracted to the new slimmer edition with greatly improved font and the most compelling part of the older book. An Autobiography of Black Chicago belongs in many Chicago area libraries and is a worthy addition to any collection on the national civil rights movement.

Travis, Dempsey. An Autobiography of Black Chicago. Agate Publishing, 2013. 216p. ISBN 9781932841671.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Marla Fraze

BBWB. Bonnie brings wonderful books. I could label many of my reviews with this code.

After reading God Got a Dog written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Marla Fraze, I could write a sermon, but this is a book review.

If I wrote a sermon, I would say how we would be more mindful and respectful toward other people if we realized who they really were. I would go on to say that we probably would restrain ourselves from hurting others, and if we did harm, we would be sorrowful and make amends.

But this is a book review, and God Got a Dog is a good book. I want to tell you about it without telling too much. You should discover its contents yourself.

God Got a Dog is a book filled with one-page story poems aimed at children that should also be made available to open-minded adults. With every poem is a delightful illustration clarifying its story's character and mood.

My favorite poems in the book:
"God woke up"
"God went to the doctor"
"God wrote a book"
"God got cable"
"God went to India"
Actually, I like them all. God Got a Dog is charming, sweet, and profound. Now I need to get God Went to Beauty School from which these poems were selected.

Rylant, Cynthia. God Got a Dog. Beach Lane Books, 2013. 9781442465183.

Monday, April 14, 2014

All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michele Guesdon and Philippe Margotin

The spindle on my inner phonograph is stacked high with Beatles records. I have just finished reading All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michele Guesdon and Philippe Margotin, a huge book that chronicles the recording history of the Fab Four. At the moment as I write, I'm hearing "Words of Love," the group's cover of a Buddy Holly song found on the album Beatles for Sale. When I woke awhile ago, it was a George Harrison composition "Don't Bother Me" from the With the Beatles album. I am obviously more cheerful than I was 30 minutes ago. As I finished the big book Saturday night, it was "Two of Us" and "Across the Universe" from Let It Be. I have been in many musical moods the last week.

All the Songs is a huge book for Beatles fans interested in the origins and recording of songs the group released on vinyl singles, EPs, and LPs between 1962 and 1970 in Great Britain and the United States. The songs are organized chronologically by year. Within each year, albums are first and then the singles. Songs are listed in order by track on the British editions of the albums. Had the songs been alphabetically arranged, All the Songs would be a mere dictionary and not the rich chronicle that it is.

By being chronological, All the Songs reveals the artistic development of the band and much about the personal lives of its members. I have been reading about the group for 50 years and recognized some of the facts and stories, but I still learned much I did not know. Some of the facts were little things, such as George Harrison inserted "beep beep" into "Drive My Car" or that the constant tapping in "Blackbird" was Paul McCartney tapping his feet, not a metronome as previously reported.

Some of the information is disturbing. I never dreamt that the narrator in "Norwegian Wood" sets fire to the apartment in the last verse. Though the song is basically John Lennon's composition, Paul McCartney suggested the bizarre twist. I'm still not sure that it is true.

Undoubtedly, all readers who take on reading the whole book will understand why the Beatles could not have possibly continued past 1970.

With help of lists in the appendix, I better understand the differences between the British and American markets for Beatles music in the 1960s. Americans were more willing to buy lots of records, and Capitol Records took advantage of American Beatlemania by putting out more albums with fewer songs on each. There were also many more singles in the U.S. than England. I was shocked to learn that "Yesterday" was never released as a single in the U.K. It was such a big hit in America.

Americans were also more enamored with Ringo Starr than his countrymen. I remember how my drum-crazy friends and I thought Starr as the key Beatle. All my fourth grade friends wanted to be Ringo.

Having read about the songs, I noticed new sounds and meanings as I listened to CDs this past week. I don't really need another reason to listen to the Beatles, but I am making my way through the catalog again. All the Songs has refocused my attention, and I feel about 40 years younger.

"Eight Days a Week" is now playing in my head.

Guesdon, Jean-Michele and Philippe Margotin. All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2013. 671p. ISBN 9781579129521.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Memory Wall by Buddy Mondlock

The Thomas Ford Memorial Library's community room was packed a few weeks ago for a Friday at the Ford concert by singer and songwriter Buddy Mondlock, whose songs have been recorded by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Janis Ian, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Once a New Folk Award Winner at the Kerrville Folk Festival, he has co-written songs with Garth Brooks and toured with Art Garfunkel. People not only from around Western Springs but also from Park Forest (40 minutes south) where he grew up came out for our concert. They had a happy mini-high school reunion after the concert.

After the concert was also when I purchased his most recent CD The Memory Wall. I have been listening to it in the car and grown quite fond of some songs, including the first track, "The Ugly One," which evokes prehistory when humans drew with charcoal, rocks, and blood on cave walls. The title of the CD comes from a line in the song.

"A Canary's Song," written in 1992 with Garth Brooks, is a very memorable song about taking the bright yellow birds into the coal mines, knowing one's survival there is forecast by the songbird. Young lovers and nature are described in "Quoddy Point," a song about a place in Maine where sunlight first strikes the United States each day. "Lost in Space" should make anyone who has watched television reruns smile.

Most of the YouTube videos of Mondlock are weak and don't capture his live presence. But
"Central Park," which sounds like a song Art Garfunkel should record if has has not already, is well done and should give you a good sense of the performer. Sometimes he is a bit more Nashville (where he now lives) and at others I also thought of California folk rock. His songs are all good, mostly mellow, listening.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Olivier by Philip Ziegler

Lack of clear identity is a theme in Olivier by Philip Ziegler, a biography published in Great Britain in 2013 which comes to American bookstores and libraries this June. The author quotes Laurence Olivier saying late in his life that he did not really know who he was. The actor had spent his whole life being other people, an almost denial of self. Perhaps his lack of self was an asset which allowed him to portray Henry V, Richard III, Othello, Uncle Vanya, and King Lear so convincingly.

If Ziegler is to be believed, and he presents plenty of evidence, Laurence Olivier did not, however, lack ambition. He wanted to be known as the world's greatest actor. To achieve this honor, he wanted to be the lead character in every play and film in which he appeared. To be second to Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud was sheer agony. When he was not cast as a lead, he did everything he could to make his character the one most remembered by audiences, and the author says that by grabbing attention Olivier often succeeded in changing the focus of a play. As you can imagine, he made enemies of directors and other actors. How he actually remained fairly good friends with Richardson and Gielgud, his most serious rivals, is one of the interesting aspects of Ziegler's story.

Theater was Olivier's focus most of his life, working as an actor, director, producer, and founder of the National Theatre in London. He was very suspicious of film and television, and in his early movie appearances, he was criticized for gross overacting, applying skills for theater to the more intimate screen. Ironically, for most Americans outside New York and anyone born after the 1970s, Olivier will be thought of as a movie star. Henry V, Sleuth, and Marathon Man will keep his image living as long as people are still watching classic films. (While shooting Marathon Man, Olivier always called Dustin Hoffman "Justin," which may have been a ploy to unsettle the young actor with whom he was competing for dominance of the movie.)

At over 400 pages of actual text in the British edition, Olivier looks like an appropriately big book for a major figure in 20th century entertainment. There was much for me to learn on every page, but it read fairly quickly, and I was left wanting to learn more. I now want to see some old movies.

Ziegler, Philip. Olivier. MacLehose Press, June 2014. 352p. ISBN 9781623650421.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind by Biz Stone

At the Public Library Association program Top 5 of the Nonfiction 5, David Wright identified one of the trends in self help books as "genre-blending" in which he included memoirs that serve as self help books. In the exhibit hall of the conference, I found a free advanced uncorrected proof of just such a book, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind by Biz Stone, Co-founder of Twitter. The "Co-founder of Twitter" tag is prominent on the cover; he is credited with being the person to decided on the 140 character limit. In this book, while Stone describes his up-and-down life to the present (trending upward), he tells us how we too can succeed in life and business.

I enjoyed the memoir part of Things a Little Bird Told Me, as Stone tells a good tale about his rising from well-placed poverty to becoming an interesting and influential person. His father left his family when Biz was really young, and his mother relied on food stamps and government cheese to feed her kids, but luckily they lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts where Biz attended good schools and won scholarships. Stone humorously recounts his numerous scrapes with authority figures, such as assistant principals, and tells how he dumped college to take a job from which he would learn more than at college. Throughout, he encourages most students to stay in school, but he also encourages readers to take risks.

The self help part is more problematic. He includes much sound and well-phrased advice, but he makes entrepreneurship seem too easy. He does tell about 18-hour work days and time spent away from family, but it still sounds easy. Changing directions and taking risks are at the heart of his version of success. From his upbringing, he learned skills to survive on next to nothing and still be certain of eventual success. I may be wrong, but I doubt many can pull off a Biz Stone-like rise to prominence.

I enjoyed the insider stories about Google and Twitter, especially his telling of his encounter with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Because Things a Little Bird Told Me is cheerful and quick to read, I expect it to be a popular.

Stone, Biz. Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. Grand Central Publishing, April 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781455528714.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood

In a bizarre way, the short novel The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood seems like a 1930s German take on The Great Gatsby. A young man arrives in Berlin by train and is invited by a well-to-do resident to frequently visit him and go out on the town. The older Arthur Norris seems at first to have wealth and friends, and he introduces the young British embassy worker William Bradshaw to a sort of jazz society filled with suspect characters. Much of the book is the young man studying the older.

Norris, however, is not really a Gatsby and is not in control of even his secretary, the evil Mr. Schmidt. While Norris has some minor success as a fringe member of the Communist party and is sent around Europe as a spy, creditors are also trying to repossess his furniture and his beloved collection of pornography. Bradshaw eventually sees the older man's failings but still likes him. Bradshaw becomes concerned about his friend's survival in 1931 Berlin, a city filled with criminals and Nazi agitators.

When written in the 1930s, The Last of Mr. Norris was contemporary literature, but it now serves as a historical novel for 21st century readers looking to understand Germany before the Nazis took power. It is often bound with Goodbye to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical account of the author's 1930s experiences. Together the novels are called Berlin Stories.

Isherwood, Christopher. The Last of Mr. Norris. Avon, 1952.