Archie Fisher's Mature, Bittersweet "Silent Song"

A Silent Song
Red House 235
* * * *

On October 23, Scotland's Archie Fisher will celebrate his 76th birthday. My goodness, where does the time go? Fisher has long been a lion of the Scottish folk scene. He hails from a musical Glasgow family, has been performing since 1960, and Fisher compositions such as "The FinalTrawl," "Witch of the West-Mer-Land," and "Dark-Eyed Molly" are such a part of the folk repertoire that many people think they are public domain songs. Fisher is also part of a generation of guitar players that includes John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Martin Carthy whose strong cadences mixed with light lyricism practically reinvented how acoustic melodies were played and sung. Fisher even hosted radio programs and folk clubs that revived flagging interest in Scottish music. The only thing he's not done a lot of is recording; Silent Song is just his 7th solo venture. It's also just his 3rd since 1976 and the first since 2008.(My personal favorite Archie Fisher song is "The Cullins of Home" from an earlier album.)

The album is aptly named. We can hear a little shake to his voice, though his buttery baritone hasn't soured. T'is a wise man who knows his limits, though, and Fisher doesn't even try to impress with vocal pyrotechnics; as the title suggests, this is a quiet and personal album—the kind one might play on a wintry day curled by the fire with cocoa in hand. In that spirit, Fisher opens with "Waltz Into Winter," which is simultaneously bright and fragile--akin to the delicacy of an early December icicle. The album's dozen songs are a collection of traditional tunes, covers, and originals, but each track has a timeless and personal feel. Personal favorites include his cover of John Jacob Niles' "Lass from the Low Country" in which Fisher's deep tones are echoed by Luna Skye's sonorous cello; his rendition of the classic Scottish poem "Bonnie Annie Laurie," which he learned from his father; and his take on Ian Davison's "A River Like You." (If you know anything about the Scots, a love song to a river is as natural as peat on the fire.) Perhaps best of all is Fisher's own "Lord of the May," with that staccato vocal/guitar mix mentioned earlier. I can foresee this one becoming the next Fisher composition to be mislabeled as a  "traditional" song. Ditto his "You Took the Day," a bittersweet address to those who've departed, complete with the unsettling thought, "I won't be far behind." It's hard not to get a bit choked up when he follows that one and rounds off the album with "The Parting Glass." Appropriately, nearly everyone thinks that's an ancient Irish song, but it was penned by American poet Judy Goodenough (1942-90). Fisher used to sing this one when he toured with Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. Was that really 40 years ago?

Archie Fisher will appear with Garnet Rogers at the West Whately Chapel as the season finale of Watermelon Wednesdays. This one, though, will be on a Monday: October 5. Call ahead, though, as it's officially sold out.

Rob Weir


Red Rising: Pastiche or Pilfering?

RED RISING  (2014)
By Pierce Brown
Del Rey, 416 pages, 978-0345539809
* * *

Pierce Brown's gripping dystopian sci-fi novel raises important questions about the lies leaders tell. It also raises less substantive ones such as: Is there a line between homage and rip-off? There are echoes of Harry Potter, Ender's Game, and Lord of the Flies in Red Rising. It's also a secularized version of Roman mythology, but it borrows so much from The Hunger Games that the phrase "intellectual plagiarism" lurks in the back of the mind even as one greedily devours the pages.  

Red Rising is set in the future. Its protagonist, 16-year-old Darrow, is a "Helldiver" on Mars, a miner who works in a bulky pressurized suit in underground chambers populated by poisonous pit vipers and explosive gas pockets. He already has a young, rail-thin wife, Eo, because life on Mars is short, brutish, and nasty. Not only do atmospheric conditions take a toll on the body, but food and other comforts are (allegedly) in short supply on a planet that's stratified by skin pigmentation. (Think the districts in The Hunger Games.) Darrow and Eo are Reds, a low stratum in a society ruled by taller, smarter, more muscular Golds. The Golds, whom we quickly surmise are analogous to an elite version of a fascist-style military junta, maintain strict discipline—right down to doling out rewards, controlling food supplies, and imposing the death penalty for certain songs—but they also draw upon species loyalty. As the tale goes, earth's atmosphere was ruined, hence mankind had to colonize other planets. The materials Helldivers such as Darrow are mining will help humankind terraform other worlds and construct sustainable atmospheres so that future humans can live outside of their bio-domes. The untold truth is that the secret for doing both was discovered centuries earlier and the well-fed Golds are living in luxurious cities on the Martian surface. Eo shows this to Darrow by taking him into a forbidden chamber and then publicly singing a forbidden song so that she will be martyred and Darrow will fulfill what she sees as his revolutionary destiny. In true Hero's Journey fashion, Darrow very reluctantly takes up the challenge.

First, though, he must undergo a transformation—Red must become Gold—and that's far more complex than a furtive dye job. Darrow is given over to Dancer, a Gold collaborator, who helps him prepare for this role, and to a series of "Carvers," who literally remake his body into that of a demigod. But can Darrow pass socially and intellectually? That's not easy either, as he must undergo rigorous leadership training at a sort of Holgwart's in the sky academy with other ambitious Golds. Moreover, the ruling elite—headed by ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus—also have a trial-by-combat final test to see who will fulfill what role in Gold society and they are willing to accept quite a bit of 'melt' in the form of crippling injury and death to assure that only the fittest survive. If you're imagining an obvious Hunger Games parallel at this point, you are correct—right down to each candidate having a Proctor/sponsor—individuals named after Roman gods in this case. Although there are official teams—Mars in Darrow's case—leadership must be won, not assumed, which means intra- as well inter-rivalries. As in The Hunger Games unofficial alliances form, betrayals abound, loyalties are always ambiguous, and the results are often rigged. Although Brown throws in a few novel twists—including Darrow's growing attraction for a woman from a rival team named Mustang, his guilt over Eo's death, and his rivalry/friendship with a teammate named Cassius—this truly is The Hunger Games with different window treatments. It's analogous right down to being book one of a planned trilogy, so we know that Darrow has to survive no matter what perils he faces.

In addition to being derivative, there are some rather obvious logic errors throughout the book, including the fact that Darrow kept his unusual name and appended it to a made up family history. Why don't snakes need oxygen? More perplexing: How is it that a ruling elite smart enough to keep miners in the dark for 700 years doesn't wonder about a Gold from an unknown family who just happens to have the first name of a Red who went missing right after his wife was executed?

I plowed through the book because Brown is an engaging writer and he threw in enough small details to intrigue me, like how different colors on the planet swore. I also have to admit that having just finished several denser novels preconditioned me for some cheap thrills and escapism. Whether you will enjoy Red Rising depends upon where you come down on the pastiche-versus-pilfering question. I give Brown high marks for writing, but low scores for creativity. I've also had my fix, so I rather doubt I'll read the sequels.

Rob Weir



At the Water's Edge an Unglorious Mess

Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, 368 pages, 978-038523233

Here's a novel that has it all: rich people, the Scottish Highlands, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts, a bearded Scotsman, hair's breath escapes from death, sex, violence… It's only missing one thing: an ounce of plausibility. Okay, two things; it's not very well written either. Sara Gruen's latest novel is wildly popular, but then again so are Nora Roberts romances and Thomas Kincaid paintings and for the same reason: if you push all the correct sentimentality buttons, lots of people will consume your work as if it were made of chocolate-covered fried dough.

Like millions, I readily devoured Gruen's Water for Elephants, which I found too charming to muse over its literary merits. At the Water's Edge is a different matter altogether. It's what you'd get if you put Wide Sargasso Sea, Mrs. Dalloway, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Great Gatsby, My Man Godfrey, and a few bodice rippers in a blender, set it to crush, and reassembled the parts haphazardly.

The book is set in the waning days of World War Two, a small conflict that apparently escaped notice from members of Philadelphia's upper crust. It centers on a young married couple, Ellis and Madeline, though Ellis much prefers the company of his friend Hank. Although in the pink of health, neither man is in uniform because Ellis is allegedly color-blind and Hank has flat feet. Because they are also the offspring off the idle rich, they are content to dance and drink the war away. Madeline is Ellis' prize/rebellion from when all three were in prep school. She's beautiful in face, but rail thin, despised by her snooty in-laws, and generally treated as if she were suffering from neurasthenia. Already there are problems in Gruen's narrative. The setting feels more 1924 than 1944, and the three central characters come off more like besotted Jazz Age escapees from a rough draft of a Fitzgerald novel. Despite the fact they are supposed to be Americans, Ellis and Hank seem more like upper-class British twits—the sort who wouldn't know how to crack a hard-boiled egg and would leave it to the servants to do.

It goes downhill from here. After a falling out with his rich parents, who cut his allowance and belittle Madeline, Ellis hastily arranges a wartime sail to Scotland. Why? So he can redeem himself by—wait for it—finding the Loch Ness monster! (There is, of course, a brush with near-death on the way.) In Gruen's increasingly ludicrous plot, Ellis' father is none other than the man who took the infamous 1934 "Surgeon's Photograph" of Nessie that was proven to be a fraud. If only Ellis can find Nessie and restore his old man's reputation, maybe all will be forgiven and he'll get to live happily with Madeline. Or not—because this book is filled with so many ham-handed homoerotic hints that we suspect it's really Hank he'd rather bed.

The Scottish sojourn involves checking into the only hotel in Drumnadrochit, the village nearest the waters where Nessie is most often seen. It is run by the brooding Angus, who is having nothing of being ordered about by a group of lazy, loudmouthed Yanks without uniforms or ration books. Ellis and Hank are horrible, inconsiderate louts in every way imaginable–so bad that Madeline begins to see her marriage as a literal trap–one in which Ellis might be plotting to have her declared insane so he can tuck her away in an asylum and lay his profligate hands on her fortune.

Oh, please! Do you have the stomach for more? What's been left out? People aren't who they appear to be on the surface. There are more near-death experiences, but providential rescues by heroes and (perhaps) by ghosts and monsters. Oh yeah. I left out drug addiction, poaching, violence against women, suicide, dead children, steamy sex, and leaden prose. And let's not forget Gruen's descriptions of World War Two, though you could get these by reading Wikipedia. The only redeeming quality lies with depictions of the bleakness of British home front life during the war.

Do not fall prey to this book's hype. It's not akin to Water for Elephants. In fact, it reads like the sort of book that an author is pressured to write to capitalize on the success of a previous best seller. I will reserve judgment about Gruen's literary talents for now, but of At the Water's Edge it must be said that though it's Scottish, it's still crap.

Rob Weir