Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jake Shimabukuro Live in Pennsylvania

Jake Shimabukuro opens with "More Ukulele" in Manheim, PA
Thursday night I went to see Jake Shimabukuro play his tenor ukulele live in concert in Manheim, Pennsylvania, part of his 2014 Uke Nation Tour. Quite simply, it was amazing. Playing the ukulele from the age of four (over three decades now), what Jake can do with four strings is so unexpected that first-timers are shocked to think that this is the same "toy" instrument Tiny Tim used to tiptoe through the tulips. In the hands of a master like Shimabukuro, the ukulele is no toy, but a fair cousin of the Spanish classical guitar with a range whose limits Jake continues to push.

Opening the last night's concert with "More Ukulele" from his new CD Grand Ukulele. It was a raucous start with Jake dancing and playing the fast-paced, staccato notes with abandon, eliciting cheers from a crowd that was filled with fans and untold numbers of amateur uke players. From the same album Jake would also play "Ukulele Five-O" - his homage to the classic 70s TV show set in his home state of Hawaii -and "Gentle Mandolin" - a song he wrote for his sons and he dedicated to all the fathers in the crowd. 

In addition to playing everyone's favorite cover song, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," (which Jake performed at a TED Talk and was my introduction to Shimabukuro) as well as as sweet versions of "Ave Maria" and "In My Life" on a vintage baritone ukulele he recently acquired, Jake demonstrated his ability as a musician and a producer by playing a version of "Dragon" from his the CD of the same name that hearkened back to his earliest days performing in the 80s. On stage using foot pedals, Jake would play a phrase, which was recorded and then played back. He layered these phrases one upon another, until he had created a loop which then played back so he was his own accompanist. Then, Shimabukuro played that uke like the lead guitarist of a glam metal band, sans the big hair. I shot the video last night, and if you listen to the end, you will hear him extract out each the accompanying phrases until it's just him and the ukulele again. It's a truly incredible level of musicianship.

How do you top that? When you are Jake Shimabukuro you play "While My Guitar Gentle Weeps," the George Harrison song that changed everything for a young Jake. (This video was uploaded in April 2005 to YouTube, which was only in its second year, and went completely viral with millions of hits.) Playing "Hallelujah" for his encore sent everyone home happy. That might be the what unifies all the myriad of different songs Jake can't help but smile listening to this perfect little instrument.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wicker's first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, may be the first great work of magical realism of the twenty-first century. Though her two main characters are mythical creatures, one from Judaism and the other from the desert tribes of Arabia, when they are plunked down into Gilded Age New York the mundane and the magical collide in ways that reveal humanity at its core.

The Golem is not the clay giant that haunted the attic of Prague's synagogue. Instead she was created to be the wife for a silly but wealthy man who dreamed of starting life over in New York. When asked what he wanted in his golem-wife, he responded: "Give her curiosity and intelligence. I can't stand a silly woman. Oh, and make her proper. Not...lascivious. A gentleman's wife." On the crossing to America the Golem is awakened and made masterless within the same hour. If not for the kindness of a retired rabbi living in the Lower East Side whose kindness saves the Golem's life.

The Jinni, on the other hand, is the very opposite of the Golem. Released from the copper flask that served as his prison for a millenium by a tin smith in the Little Syria neighborhood of New York, the Jinni was is a wanton hedonist who lives only to fulfill his own desires. Where the Golem wants only to blend in an go unnoticed, the Jinni is happy to shine brighter than every other being on the island of Manhattan. Trapped in human form by the iron cuff on his arm that keeps him from assuming his spirit form. Along with the 1,000 years the Jinni lost, he is also missing the memory of what happened to him.

Surrounded by a cast of characters like the ice cream man who once was a doctor in the old country, the bakery owner whose employee is a girl of loose morals, and the wealthy heiress bored by life uptown, the Golem and the Jinni probe the meaning of humanity as they try to fit in with the people of their individual neighborhoods so as to hide their true identities. Until they meet, each is adrift, alone in the world, yet surrounded by the teeming hordes of the turn of the century tenements. 

Helene Wecker has struck gold with The Golem and the Jinni. In many ways she reminds me of Umberto Ecco, using a simple story of one girl and one boy who are not even human to explore questions that go to the very heart of what it means to be human. I can't wait to see what story she chooses to tell next.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Aisha Tyler Live

Aisha Tyler and me at the Wilbur in Boston after her show
If you don't know Aisha Tyler, I think you might just be living under a rock. I discovered her first through FX's brilliantly funny animated series Archer where she plays super spy Lana Kane. From there, I discovered her wonderful podcast "Girl on Guy" where she posts a weekly long-form interview on things guys love (think science fiction, good food, sports, bourbon). Aisha's fun-loving, conversational style draws out more of the real person and not just the talking points written by some faceless and feckless marketing intern. Some of my favorite interviews have included the two hour block buster interview she did with Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith where he interviewed her on SModcast then she turned the tables, interviewing him. Other outstanding interviews included comedian Ron Funches, Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe, comedic song and dance man Wayne Brady, actor/director Levar Burton, Chef Edward Lee, rapper Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and most recently former Celtic Rick Fox

Listening to the podcast led me to Aisha's memoir Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. A riotously funny end to every interview, Aisha asks her guests to share a story where they have been their own worst enemy. Most even discover some lesson, after the tears and the laughs of course. With chapter titles like "The Time I Cut Myself in Half" and "The Time I Killed a Hobo" and "The Time I Wore that Awful See-Through Dress" you get a sense of Tyler's self-deprecating humor. A driven individual who who never stops working, in Self-Inflicted Wounds Aisha mines her own life to find the humor that makes her so damn funny I not-so-secretly hoped she would replace Dave Letterman at the helm of The Late Show. My favorite stories? The ones about her father, whom she describes as a cross between Shaft and the Terminator. (At least that's how I remember her describing him.) Aisha Tyler is who she is because of this bad ass motherfucker. "My dad's approach to cultivating independence in a child was simple and straightforward: do as little as possible to make your child's life easier." I wish more parents were like this today.

Seeing Aisha live in Boston over Easter weekend was amazing. She was so hysterical I nearly fell out of my chair...twice. Her humor is not joke based, but rather a series of stories mixed with observations of human frailty, starting with her own. While she touches on all kinds of important issue in her humor - race, religion, relationships, growing up (old) - the insights are real just like the laughs. Her best bit of the night involved Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Sochi Olympics, the protest band Pussy Riot, and NPR icon Diane Rehm. Anyone who can apply the comedic tetris skills to a slay a crowd the way Aisha Tyler did in Boston really is a comic genius. In October Aisha is headlining the inaugural Maui Comedy Festival. Call me a stalker if you must, but I plan to be there. Check out the video below (which was used to open the Boston show) for a taste of her humor.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Comic books and superheroes are all the rage at the box office, and Marvel has cornered the market on doing it right. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the best installment yet of the Marvel franchise, surpassing even "The Avengers," which I loved. The formula for success has been great acting, a good story, and buckets of money. The formula holds for the new installment of Captain America, and the result was $303.3 million opening weekend.

What makes "Winter Soldier" a success is its willingness to take an important principle and build a story for our times around that big idea. In our post 9/11 world, the balance between national security and individual liberty is a delicate business. After the alien invasions of "The Avengers" and "Thor: Dark World," I imagine a world ready and willing to consign most of their liberties to history in exchange for the illusory promise of security today. What happens, though, when the apparatus meant to protect humanity is turned against humanity itself? And when those charged with protecting humanity decide that liberty and freedom are the greater threat? Nothing good, I can promise you. 

Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Director Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) are formidable and fun to watch. The introduction of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) - the former soldier Sam Wilson who does everything Rogers does "only slower" - proves a major asset when no one knows who they can trust. It is this addition of a major conspiracy that runs the depth and breadth of S.H.I.E.L.D. that is the other element of the story that makes "Winter Soldier" so compelling.

Funny enough, the Winter Soldier himself is the least important part of this cinematic melange. No offense to Sebastian Stan whose portrayal of the Winter Soldier is both exciting and thrilling at times, it's just that the conspiracy and the exploration of the security/liberty theme is more compelling.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" just moved to the top of my list of movies to watch again and again. I also can't wait to see "Guardians of the Galaxy," a deep cut from the Marvel oeuvre which releases in August 2014.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible

Being a fan of crime fiction and mysteries, I feel late to the Ian Rankin party. While contemplating a vacation to Scotland, I learned about Rankin's oeuvre, all set in Edinburgh. Starting with his newest offering Saints of the Shadow Bible would serve as a test; if it was good, I will have found a treasure trove of new titles to keep me busy.

Though there is significant back story to which, as a new reader, I am not privy, Rankin's story telling in the Saints manages to communicate all  all this necessary facts once needs to know, without a tedious recitation that long-time readers find boring. (Yes, I'm talking to you Sue Grafton.) Saints pits the old against the new in the realm of police investigations, where it's snitches and favors v. forensics and Google searches. Detective Sergeant John Rebus (demoted for past sins in past novels) represents the old, and internal affairs (complaints department) inspector Malcolm Fox represents the new, while Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke stands between the two.

When Scotland's Solicitor General opens a new investigation into a murder from three decades prior, Fox is the lead investigator and Rebus is squarely in his sights. Billy Saunders, a police snitch, was accused of murder, but the case fell apart due to either police incompetence or outright obstruction. At the time, Rebus had just joined Summerhall and joined the Saint of the Shadow Bible, those detectives whose commitment to fighting crime was not to be hindered by the niceties of the law. They were known to plant evidence, beat confessions out of criminals, and, when the courts failed, to take the law into their own hands. Rebus manages to insinuate himself into Fox's investigation, though neither man trusts the other, and both hope to use the other to their own ends. Once Billy Saunders ends up dead in a canal, all bets are off.

At the same time, three other investigations - a car crash, the death of the Scottish Justice Minister, and another body in a canal - keep Rebus and Clarke busy. The relentless pursuit of coincidences and intuition with just a wee bit of intimidation leads to resolution, and respect for both the old ways and the new. Rankin manages to tell not only a good detective story, but a very human story that probes politics and business, the foibles of fathers and sons, and how virtues like loyalty and honesty can indeed become vices.

My only question, which Ian Rankin novel next?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sharon Kay Penman's A King's Ransom

Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Poitou and Anjou was the very definition of foolhardy. At the approach of his death (no this is not a spoiler as he died in 1199), I found myself angry with the great king for the reckless behavior that ended his life after only a decade of rule. The promise of what could have been died that April day with the Lionheart. If there are moments where the future of the world changes, author Sharon Kay Penman makes you believe that this was one of them. Jerusalem might have been returned to Christian rule had Richard returned to the Holy Land, and if he ruled long into old age, as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine did, the Magna Carta forced on King John in 1215 at Runnymede would have been unnecessary, and thus even American democracy might have been affected by the Lionheart.

My anger was fleeting in response to A King's Ransom, for there is a deep and abiding sadness that permeates this biography of King Richard, especially when events are viewed through the eyes of Queen Eleanor who outlived all but her youngest son John. Though Death stocked the lives of those who lived through the Middle Ages more than we can hope to comprehend in our modern world of technology and medicine, man's inhumanity to man sets the most lugubrious tone of Penman's book. The Holy Roman Emperor's capture and imprisonment of Richard upon his return from the Holy Land, including a near death experience in the infamous dungeons of Trifels and the extortionist ransom that nearly bankrupted all of England and Normandy, left Richard broken in a way that changed him fundamentally. His sweet, innocent wife Berengaria suffered at least as much as Richard himself, if not more, as she never knew why she suffered so. 

For all the melancholy that permeated the medieval world - illness and death, war and famine, unrelenting fear - one source of comfort should have the Church. Certainly there were priests, nuns, abbots, and princes of the Church who managed to do God's work, but too often, Penman shows us, the Church proved to be guilty of tolerating the misery of humanity, if not causing it outright. From Pope Celestine who was too weak to confront Emperor Heinrich for capturing Richard who was under the protection of the Church to prelates like the Bishop of Beauvais who shielded behind his pallium brazen acts of military and political power. Worst, though, was the Church's adherence to doctrines that focused more on sexual sins and heresy while ignoring sins against human dignity. (A problem still for the 21st century Catholic Church.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine, beside her husband King Henry II, at Fontverault Abbey
Sharon Kay Penman has accomplished something truly marvelous in her two volume historical fiction biography of King Richard, begun in Lionheart and concluded here in A King's Ransom. Through impeccable research of nearly all the extant contemporary sources, and probably every last page written on Richard and his family in the last eight centuries, Penman is as familiar with Angevin dynasty as if she were a not so distant cousin and family chronicler. Her familiarity with the historical sources allows her to enter into Richard's world through her imagination, creating the narrative thread that weaves together the actual chronicles with intelligent speculation and a immensely plausible story that I couldn't put down.

For all the adventures of Richard and the pure enjoyment of his triumphs over Philippe, Heinrich, and the rest, it was the first appearance of Justin de Quincy that literally brought a cheer to my lips. Justin is the main character from Penman's series of medieval mysteries, all centered around Eleanor's rule of Richard domain's during his absence. The second de Quincy book, Cruel as the Grave, was my introduction to Penman's writing, and I have loved every page I have read since.

I have but one complaint that comes not from the trials and tribulations of Richard the Lionheart, but from Penman's announcement in the Author's Note that this is the last book she will write on the Angevins. Eleanor is dead, and after twenty years in service to the great Queen's family, Penman will move on to another medieval family, set in Champagne and the Holy Land called The Land Beyond the Sea. I had hoped for a biography of the Devil' own King John, but returning to Outremer and the Kingdom of Jerusalem is a worthy adventure too.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

The death of Peter O'Toole in December left me nostalgic to watch one of my favorite old movies, "Lawrence of Arabia," which then pushed me to take the plunge and read Scott Anderson's new biography of T.E. Lawrence titled "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East." What Anderson presents is an unflinching look at the scholarly archeologist-cum-soldier, his two year flirtation with the brutality of desert warfare, and the way he was changed and ultimately broken by this experience. 

The book focuses on Lawrence's championing of the Arab tribes led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire (with the encouragement of the British Empire). Anderson creates a rich tapestry describing the Great War - the war to end all wars - so that the reader never forgets that this conflict, that played out throughout modern day Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, is part of a much greater whole. As Anderson writes in his introduction: 
"In terms of lives, money, and matériel expended, in terms of the thousands of hours spent in weighty consultation between generals and kings and prime ministers, the imperial plotters of Europe were infinitely more concerned over the future status of Belgium, for example, than with what might happen in the impoverished regions of the Middle East." 
This lack of concern for the desert hinterlands would allow a single man - Lawrence - to influence events during the war until the peace conference in Paris, when the imperial planner would once again exert their influence.

T.E. Lawrence in the Arab robes he preferred.
After graduating from Jesus College at Oxford and spending three years in Syria on an archaeological dig at Carchemish, T.E. Lawrence would find himself volunteering his intimate knowledge of the Middle East to the British Empire first as civilian cartographer, then as a junior officer (in order to brief a general who refused to be addressed by a civilian,the first of several awkward promotions Lawrence would receive). Sent to Cairo as an intelligence officer, Lawrence's linguistic talents, familiarity with terrain, adaptability, and genuine respect for the Arab tribesman allowed him to assert his ideas first through intelligence reports and then on the ground as an advisor to Faisal Ibn Hussein. Lawrence adopted the Arab dress of those he advised, and took it upon himself to help the Arabs secure a future for themselves, free of the yolk of the Ottomans and free of the imperial designs of both the French (whom he despised) and his own British superiors.

Nearly a century later, what Anderson present in this modern reassessment of Lawrence of Arabia is a very complicated human being, both the heroic figure idealized by many and the broken man whose suffering caused him to change his name twice to avoid the the celebrity of his exploits. Here was a man whose hubris drove him to commit treason against whose own country (he revealed the contents of the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France on the disposition of the Middle East to Faisal) because he was convinced he knew what was better for both the Arabs and the British Empire - a free and independent Arab state. At the same time, his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom is 600+ pages, much of it self aggrandizement, but he never printed more than 200 copies and he donated the proceeds from Revolt in the Desert, which could have made him a wealthy man, to an air force charity to benefit veterans of WWI.

Winston Churchill trailed by T.E. Lawrence and Faisal ibn Hussein
Without psychoanalyzing Lawrence overly much, Anderson turns his biographer's gaze to the darkest moment of Lawrence's life, the probable rape and torture he suffered in Deraa. Comparing what Lawrence wrote in his official reports, Seven Pillars, and letters to confidants after the war, Anderson pieces together what - in the absence of eyewitnesses and reliable evidence - is a strong case that "something happened in Deraa. Many of those who knew Lawrence best would report a change in his personality, an even greater remoteness, dating from around that time. It was also soon afterward that he began organizing a person bodyguard...." In the end, T.E. Lawrence was witness to and victim of - and some might argue perpetrator of - the very worst of humanity in war time. As Anderson argues, Lawrence certainly suffered from PTSD after the war as a result of all that he had seen and done and had been done to him, and more poignantly all that he had not done or had been unable to do. The final insult was having to witness at Paris the final betrayal of the Arabs by imperial Europe. He did make one last effort, assisting Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary who tried to make the best of a terrible situation. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Lawrence wrote that Churchill "made straight all the tangle" in the Middle East, fulfilling Britain's promises to the Arabs "in letter and spirit (where humanly possible) without sacrificing any interest of our Empire or any interest of the peoples concerned."
What makes Anderson's biography such a triumph is not just the story-telling and research on T.E. Lawrence (some of which has only recently been declassified) but his inclusion of other key actors in the Middle East, contemporaries of Lawrence. He focuses on three specifically, a German diplomat-cum-spy, an American oilman-cum-spy, and a Jewish Zionist-cum-spy. The story of Curt Prüfer, the German spymaster's whose machinations on behalf of the Kaiser and in service of the Young Turks then ruling the Ottoman Empire, helps to flesh out what was happening on the other side. William Yale, an American aristocrat fallen on hard times (the Ivy League university is named for his family), who went to work for the Standard Oil Company and found himself in the Middle East when war broke out; his inclusion is more about representing the American perspective and rather than his minimal contribution. Aaron Aaronsohn was a world famous agronomist living in Palestine whose commitment to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine put him on a collision course with Lawrence's ideal of a free and independent Arab state. Both Aaronsohn and Yale, with Lawrence, would attend the Paris Peace Conference, a disaster if ever there was one for the 20th century. Anderson manages to weave all of this together into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

After T.E. Lawrence's untimely death as a result of a motorcycle accident, immortalized in the opening of the 1962 movie "Lawrence of Arabia," Winston Churchill opted, appropriately, to remember all that is deserving of our admiration, saying "I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again." Times had changed, and maybe never again will a solitary man be able to make war against an empire mounted on a camel. Nearly a century later, there are still lessons to be learned from the story of Lawrence's adventures in Arabia.