I don't feel any better!

Rx and the Side Effects

The Broadway show A Chorus Line contains a number titled “Dance Ten, Looks Three.” To extend the metaphor to the latest album by Linq (Diane Lincoln) it would come out “Politics Ten, Music One.”

There’s no faulting Linq’s motives—she wants to skewer the train wreck called the American healthcare system, one she’s seen close up and impersonal in her former job as a pharmacist. There are flashes of humor on the album, but basically she’s telling us that there is no good news—American health care will make you frustrated broke, addicted to drugs, and dead. She sings of the manner in which physicians fling pills at patients rather than treating them, of families who can’t afford to rescue loved ones from the grave, and how a business approach to medicine protects the bottom line by squeezing all compassion out of the equation.

She’ll get no argument from me, but the musical dressing in which she’s wrapped her message doesn’t offer enough relief. The lyrics are clunky, the vocals strained, and the arrangements old-fashioned. As is often the case in advocacy, elegance gives way to passion—you’ll find a lot of june-moon-spoon rhymes (and several forced ones) on this album; in fact, several of the songs seem more like casual conversations than crafted writing. In like fashion, Linq doesn’t have a lot of range left in her voice, so most of the vocals come out in a bland mid-range lacking in contrasts. If the instrumentation were more interesting this would be less noticeable. Alas, the production evokes 1970s folk rock in ways less retro than tired and dated.

If there’s a prescription for over-earnestness, Linq might want to take it. Otherwise this record’s purely for the convert ward.--LV


A Primer of Andrew Greig Works:

Greig's first novel and a personal favorite.
Electric Brae: A Modern Romance (1992): is one of my favorite novels. It is set on Orkney and is a gritty tale of friendship, romance, betrayal, danger, mountain climbing, and loss that centers on the friendship and tribulations of a disgruntled oil rig worker, Jimmy, and his best friend, Graham. Like the optical illusion after which the book is titled, its protagonists seek to find deeper truths beneath surface appearances. Unforgettable characters, honest dialogue, and poetic imagery make for a stunning first novel.

The Return of John McNab (1996) is a remake of John Buchan’s 1925 novel. It’s a romp in which three mates try their hand at poaching from local aristocrats. A grand lark, or a commentary on social privilege? Both, actually, and much more. When the hardnosed, hard-drinking, hard-loving Kirsty Fowler breaks up the old-boys’ network, the heather begins to fly.

When They Lay Bare (1999) is Greig’s most complex book. It’s set on an estate in the “debatable lands” region along the Scottish Borders and reworks themes from classic Scottish folksongs. Is the mysterious young woman who’s squatting in an estate cottage with her antique raven plates seeking quiet, love, or revenge? Or is she a ghost? [Caution: Some background reading on folk tales referenced in the novel is a prerequisite for thorough understanding.]

That Summer (2000) shows up in some bookstores under its original title, The Clouds Above. Set in England during the Blitz, it’s a story of living life to its fullest for as long as it lasts, which wasn’t very long for most RAF pilots in the early days of World War II. Among other things it’s a Zen war romance.

In Another Light (2004) is a sprawling tour de force based on events that happened to Greig’s father. A son discovers that his recently departed father—known for his stolid reason—harbored a passion-driven secret. The book rockets back and forth between Penang and Sumatra in the 1930s, and modern-day Orkney and London. This book won major literature prizes and deserved them!

Romanno Bridge (2006): The John McNab crew regroups for a new adventure that takes them to various parts of Scotland, England, and Norway to solve the riddle of the Stone of Scone. It’s ike a Dan Brown thriller with much better prose! Readers should definitely read The Return of John McNab first.

Greig’s poetry is also highly recommended. Individual volumes are hard to find in North America, but This Life, This Life (2006) is available. It contains selections from eight collections that appeared between 1973 and 2006. Greig’s poetry varies from book-length metaphorical poems to terse and deeply personal verse. This Life will point you in the direction of which you prefer.

Greig’s mountaineering books are also hard to locate in North America (and are pricey when available). If you can find it, however, Summit Fever—his account of his first climbing expedition—is a thrilling read that predates Jon Krakhauer’s Into Thin Air by a decade. Greig’s Preferred Lies: A Journey into the Heart of Scottish Golf (2007) sometimes shows up in used shops.
PS--You might want to underline Scots terms and get their definitions from Website such as A Glossary of Scots Terms.

Andrew Greig: Thoughts on Writing and Life

Andrew Greig gets his writing done in four hours so he can contemplate life in modern Scotland.

Andrew Greig, 58, is a major figure in modern Scottish literature. He has written nine volumes of poetry, six novels, five non-fiction volumes, and scores of essays. He writes with honest emotion and in a style that is deeply poetic, yet devoid of faux sentimentality. Greig delights in defying gender and nationality stereotypes and his regimen as a writer goes against the grain as well. I caught up with Greig last summer in Stromness on Orkney, where he lives part of the year with his wife, English novelist Lesley Glaister. Here is a sampling of our conversation.

On becoming a writer: “I never had the slightest ambition to write a novel. I’m a failed singer/songwriter. It was a revelation that I could get paid for writing.”

On deciding to climb mountains in the Himalayas: “I wrote a poetry collection called Men on Ice (1977). One night (veteran mountaineer) Malcolm Duff knocked on my door and said he’d pick up expenses if I went on an expedition to climb the Mustagh Tower and write about the experience. I said to him, ‘You do realize that the poem is entirely metaphorical and that I’m not keen on heights don’t you?’ But Mal wasn’t put off by that.”

On why there are so many music references in his novels: “Writers in the 1930s could assume that their readers had knowledge of the classics. Music is the literacy of our generation, and I can call up conditions through music references as a sort of cultural shorthand.”

On why his characters often party hard: “I’ve never had the slightest problem with pleasure,” says he, rejecting Scotland’s Calvinist heritage.

On why his female characters are often dangerous: “I make women provocative in the sense that they literally provoke men to be different, to try harder, and to take a leap of faith. Characters must have serious tension to be interesting. I like to grant social power to women. In my books it’s the women who have a clearer idea of what they want and it’s the men who need to wake up and find themselves.”

On national identity: “I am Scottish and I think a lot about Scottish identity, but I’m baffled by those who think that being Scottish is all that matters.”

On why he doesn’t think of himself as a ‘real’ novelist: “A true novelist lives in imagined worlds. All [my wife] Lesley wanted to do since she was seven was write novels. She imagines things all the time, but my books are noticeably closer to life. I don’t really make things up.”

On writing poetry:
“I don’t write poems; I transcribe them. They come from deep down in the unconscious. There’s never any question of sitting down to write poetry.”

On his writing regimen: “I seldom write for more than four hours a day. I write after breakfast and knock off around 12:30. There’s no point going beyond that. and I seldom produce anything of worth after lunch.”


The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer
Black Wolf Records 006

Antje Duvekot is one of the hottest acts in contemporary acoustic music and if you’ve not heard her recently the song “Long Way” confirms that has indeed traveled a long distance from her Little Peppermints debut back in 2002. The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer would get my vote for best record of 2009 were it not topped by a release from her producer, Richard Shindell. His fingerprints are all over Near Demise—it is moody, introspective, dark, and exquisitely crafted. Dukevot goes into character for this album; she’s a tightrope walker wobbling on a life’s thin wire. “Vertigo” is about the giddy heights and frightening depths of relationships, “with no safety net when I fall right out of the sky,” a precariousness she echoes on “Reasonland,” when she calls herself a “tired tightrope walker.” The latter is the album’s most-beautiful offering, one so fragile that it’s hard to say if it’s a song about healing or if it’s a pathos-laden dreamscape. On “Lighthouse” the namesake structure is the only thing that remains solid on a sea of sentiment whose waters have evaporated. “Long Way” gets the classic Shindell treatment—a double-edged song whose geographical journey is mere backdrop for an amble into self-discovery and the emotional unknown. Duvekot’s nasal tones are toned down and bathed in enough atmosphere and control to come off as a cross between Patty Griffin’s tones and Kate Rusby’s gentleness. With guest performances from artistes such as Shindell, Mark Erelli, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky, how could Dukevot not make across the wire? Take a bow, Antje.


Hillary Clinton earned this smile for brokering an Armenian treaty with Turkey.

Lost in last week’s hubbub about Barack Obama’s unexpectedly winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was the startling news that Hillary Clinton helped broker a treaty between Turkey and Armenia. If diplomacy holds, Mrs. Clinton would have to be among the frontrunners for the 2010 prize. And what a sea change that would represent—two American peace prize winners in a row!

More on Hillary in a moment, but first let me say that I agree with conservatives that Obama’s 2009 award was inappropriate. I’ve been a supporter of the president, but the prize was grossly premature and is as much of a burden to Mr. Obama as it is an honor. He appeared genuinely surprised and embarrassed by the announcement and did, with dignity, about the best he could—he announced he would use the award as a “challenge” and that he would donate the $1.4 million cash award to charity. He’d better use it as a challenge; he’s yet to resolve the two wars he inherited, reverse prisoner interrogation procedures, or make any headway against foes such as Iran, the Taliban, or North Korea. In fact, he’s done very little of substance to differentiate himself from George W. Bush. But he has listened to the world community and has expressed a willingness to abandon unilateralism. The latter promise is why he won the Nobel Prize. The award should seen for what it is—not a recognition of Obama, rather a repudiation of Bush. It is a measure of just how scared the Europeans were of Bush’s reckless cowboy (non) diplomacy. Still, one should be cited for what one does, not one’s rhetoric.

On the score of achievement, how about some love for Hillary? For those who are unaware—and that’s most Americans—the Armenians and Turks are akin to the Jews and Palestinians of the Caucasus. Like many conflicts, that between the Eastern Orthodox Christian Armenians and the predominately Sunni Muslim Turks is rooted in the religious conflicts of the Middle Ages. As a flea on the global body politic, an independent Armenia has disappeared more often than it has existed. Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines all at some point absorbed Armenia, long before Muslims arrived on the scene. Once they did, however, Arabs, Mongols, and Iranians controlled Armenia and some—especially the Mongols—were vicious rulers. When Ottoman Turks took over in 1524, conditions were actually better for several centuries, and Armenian culture, language, and religion thrived. In the 19th century, however, Ottoman rule turned authoritarian. The Ottoman iron hand served only to inspire the growth of Armenian nationalism and to exacerbate hatred. It all came to a head during World War I when the Ottomans supported the Axis and Armenians the Allies. During 1915-16, the Turks massacred between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians. History judges this as a holocaust, a term Turks refuse to acknowledge and Armenians refuse to call by any other name. And so matters have stood for the past 93 years.

It cannot be overemphasized what a big deal it was when Hillary Rodham Clinton worked with European leaders to forge diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey. Hatred doesn’t even begin to describe what the two groups have felt toward one another. This is the equivalent of Hamas and Likud leaders sharing a Sabbath meal, or of Fidel Castro being the keynote speaker at a Republican Party fundraiser. It remains to be seen if the treaty is strong enough to dam more than half a millennia’s worth of hatred. If it does, to not award Mrs. Clinton next year’s Nobel Prize would be far more egregious than honoring President Obama in 2009.