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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

If Books Were Spices, What Would These Be?


Sometimes a cliché can give rise to fresher thoughts. The cliché that came to me this morning, as I looked at the three thoroughly unrelated new books I’m featuring this week in my bookshop, was “Variety is the spice of life.”

Should I be ashamed that my first thought was such a trite reflection? Next into my head came a personal statement I can make very truthfully, so it may mean more or again it may not, which is that one of the things I love about books is their infinite variety. Books give us a variety of subject matter and writing style as great as the number of human minds who have written books in the past, write books today, and will write them in the future -- lives and thoughts and fantasies and observations – worlds and perspectives we would otherwise never know, available to us in this simple, as-yet-unsurpassed, durable hand-held technology. Wow!

Well, but then I thought more literally about spices and, by metaphorical extension, how one might link spices and books, and I may have gone too far afield with my third thought. Would Nuts and Buried be nutmeg, or is that too simplistic? Would The Mare be coriander because of the Dominican connection? What about Nineteen + Conversations with Jazz Musicians? Soul food? Maybe red pepper? But wait, where’s the cumin, and how can I attach it to one of these featured books?

Sometimes one gets carried away by a metaphor, so okay, let’s forget that one. At least it got me started writing about my Books-of-the-Week.


Michigan readers will remember Elizabeth Buzzelli as the author of the Dead series: Dead Dancing Women, Dead Floating Lovers, etc. I hope you also remember that she is now writing murder mysteries as Elizabeth Lee and that the new series takes place in East Texas on a pecan ranch. Want to go somewhere warm for the winter? Enjoy a vicarious getaway!

Lindy Blanchard is the first-person narrator of these funny, lively stories. With her strong university background in research science, she’s come home to develop a pecan tree that will be resistant to drought and pests, as well as to help out in the family store, the Nut House. When murder occurs, however, she and her intrepid Meemaw are right there in the thick of it, investigating and interviewing and putting their lives in danger to find the killer. Nuts and Buried is the third book in this irresistible series and a very affordable self-indulgent purchase at $7.99. Impossible to go wrong! Yea, Elizabeth!

Of my second featured book this week, The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill, I’ll refer to you my last blog post, where I wrote about it at length. (You have to scroll down through the weather and stone stuff to get to the book review.) The Mare is a hardcover novel and not cheap at $26.95, but if ever a new book was worth its full cover price, this is that book.

And now for something I’d love to call my own discovery, except that I learned about the book when a friend who is also a friend of the author sent me a copy. Garth W. Caylor (he actually goes by “Bill”) interviewed New York jazz musicians in the 1960s. He interviewed them in their homes, sometimes with interruptions by children or the telephone, so that the reader has the sense of being there in the room, and conversations ranged from music and dance, painting, literature, i.e., creativity in general, to the nitty-gritty of making a living in New York at that time, pros and cons of living in one part of the country or another or in another country altogether, to the deepest meaning of life as these creative individuals found it. These interviews are extraordinary, even to a reader (like myself) without a deep jazz background.

Here’s what makes me a little crazy, though. The author of this extraordinary book, nothing like which is available anywhere, could not find a publisher in the Sixties, after he had carefully secured permissions from all the musicians he interviews (can you imagine how disappointed they must have been?) and even after a book reviewer for Little Brown, one Ralph J. Gleason, music columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, contributor to the iconic Downbeat (now online), and cofounder of no less than Rolling Stone, “urged” the publisher “with every ounce of conviction I have to publish it.” Little Brown sent a copy of Gleason’s review along to the author with their own rejection letter. What were they thinking? Caylor goes on to quote from Gleason’s letter (and who can blame him?)
...I have read it twice, and both times I have found it fascinating, but more than fascinating, I have found it illuminating. I would recommend it to my class and to my readers as I would recommend it to you.
And they passed it by. The mind boggles, does it not?

So now, decades later, the author has been driven to self-publishing to get his baby out into the world, and thanks to a friend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I learned about author and book and was able to obtain copies of the book from the author and now have it for sale in Northport. I take great pride in offering it here.

But I should give you a taste of the book itself. Here’s a bit from the interview with Bill Evans, whose music I’m listening to as I compose this post. Caylor has just asked if Evans has become more “objective or detached” in his playing from early work to Little Lulu.
No—I don’t know. I still have to feel that I really like something for some reason or another. Like Little Lulu, I think, is a keen little melody. It’s not a matter of taking something which is a challenge—it just happens to be something we can work with, and happen to like. That’s the only thing. We simply enjoy it; I take it entirely seriously. It’s a humorous sounding tune, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take the humor seriously—I take it as seriously as anything else, and I try to make as much music out of it as I can.
I would love to quote the whole long section here but am refraining. Evans goes on to say that music too abstract to have a frame of reference is not satisfying to him, and both of those thoughts are important, I think, coming from a musician – the idea that enjoyment and fun are not divorced from taking music seriously and that, for this musician, some traditional frame of reference is crucial, however much freedom is introduced.

And here’s someone else, drummer Milford Graves, talking about looking at objects and needing the environment (as opposed to only looking inside himself) to build his mind:
I really enjoy the subway. Well, I’ve had to make myself enjoy it, since it’s been my only transportation; at one time it was a bad thing to me, but I can’t have anything like that causing a mental disturbance, because if that happens I can’t play the way I want to. So I try to take whatever it is that disturbs me and balance it out, so that nothing outweighs anything else. The subway is like a happening, there are so many things to see and hear, the people and the tension, it’s something to let me know where people are. Then the train itself, too. Everything caused by friction of one kind or another, and you can’t say it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ You can only say it’s good if at any given moment it is satisfying a need, and you can it’s bad if at a given moment it disagrees with you.
Graves goes on to speak more and more abstractly about sound in general being without shape or style, but also insisting that music is “just sound.” Reality, illusions of reality, transformations – it’s heavy but, as Gleason recognized fascinating stuff. It's life perspectives from some of the most creative individuals in New York in the Sixties

Nineteen + Conversations with Jazz Musicians, New York City: 1065 1965 is a small book and expensive for its size. It’s less than 5”x7” side to side, and top to bottom, but there are 248 pages, with illustrations, bibliography, and index. More importantly, you just won’t find these musicians’ words and views on art and life gathered together anywhere else. You needn’t call yourself a jazz aficionado (I certainly don’t deserve the name) to find this very special, unique little book worth $32.95. Maybe for yourself, maybe for someone on your holiday gift list, but here’s something for the music lover who has everything, because it’s a sure thing they don’t have this book!


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