Patty Larkin 25

Patty Larkin
Signature Sounds 2028

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Patty Larkin has been touring for a quarter of a century. To celebrate this milestone Larkin mined her backlist for twenty-five love songs, recorded an unplugged version of each, and asked old friends such as Greg Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, John Gorka, Chris Smither, Suzanne Vega, and Cheryl Wheeler to join in. On the collection you’ll find such Larkin staples as “Tango,” “You & Me,” “Only One,” and “Chained to These Loving Arms.”

In her time Larkin has been a hungry folk artist, a fiery guitar goddess, the queen of hip, and a concert circuit favorite. These days she’s settled—perhaps too comfortably—into a moody mid-tempo songstress. Objectively speaking her double-CD anniversary release probably would have been better as a culled single disc. The first half of disc one is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her Heijira phase with splashes of Bonnie Raitt shining through, but it’s not until the latter half of disc two that we see sparks of the passion that Larkin had in her early days when the fire was in her belly. It’s fair to say that 25 has quite a few tracks that are similar in arrangement. But it’s also true that a half good Patty Larkin release is twice as good as most of what’s out there. Larkin saved a particularly superb cover of her classic “I’m Fine” for the final track. The raw honesty in her voice—beautifully supplemented by harmonies from The Nields—made me cry out, “You sure are Patty.”

Lousy video quality, but check out how much music one woman can get out of one acoustic guitar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt49n7r_wUI (You’ll also hear the Joni Mitchell analogy.) Check out this one to catch Larkin in her hipster mode and watch the ease with which she turns her fretboard into something primal and wondrous: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyUErnnQoOc


Time for Professional Sports to Be Consistent on Free Speech

Umpire Joe West practicing his only known skill--blowing his stack!

Isn’t it time to apply free speech rules to major league sports? Officials can say anything they please and be as incompetent as the day is long, but if anyone has the temerity to criticize them, it costs them a bundle.

Consider two recent examples, one from the National Basketball Association and one from major league baseball. Rasheed Wallace of the Celtics has been fined a whopping $25,000 by the league twice this season. For that kind of coin he must have remained seated for the National Anthem and assaulted a fan, right? Nope. Rasheed’s egregious and costly transgressions involved criticizing NBA officiating. The first came when he suggested that referees have a double standard when it comes to poster child LeBron (middle name “Vastly Overrated") James; that is, James gets away with flagrant fouls but officials blow the whistle if someone so much as touches he who Rasheed dubbed the league’s “Golden Boy.” Rasheed got dunned again when he asked how it was possible for Kevin Durant—the Golden Boy in waiting—to go to the charity stripe 15 times in a game in which the entire Celtics team only took 17 free throws. Serious NBA watchers would say that Rasheed’s criticism of officials was on target both times, so why did it cost Wallace fifty grand to say what's true?

Now consider that major league baseball umpire Joe West called two entire teams—the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees—a “disgrace” because their recent game took 3:46 to play. He also called them “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” What would have happened if any one of the players on those teams used such language to criticize West or his crew? Once again a double standard applies.

I’ve been watching Chubby Joe’s tiresome act for quite awhile and he’s one of the league’s worst umpires. Not only is his strike zone consistent only in its inconsistency, but his hair-trigger temper makes him temperamentally unsuited for his job. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire noted that there is two minutes and twenty-five seconds worth of commercials each half inning. Do the math. If you multiply 145 seconds seventeen times, forty-one minutes of each game is due to TV, not player delays. Poor Joe West—as a senior umpire he’s only making $300,000 to work about 180 games per year (counting spring training). The poor slob gets a paltry $1666 per game and if each one is four hours long that’s just $416 an hour. I can’t think of anyone who’d work for that kind of chump change, can you?

If anyone cares, the 2010 Super Bowl took three hours and thirty-eight minutes to play. And football’s a game subject to a one-hour play clock. Thank God for the clock—it shaved a whopping eight minutes off of what it took the Sox and Yankees to play nine. Major league sports need either to hold their officials to the same standards as players, or unmuzzle the dogs and let each side nip at each other’s ankles. If it was me, Rasheed would get his money back and Joe West would be on the carpet.


Olive Kitteridge a Thoughtful Look at the Human Condition

Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout

Random House 2008
ISBN 978-0-8129-7183-5

This book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Such awards often engender as much debate as glory, so let me dispense with this right away: my vote would have gone to Muriel Barbery’s magnificent The Elegance of the Hedgehog. That said, Olive Kitteridge is certainly a worthy choice.

It’s not the sort of book that grabs you immediately. Like Our Town and Spoon River Anthology, works whose structure it evokes, Olive Kitteridge is a string of vignettes—thirteen in this case—loosely tied together by the appearance and opinions of Olive. The book’s also not immediately lovable because Olive is hard to like. It’s set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a retired school teacher who has lived in Crosby for many decades and has witnessed its changes, the bulk of which simply piss her off. She’s cranky, judgmental, and generally tight-lipped, but when she does open her trap there are barbs hanging from her tongue. (They are mild compared to what’s in her head!) One of Crosby’s great mysteries is how such a sourpuss is married to Henry, her good-natured hardware store-operator husband. Olive, not without some merit, suspects several local women of carrying a torch for Henry. One of the book’s delights is that Strout—who also penned the popular Abide by Me—keeps Olive in character throughout. I won’t reveal more than to say that even Olive’s “tender” side has rough edges. Henry’s perpetual optimism is one of the many things that get Olive’s goat, and her son’s lifestyle is another.

Each of the book’s thirteen chapters features a different town character—an anorexic girl, an aging piano bar siren, a bride left at the altar, a man cheating on his wife, Olive herself…. Each has his or her secret, or at least they think they do. Strout essentially updates Peyton Place, the 1956 Grace Metalious novel that blew the lid off a New England town’s secrets, though Strout’s cast isn’t as evil or as calculating. Nor are they as uniformly destitute as the characters that inhabit Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine, another book to which Olive Kitteridge can be compared. What Crosby residents are for the most part are ordinary folks trying their best to cope with what life throws at them. Like most of us, some endure gracefully, some make a muck of things, and most seek to find sublime moments to counter the painful ones. Olive, a large woman, is both the symbolic and literal anchor in the book. She’s not the axis around which the action unfolds so much as the looming presence that persists across generations and whose reaction to change—including her own aging—forces readers to ruminate on the human condition. You won’t come away loving Olive, but you may find—for good and ill—that there’s a lot of her in each of us.


The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna
Barbara Kingsolver
2009, 507 pp.
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A lacuna is a gap, especially in a narrative. It’s also the hook and title of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel. The book has not garnered brilliant reviews, perhaps because its setting and scope led critics to expect a Mexican version of The Poisonwood Bible. The latter work is such a masterpiece that Kingsolver may never duplicate it, but The Lacuna is an enjoyable read on its own for readers who can put aside expectations and let it be what it is: a good, but not transcendent work.

The book’s protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, born to Salomé, a freewheeling Mexican mother, and a button-down overly serious American diplomat far too boring and normal to hold onto his tempestuous wife. She and her son are soon off to Mexico, where Salomé becomes the mistress of a series of powerful men whose wealth she hopes will keep her in the delayed-development flapper lifestyle she’d like to become accustomed. As one might expect, things don’t quite work out that way. Harrison, his Anglo name notwithstanding, grows up with a Mexican identity and Spanish as his first language. We follow his life from 1929 to his death in 1951, some times through first-person accounts and sometimes through the journals he meticulously keeps and which his personal secretary discovers.

This is an ambitious book that’s part pure imagination and part historical novel. As Harrison grows up, his very residence is determined by his mother’s current domestic situation; sometimes he’s in Mexico, at others he’s in the United States with his bland father. In this regard, the lacuna is also symbolic of the gaps in Harrison’s identity (and that identity crisis extends to sexuality as well.) But even when he’s in tony U.S. prep schools Harrison feels more Mexican than American, and his fascination for the ancient Aztecs only fuels this. At a crucial moment in his life during the late 1930s, Harrison is back in Mexico and working in the household of muralist Diego Rivera and his volatile wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. He is also there when they host (and try to protect) Russian exile Lev Trotsky. Kahlo encourages Harrison to pursue both his personal passion and that for writing. After Trotksy is murdered by Stalin’s assassins, Harrison returns to the United States and becomes a successful writer of sensational historical novels set in ancient Mexico. The final part of the book sees him in Asheville, North Carolina, during the Red Scare—a naïve innocent about to be trapped in demagogic web. Indeed, the book’s final lacuna is the gap between truth and manufactured reality. Harrison is not the man anyone—accusers, publishers, lovers, his public—presumes him to be, but he fails to grasp the ways in which perception becomes its own sort of truth.

I found this a rewarding book, but I’d yield to those who charge that Kingsolver overplays her hand. Mixing fictional and historical characters is always tricky business because we know too much about the latter. Does Kingsolver romanticize Kahlo and Trotsky? Probably. Kahlo is sufficiently self-centered, but Kingsolver gives us a tender core that’s more what she’d like Kahlo to have been than the historical record reveals. In like manner, Trotsky seems more avuncular than a fiery revolutionary. And it certainly stretches credulity to think that Harrison’s novels—as Kingsolver describes them—would have ever caught the public imagination. She’s also guilty of working the lacuna metaphor too hard, as she does with a seemingly bottomless water-filled cave that’s an object of Harrison’s obsession.

Still, it’s a great treat to read Kingsolver’s descriptions of pre-World War II Mexico; they obliterate American popular perceptions of Mexico. It’s also refreshing to see American life through the critical eyes of a (half) expatriate. Few writers deal with culture clashes as well as Kingsolver, and The Lacuna is another reminder that American values are open to the critiques that U.S. residents are all too willing to apply outside their own borders. I wouldn’t say that the pace of this book moves at a fast clip, but Harrison is a sufficiently enigmatic character that he is able to move among the giant personalities that inhabit this book: Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky, Joe McCarthy, Salomé…. It is not easy to spotlight a small fish in a tank populated by sharks and it is a testimony to Kingsolver’s craft that she can do so. A masterpiece? No. But The Lacuna is nonetheless a superior work of fiction.