Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M. John Harrison (Bantam, 2004) 310 pages

L Harrison

It’s been a while since I’ve done a science fiction book, huh? Let’s fix that right now…

So I bought this course from a company called The Great Courses about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. I found it pretty fascinating, especially when we got past the 1980s and into the “rise of the new space opera” and stuff like that. After a time when science fiction focused on the nuances of characters or drilled into the minds of people involved in dystopian worlds or deep government plots (the whole “cyberpunk” movement) , the 1990s saw a revival of stories where the whole universe was the canvas. This harkened back to the old space opera stories of the 1930s.

The new space opera authors were not afraid to send characters to weird worlds, or have them encounter strange aliens (humanoid or not), or find hints of civilizations, dead or alive, doing things that humans could barely comprehend. One of the writers that Wolfe spoke about in the course is British author M. John Harrison, a name I had not come across before. Harrison wrote many books, but this quote got me interested in the book I am writing about this week. Here’s what Wolfe says about Harrison and Light:

“[Harrison writes books] all featuring morally ambiguous characters and all connected to a mysterious region of space where reality is so distorted that it has baffled and even damaged many civilizations over the millennia. [The book] Light, in particular, is a superb example of the sort of literary complexity that can be packed into a space opera template.”

Naturally, after that build-up, I had to get my hands on the book and read it.

It was not an easy read. Not only are the characters ambiguous and mysterious, but so is the narrative. Apparently the idea of a linear or sequential narrative is one of those things that people in the deep future can do without. But if you’re willing to jump around a bit in time and space, you’ll find a heckuva story in here, but told in three interlocking sets of episodes.

Michael Kearney is the person we meet first, a Londoner in fear of the Millennium (it’s 1999). He’s doing research into quantum computing and manipulation of quantum effects with a partner, but mainly it’s the partner who does the research while Kearney mainly goofs off and tries to talk his ex-wife into having sex with him (she does not need much convincing). Kearney is also a very casual serial killer, a fact introduces so casually that you wonder if it’s one of those space-time distortions. But apparently not, and it seems the only reason that Kearney does not murder his ex-wife is because she wouldn’t mind dying at all.

If this isn’t quirky enough, we next meet a woman in the far future named Seria Mau Genlicher, someone who now lives as a mass in a tank of liquid and has been merged into a starship/warship called the White Cat (Kearney’s research involves a black cat and a white cat). These “K-ships” are all that remain of an ancient civilization that has tried to penetrate the boundaries of a region of the galaxy where massive black holes of something even stranger has muddied reality into odd areas of overlapping quantum effects. This is the Kefahuchi Tract, where alien civilizations have entered but form which nothing has ever returned. Seria has taken her K-ship rogue, and is not above taking on passengers she kills in order to examine their cargo, even as the authorities hunt for her and try to destroy her.

Last but not least we have Ed Chianese (“Chinese Ed”) who would rather spend his days as a “twink” on New Venusport near the Kefahuchi Tract than anything else. Twinks live in a virtual reality world while immersed in a vat of psychedelic nutrients, and Ed spins a marvelous fantasy as a hard-boiled detective in Chicago until he can’t pay the rent and is dumped out onto the floor of the tank farm. Ed has experience on “dynaflow ships” and has “gone deep” into stellar envelopes and made his way through old alien mazes where many have been lost. He owes a lot of people, and they’re out to collect…

(Have you figured out this book is not your usual trip to Mars yet? And why would an author try to make faster-than-light travel, or strangely connected places in space and time understandable, or weird god-like beings in some way logical? This is the quantum world, baby, where nothing makes much sense. So just go along for the ride. )

Chinese Ed and Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher are all tied up in ways that slowly reveal themselves as the book plays out. Kearney and his partner’s actions must determine the future where the other two play, and their work is so important that there are dioramas in place in the far future to commemorate key moments in their lives and work. Ed and Seria have a past that is shared in a way that you slowly figure out as the book goes on. (It’s easy to hide these little snippets in plain sight because there is so much happening in each scene.)

Lurking everywhere in the background is this thing called the Shrander, a being that shows up in different forms under different names (Sandra Shen, for one) at different times all over the book. Kearney has stolen a set of weird dice form this Shrander – they are shown on the cover of the paperback – and is fond of tossing them at odd times. He has given names to different results, names that also exist in the far future in the other parts of the book. But it’s unclear what effect if any this tossing is having on Kearney’s life or anything else.

Perhaps Kearney’s throws in the present are having an effect on the characters in the far future? Lots of things in this book happen on multiple levels, including the narrative. Sort of like real life.

Before I read this book, I would never had thought it possible to sell a narrative so disconnected, or ideas introduced with so little context or explanation (like “K-tech), or characters so clearly lost and adrift in life and the plot. But now I see that you can, or at least a writer could in the early 2000s. There are two more books in this loose “series” about our very odd future (Nova Swing and Empty Space). But I’m not sure I’m ready to read those yet. I hope I will be.

 

Science of the Magical by Matt Kaplan

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages

SOTM Kaplan

This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).

The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”

Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).

Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.

Which is what I’m going to do here.

Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?

On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.

In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.

The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).

(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂

The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.

Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?

Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).

A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) 280 pages

FM Parker

For the past few weeks, I’ve written about groups dominated not about concerns for government and laws, but about the reaction of their peers and the pressure of the tribe (and I use that term loosely). For example, in The Wandering Falcon, the people are confused by a need to have papers like birth certificates to cross what amount to arbitrary nation borders and in Smile as they Bow, the gay community serves the spirits (nats) by “channeling” the essences of these respected gods to escape official condemnation for their lifestyle. In both cases, the tribe clings together for protection, and individuals break tribal customs at their own risk.

Surely we don’t have tribes in modern America, right? I thought so to, but recently several things converged to make Parker’s book even more relevant than I thought when I read it. First I met Parker at ASU’s annual Desert Night Rising Stars writing conference and he spoke about how his home’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and Marines returning from the Middle East influenced this book. Then this week I went to Changing Hands book store in Phoenix to meet Doug Bradley and hear him speak on his book about how music bound together Vietnam veterans both “in country” during the war and after (the book is We Gotta Get out of This Place). And to top it off, I watched Bradley Cooper in the movie American Sniper again on HBO.

If American military veterans do not constitute a “tribe” as binding as the one who wander the Middle East or haunt the temples of Myanmar, then I don’t know what would be. I can think of others too: police officers (I spent most of my adult life living with two police officers and the chief of police of my town on three of the four sides me), fire fighters, and even motorcycle gangs. They have their own rules, their own talk, their own concerns, and yet they live among us quietly until something happens that draws attention to their otherness.

Which brings me to Full Measure. When speaking about this book, Parker mentioned how the returning veterans he spoke to did not care to be addressed as “heroes” or be constantly thanked for their service. To them, they were doing a dangerous and dirty job and trying their best to keep body and soul together during their tours. They weren’t drafted like many in Viet Nam were: they volunteered and had at least some idea of the risks they would be taking. So it’s no surprise that Full Measure opens with Patrick Norris returning home to his family’s avocado ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and feeling uncomfortable with people who fawn over him, even his brother Ted (page 4). He’s just glad to see his mom and dad again (page 16).

But all is not well at home. A recent wild fire, which might have been set on purpose, has destroyed acres of countryside and many of the Norris avocado trees. If they cannot be saved and provide a cash crop, Pat’s father will have to sell off the land at a fraction of its worth to developers who plan to build houses on the property. Patrick’s home town has changed as well, and now the poorer families, some foreign and others from Mexico, live and work side-by-side with the older (white) population. There is evidence of an active drug market and street gangs. Many of the newcomers don’t own cars, and a young Hispanic boy has been killed by an unknown hit-and-run driver. He tried crossing between the legally established crosswalks at traffic lights set a mile apart (it’s like that where I live in Arizona too).

The mayor holds a town meeting to determine if a crosswalk with solar-powered caution lights should be placed midway between the lights (page 26). The old-timers rail against the expense because the Great Recession has hit the town hard and unemployment is high. They complain even though the state will help pay and enough local money is available. The people vote the measure down, much to the dismay of young mothers trying to dash across the busy street with a baby carriage and two youngsters in tow. But this delights one element of the town: the “white power” advocates who insist on wearing guns wherever they go and want to unseat the current mayor (page 24). As much as Patrick misses the rush of combat (page 28), he doesn’t miss having to carry a gun wherever he goes and worry about people shooting at him on the streets of his home town.

In other words, Patrick Norris’ home town is facing exactly the same problems a lot of towns and cities in this country are facing. The government is losing its grip and the tribes are restless.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Norris family is increasingly concerned about Patrick’s brother Ted. Ted suffers from painfully flat feet and has the attention span of a gnat. He sits in the old bunkhouse and plays video games all night. When dad has to press Ted into service to try and save the less savagely burned of the trees, Ted immediately screws up and Marine vet brother Patrick has to bail poor Ted out (page 91). Ted drives a cab to help out, but is increasingly drawn to the whole white-power gun-toting crowd when he is mugged by a Hispanic gang-banger. Yet even when Ted tries to take his revenge with the help of his new friends, the result is no better than anything else Ted does.

Patrick, as sympathetic as he is to Ted’s woes, has problems of his own. He tries to connect with a local girl named Iris, and things go well until his PTSD buddies show up at a party at Iris’ place and promptly start a fight that trashes the place. It costs Patrick every penny he has to make things right, but Iris is understandably reluctant to get drawn into Patrick’s orbit.

The end has a twist you won’t see coming, I promise. But not everything gets sorted out with the usual hearts and flowers that books like this sometimes try to peddle. Still, in the end, there is hope.

Let me close my “tribal sequence” with a few last thoughts on this subject. Ted’s problem, as I see it, is that he is shut out of all tribes. The groups that he desperately wants and needs to join are closed to him: war veterans (feet), gentleman ranchers (no head for agriculture), respectable guy with a nice girl (the whole video game obsession, and every girl Ted comes across eventually spurns him as a stalker or someone who is already planning on how many kids they will have). Even the outsiders, the gun guys and the radicals, reject Ted as a hopeless dweeb who can’t even bash someone with a baseball bat in the dark without help. And guns? He’ll probably shoot his foot off sooner or later…

All this rejection drives Ted to increasingly extreme actions which threaten to overwhelm the ability of his brother and parents to protect him. Definitely worth a read, I have to say.

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi (Hyperion Books, 2008) 146 pages

SATB Yi

(Yes, that’s really how the title is capitalized…)

Before I talk about this book, I want to share my memories of Keith Emerson, who took his own life this week when nerve damage to his right hand left him unable to play the keyboard (and Moog synthesizer) like the maniac genius he was. Unless I go to see Steppenwolf or the Dave Clark 5 soon, Keith Emerson will remain the person I saw perform over the greatest number of years. I saw him at the Fillmore East with the Nice in April of 1969 and then again at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco with Greg Lake in April of 2009. (Carl Palmer wasn’t there: they were saving the official “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer” reunification show for later that summer in London.) That’s 40 years apart, and although Emerson had was 64 in 2009, he still had a lot of the same energy that I remembered from those old Fillmore days.

Let me share one memory of the crazy 1969 Keith Emerson and then we’ll do the book. Bill Graham did the intro: “Ladies and Gentlemen, won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group, from England…The Nice!” Emerson didn’t have the Moog he used with ELP on “Lucky Man” yet (which he inherited from Manfred Mann by way of the Museum of Modern Art). But he did have a beat-up old Hammond L100 (some places say L102) organ. During most of the show, he just did his usual show: playing organ with one hand while playing piano with the other, playing the keyboard “upside down” while kneeling on the organ, reversing left hand and right hand parts, and so on. But when he did their big hit, “America” from West Side Story, he went completely nuts. First he took out knives (!) and stuck them into the keyboard to produce a droning chord. Then he toggled the power on and off, producing a “weeee-woooo-weeee” wail as the power surged and faded. Then he got up on top of the organ and rocked it back and forth, producing an indescribable booming crash when it hit the floor, splitting his pants in the process (this is even mentioned on the live album that preserved the performance). Finally, and you will not think this possible (I was there, and I still do not believe what I saw and heard), he went around to the back of this moaning, wailing machine (the knives still in place) and pulled some wires out of the back. By crossing them again, he produced the signature dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, DAH-DAH-DAH stutter of Bernstein’s “America.” During some shows, he would topple the organ over, sometimes on himself, then haul it back upright and finish the song. At the end, we all went nuts.

There are lots of videos out there. And audio files. Watch them. Listen. We’ve lost a giant.

His death bothered me, for some reason, much more than others. There is some evidence the Internet trolls got to him after his hand problems. Bottom line, the guy killed himself at the age of 71 when he couldn’t do the stuff he loved anymore. May we all find something to keep us going, always…forever, if we can.

Now, the book: this is the second of my attempts to break out of my conventional science/history/science fiction/fantasy reading material and branch out to people and places I would not have ordinarily encountered. The first book, The Wandering Falcon, took place on the Afghan-Pakistani border. This one takes place in Burma (now Mayanmar), and was suppressed for many years before becoming the first book by a Burmese writer to be translated into English.

The book starts with a nice description of people rushing to the rural Taungbyon Festival. It’s not a Christian pilgrimage, but it resembles it. This is one of a series of festivals for the spirits, the nats, who the people pray to for luck, or jobs, or raises, or love, or all of the above. If you’re poor, you can pray to nats yourself, but everyone agrees that it’s better to have a profession who knows what they’re doing intercede with the nats on your behalf.

One of the best of the spiritual mediums (the natkadaw) in town is a gay transvestite named Daisy Bond. Although he is in his fifties, Daisy Bond has a nice place near the temple for his clients to gather before and after the big processions to the temple to worship the nats, down to the river to bathe their holy images, to bring clothing for their images, and so on. After all, it costs a lot of money get a good slot in the procession (before all the crowds melt away instead of watching the rag-tag groups of less prosperous mediums), even more to feed the hordes who descend on your place, and still more to pay for the costumes you use to dress up and play-act as one of the nats as you foretell wonderful futures for all the people who rely on you to plan the months ahead. Why, it’s a miracle there’s a single kyat left over as compensation for Daisy’s life when the crowds have left. As for the pickpockets, well, Daisy warned them.

And if the wonderful things do not come to pass, it surely must be that the person has offended one of the nats or another. A hefty contribution next time will make it all right…

As the book goes on, the reader realizes that this sacred role is a refuge for gays, who would otherwise be subject to arrest and imprisonment. That’s why Daisy has become known as “Bond.” It took courage to wear makeup and high heels and a skirt in public, and when the police were called, Daisy whacked one of them with a high heel and swam to safety across the river, just like James Bond (p.31-32).

Now Daisy basks in honored glory. Outrageous feminine behavior is fine is you are channeling the great spirit of a female nat, and Daisy is one of the best. Daisy even had a young boyfriend named Min Min, a good-looking young man who has traded his independence (and manhood) for a subsidized existence as Daisy’s lover, sharing his bed and putting up with the abuse that the older man heaps upon the younger (p.58). It’s a game neither can win, and the verbal abuse increases because Daisy suspects (rightly) that Min Min has been enraptured by a young female singer whose family sings at the festival (p. 99).

The more Daisy looks for proof of Min Min’s love and devotion, the more Min Min fantasizes about following Pan Nyo’s financially stressed family from festival to festival as they raise a family of their own. The whole book comes to the point of no return when Min Min lies to Daisy about his “date” with Pan Nyo (p.125). Daisy, confused and rejected, is crushed.

Of course, poor Min Min underestimates how he looks to the rest of the girl’s relatives (and perhaps Pan Nyo herself). What work could Min Min do to support a family? Although well-off, he is, after all, dependent on an older, half-crazy gay guy. At the festival, this might be barely tolerable, but away from the service of the nats, well, it just would not work. I’ll leave it to readers to figure out who nurses Min Min back to health when he falls ill…in the end, the tribes are different, but, like last week’s book, the rules the people follow are still determined by the tribe, even in a dictatorship like Myanmar.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Riverhead Books, 2011) 243 pages.

WF Ahmad

 

Before I get into this little gem of a book, let me say a few words about why I hadn’t posted the past few weeks, and something else entirely, which involves the voyage of self-discovery that these essays have stimulated. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Piper House writing conference at ASU called Desert Nights Rising Stars (DNRS: I keep thinking there should be a comma in the middle). Although the three days ended on a Saturday, the last thing I wanted to do that Sunday was sit and read or write. Last week, we had relatives in from the Midwest that my wife and I had not seen for years, so we spent a full weekend in their company, and even into Monday.

I also learned that I had become so accustomed to writing these essays during football games on the weekends that, after the Super Bowl, I had a hard time sitting down and concentrating without hearing complaints about refereeing. But that’s part of the process. I obviously wrote some of these book essays last spring, without the clash of helmets as a soundtrack. The entity that is Walter reader/writer lurches forward; the path is not always smooth.

And who cares, anyway? The last issue of the New Yorker (March 7, 2016, page 62ff) contains an essay by Nathan Heller about the whole procedure of “reviewing” books, in this case Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. True, we have professionals who review movies, plays, music, and even food and places (I mean like Rome or Greece), but, as the article points out, “What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” Do books become bestsellers anymore, or movies become blockbusters, because a professional reviewer somewhere says they should? Unlikely, I think.

To be fair, the article starts from just the opposite: professionals have essential skills that “Blogging Bob” does not. Critics “know more,” they “can give a fair encapsulation of a work,” and are “decent writers” (!). But in the end, Heller thinks that organizations which dispense with professional critics in favor of a herd-like response to one work or another are shortsighted. A noble thought, but one not necessarily shared by Blogging Wally.

Then again, this is why I don’t call these things “book reviews.” They are…well, different. Writers don’t create words, I like to say: they create themselves. And now I see that readers don’t just passively absorb the thoughts of others: the very process of thinking about the words changes you in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical.

Was this a long way to get to this slim book? I guess. I found it in a list of books put together by another web commentator (I wish I remembered who) around New Years. The intent was to recommend books not set in the USA, but set in places all around the world, in cultures alien to the normal USA-based society based on the Bill of Rights and English Common Law.

But if we take away our rights and civil law, what do we have left? We have tribal rule and religious law, and that’s what many of the books on the list were about. Naturally, in the USA, we see our way of civil life as superior to the old tribal ways. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Our attempts to impose good old American values on other parts of the world have mostly ended in disaster. Are these people just stupid? Or is there something else going on that we just don’t realize?

The author of this book doesn’t think people are stupid, I can tell you that. Jamil Ahmad was born in 1931 (making him 85 in 2016) and spent many years in Pakistan’s Civil Service in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of the tension in the book involves attempts before the Soviet invasion in 1980 to impose modern civil rule on the nomadic tribes that summered with their flocks and camels in the mountains and migrated to the plains to survive the winters.

The story follows a child (the “wandering falcon”) born from the union of the second wife of a tribal leader (a sardar) who is carried off by a wandering member of another tribe because he has fallen in love with her (p. 14). The fugitives seek refuge with soldiers in a border fort, and the first clue we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, is the distinction made by the local commander (the subedar), as he gives the pair water, between refuge and shelter. Offering refuge would offend the laws of the tribe, and the commander “will not come between a man and the laws of his tribe” (p. 6). Shelter is okay, however, and the couple can stay in an old abandoned building and be fed. However, it’s clear that if the woman’s family shows up, the couple and their newborn son are on their own.

Which is what happens, of course. After a chase, the “lover” kills the woman. Then the woman’s father, a tribal leader, and other tribesmen stone the lover to death (p.20). They won’t kill the boy, however, since he is the leader’s grandson. They leave him with the corpse of a camel at a waterhole. If God/Allah wills it, the boy will live.

The young Falcon is rescued there by a group of seven Baluch tribesmen on four camels (p. 27)who are rebels and outlaws because the “officers” (the government) of the district wanted power over the tribal chiefs, a right previously held only by the tribes themselves (p. 37). As a sign that times are changing, the seven think they have been invited to “talks” to defend their killing of government officials. But this “invite” results in a quick trial to condemn them to death (p.42). Confused because these strangers swear on a Koran instead of by a chief, and stunned that defending their way of life and killing those who challenge it is now taboo, the men regret only that “what died with them was part of the Baluch people themselves” (p. 47). And so the young Falcon ends up adopted into yet another FATA tribe.

One of the most poignant of the tales involves the closing of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the nomads. It sounds so simple to modern ears: you need documents to pass from one country to another. But when the nomads, numbering more than a million in total, try to winter in the warmer and wetter plains, the government turns them back to the cold mountains because they have no birth certificates or identification or health records (they don’t even have counts of animals) (p. 74). Naturally, conflict ensues and the only choice is to die quickly or slowly (p. 79).

These detailed episodes give the flavor of the book. As the Wandering Falcon grows to young manhood and marries at the end of the book, surprises await on every page. The tribes often lapse into violence and killing, true, but there are also built-in safeguards to prevent things from getting completely out-of-hand. For example, to raise money, you and some buddies might go into town and kidnap someone who will pay the $20,000 ransom (in local money), probably a doctor, a schoolteacher, or street cleaner (p. 128). The streetcleaners apparently have a union that will provide the, and how could the town endure being without their prized teacher?

But when my friends show up with only $18,000, there must be a week-long feast while we negotiate. Only then will you decide that $20,000 it must be, but with a $2,000 discount given because you are such a magnanimous spirit and it is a worthy gesture.

By the end of the book, I was convinced that we all, even in the USA, often obey not only civil rules, but tribal and religious rules as well. These can be established by our peers in school, or our circle of friends, or our minister or priest or rabbi, or our motorcycle gang, or our political party. But we break the rules governing our expected behavior only at our own peril.

 

In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (Crown, 2016) 670 pages.

IADK by Donvan and Zucker

In the medical and social sciences, as in the “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry, the impact of a new article or book is often measured by how many older materials you no longer have to read. For example, once Einstein formulated that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, a lot of people didn’t have to read all the literature speculating on the relationship of mass to energy (except if the detailed history of science was your main area of interest).

In the same way, people who are interested in the current state of things and people on the “autism spectrum” (as it is now called) and how they got that way can start and stop right here, with this book. This book is stunning in scope, yet eminently readable, and even as gripping in places as any suspense novel. Anyone who has a friend or relative that has been diagnosed (or, even worse, self-diagnosed or diagnosed by amateurs) as having autism or Asperger’s syndrome (which no longer exists, technically) should read this book. But even if you know one of the 4.5 people out of every 10,000 who are autistic (or is it 60 out 10,000 (p. 421): a rate more than 10 times higher?), this book will enthrall you.

I was surprised to find, as of the book’s publication in early 2016, that the person who was autism case #1, ground zero for the autism explosion, was still living in the same small town where he was born in 1933. The book’s first and last of its ten parts concern Donald, and it obviously helped that his parents were rich and respected and thus able to keep their strange son from being institutionalized all his life (but for a brief interval early in life (p.18) at a place called the Preventorium). The town is very supportive of their odd resident, and everyone soon learns that Donald’s quirks are not to be greeted with ridicule, but with bemused understanding and a shrug.

It might be best to briefly outline the content of the ten sections of this sprawling book. It closes with an Epilogue (p.547), a very helpful autism timeline (p.553), complete notes (p.563), a full bibliography (p.617), an authors’ note (p.643), acknowledgements (p.645), and very good index (p. 653). But please don’t think this is a dry, academic tome. The authors are award-winning TV journalists, and they know exactly how to keep your attention and keep the action moving briskly.

As I said, Part 1 covers Donald from the 1930s to the 1960s, and how one doctor finally decided he was looking at a new phenomenon. Dr. Leo Kanner’s name rhymes with “honor,” but with his Austrian accent, people thought they were taking to “Dr. Lee O’Conner” (p.26). But in Part 2, things pick up with the “blame game” (1960s to 1980s) when Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (his doctorate was in art history) decided that autism was the result of “refrigerator moms” who did not love their children enough (p.78). Several books, and TIME magazine, agreed, putting understanding their neurological differences back to square one. Trying to “talk” autism away with adult psychotherapy did not work well, and Bettelheim resisted all attempts to give his studies on a firm statistical basis (p.119).

Part 3 (1970s-1990s) takes autistics out of mental institutions and details the early steps of autism-specific researchers and organizations to help these unfortunates with scientific methods and evidence. These early efforts were fragmented: for example, east coast and west coast researchers did not always cooperate. Support on the west coast often depended on actors with autistic relatives (p.179) who could call the governor (former actor Ronald Reagan, for one) and ask him to sign legislation offering family aid.

Part 4 covers the behaviorist treatment of autism from the 1950s to the 1990s. Behaviorists, controversial even today, treat brain processes as “black boxes” and don’t really care what goes on inside, as long as what comes out is socially acceptable (many autistics have little sense of sexual shame or personal privacy). Those researchers often used cattle prods (!) to enforce acceptable use of the toilet and other “behaviors” (p.197). It wasn’t long before some parents and groups became convinced that these therapists were acting even more out of control than their children. In 1988, the Autism Society of American adopted a position against “aversive techniques,” even for parents with children who were at risk of self-harm at home (p.220). Nevertheless, is some difficult cases, there is little alternative.

Part 5 shifts the study to London from the 1960s to the 1990s. Researchers there tried to determine the “prevalence rate” and figure out who was “really” autistic, as opposed to just very odd or obviously brain damaged. Should there be 9 questions to answer, or 22 (p.284)? Here were the first hints of genetic causes and that the “extreme male brain” (autism is still a predominantly male disease) might be involved (p.304).

Part 6 covers the rise of the idea of an autism spectrum (1970s to 1990s). Here is the first mention of the work of Dr. Hans Asperger in Austria before and during World War II. He mainly worked, from 1938 to 1944 (p.316), with socially awkward yet verbally advanced children who hung around with adults instead of peers. These “Little Professors” loved routine and often fixated on corners of knowledge (like dinosaurs, or trains) which they explored to amazing depths (and before you could Google everything!). The resistance to anything German or relating to Nazis kept Asperger’s work under wraps until 1981. Initial acceptance of Asperger’s work had to deal with accusations of former Nazi cooperation in 1994 (p.327) and a devastating find in 2010 that the good doctor had helped to condemn these “handicapped” children to the early “work camps” with other mental defectives and Jews (p.339). By 2013, Asperger’s no longer existed as a separate condition.

Part 7 covers a weird interlude during the 1980s and 1990s when “facilitated communication” promised to give a voice to severe autistics (p.347). Eventually shown to be wishful thinking, this era also saw the rise of people who blamed autism on herpes, zinc, or inflammation of the gut (p.378).

Part 8 covers the appearance and importance of Temple Grandin on the scene (1980s to 1990s). For the first time, parents could talk to someone who could express how it actually felt to be autistic (p.403). This period also saw the release of the movie Rain Man in 1988. On the big screen, autism became something that did not seem to be so terrible, at least not all the time and in all cases (but in the end, “Rain Man” goes back to the institution, where he feels comfortable). Grandin’s biopic (Grandin is brilliantly played by Claire Danes), released in 2010, made the condition appear almost chic (p.434).

Part 9 covers the measles vaccine hysteria that still grips some people today. If not the vaccine itself, it must be the mercury used to increase its shelf life (p.449). The doctor who started the whole controversy in England later moved to the USA, made lots of money, but eventually had his day in court and lost (p.483) in 2007. Which made no difference to his supporters. But the simple fact that California, which quickly eliminated the mercury from vaccines, saw no decline in autism rates over a 5 year period, should put this theory to rest once and for all. People old enough to remember losing playmates to whooping cough or measles (which can be a nasty disease) or scarlet fever, and not so long ago (like the 1950s) do not understand what a great boon to humanity as a whole vaccination is.

No summary like this can do justice to this outstanding book. If you care about what your friends and neighbors might be going through, please read it for yourself.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman, MD

Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us by Lee Goldman, MD (Little-Brown, 2015) 344 pages.

TMOAGT Goldman

One of the things we are finding out (see the March 2016 issue of Discover magazine) is that, as a species, homo sapiens isn’t a unique type of animal. What we are is the sole survivor of a large group of similar species who might have lived in the same place at the same time in Africa. We survived and they didn’t because our species was more than likely better at four things than all the competition. Ironically, the very traits that let us prevail when climate change, animal migration, warfare, and other forms of environmental stress tested our species are now the biggest threats that we have to endure far into the future.

Goldman’s book is the first I’ve seen to systematically explore some of these characteristics. He focuses on four things (and as a doctor, I trust him to be able to judge these kinds of things). These four things once helped us, but now hinder us as civilization replaces the wilds our species grew up in. There are three possible outcomes to the situation humanity finds itself in (p. 6): first, everything can keep getting worse until our children’s children’s children down the line no longer live long enough, or remain healthy enough, to raise enough people to keep the species going. Or, we can radically change our lifestyles enough so that we are able to counter the negative effects of these four things and continue, as a species, to make progress (although some might not be able to make the journey). Finally, we can take advantage of new scientific discoveries to either counter these four things genetically (through genetic modification) or treatments designed to counter their effects as we live our lives.

Before going on, just what are these four things Goldman focuses on? Here they are, as I would translate them (from p. 4) into all their simple glory:

  1. Hunger
  2. Thirst
  3. Fear
  4. Blood clots

Of course, there has to be a bit more about how these four basic characteristics, obviously critical to the survival of any individual in primitive surroundings, have become as much as liability as a benefit in modern civilization.

Let’s look at the list again and add some details:

  1. Hunger: We are still genetically a species that is programmed to eat and eat and eat when food is available in order to stock up on calories in the form of body fat to get us through the lean times between feasts and good harvests (I’ve read elsewhere that without fertilizers and irrigation, 4 out of every 10 crop years were utter failures). But now we’ve eaten ourselves into a world where half of the people in it are overweight, a significant portion of those are downright obese, and “lifestyle diseases” like heart disease and weight-related diabetes are rampant.
  2. Thirst: Our need for water, and the related need to replace the salts we shed through urine and sweat, makes us crave salty foods to the point where we are all at the risk of high blood pressure (HBP). This in turn elevates our risk of heart attack and stroke (the same process essentially causes both).
  3. Fear: We were and are a violent species, understandable enough when we had to fend off lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but civilization has allowed most of us to turn our violent tendencies onto each other and assign peacekeeping tasks to police and armies. As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the related mental distress caused by bottling up much of our impulsive rage are making “normal” life hard for those we rely on the keep violence from spreading everywhere. I wrote about this type of thing before, in 2015 (Deep Violence by Bourke).
  4. Blood clots: Our species benefited in a violent environment by being able to stop bleeding quickly, before we all bled to death from a deep scratch. But this ability also can complicate our normal aging process, especially when coupled with high blood pressure (see #2 above). Fast clotting was even more critical in the days before hospital births, when bleeding to death was a frequent complication for women who had just delivered (this still occasionally happens, even in a modern hospital).

One thing struck me as strange when I read Goldman’s book. I was amazed at how many of the things we take for granted as leading to a “healthy lifestyle” were only discovered recently. For example, a cardiology textbook in the 1940s defined a blood pressure of 200/100 as high, but “mild” and “benign” (p. 110). Walk into any doctor’s office or ER today with that blood pressure and your next stop is likely to be the hospital and a heart monitor.

President Franklin Roosevelt died on 19 April 1945 of a stroke, but what killed FDR was really his high blood pressure (p. 88). FDR was 63 years old, an age considered very old back then, but not even of normal retirement age today (FDR had been US president for 13 years by then: how many presidential candidates are over 63 in 2016?) . Oddly, the effects of his high blood pressure were masked somewhat by his polio and the resulting inability to walk at all or stand (with hip braces) for any period of time.

But by 1945, the years of stress through WW II and the Depression had taken their toll. In 1931, before he became president, FDR’s blood pressure was 140/100. By 1937, as war clouds gathered, it went to 162/98, and then to 200/108 by D-Day in 1944 (p.166). At his fourth inauguration, in January of 1945, Roosevelt only spoke 500 words and was never seen on his feet again. At Yalta early in 1945, FDR was at 260/150, or “off the charts.” His doctors belatedly recommended a low salt diet (!), but by the time he complained of “a terrific pain in the back of my head” and died, his blood pressure was at 300/190 (p. 117).

Bottom line: always, always, always have the nurse or doctor take your sitting blood pressure in each arm, after five minutes of rest (p. 108). If they don’t, they’re taking shortcuts that put you in peril.

One more short take: as late as 1990, 1% of women died in childbirth in the poorest parts of the world, and 1 in 300 (one-third of all childbirth deaths) were the result of uncontrolled bleeding (p. 161), mainly as a result of unfortunate placenta separation (it turns out that much depends on where the attachment is made in the first place).

This book will teach you many things and, if you’re anything like me, scare you enough to make real changes in what you do and eat each day. (Last night, I went to a drive-through craving a burger and found they had just added to calorie count to their menu. Instead of the burger with 1150-1650 calories (plus the fries!), I ordered the simple chicken sandwich at 650 and fed the fries to the dogs. You have to start somewhere.)

(In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about a little book I found called The Wandering Falcon that acts as a kind of counter-balance to the whole “what would we do without modern civilization?” line of thought.)

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 2015), 380 pages.

TRM Buckley

Today, we think of a “relic” as a piece of a discarded past, an object to be considered as obsolete as a buggy whip, something to be regarded as we wonder that people ever really cared for the relic in the first place. But in the early 1500s, specifically the year 1517 and a couple of years following, a relic was an object of veneration, tied to an “indulgence” that could trim as much as 500 years in purgatory off a soul’s torment after death before being admitted to paradise for eternity. Indulgences had a value all their own, although often tied to relics, and were bought the way we buy stocks today. The purchase price went toward building new basilicas and palaces for the Catholic Church, including Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and much of the rest of the Vatican.

Nothing prevented dukes and princes and other royalty in Europe from collecting relics of saints and martyrs on their own. The toe, a rib, or even the skull of a saint would do. The royals collected money from pilgrims who wished to honor or view or pray to the relic. And the more relics you had in the vault of the palace church, the more popular your place became as the last stop of the pilgrimage, complete with a feast and a fair and markets to sell to for everyone.

Today, many people think of relics in terms of Christianity, but many varieties of “holy objects” such as icons have always attached themselves to religions, and likely always will. (The exception might be Islam, which forbids not only portraits of Mohammed, but representations of any person or animal to discourage idolatry, leaving mosques with little choice but to decorate with intense geometrical patterns.) In the New Testament (Acts 19:23 and after), when Paul comes to Ephesus to preach about Jesus, a silversmith named Demetrius organizes a protest because he fears that Paul will forbid the selling and purchase of the little “shrines” that make of the goddess Artemis (Diana in the King James version). The crowd, incensed, riot and cry, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” If the silversmiths had just been smart enough to wait and say they were making “shrines” of the Virgin Mary, who would have cared?

Of course, the Medieval practice of indulgences meant that there had to be a constant supply of newly uncovered relics, procured by a professional “Relic Master” with an eye good enough to detect frauds and fakes (but not a good enough eye so that he starves to death from lack of business).

In Buckley’s book, Dismas, named after one of the thieves crucified with Christ, is relic master to both Frederick III “the Wise,” Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire, and Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector, Archbishop of Magdeburg, and Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz. After Dismas attends a great “relic faire” in Basel (there is a nice map on the endpapers of the book), he is shocked to find a beat-up boat with obvious salt-water worm damage being passed off as Saint Peter’s fishing boat from the fresh-water Sea of Galilee (p.8). He makes a speech about the need to make sure the relic is authentic (it should, for example, always smell sweet, even if it’s the mummified thumb of a holy hermit). But no one listens to Dismas, presumably because they realize, one and all, that the market must expand to fill the inexhaustible need for sinners to purchase indulgences.

Albrecht wanted quantity in relics (he had a great desire for Dismas to find weapons, such as the sword that decapitated Saint Maurice: p. 11) while Frederick, who already sheltered some 19,000 relics back home in Wittenberg, wanted quality (such as the teeth or skull fragments of Saint Bartholomew: p.9).

Frederick also sheltered something else very much wanted in 1517: Martin Luther. But Frederick, who otherwise remained a devout Catholic and follower of the Pope, had no intention of turning Luther over to the church for “questioning” (that is, torture), mainly for political reasons. Naturally, this protection allowed Luther to circulate his (then) heretical ideas about indulgences and priests and sacraments far and wide, a necessary condition for this fledgling “protestant” movement to succeed.

Even more historical characters appear in the book (there is a nice section with short biographies starting on page 373). Paracelsus, the first modern doctor who championed the use of opium as a painkiller and mercury compounds to treat syphilis, makes an appearance (under his real name, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), as does Albrecht Dürer, possibly the only German painter who could compete with the Italians.

The book takes off when Dismas realizes that relic collectors don’t care if the boats or swords or teeth are real, just that they appear to be real. So when Dismas is fleeced of his “retirement” savings, he decides to recoup by making and selling a copy of the revered Shroud of Chambéry, which we know today as the Shroud of Turin (p. 373). (The discovery and analysis of another burial shroud of Jesus is story told in the prologue and epilogue that frames the story of Dismas: supposedly, the book explains this finding of another shroud in a Pope’s tomb in Rome.)

Dismas had hired his friend Dürer to create the fake. However, Elector Albrecht, who buys the fake to help finance his quest for a cardinalship, finds out he has been duped. As a result, Dismas is given a penance that basically forces him to steal the “real” Shroud of Chambéry and deliver it to Albrecht. Dismas twists Dürer’s arm to accompany him, and together they journey to Chambéry. Along with them are three soldiers (p. 133): Cunrat, Nutker, and Unks. These are really the Three Stooges, with Moe as the slightly smarter leader Cunrat, Larry as Nutker, and Curly as the hapless and clueless Unks.

Without giving too much away, the five travelers rescue a female apothecary in the Black Forest, but kill a pursuing count with a concoction of this newfangled gunpowder. But the dead count’s identity and signet ring, bestowed on Dürer, helps when they get to Chambéry. Unfortunately, they find that they are not the only ones who have come not to worship the sacred shroud, but to steal it. This process of moving relics is called “translation,” and the ultimate proof that the relic really wants to move from, say, Chambéry to Turin, is that the sacred relic allowed it to happen(!).

Once the heist takes place, the book threatens to devolve into farce in several places. That it doesn’t is mainly due to Buckley’s keeping it moving and twisting the plot into several forms of pretzel. This does not mean that this book is for everyone, and I mainly enjoyed the depiction of medieval life and culture. There is some discrete sex and lots of violence, but the book avoids raping unwilling women (why bother, with so many willing wenches and whores about?) and looking too starkly inside the castle’s dungeon (it’s damp, I tell you). An appendix (p. 377) does a nice job of assembling the sources used.

The ending leaves open the possibility of more adventures for Dismas, perhaps in the New World, and I wouldn’t mind spending more time with him. Then again, Dismas tends to be kind of prissy in places and should lighten up a bit. He could take lessons in this from Magda the saved apothecary and Dürer the carefree painter.

Brian Jones by Paul Trynka

Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Viking, 2014) 371 pages.

BJ Trynka

People who only know the Rolling Stones as Sir Mick Jagger’s backup band or pirate wanna-be Keith Richards as a pissy bad-ass will be surprised to learn that the group was started by not a Londoner, but a jazz-sax playing guy from the sticks of Cheltenham named Lewis Brian Hopkins Jones. Brian’s Rolling Stones are the ones I know, the ones I saw at Forest Hills in July of 1966 and just missed meeting up close when they did the 3D montage cover for “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request” in the summer of 1967.

It was 106 that day in July when I saw the Standells, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Rolling Stones, who arrived and left by helicopter, and the stands were more than half empty. Mick wore a white jacket with this green tree growing up the back and branching out, and for years I thought I had imagined it, until I finally saw it in color for about a tenth of a second in the movie Crossfire Hurricane.

The cops were preparing for the Beatles’ Shea Stadium show that August, and when the fans rushed the stage toward the end of “Satisfaction,” they laid down a blanket of tear gas (!) after the helicopter took off. I saw how the tear gas hugged the ground, and that if you could get up into the stands, you would be okay. This saved me a few times during the 60s when I tried to make sure a staircase was near.

If you look at the back of the “Satanic Majesties” album, it says “Thanks to Archie at Pictorial Studios, Mount Vernon, NY.” A friend of mine’s dad worked there, but in the days before cell phones, if you went out and missed a call at home, there was no easy way to contact you. So I wasn’t there when the Stones shuffled in, drunk and dirty and playing dice on the floor, except for Brian. Brian, they told me later, was well-dressed, well-spoken, and nice to everyone there.

Anyway, Brian Jones died in his swimming pool one night in July of 1969, shortly after Mick and Keith had essentially ganged up on him and chased him out of the group he had founded with Ian Stewart (it was Ian’s phone number at work that was listed in Brian’s ad).

I always tell people that you only need to know two things about Brian Jones. First, that he had four kids by four different women while Mick and Keith were still living at home with mum and dad (and they were all about the same age). Second, that Keith was afraid of him. Also, Mick was in awe of Brian’s musical ability.

Why should anyone care to know the history and legacy of abusive, druggy, dissipated Brian Jones? Because from 1964 until Woodstock in August of 1969, there were only two groups that mattered in the rock world: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The hype said that the Beatles were the good ones and that the Stones were the bad boys of rock-n-roll (the old “Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?” headline was real, although contrived by their manager as a publicity stunt). But the truth is that while the Beatles had four decent performers, only the Rolling Stones had Brian Jones, possibly the only guy in England at the time who could play classic blues with slide guitar.

(Oh, and all of the songs and videos I mention here can be found on the Internet with a little digging.)

Brian could play almost anything. That‘s Brian playing marimbas on “Under My thumb” and, as bass player Bill Wyman says, “Well, without the marimba part, it’s not really a song, is it?” (p.187). Brian plays the dulcimer on “Lady Jane” (p. 182) and the sitar on “Paint It Black” (p. 188), showing that he was the kind of musician that could pick up an instrument and coax music from it quickly. Brian at his peak was light years ahead musically of the rest of the group. On the Stones’ breakout hit, “Not Fade Away” (the first Stones song I heard in the USA), from the Mike Douglas show, Brian plays not one blues harp, but two, deftly switching them between lines of Mick’s vocals.

The tune “Ruby Tuesday” features lilting melodic runs on a recorder (of all things) as Mick sings the verses. But it was the sound engineer on the record, Eddie Kramer, who realized that Brian was playing something called a descant, which soars independently above the tune itself. “Mick and Keith,” says Kramer, “not to put them down, would never have thought of something like that” (p.201).

(NOTE on the dulcimer: I had nice emails from the owners of Bisbee Books and Music in Bisbee, who reminded me that the “other” instrument in their store I mentioned last week was a mountain dulcimer.)

Brian, says the book, had an unerring ear for musical tone and composition, something that disappeared from the group after he drowned. Without Brian, the Rolling Stones of the 1970s became a louder version of thumping hard rock acts like Humble Pie or the Faces, even more so once Ronnie Wood joined up. Someone once wrote that Punk Rock came along because no one in England could endure another album of variations on “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Woman.”

Not only that, but “Ruby Tuesday,” which became one of the Stones’ most covered and enduring songs, was essentially Brian’s initial composition along with Keith, but somehow attributed to Jagger-Richards (mainly because Andrew Oldham wanted it that way). Naturally, this indifference to composition credits cut Brian, and later his heirs, out of a lot of money that should rightfully be theirs (p. 202).

Perceptions of Brian by people close to the Rolling Stones have shifted over the years. That’s understandable: when your history stretches back more than 50 years, the initial rush to fame recedes into a smaller and smaller slice. So I find that the best visual depiction of Brian’s role and importance outside of this book is in the 25th anniversary video, 25×5, released in 1989.

There is no doubt that Brian is the leader of the group until drugs (and Mick and Keith) brought him down. Look at the early album covers: it’s Brian right there up front, not Mick. During an interview in Montreal (not mentioned in the book) Brian, seated front and center, is the one with the answers while Keith looks bored and Mick is squeezed into the back of the sofa. On the Mike Douglas show, Brian says that while the girls like him, it’s the guys who are attracted to Mick, a sly dig to make in public. Brian even tells Mick to “shut up” on the Shindig TV show when they introduce Howlin’ Wolf (p. 147). The text in the book says “it’s about time we shut up…” but if you watch the video it sounds more to me like “you shut up…”

This incident and the Stones’ single “I Wanna Be Your Man” were the peak of Brian’s time with the Rolling Stones. Without Andrew Oldham to push Mick and Keith to the forefront, Brian’s slide guitar rules the track, and his vocals are not mixed so far down that they are buried (Oldham produced the first few albums).

Why was there so much animosity directed toward Brian? Trynka, an experienced music writer who talked to everybody for this book, traces much of it back to the early days of break-neck tours, when Brian claimed an additional 5 pounds a week more than the others, perhaps as “manager,” perhaps because he only thought it right. When the others found out, things got nasty quickly (p.131 and other places).

I have a signed photo of Brian Jones hanging on the wall outside my office. Every day when I go in to work, I look at it to remind myself that if I can be half as good as Brian was at what I do, and avoid annoying the people I work with, everything will be just fine.

The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten (Berkley Books, 2006) 273 pages.

TML Wooten

I spent the last day of 2015 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper mining town, with my wife, her sister, and her husband. We stayed at the El Dorado Suites on OK Street (it was OK…no, I’m kidding: it was a beautiful suite for a very modest amount). I told the clerk I liked to visit book stores. “Oh,” she said, “You have to visit the new place across the street at the Copper Queen Plaza…they have music and art supplies too.” So we found ourselves at Bisbee Books and Music (www.bisbeebam.com), the only bookstore I have ever seen with mandolins and another odd stringed instrument (whose name I have forgotten) on display along with the books.

We were lucky enough to be there with a couple from Lake Havasu City while the man played some tunes on both while I browsed the books and my wife the art teacher looked at the art supplies. It reminded me of watching the Led Zeppelin video where Jimmy Page plays the mandolin opening to “The Battle of Evermore” at the gates of the big estate house where they recorded their fourth album. I mean, that’s what it sounded like he was playing. The music filled the store, and I was a bit surprised that the place didn’t fill up with spectators. But music, once only experienced live and in person, has become so ubiquitous and bland, that the other people in the mall simply ignored it.

Bisbee is a town, like many in the United States today, that were founded and thrived for a reason—a huge copper mine in this case—that no longer exists. You can take a tour of the old mine, and the Copper Queen Hotel holds ghost tours, but the population, once 20,000 strong, has fallen to about 5,000. The stores along the main street, which once supplied groceries and shoes and clothes (one was a J C Penney), now harbor an enthusiastic if struggling arts community. It’s a subject these essays explored in Population Wars. However, crowded upstate NY is a lot more promising, even under duress, than a small town in the isolated southwest. One of my rules of life is “When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.”

But this is not about Bisbee, although if you ever find yourself south of Tombstone and north of Mexico, you should stop by the little bookstore. This is about the book I bought there (one of eight) because it seemed appropriate to buy a book about music in that particular store at that particular time.

I knew the Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, the four-time Grammy winner from Nashville and three-time bass Player of the Year, because of a video about “Making Music” he made in about 2000 with a drummer named Carter Beauford. I liked it because it showed the give-and-take among the musicians (Bela Fleck and others join them later) as they put notes and phrases and grooves together to make a song.

I do not have a musical bone in my body. That’s my wife’s domain (her mother and sisters all played saxophone, and my wife went on a musical tour to Europe in her teens). My mother played clarinet in her high school marching band, but the closest I ever got to a band was as a cymbal player in the same band 25 years later. At least I wasn’t ever off-key.

But, growing up, I always wanted to make noise, preferably drums. I had to live through the Beatles years of garage bands on every block in horrid silence (mainly, I suspect, due in equal parts to my father’s salary and my mother’s nerves). I could never play by ear, and to this day I can only peck out one song, the Marine Corps Hymn, not by reading the music, but by numbers, usually in the key of C:

1-3-5-5-5-5-5-8-5, 3-4-5-5-4-2-1…and so on through 8-7-6-4-6-8-5-3-5, 8-7-6-4-6-8-5….

The first thing I did when I met my wife and we moved in together was to buy a set of drums to pound on. I was terrible, and remain so, but it felt so good. And when I finally abandoned the video lessons and bang-kick-bang-kick-1-2-3 patterns that beginners have to endure and just let myself flail away along with any basic rock track, I found that there was music inside me after all (and it didn’t sound half bad, at least to me).

And that’s what Wooten’s book is really about: how to let the music that dwells in all of us, as human beings, out. And you can’t really do it well unless you make music as a group, as a community. It all began, Wooten suggests (p. 236), with the whole community sitting around at night listening to the sounds of nature: bull frogs, birds, insects, and so on. It makes us human: you can’t get a chimp or ape to clap or tap a foot along to the beat, but you can hardly stop a person from doing it, especially with live music on tap.

This book is more of a novel that a memoir or manual, but it does address the relationship of music makers to what they are doing, which is to give a soundtrack to our existence. I don’t care if you’re into rock or country or jazz or something else. As Wooten points out, if not in so many words, there’s really only good music and bad music. Musicians all know this, if not their listeners. When people say, for example, “I hate bluegrass,” they really mean that they lack the perception to appreciate it (page 56). (One intriguing thing I read somewhere is that our musical tastes “freeze” in place shortly after puberty and that if we are only exposed to, say, hip-hop or 1964-style Beatles “Mersey beat” music at that critical time, we get locked in and cannot change our musical appreciation style. I would hate to think this is true, and Wooten seems to think it cannot be so.)

Wooten divides the musical experience up into ten categories. Then, through a series of mythical/fictional characters like Uncle Clyde and Sam and Michael (who might be Victor himself), Wooten explores how each of them contribute to the overall expression of music. Why these ten? Well, as Wooten points out on page 40, these aren’t the only aspects of music that can be examined or explained. As people grow, they can change. But these seem to be a good place to start.

  1. Notes (page 35): The Western octave consists of 7 tones (the white keys on a piano) and 5 more “in-between” ones (the black keys), so even if you are off when you play a note, you probably aren’t that far off. The fear of playing the “wrong” note, Wooten says, is the main reason many people cannot play the music inside them (page 43).
  2. Articulation (page 51): This is the duration of the note, and how it is attacked and played. He compares this to colors in art (page 69).
  3. Technique (page 75): You practice controlling your instrument. But musicians have to know when to reduce their technique (p. 95).
  4. Emotion or Feel (page 97): This is why blues is different than jazz. It gives soul its power. It’s why the president asked James Brown to calm people down after Martin Luther King Jr,’s death in 1968 (p.106).
  5. Dynamics (page 117): This is how hands interact with the instrument. How you can “pedal” (repeat) a note on bass and still make it speak (p.138).
  6. Rhythm and Tempo (page 145): Describes how drummers can play one beat every four measures and still stay right in time…it’s all inside you (p.156).
  7. Tone (page 161): He describes this as a kind of dialect. Know what I’se sayin’? (p. 162 and 180).
  8. Phrasing (page 179): A group of notes make up a phrase. What you say is your truth (p.192).
  9. Space and Rest (page 195): It’s the notes and the silence between that make music (p.221).
  10. Listening (page 235): In the end, making music requires us to listen to other music makers. Even the deaf can dance as they feel the vibrations of the floor and the air (p. 240).

Got it? Good…I’m going to bang on my drums now…