Friday, June 29, 2012

Internal News as of 6-29-12

Greetings, one and all! Here is what I've been up to when I haven't been posting here:

My review of Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened is up at Persephone Magazine. That makes it Cannonball Read Review #31.

Also at P-Mag:

-Holy shit, I can actually talk about sports a little bit. Okay, one sport: tennis. Wimbledon, anyone?

-Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter G: Featuring songs from Bush, The Beatles, George Harrison on his own, Ani DiFranco, and David Gray.

-Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter H: Featuring songs from Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst, Tori Amos, The Verve, Shudder to Think and The Cardigans.

At Word Riot:

Notes From Elsewhere on 6-22-12: Sexybusiness from Paul Lisicky, Sari Botton and Hugo Schwyzer, and more.

Notes From Elsewhere on 6-29-12: Includes Spanish-language This American Life-esque programming, fake books, and a John Dalke shout-out. Because to the victor goes the spoils, or to the column-writer goes the "mentioning your friends when it seems semi-relevant."

That's all for now!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Hide Me Among the Graves
by Tim Powers

I'm doing Hide Me Among the Graves a disservice because I read it in March, shortly after it came out, and I didn't take any notes. Thing is, I didn't take any notes because that would have required pausing my reading, and about the only thing that made me pause my reading was falling asleep after staying up entirely too late. As I said about Sybil Baker's Into This World, if we had to winnow down criteria for what makes a good book, 3am reading would certainly be on that list. There was a lot of 3 am reading going on with Tim Power's book, especially since it's over 500 pages. The only excuse I have for taking as long as I have to review it is that my brain entered a particularly foggy period around that time, and while reading wasn't any trouble, writing about it was more difficult.

After I finished, I discovered that the book is not necessarily a standalone. Characters from Hide Me Among the Graves also appear in Powers' The Stress of Her Regard and the short story "A Journey of Only Two Paces." Some reviewers have wondered if it holds up without reading the other, and though I felt like it did, I wonder if it can be made even better if I read the related work. I'm assuming there are some undercurrents that I missed. That said, I really have no complaints.

Set in London in 1862, Hide Me Among the Graves concerns the Rossetti siblings, primarily poet Christina and artist Dante Gabriel, real people that Powers has appropriated for a supernatural story involving their uncle, English-Italian writer-doctor John Polidori. Instead of writing about vampires, Polidori is one in this story, and though he is "dead," his presence controls much of Christina and Gabriel's lives. He is their muse and provides much of their best work, but he does not take kindly to them having interest in anyone besides him. Gabriel's marriage is threatened when his wife seems to be mentally tormented, yet infatuated with Polidori, and this is only the latest interference.

Meanwhile, across town, veterinarian John Crawford receives an unexpected visit from Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute with whom he once had a relationship. They'd had a child together, and up until then, they had both believed the girl to be dead, but Adelaide has since received information to the contrary. Unfortunately, Polidori is interested in the child as well, and the two decide that they must stop him and figure out a way to be reunited with their daughter.

Because the Rossetti family is also at stake, Christina decides she must stop her uncle, even if it means giving up some of her poetic gifts. She receives some help from her siblings, but it is the family's connection to John and Adelaide that starts moving plans forward.

"Our father," said Gabriel, "had a little statue that he'd acquired in Italy. No bigger than your thumb. We always, even as children, knew it was alive."

"It wore the doomed soul of our uncle," Christina went on, "but it was one of the — a dormant, petrified, condensed member of the — well, you know the term that Gabriel would advise me not to say out loud here. The tribe that troubles us, the giants that were in the earth in those days."

The Nephilim, thought Crawford with a shudder.

Again, I don't know if I'm doing the book justice, or if the way I've described the plot sounds convoluted, but it's all terribly interesting and not at all what one might stereotypically find a "vampire" book to be. Polidori exists mainly in the shadows, along with many other souls of the dead, some friendly and some not.

Once again, I find myself stepping outside my literary comfort zone. Mainly, I said yes to this book because it was set in Victorian-age London, which I find interesting, and also because I was curious about the alternate history angle, what with the references to Byron (apparently he is in The Stress of Her Regard.) Horror/fantasy aren't my usual haunts (no pun intended), but Powers' writing so good and so compelling, I'm exceedingly glad that I picked it up.

A five-minute walk from the Sheerness station had taken him to a railed lane overlooking the shore, and since the sun had only a few minutes ago gone down over the Gravesend hills behind him, and the sky was still pale, he had stood there for a few minutes with the cold sea wind flapping the long black brim of his rubberized hat. A couple of distant figures trudged along the darkening expanse of sand before him, carrying a pole that might have been a mast or some fishing apparatus, and a man on horseback a hundred yards further away was trotting north along the band of darker damp sand by the gray fringe of surf. Off to his right, near the empty steamboat pier, Swinburne saw a long open shed with what looked like a row of a dozen gypsy wagons in it — and then he recognized these as bathing machines stowed away for the winter. Come June they would be wheeled out, and ladies in street clothes would climb in and pull the doors closed, and then the vehicles would be drawn by horses down the slope and a few yards out into the shallows, where the ladies, having changed into bathing suits, could open the seaside doors and step down to splash about in the water, unobserved from the shore. In spite of the purpose of his quest tonight, Swinburne had forlornly wished that one hardy lady or two might have braved the cold sea this evening; and that, if any had done it, he had brought a telescope.

One is so inside Powers' prose, that Victorian England feels full, and unlike the upper-crust period dramas, it is not centered around "proper" people. This isn't Bleak House. There are artists and screw-ups and the quietly religious, right alongside strange dog-like creatures, catacombs exploration, and a collection of street children referred to as "Mud Larks." Maybe it's reader-sacrilege to say, but Hide Me Among the Graves would make an excellent movie in the right hands.

Seek this one out.


Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card

I'll admit that I only read this book because of a book club I'm in — a real, live, in-person one, even! Sci-fi isn't my usual literary neck of the woods, and so I thought that if I was going to read something from the genre, one of the classics would be a good way to go. I watch a lot of sci-fi, but for whatever reason, the book versions don't often catch my interest. I've read Dune and liked it, but I've yet to pick up Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, even though I suspect I'll like it. Ender's Game is one of those novels that everyone who likes sci-fi seems to have read.

Turns out, I liked it quite a bit. I know that Orson Scott Card is a homophobic crazy-person, but since I've more or less been otherwise unaware of his existence, it was easy enough to separate the person from the work. That said, his personal views do not inspire me to give him any money. I checked out Ender's Game from the library — a very well-loved hardback with someone's grocery list inside — and I've already returned it. That said, this review is not so much like my regular reviews, since I'm working from memory. Also, Ender's Game is decades old and widely read — I'm all right with giving it a more rambling treatment.

For those of you unaware, Ender's Game is the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, selected at the age of six to enroll in a military school for gifted children. Earth has been previously attacked by alien creatures known as "Buggers," and another attack seems imminent. Military officials view Ender as a promising leader who could possibly be the savior of humankind. Yes, he's six. Think about that for a sec. Previously, the military hoped to use his siblings, Peter and Valentine, but Peter proved too violent and Valentine too placid. Ender is quickly thrown into war games training and never given full answers as to what they want him to accomplish.

I was a little uncomfortable reading about these small children being taken from home and that they were so blasé about being soldiers at times, not to mention the inherent violence. Ender learns very quickly to subdue and hide his fears, and more than one child breaks down crying at night. As a mother, I become less and less able to separate my instincts to want to stop things like that from happening. It made me want to go hug my eight-year-old daughter, and to tell her again that she can do whatever makes her happy in life.

However, like Ender, I acclimated to the environment. After reminding myself that these were unusual children with an innate talent for these activities, and that there were still plenty of children back on Earth leading normal lives, it became easier to lose myself in the story.

Of course, Card plays with themes of morality and duty, and also personal threshold. How much can a person take? Will intense training make a person stronger or will it break them? There's a lot to think about here. Ender soon learns that he can only depend upon himself, but that doesn't stop him from being someone upon whom others can depend.

Supposedly, a movie based on the book is in progress. I'm not sure how they will handle it, especially since Ender ages from six to (I think) twelve or thirteen, and much of the conflict is internal. Sure, there will probably be some cool scenes in the anti-gravity training rooms, but it seems like a difficult book to adapt. Not impossible, but my expectations are not high. Seems like more often than not, filmmakers fail to properly capture the essence of their source material. I'm not sure why that is — too many cooks in the kitchen, I guess.

So while I'll probably continue to watch more sci-fi than I read, I would certainly recommend Ender's Game to anyone wanting to give the genre a try. It's a good introduction and probably a good yardstick with which to measure the quality in similar books. Just don't buy it new — support a secondhand shop or your library instead.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Irresistible edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Irresistible: Erotic Romance for Couples
edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

"I wanted to explore what happens after [meeting], once those people have been together a while (even a short while)," Rachel Kramer Bussel writes in her introduction to Irresistible. "I wanted to see what sparks fictional couples could produce on the page, and the results are, well, scorching." I'd never really thought about it before, but I suppose one would more often see "two people meet" stories in erotica rather than stories about established couples. Funny how a common state of existence can suddenly seem so novel. Irresistible focuses mainly on heterosexual, monogamous couples, but the results are far from boring, and other sexual variances make their way into fray. The writing is mostly strong, and most every story is satisfying.

One of the more interesting stories is "Hypocrites" by Alyssa Turner. In it, a politician must endure a humiliating sex scandal press conference, while his wife stands by his side. While she watches him speak, she thinks about everything they have done together:

His words make me cringe. Jacob never broke a promise in his life. For my birthday, he promised to take me shopping and we found the most adorable twenty-something football-player type among the endless selection of eligible swingers profiled online. The anonymity of the web had provided us a smorgasbord of eager participants. Young and dumb seemed like the safest bet, with fear of recognition easily dismissed by a low aptitude for congressional upstarts. We met Brett first for a late lunch, testing the waters, then moved onward to a hotel room tucked away in an obscure suburban corporate park.

Could that evening have been more perfect? The answer came the following year after our guest list increased to two. When the allure of birthday parties became too great to enjoy only once a year, we secured a discreet apartment downtown for the sole purpose of hosting gatherings as often as we could.

It's a great (and rather hot) take on a situation we often see in the news, but don't really know the true story. Nor should we, really, but then, I'm one of those people who believes that whatever you do in bed shouldn't reflect on your professional life, as long as everyone is safe and happy.

There are stories of makeup sex after affairs, strip club ventures, and sex party attendance. There's a little bit of BDSM, and there's even sex in a tree, which, to me, seems a bit more trouble than it would be worth. Also notable is Janine Ashbless' "Repaint the Night," in which outdoor sex is used to get over a fear of being alone in the dark. It's not my favorite in terms of the writing, but I like the different premise.

One story that I initially rolled my eyes at while reading the opening paragraph ended up being one of the better ones in the book. "Six Eyes, Two Ears," by Kris Adams, is set within some sort of tribal village during an indeterminate time. There are names like "Xolani" and "Babatunde," and I'll admit I got judge-y — I thought I wasn't into some sort of mythical... I don't know, rustic sex, but my assumptions turned out to be incorrect. "Six Eyes, Two Ears," has the only male-on-male sexual contact in the book, and it also takes power dynamic in a positive direction. Two wives of a male leader at first are in competition with one another until they realize that their complaints lie with their husband's dismissive attitude towards their pleasure. Then, the younger wife discovers that their husband is also sleeping with a male servant. Even though her husband is a jerk, and she's shocked by seeing them together, she can't stop watching. It's not the only sex scene in the story, and really, this is one of the most fully realized plot-centric stories in the book in that it's not just, "Hey, let's have sex!" and scene.

"Six Ears, Two Eyes," isn't the only bisexual story in Irresistible, but the stories with bisexual elements typically involve women. That's great, me being a lady who also appreciates ladies and all, but I'd love to see more erotica writers take on male bisexuality. Admittedly, I'm not well-versed in erotica beyond what is sent to me, but bi men are definitely underrepresented in what I've read. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this review, but I do hope to eventually see bisexual stories become less invisible in any sort of writing, erotica or otherwise.

Other highlights include "Pink Satin Purse" by Donna George Storey, "The Mitzvah" by Tiffany Reisz, and "The Pact" by Elizabeth Coldwell. I had trouble getting into Kay Jaybee's "After the Massage," but doesn't have anything to do with the quality of writing. Some of the sex happens in a van filled with plumbing equipment — one of the women involved has a fetish for tradesmen — and pipes and plumbing tools just creep me out. I know that this is an irrational aversion, but believe me, it's a strong one. I mean, I finished the story, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, "There's no way I could be in there. No matter what hotness is involved." But hey, everyone's got a hangup, right?


Overall though, Irresistible is well worth the time if you're looking for some good erotica with a decent amount of variety. It's light on the bondage, if that's not really your thing, and yes, it is nice to read something that isn't "lust at first sight" for a change. At 200 pages, it's also a quick read, and easy enough to jump around to find something you like at that moment.

(Side note: Is it just me, or were the cover models chosen for their resemblance to Taylor Lautner and a younger Catherine Zeta-Jones? Also, what's up with the wind machine?)

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Internal News as of 6-12-12

Greetings, all. It's been awhile since I rounded up various links of where my writing has appeared besides this site. The kneading cat .GIF doesn't really have anything to do with them; it just makes me giggle.

Over at Persephone Magazine:
- What I Watched Last Night: Eureka, "I'll Be Seeing You" (Warning: White button-down shirt lusting.)

- Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter D (featuring Ryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Bitch and Animal, INXS, Florence and the Machine, and more. Unfortunately, in the recent site redesign, my youtube embeds were eaten.)

- What I Watched Last Night: The Last Enemy, Episode 1 (Benedict Cumberbatch as a mathematician involved in government conspiracy.)

- Alphabet Soup: The Letter E (featuring Whiskeytown, The Beatles, Fiona Apple, Buddy Holly and Glasvegas. My youtube embeds were also eaten here. When I get an extra minute, I might try to go back in and fix the error.)

- What I Watched Last Night: Word Wars (A Scrabble documentary!)

- Alphabet Soup: The Letter F (featuring Oasis, Paul Weller, Andrew Bird, Lisa Loeb and Beth Orton. This time with working videos. Hooray!)

Over at Word Riot:

-Notes From Elsewhere for May 25, 2012. Wise words, complaints, @NotTildaSwinton, and more.

-Notes From Elsewhere for June 11, 2012. Book art, envy, Ray Bradbury, Oprah-love and more.

I believe that is it for now.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Ultimate Guide to Kink edited by Tristan Taormino

The Ultimate Guide to Kink
edited by Tristan Taormino

Seems like every time I write about a book that centers around sex, I get a comment from someone who thinks I am judging their personal choices. I'm not. For one thing, I don't know [you], and for another thing, it's not my business, unless you're offering it freely. I am not the Sex Police. I am sent books by publishers, and if I find it interesting in some way, I read and review it. I'm writing about the book, my experience reading it and my personal perspective. Not you. Yes, unclench thy undercarriage and realize that I'm far too self-preoccupied (and self-deprecating) to step too far outside myself and the book in hand. You'd think this would be obvious, but apparently it bears repeating.

So, that preamble out of the way, let's talk about kink, shall we?

The easy thing to do would be to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey and to say that if you really want to know what a BDSM relationship entails, you should read this guide instead. And that's true, but I can only say that as a person who has read about Fifty Shades of Grey, and not someone who has read the book itself. Judging by what I have read — as reviews lead us us to do — the book does not interest me. I am not interested in Twilight, so why would I be interested in spruced up fan fiction that has lazy assumptions in place of research? No, it's not for me.

To be honest, a lot of BDSM is not for me. Having a chronic illness that sometimes involves a great deal of pain, experiencing "extracurricular" pain is not high on my priority list. Normally, I wouldn't share much about my bedroom habits at all — you're not asking, for one thing — but I tell you so that you know that I came at this book wanting to understand points of view different than mine. On a more literary level, if I were to write a character that had different sexual interests than my own (and, really, it would be boring to write the same person all the time), I would want that person to feel true and not some fuzzy conjecture based on unsatisfactory information.

Sex is interesting, of course, and there are so many different ways of going about it. That some people who fear anything different from themselves get so bothered over sex (and therefore try to "regulate" it) does not surprise me. Instead, it would be nice to see more emphasis on education rather than judgment. Education is good. Sex between consenting adults is good. Everything else is subjective.

BDSM — "Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism," for those just learning the acronym — is only part of The Ultimate Guide to Kink, though scenarios involving some sort of power play comprise the majority of the book. Each chapter is written by an expert in a given subject, and each subject is given full attention. Everything from preparation, the warm-up, the big finish and aftercare get substantial page space. Because different acts of kink involve so many specifics — "Is this okay?" and "What happens if we do this?" etc. — the subculture has produced a variety of nerdery not unlike what one might encounter at an electronics expo or a writing conference. Chatting about tools of the trade and ways to further develop oneself happens in any interest group, and kinky individuals are no different.

What the anti-kink fanatics don't understand about us is that we're geeks. Sex nerds. SM intellectuals. We pay money to spend a weekend going to classes.
--Tristan Taormino, from her introduction

Securing consent is what separates kink from abuse. Let's get that out of the way early. While being tied up or slapped is not my thing, I fully understand that, for some people, it really is.

When people experience pain, adrenaline, endorphins, and natural painkillers flood their nervous system. People get off on this chemical rush, which many describe as feeling energized, high or transcendent.

I get that. On the milder end, it's like getting a really good deep tissue massage on tight muscles. It hurts so good. Or think of the friend you know who enjoys the rush of extreme sport, or the one who described getting a tattoo as "intense, but kind of fun." (Me, I like the end result of the tattoo art, and just grit my teeth through the process. See? Everyone is different.)

I completely get how the rush, the high, can outweigh any fear. And with kink, everyone should be on the same page before you even start, so there's trust built into that consent, not real fear (unless, that's what you're aiming for, on purpose). If someone is asking you to do something that makes you uncomfortable or stirs up any strong aversions, then you shouldn't do it. End of. That seems obvious, but this book makes it clear that it's something about which people need reminding — whether a person considers themselves kinky or not.

After covering some basic terms, the guide goes into specific acts and ideas. The first section deals primarily with skills and techniques, covering everything from spanking to bondage to piercing to "Kinky Twisted Tantra." Everything is described in a straightforward, complete way, including how to keep all parties safe and happy.

The second section covers fantasies and philosophies, such as role playing, and the specific thoughts from the writers, including submissives, sadists, Doms, etc. They talk about why they like doing what they do, and what their lives are like within that.

It is obvious that even as players flout some taboos, other taboos remain that are too kinky for most of us and that, therefore, we will not violate. The Dark Lord's exploration raises the question, "Where do we draw the line?"

Yet are there really any lines to cross in the mind? What darkness lurks in the depths of one's unconscious self? How do we integrate that darkness in our lives to become whole persons? Or do we do so at all?
--Jack Rinella, "The Dark Side"

I appreciate that the book lays everything out, but strongly encourages the reader to really think about their desires. It's not just about what one doesn't want to do, or what is "too far," but also about knowing that whatever your kink is, there are other people who feel like you do and that you are hardly alone. (For instance, it could not even be about sex. Bondage on its own might be pleasurable enough.) "Find your local community" is a frequent refrain. Also, by covering such a wide swath of activity, I think that most any reader will find at least one thing that makes them think, "I could get into that," or "Well, so far so good there!"

Regarding the aftercare sections: maybe it's my predisposed need for a certain amount of care in other areas of my life influencing me, but I like the importance that is placed upon it. Coming down from any high can be a staggering transition. It's not just about making sure bruises aren't too serious or stopping the flow of adrenaline. It's also about re-acclimating to the "real" world. How many times have you had an absolutely thrilling experience, only to have the next day, regular life, completely pale by comparison? It's easy for depression to creep in, if one is not careful. A person has to feel cared for, independent of their sexual life.

So while portions of the book are decidedly not for me, it's still well-written and will be of good use to anyone who wants to know more about kink. The 'Ultimate' in the titles lives up to its name from my point of view, though I'm sure there are cranky people (as there are in every subculture) who might say, "I can't believe they forgot [this]." I really don't know what that might be, but as it stands, I'd say over 400 pages must be fairly thorough. It's not a history lesson, apart from some basics, but a guide — To get you started, to teach you new tricks, or perhaps to satisfy some anthropological urge. I can't tell you what will draw you to The Ultimate Guide to Kink, but if it piques your interest at all, you will likely finish satisfied.

Full Disclosure: Cleis Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Devil Sent the Rain by Tom Piazza

Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America
by Tom Piazza

Because I am a huge music fan who does not write music, I am fascinated by the process. I love knowing musicians' work habits, everything from songwriting inspiration to rehearsal schedules. The ones who know what they are doing and do it really well, I want to solve part of that mystery. I understand that what goes on inside a creative person's head can never be fully articulated, but sometimes good writers get close. Some writers speak the language of music better than others, and have a way of getting those musician to open up so that we can all better understand their work. Tom Piazza is one of those writers, and while I don't always agree with him completely, his enthusiasm and intellect is both exemplary and contagious.

Collected from various publications like the Oxford American, Washington Post, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Devil Sent the Rain features essays, interviews and various other bits of Piazza's writing, primarily about music, but also about his much beloved home, New Orleans. The pieces are both pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina, and the understandable shift in tone flows well from beginning to end. Also included are his thoughts on selected literature, and his idolization-turned-friendship with Norman Mailer. Throughout, Piazza examines how all these different outlets connect us to one another, and what certain works of art mark an important time in our history. His ability to look at the big picture is outstanding, but he is also able to focus on the interior life.

Probably my favorite portion of the book is his 1997 interview with Jimmy Martin, the screw-loose, independent, self-proclaimed "King of Bluegrass." Martin died from bladder cancer in 2005, but when Piazza met him, he was still as wily as ever. Though it seemed that everyone from the old-school, George Jones-era of country all had a Jimmy Martin story, Piazza wondered why Martin wasn't better known, given his considerable talent. Despite his reputation as a hard drinker and a sometimes violent man, he was also a hard worker, something he liked to talk about at length:

[Martin:] "Business should be business. If you're going to make a living at it. […] My band don't know what it is to rehearse. If they get out there the night before I do, or stay a night after, they might jam out there and play everything in the world, but there's no rehearsin'. Nothin' serious. You can't go into a job just laughin' and having fun and expect to show what you're doing. If you're driving a bulldozer you're liable to run over something. You've got to have your mind down to the business. And I've been told this many times: 'You just take your music too serious.' I don't see how you could be too serious about somethin' that's gonna feed your family and make you a living for the rest of your life. I don't see as you could get too serious about that.

A man that don't wanta get serious about somethin', he don't wanta get good. Am I right?"

Another bone of contention with Martin is that he's never been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, he knows everyone there, and he hangs around backstage, but he doesn't know why he's never been included. The Opry is, of course, the official seal of approval in country music. Still, he decides that he and Piazza are going to attend together, and Piazza tries to not appear giddy with excitement.

His hair is neat and he is wearing black slacks, a fire-engine-red shirt buttoned at the neck and white leather boots with little multicolored jewels sewn on.

"Wait a minute, now," he says. He gets a black Western jacket out of the closet and puts it on, then a clip-on tie, white leather with little tassels at the bottom. "All right, hold on," he says, and from a chair in the corner he grabs a white straw cowboy hat with feathers arranged as a hat band.

"How do I look?" he says, now, presenting himself to me. "Huh?"

"You look great," I tell him. I'm not lying. Getting dressed up for these guys is a form of warfare, total plumage warfare,, and Martin hasn't been a pro for forty-eight years for nothing.

I love it. Even though I'm not really a modern country fan, I have respect for a lot of the old stuff, and I do love the showmanship and shininess of their Opry outfits. The women did the same — big hair, rhinestones, the whole bit — but the men might have been more over the top. "Plumage warfare" is an excellent way to describe it. You'll just have to read the book to know how the visit turns out.

Also really great are the four different pieces written for Bob Dylan. The first comes from his 1997 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony; the second for the DVD booklet notes to The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965; the third accompanies Gotta Serve Somebody, a Dylan gospel song cover album; the fourth, part of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, in which Piazza examines the solo albums that led to Dylan's creative revival in the 90s. I'm not even a massive Dylan fan – let's be real, you gotta own more than the handful of the albums I do to be considered “massive” – but good music writing is good music writing. Piazza examines both Dylan's creative direction and the cultural direction of the world at large. The last piece was written post-9/11, but pre-Katrina, so there's a certain amount of unintentional foreshadowing in reading his dissatisfaction with the “disaster” of the Bush administration. I found this bit particularly interesting:

America... Meaning what, again? […] Something so internally contradictory is, of course, a target for every kind of projection. The mind has trouble accepting such intense contradictions within the same entity. Their presence creates a profound anxiety. Learning to accept them is a discipline.

Is it because the culture as a whole contains such extremes of good and bad that there is such a pull to identify with only one vein or corner of the culture?

To identify with the culture itself means identifying with a high level of tension among the elements. It means identifying with the tension itself.

What does this have to do with Bob Dylan? Consider the various evolutions he's undergone throughout his career --- the acoustic-only folk, the switch to electric, the gospel songs, the attraction to “absolute claims” and yet also being “extremely wary of them.” Piazza's point is that contradiction within one person's urgent claims is a very American thing. I don't know if it's uniquely American, since it seems to me that any human, regardless of nationality, is capable of contradiction. But perhaps talking about it publicly is? I don't know, since my perspective is skewed by having only lived in America. I suppose the irony in that statement is that, by making it, it is also an “urgent claim.”

Art interprets either current culture or the way culture is headed, but of course, it is also very personal. That's not to say that everyone depicts autobiographical experiences, but it is personal in that the artist in question is interested in a subject in a way that only they can be. For instance, I've never been in a band, but I've written about it. I've never been a professional ballerina, but I've written about it. Apart from specific plot elements, personal themes such as love, loss and pride can be explored in a way that reflects both public and private life. We are products of our own culture, and we all connect in different ways.

People like to make generalizations about artists, but you really can't. […] But it is probably true that most people who are artists as we tend to mean that word have very contradictory needs and impulses and that their work is among other things a way of mediating between opposite forces in their own nature.

Artists attempt to make sense of their personal tension.

Piazza himself has his own personal tension as a resident of New Orleans. “Katrina exposed something rotten at the root,” he writes. “The federally built levees were weak as a wino's teeth, and the governmental response to their failure was worse than inept.” Because he wrote a book called Why New Orleans Matters, he suddenly found himself on the news-talk circuit, discussing that inept response and the city's future. Somewhat predictably, readers/viewers who glaringly missed the point started responding. There were letters calling for making New Orleans a “museum town” – in other words, making it a shiny existence of architecture and boutique eateries, and well, those pesky poor of the Ninth Ward are just shit out of luck and should just move somewhere else. Isn't that generous? Piazza's response is more well-reasoned than I would have been, calling the suggestion “nauseating and despicable.”

But the point is that being poor and born into a partly hostile environment with diminished opportunity does not disqualify anyone from being a complex human being with a connection to their home and neighborhood, and not just a figure in a set of statistics.

Because the paperback I read was a PS edition, there is additional material in the back, including an interesting conversation between Piazza and his editor, Cal Morgan, as well as a 'Further Listening and Reading' list. We know I'm a fan of playlists, and this one provides a handy guide to all the material referenced throughout the book. Unfortunately, Gillian Welch is the only featured, named woman in this list, and one of the few mentioned throughout the book. The 'why' of this is a discussion bigger than this review, but “Desperate America” and the blues are not exclusively the domains of men. I'm not necessarily faulting Piazza for the noticeable lack of women in his book because I'm not privy to his editorial process, but I am recognizing the institutionalized dismissal of women throughout the history of media --- in journalism, music or otherwise. I'm not expecting Piazza to have some sort of great insight to the female experience, but I wonder if there were not-included interviews with women that would have also fit within the scope of the book?

Despite that flaw, Devil Sent the Rain is an excellent book. One does not have to be a big fan of the blues or “rural” music to find value within its pages, for Piazza writes in an informative way that's moving and honest. We can hear these artists' voices, and we hear their concerns.


Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.