Monday, December 11, 2017

A Monkee looks back

Many people are best remembered for one thing when they would prefer to be remembered for something else, such as retired athletes who have become successful in business yet are famous only for what they did in the field or on the court decades before. One such person is Michael Nesmith, who will forever be known as one of the Monkees back in the Sixties, never mind all the innovative things he has accomplished in music, technology and philanthropy since then.

In his recent autobiography Infinite Tuesday, he puts his brief career as a Monkee in perspective. It gave his show business career a big boost, allowed him to form friendships with such individuals as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Douglas Adams, but he has had many other more important accomplishments since then. If others won't mention them, then he will.

Nesmith, for example, invented the music video, way before MTV. He had written a song called Rio, but when he tried to get it some airplay in England he was asked to provide a video. What was actually wanted was just a cheap video of himself performing the song, but instead he put together a costly, highly entertaining video. Everyone who saw it loved it, but nobody knew what to do with it. It was an idea whose time had not yet come.

Michael Nesmith
Nesmith tried his hand at making movies, calling himself a Hamburger Movie Tycoon, his term for people who make their fortunes in other fields, then think they can be successful in Hollywood, too. Usually they can't, and Nesmith couldn't either.

He had more success buying up rights to countless videos for low prices before VHS tapes became as popular as they soon became. He was later sued by PBS, who wanted their rights back and resented Nesmith acquiring them so cheaply. Their ruthless attempt to ruin him and use the courts to steal the videos back may make you think twice about pledging to PBS in the future. Yet Nesmith ultimately won the case.

He has also had success on the Internet and with the philanthropies entrusted to him by his mother, who made her fortune after inventing Liquid Paper, then dying young.

From this you might get the idea the book is full of little more than name-dropping and boasting. There is some of that, to be sure, but I was impressed with his candor about the many mistakes he has made both in his personal life and in his career. He regards himself as perfect illustration of what he calls Celebrity Psychosis, or thinking oneself more important, more special than one really is. He doesn't seem to have liked the other Monkees, for he has little to say about them, but it would appear the feeling was mutual.

With age comes wisdom, at least sometimes, and such appears to be the case with Michael Nesmith.

Friday, December 8, 2017

An Ace fantasy

Since the 1970s, Alan Dean Foster, who just turned 71, has been a popular and prolific author of fantasy and science fiction novels. I am wondering if his career might easily have taken off in a different direction early in his career, however.

I recently found found Foster's 1988 novel, Maori, a paperback original, in my library and decided to read it. The book may have been sent to me for review, but I managed to ignore it for nearly 30 years. When I started reading I had no idea what to expect. I recognized Foster's name as a sci-fi writer. The novel's cover calls it "the epic historical fantasy of the year!" On the back it says, "One man ... on the mystical adventure of a lifetime" and "discovered a magical world beyond his strangest dreams" and "a dazzling epic fantasy of a strange but enchanted land."

It turns out the novel has more in common with James Michener's Hawaii than Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. It tells the history of New Zealand from the early 19th century when whalers stopped there to resupply their ships to the late 19th century when it became the first part of the British Empire to give women the vote. In between were decades of war between the white settlers and the Maori natives. Mostly we follow the story through the eyes of Robert Coffin, a businessman who builds his fortune while helping to build a country, yet managing to destroy those he loves along the way.

The novel might qualify as a fantasy in the way any novel is a fantasy, the work of the author's imagination. But Ace Books, Foster's publisher at that time, built its reputation selling fantasy and science fiction, not serious historical novels. So what were they to do with Maori? What they did, apparently, was to disguise it as a fantasy novel, thus disappointing those who bought it expecting a fantasy and keeping it hidden from those readers who might have actually enjoyed it. Had I known what it is, I might not have waited three decades to read it.

It's too bad, for Maori is a good novel, one that deserved a wider audience than it probably received. Had it gotten that audience, Alan Dean Foster might have chosen to write more books like it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Why keep books?

The question most asked of bibliophiles is probably, "Have you read all these books?" Not far behind, however, comes this one: "If you've already read them, why do you keep them?"

To true bibliophiles, this question seems like a no-brainer. They collect books because they like books, the way someone who collects tea pots likes tea pots or someone who collects stamps likes stamps. The fact that a tea pot may never again hold tea or a stamp may have already been canceled has nothing to do with it. Nor does the fact that a book has been read, or for that matter, may never be read.

Two years ago members of LibraryThing (a place on the web where booklovers gather) discussed this topic and provided some interesting answers to the question of why they collect books. Here are some I particularly liked:

"The same kind of panic about not having anything to read that caused my mother-in-law to fill closets full of toilet paper so she would never, ever have to face running out."

"Because knowing I have more books in my immediate environment than I can possibly read in this life makes me feel happy in the way the monied feel knowing they will never run out of dough."

"When I read a book, I'm forming a relationship. Once I'm done, I could throw it away. But do you do that to your friends once you've made them?"

"Life is short and books are nice."

All these are good reasons, especially the one about forming relationships with books. Parting with a good book really is something like parting with a good friend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Personal catch-phrases

What a revoltin' development this is.
Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) on The Life of Riley

Among the earliest catch-phrases I remember from television is the one above often heard on The Life of Riley, an NBC comedy that ran from 1953 to 1958, although there was an earlier version of the show starring Jackie Gleason that I never saw. Soon Gleason would have his own catch-phrase ("How sweet it is!"), as well as others as Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners.

Many other television series generated popular catch-phrases. Those on situation comedies always drew laughs, no matter how many times they were repeated. Other kinds of shows, such as Superman, Dragnet and The Lone Ranger had them, too, and they are repeated to this day even by people who have never seen the programs. Modern shows have their own catch-phrases, such as The Big Bang Theory ("I'm not insane. My mother had me tested.").

As entertaining as these TV catch-phrases can be, the fact is that many of us have our own personal catch-phrases, and most often they are just annoying, at least to those who have to listen to them. I had some X-rays taken last week by a very nice woman who prefaced almost every request for a change of position with the words "do me a favor." This was endearing at first, but soon I cringed each time she said it.

I am a fan of The Great Courses lectures, and I often have one playing in my car. One course I thought I would enjoy was about the books written by C.S. Lewis, a favorite of mine. Unfortunately the lecturer is one of those people who repeats the phrase "but guess what" again and again. I had to force myself to complete the course.

On a Great Courses podcast recently I heard a philosophy professor talking about his course. He kept saying things like "The truth should be valued in and of itself, right?" and "What good is that, right?" I don't think I want to invest in that course, right?

In our conversations we can hear speakers inserting expressions such as "like I said," "you know what I mean" and "first of all" into everything they say. Others punctuate their speech with their favorite profanities. Maybe these kinds of things don't bother you, but they bother me. But I am also bothered by the thought that I may have my own personal catch-phrases I am not even aware of but others are.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Listening to the Fifties

The early rock and roll of the 1950s was subsumed and transformed by the rock and roll of the 1960s.
Michael Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday

During our two-day drive down to our winter paradise in Florida last week, Linda and I listened to nonstop Fifties music on SiriusXM. Other than Blue Moon by the Marcels and some songs by the Platters, Bobby Darin, Della Reese and a few others, I am not that fond of the songs of the Fifties (nor was I that fond of them back in the Fifties), but they do rekindle memories. Best of all, unlike other Sirius stations, there are few songs so objectionable one feels compelled to change to something else.

After we arrived in Florida I began reading Infinite Tuesday, an autobiography by Michael Nesmith, once one of the Monkees. Nesmith is a contemporary of mine, someone who grew up in the Fifties, then reached adulthood in the Sixties. He says that in the Sixties, "Popular music was coming from the hymnal of a new church." He is right. By the mid-Sixties, popular music was radically different from that of the Fifties. He attributes the change mostly to the influence of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

During the long drive from Ohio, I noticed several things about Fifties music that separate it not just from Sixties music but from the music of every other decade. Here are some of them:

1. A major theme of rock and roll music of that decade was rock and roll music.During that decade we were subjected to Jailhouse Rock, Jingle Bell Rock, Rock Around the Clock, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay and other variations on the theme.

2. Another popular theme was teenage girls, especially 16-year-old girls. Consider Sweet Little Sixteen, Sixteen Candles, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and others. Young love, of course, has always been a major topic of popular music, but has there ever been as much focus on girls still in high school?

3. Male singers in that decade favored little-boy names. There was Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, Richie Valens, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Cash, Johnny Burnette. Bobby Darin, Bobby Freeman, Bobby Vee and numerous others. You might add to the list Little Richard, Little Anthony, Little Willie John and Little Walter.

4. Novelty songs were unusually popular. Every decade has its novelty tunes, of course. These are songs played just for laughs. My favorite novelty tune of all time has to be Junk Food Junkie from 1976. But in the Fifties these songs seemed to get radio play all the time. There was Charlie Brown by the Coasters, Christmas Don't Be Late by the Chipmunks, The Thing by Phil Harris, The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley, Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett and many others.

So yes, popular music changed in the 1960s. It matured, as did those who performed it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Exploring Easter Island

Jennifer Vanderbes has several stories going on at once in her 2003 novel Easter Island.

1. Although Elsa, a young Englishwoman, loves a German man she has met, he has inconveniently returned to Germany and she doesn't know when, or even if, she will see him again. So she agrees to marry Edward, a middle-aged scientist, to provide security both for herself and her sister, Alice, who may be autistic and, whatever her condition, needs constant care. Edward, knowing Elsa would never abandon Alice, promises to take care of her, too. The year is 1912.

When Edward gets the chance to go to Easter Island for a long-term study of the Moai statues, he takes both Elsa and Alice with him. To have something to do other than watch over her sister, Elsa attempts to translate the inscriptions found on ancient stones on the island. Meanwhile, Alice develops a mind of her own.

2. In the 1970s a botanist named Greer Farraday, still recovering from the deceit by and death of her husband (he stole her research and claimed it as his own) goes to Easter Island to study the migration of plants from one part of the world to another.

3. Graf von Spee, a German admiral, commands a fleet of warships in the South Pacific when war is declared. Knowing he has little hope of getting his fleet safely back to Germany without being tracked down by Allied ships, he anchors off the coast of Easter Island. (This part of Vanderbes's novel is mostly true.)

4. Also true is the fourth story the author tells, that of the island itself. Along the way she conveys a great deal of information about Easter Island's human history, cultural history and scientific history, although much about this mysterious place remains mostly speculation. How did those massive statues get there? What happened to the trees that once stood on the island? Were they all used to move those stones into position?

Unfortunately these stories, although occasionally interesting in their own right, never really mesh. Those interested in scientific research or in Easter Island may find something fascinating here. Those who just want a good story should look elsewhere.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Happy birthday, boogie

A year ago I celebrated here the centennial of words coined in 1916. So now let’s do the same for words believed to have originated in 1917. Again I am using as my source There’s a Word for It by Sol Steinmetz.

The Great War in Europe was still raging, so some of the new words most likely sprang from that. I am thinking of airdrome, ammo, camouflage, enlistee, machine-gun, storm-troops and tailspin. Other words like Aussie, careerist, cootie, Doberman pinscher and takeover might also be war-related.

The Russian Revolution gave the English language a number of new words at this time: Bolshevism, Bolshevist, Leninist, Red Guard and Soviet.

New music of that generation produced such words as boogie, jazzbo and jazz up.

Increasing automobile traffic was probably responsible for jaywalker. The automobile may have had something to do with the words chauffeur, machinable, part-work, sideswipe, stainless steel and trade-in.

This was also the year that gave us ball hawk, blotto, chowhound, conk, earful, egg foo yung, emote, filthy, G-man, goofus, hokum, moronic, narcissist, package (used as a verb), pep pill, persona, pinpoint, Pollyanna, psych, soft-focus and even Technicolor.

It was quite a year for new words. Most of these I’ve mentioned remain in common usage.