Thursday, June 29, 2006

Of Domino and rock & roll

Perhaps it is downright heresy to write of this here, but I do live dangerously, so...I am having coffee as I read this morning! There, kick me off the TeaReads blog, but the truth is coffee is my morning companion, and nothing else will do. Perhaps coffee is fitting as I read a book that is set in, around and about an American city much in the the national conciousness for nearly a year now, New Orleans, a city known for strong coffee (hold the chicory for me, please).
Can you imagine any connection linking Napoleon, Plessy v. Feguson, the 1791 Haitian Revolution, Pat Boone, John Lennon and Fats Domino? No, it isn't a certain date, but that's a good guess. To find the common thread among these disparate factors, you'll simply have to read Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'N' Roll. This is no meager, pallid recitation of half-supported facts, but a vivid and visceral historical tracing showing the inextricable path from the African diaspora via slavery to Louisiana's earliest recorded days to the advent and development of rock and roll.
But does that sound dry? What a disservice I have done, if so! This book, by Rick Coleman, is vital and juicy, sometimes bloodsoaked and sorrowful, and always gripping as it shows how rock and roll could not have been had there never been a New Orleans nor a Fats Domino. It is rich in historical moment and in geographical fact.
The name Fats Domino may call to mind the now-standard songs "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday," and a little more thinking might also jostle to recollection "Walkin' to New Orleans" or, perhaps, a vague memory of a ripe plum of a man in suit and tie, but probably little more. One must read this book to find how it elevates the humble Mr. Domino to his rightful place in American musical history as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll (or, "rock 'n' roll," as the author writes it). The book conveys information on an intellectual as well as an emotional level, uncovering little-known facts and events, and bring fresh air to well-known ones, lacing the whole with quotations from those who were there and from those who have made in-depth studies of the times. Did you know, for example, that there's an old New Orleans tradition called Blue Monday? I did not until I read this book. I learned how many phrases and references in rock and roll were then-current slang terms that spoke to those in the know, meanings that have been all but lost over time, distance and geography.
And yet, for all the things that are right about this book, I must mention a thing or two that is wrong. In his clear appreciation for rock and roll and for the African roots of that genre`, Mr. Coleman draws totteringly close to a precipice. Swept up in his enthusiastic defense of the maltreated African and American Black people who built rock and roll, Mr. Coleman edges closer and closer to enshrining them as Noble Savages, whose nature is not just different to that of White people, but also superior. Loving classical music is not anthithetical to loving rock and roll music. I, myself, find room in my heart for both and for other genres` as well. A culture that is earthy in its expression is not necessarily superior to a culture that focuses on less visceral things. The African/Black view that related things to everyday life is posited to be above the European/White view that divides body, soul and mind, and which sees the soul as the acme of importance.
We read, for example, that "To the Eurocentric aesthetic, classical music was the apex of sophistication, but African-rooted music was more complex rhythmically, improvisationally, and socially - - that is, in the human terms of the everyday world." Rhythmically more complex? Really? More so than, say, Mozart, with his "too many notes?" More complex than the mathematically beautiful compositions of Bach?
Moreover, music has always served as a conduit for feelings in cultures, and few things rouse such fervent patriotism as music that is meaningful to particular societies. So how African-rooted music can be said to be more socially complex than other kinds is beyond my ken. let me leave you with a hearty recommendation for this book. It will amuse you, surprise you, inform you and challenge you. You might want to have a cuppa joe with it, too.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tea and respectability

You sipped plum tea while drinking in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? An excellent tea choice, and one I have been known to indulge in myself. Green tea is not at the top of my drinking list; however, I do appreciate one or two of them. Snow Flower... might have been enhanced by a cuppa gunpowder tea, a drink that stands up for itself, always a plus for me. I am also fond of dragon pearls green tea, and that is nicely Sino-suggestive. Of course, TeaBird doesn't fancy green tea, so this is not a suggestion.
You know me, and yet you don't know me, as is the case for friends who seldom, if ever, meet in the flesh - - in my case, the all-too-substantial flesh. Let us imagine a visit to my home. I greet you at the door, and welcome you into my modest but comfortable dwelling. The furnishings are not new, but you can see they are cherished by the care that has been taken with them.
I sweep my arm across the breadth of the living room as I tell you to make yourself at home, then I trot into the kitchen, just a few steps away. Next thing you know the kettle's on, and I'm asking you what kind of treats you'd like for tea. Your eyes follow me even though I'm now out of sight. I'm round and curvy with a funny, little walk, silvery grey hair, dusky skin, and silver, wire-rim glasses that frame black-brown eyes. I wear a dress or a skirt and blouse - - warm colors, probably red as I love red - - earrings, a gold necklace (a family piece) and a gold family ring. I gimp about in the shoes I wear always, flat, brown, "sensible," lace-up walking shoes. I'm the picture of middle-aged, middle-class respectability.
From your worn, comfy seat, you let your eyes wander across my library. The profusion of lurid titles you see is, well, frankly bloodthirsty. These books are not the fantastical gore of horror novels, but the real gore of real murders. Glance after glance reveals one true crime book after another. As you riffle through dozens of books, you see dreadful photographs to accompany the titles, hideous descriptions of inhumane and inhuman acts; a chill caresses your spine.
Then I'm bustling through the door with a tea tray. You do like almond cookies, don't you? And Yorkshire Gold tea? It has such...such body, you know, really gets the blood pulsing....What, no cookies? Oh, but please do....I made them myself....Bitter almond? No, I think they taste fine, nicely sweet, in fact....More tea, dear? Some sherry, then? Nothing more? Oh, must you go? But you just got here, dear, and we've not had time to chat....Oh, well, of course, if you just remembered an appointment, then you're right to hurry off like that....Some cookies to take with you, dear? Dear? Oh, my, mind you don't slip while running to the car...

Monday, June 26, 2006

The mark

As usual, I make my mark with a comment or two which are, well, not quite on the mark. Your reviews always make me long to cast aside whatever I'm reading right now in order to pick up the books you describe. What a talent!
In this case, your book review reminded me of a tidbit I read in online news this weekend. It seems that Darwin's tortoise died at an age estimated to be (I believe) ~140 years. Isn't it remarkable to think of a creature that lives that long? Imagine Darwin's tortoise as the eponymous animal of the book you just reviewed...Imagine the tea one would drink while reading.

Abject reptile, indeed!

Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile - Verlyn Klinkenborg

What can I say about a tortoise whose vocabulary is wider than mine? Within the first 20 pages, I had to look up umbrageous, tegument, venerey, borecole, hirundines, and sainfroin. (Thank heavens, Timothy provided a glossary.) Timothy, the eponymous abject reptile, was not showing off. He simply was using the best, most precise words he needed for his observations - the same vocabulary that Gilbert White, a 18th-century naturalist, used when he described Timothy in The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789.

It was White who called Timothy "abject reptile." Abject he may have seemed, but he was, really, a close observer of humanity - and not a particularly fond observer, at that.

Humans, he concluded, made their fundamental mistake when they ceased to think of themselves as animals and replaced instinct with intellect.

Timothy scoffed at the animals that humans have become. "Every garment a divorce from nature... Disdaining the flesh that keeps them from heaven ... but able to argue upward from themselves to God." He is amused particularly by sentimentality ("now the rooks are saying their prayers," says a little girl).

White writes that Timothy is "a reptile that appears to relish [life] so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers."

"Mr. Gilbert White's stupors! How joyful are they?" sputters Timothy. As well he might.

This book is a phrase-perfect parody of a well-meaning amateur's notes. Timothy himself is a worthy companion, whose story includes a plot twist that shows just how inobservant humans can be.

Don't miss this one!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet and Lily and Snow Flower

I'm sipping some Adagio plum tea and contemplating how I feel about this book. The title of the blog entry says it all - except that it probably should say "Juliet and Juliet," since the eternal love in this book is between Lily and Snow Flower.

Why Pride and Prejudice? Because both ruled and warped the Chinese lives -- especially their inner lives. The historian and social observer in me recognizes that conditions in those times were difficult, sometimes brutal, and a more relaxed society might not have been able to dominate the elements or survived. Still. The physical and emotional claudrophobia that ruled the society were soul-deadening.

It occurs to me that the rigidity, ritual, and rigor of the lives of the Chinese women, and the rules that guarranteed men's absolute power over women, eliminated the possibility that men could be loved. They could be admired, they could be venerated, and they could be feared, but they could not be loved as human beings. Not one man in this book is loved. Boys are loved - but not even boys who might be less than strong and commanding. Much as I abhor and pity the lives of the women, I have to wonder how the men survived without any outlet whatsoever for their anima.

Some women found ways to love each other, although even those relationships were governed by commerce and their families' desire for status. The love of women, and the nu shu language women developed to express that love, were true miracles in that society. As always, I am awed by the strength and adaptability of women. Despite their differences, despite misunderstandings and secrets, Lily and Snow Flower were soulmates and sisters, made more beautiful and powerful by their love.

Lisa See has written an amazing book. That's all I can say. Amazing.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Halfway through, and I realize that I am reading through a kaleidoscope of cultural personae. The thoroughly modern American woman reads a tale of a patriarchal society that expresses its disdain for women (except as sexual objects or, pardon the expression, breeders of sons) through brutality. The pain is inflicted on women by women, footbinding (hideously and graphically described) being the most obvious example, and abuse by mothers-in-law being more subtle. The second-generation daughter of Ukrainian and White Russian Jews relates to some of the rituals (food, certainly, and using arcana to support matchmaking). The literary woman delights in vivid and sensual writing, real characters, and the powerful evoking of place.

All that aside, the love story between the two young women, Lily and Snow Flower, is extraordinary. So few Chinese women of the time were allowed to develop a lifelong friendship, a sisterhood. How lightly we take our friendships compared to these women! And how lightly we take our relatively-recent ability to choose the paths of our lives.

Also, how nonchalant we are with our literacy. The special, secret language developed amongst Chinese women, nu shu, was a type of rebellion against the isolation that was required of them. It could express poetic sentiments, or pleas for pity, and it was unreadable by men.

I probably will finish this book tomorrow - it's an amazing read. Just amazing.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Never Apologize

Betty Rosenberg said it best: Never apologize for your reading tastes.

I'm more apt to listen to a book than to read one. And usually the closest I get to a classic these days is laughing at Jasper Fforde's take on things. (That Miss Haversham is wicked behind the wheel....) My tea is usually iced and, if it's after two in the afternoon, it's decaf.

Right now I'm reading Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. So far, so good. This book is where we meet Maisie. (I am a huge fan of book series.) It's just after World War I and she's gone into business for herself. Her card reads PSYCHOLOGIST AND INVESTIGATOR and her skills in both areas are well honed.

On a personal note, I love gadgets and one of my favorite is actually tea related. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tea you could trot a mouse on

I second the recommendation for PG Tips. I'm drinking some right now. It you're not careful, it can brew into "tea you could trot a mouse on," in the words of M.F.K. Fisher. (I've always loved that image. If I were artistic, I'd cross stitch a mouse dancing across a cup of tea!)
My next book is going to be Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (for the Summer Reading Challenge). I'm eager to read about nu shu. According to the author's note, "It is believed that nu shu, the secret-code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan province - developed a thousand years ago. It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use." Lisa See's website has much more information, and photographs of women who still use and teach the language.

I'm not fond of Chinese tea, so I'm afraid I will not be drinking it. However, apricots are grown in China, and I have two types of Indian tea with apricot flavoring, so my sipping will be somewhat authentic.

(No, I don't think one's tea has to match one's book. However, a friend at work commented yesterday that the envelope for my tea [Twinings Darjeeling] matched my blouse. Hmmm.)

Bags or leaves?

Yesterday's post covered the "reads" portion of this blog's name, which leaves the second portion, "tea," for today. Given my choice of tea, I prefer loose leaves to bags every time. However, there are many good - - very good - - teas that are available in bags only. My current reading list features, in addition to Wuthering Heights, Rick Coleman's new biography of Fats Domino, Blue Monday. If you, too, would enjoy reading about this overlooked founding father of rock and roll, I humbly suggest doing so while sipping a cup of The Republic of Tea's Wild Blueberry. It's a good pairing in color and in taste.
If you are in the middle of Wuthering Heights at this time, I suggest either a good English Breakfast tea (TheRepublic of Tea makes one such, British Breakfast) , or a standard, hearty cuppa - - PG Tips is an excellent choice to fortify you to tramp through the moors, and as a restorative after all those fevered longings.
I am sure that more tea and book pairings shall arise as we read and blog. What do you sip while you read?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Another county heard from

Like Teabird, I, too, had a passion for"Dark Shadows." I was so taken with it that I wrote novellas based on it for my own entertainment.
I was not so much taken with doom as I was with drama, passion, eerieness, Inverness capes (for heaven's sake), things occult, period costumes and settings, and mysteries. I read everything ever written by Poe and Lovecraft.
I read Wuthering Heights around this time, but did not appreciate it. Teabird got it exactly right for me: it's hard to appreciate a work that has no sympathetic characters. I prefer to have at least one character with whom to sympathize at least some of the time. However, in the interest of this blog, I picked up a copy of WH over the weekend, and shall reread it. Rereading books at different times of one's life is illuminating. While I certainly understood longing when first I read WH, I was then unable to consider the environment as a character, as Teabird says. I do think you have a point, there, Teabird, and an excellent one at that.
I also read Jane Eyre around this time, and that one spoke to me then. I had much less interest in it later in life, however.
Lately, I read a lot of nonfiction, much of it of the true crime genre. There's a lot of trash in this genre, I'm afraid - - anyone who can scrawl a few lines with a blunt Crayola gets published, and, apparently, without benefit of editing. There's an advantage of reading the old works; they were well written. I cannot accept the current trend of writing sentence fragments, using "which" when one means "this," misplacing modifiers, and so on.
But I must warn you, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon.
This is all for now. I really must be off to look for employment - - the gainful kind, that is. The other kind is abundant.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wuthering Heights

I'm partipating in Amanda's Summer Reading Challenge - (my list is linked in the sidebar). The first book I have completed from the Challenge: Wuthering Heights.

When I was a teenager, my friends were mad for Keats, Shelley, "Dark Shadows," and
Wuthering Heights. I shared the first three passions - in fact, I wrote a dissertation on "Dark Shadows" for one of my undergraduate English courses - but Wuthering Heights just never caught my interest. The Romantic poetry stoked my love for tragic, passionate poets who died young. I read biographies of Mary Shelley and imagined myself in that room with her husband and Polidori. But two lovers on the moors? No. I'll stick to the doomed Angelique, the doomed love between Carolyn and Jebbas, and the doomed Collinwood.

(You see, it's not that I wasn't into doom.)

I finished Wuthering Heights over the weekend, and I've been discussing it on a couple of boards. I came up with my own backstory for Heathcliff (Earnshaw's illigitimate child), I enjoyed reading about the wild landscape and wild weather, and I admired Emily's brilliance -- but I came up against one huge problem: There is not one character whom I like. Usually, if that happens, I can not and will not read the whole book. I have to like or admire someone, or someone's aspirations.

This quirk of mine has never stopped me from reading works like Crime and Punishment, or other dark, dark books. The most murderous of the characters search their souls and understand that they are not the same as others. They see their guilt, or they don't see their guilt, but they understand their actions in the context of a real world.

All of the characters are personifications of various ways of being corrupted, or of being corruptors. Even Mrs. Dean, the closest to a caring, compassionate character - actually, the closest to an actual human being - allows tragedies to happen because she allows one or the other of the Catherines to manipulate her. Allows, mind you - she knows she's acting against common sense and principle, but she allows.

Having Mrs. Dean as the primary narrator prevents the reader from knowing whether the monstrous Heathcliff knows that his behavior would not fit into a world that was less isolated. In fact, it prevents the reader from seeing any evidence of love that isn't tinged with cruelty. The Romantics may have wept and yearned for their loves, but they didn't lock their loves (or their loves' daughters) into barred rooms, force them to marry mewling invalids, or hang their dogs.

And yet, despite the lack of tolerable characters , despite the overwhelming cruelty and corruption, I loved the book. This puzzled me until I realized that I was reading the land itself - the moors, the bracken, the weather - as a character, and I loved that character. The moors were what they were, are what they are, and will endure despite the disgraceful actions of the humans who enact their nasty lives upon it.

Maybe that was Emily's genius: showing us that humans may come and go, enact decent or indecent acts, or love or hate, but the land - her beloved, beautiful moor - is eternal, and worthy of gratitude. We can look beyond the nastiness of her humans and pity them for shrinking into cruel trolls instead of expanding their hearts in the beauty of the heather.

Watch this space

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