News of the World a Western for Adults

Paulette Jiles
William Morrow, 209 pages

One of the virtues of being a voracious reader is that you occasionally stumble onto something you'd not normally consume and find it a delectable treat. That was exactly my experience with News of the World.

It's a (sort of) Western, a genre I normally avoid—mostly because too many of them are Zane Grey wannabes and I read Grey (and Wister, L'Amour, etc.) when I was a kid. News of the World is different in content and sensibility. It takes place in Texas five years after the end of the Civil War—the fighting part of that is. Texas was quite different in the 1870s than it is today. Places like Dallas, Kerrville, Llano, and San Antonio were cowtowns—and rough ones to boot. Fort Worth was still a fort, a needed one as Kiowa, Comanche, and several other tribes roamed freely and raided frequently. Shall we say, though, that it was a toss-up as to who was more "savage," the unconquered Natives or the floozies, con artists, and drunken, gun-toting white lowlifes that populated not-yet "civilized" towns.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is the unconventional hero of News of the World. At age 71, Kidd is both bone- and world-weary. As a boy he witnessed the War of 1812, and he participated in Mexican and Civil conflicts. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but with little enthusiasm. He is sick of violence and has little time for Reconstruction politics and unbowed racists and Democrats lamenting the end of slavery. His priorities are more immediate. Kidd misses his late wife, a rich Mexican woman whose passing left him with estranged adult children and no bankroll. Kidd ekes out a modest living as a reader; for tens cents a head, audiences listen to Kidd read from papers from around the nation and the world. Call it the 19th century's approximation of the World Wide Web. Even if you were literate, most people in rural Texas would have never laid hands or eyes on papers from back East or abroad.

Against his better judgment, Kidd agrees to take on a daunting task: a 400-mile ride from Wichita Falls to Castroville, Texas, to return ten-year-old Johanna Leonberger to her surviving relatives. Don't imagine a Rooster Cogburn type of story; the Kiowa killed Johanna's German immigrant parents when she was six, and she was raised Kiowa. Johanna has forgotten both German and English, has adopted Indian culture, and her Kiowa family is the only one she remembers. Kidd doubts he can complete the journey, but he needs the $50 (in gold) reward.

That trek makes Jiles' story much better than your average paint-by-the-numbers Western. To be sure, there is plenty of treachery, action, and danger, but the tale is really about the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Captain Kidd is genteel and erudite like his piratical namesake, but how does one communicate across language, culture, and trust barriers? Jiles populates the back scenery with assorted ex-slaves, desperadoes, legitimate do-gooders, and some whose quality of mercy is strained. Jiles also lets us inside Johanna's Kiowa brain to give us three under-served points of view: that of a female, a child, and a Native American. She brings it all home in a crisp 209 pages that you'll turn faster than the Captain flips newspaper pages. Give this one a chance, even if you can't imagine you'd enjoy a Western.

Rob Weir


Nikki Lane, Leslie Tom, Amy Stroup, Ani-DiFranco: Let the Women Sing Out

This review roundup features four female vocalists not afraid to explore their artistic borders. 

If you like sassy women airing it out in front of a kick-ass band, you can't find many better than Nikki Lane. One of the cooler things about Lane is that she doesn't possess a naturally big voice. She could have easily opted for the whispery breathless little girl sounds that are so in vogue these days. Instead she boldly cuts loose, as if she were a mash of Loretta Lynn, Tom Petty, and Wanda Jackson. Her latest record is titled Highway Queen. The title track is a compelling mix of outlaw country, badass rock, muscular singing, and soul-stirring electric guitar. This is a continuation of a formula she developed on her previous release All or Nothin' (New West Records) that was released in 2014 and is one my favorite outlaw country/Americana records. It featured full-tilt energy, style hopping, and attitude galore. Check out the sexy organ and Lane's bump-and-grind vocals on the title track of that one. Or maybe you'd prefer her girl-group-meets-The Bangles "I Don't Care," the surf guitar of "Seein' Double," the honky-tonk defiance of "Man Up," or the spontaneous living room feel of the first section of "Love's on Fire." Want to dance with anger? Check out "Sleep with a Stranger."  I've not yet heard all of Highway Queen, but rate All or Nothin' ★★★★ ½

Leslie Tom uses the hashtag "UnapologeticallyCountry" and that sums her to a tee. Her recent EP Leslie Tom (Coastal Records) is a throwback to when female country music was really big voices singing about love, heartaches, and family. There are several honky-tonk selections that immediately put one in mind of Patsy Cline, including a cover of one of Cline's signature songs, "Leavin' On My Mind." Tom does it as if it were a country/cafĂ© torch song. Hers is indeed a big voice and she's not afraid to air it. What I really liked was that Tom steers clear of processed sheen. She even gets a little bit corny on "Hank You VeryMuch," a tribute in which she skillfully interweaves Hank Williams song titles. And if you want to wallow in a roadhouse weepie, check out "Breakin' My Own Heart," a twangy 1950's throwback featuring country legends Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano and Lloyd Green on pedal steel. Later, there's a love song duet with Kevin Moon; a patriotic tribute to her grandfather, a World War II vet; and; and a tongue-in-cheek reflection on motherhood, "Hardest Thing I'll Ever Do." You don't get much more unapologetically country than a line like: "You're a Goldilocks with your daddy's eyes/You're a ketchup smile with greasy French fries."  ★★★★

Amy Stroup has enjoyed commercial success—literally; some of her work has made its way into advertisements, as well as movies and TV shows such as "Pretty Little Liars." She's based in Nashville, also fronts the indie band Sugar and the Hi-Lows, and some have called her an alt.country performer. Hmmm… Based on Tunnel, I'd say she's stretched that label to the breaking point. Picture Enya with a younger-sounding voice and more ventures into the pop realm. Mix with the dance hall pulsing tones and loops of someone like Ariana Grande or Debbie Gibson, and send all the vocals through an echo chamber. That's what Tunnel is like. "Dark Runs Out" is very Enyaesque with its soupy electronics and swooshing swells; and the vocals in "We Finally Found Out" literally linger in the background of an electro-keyboard drone that slide in with choral backup singers. We catch that similar quality of a song (not quite) breaking through from the mist in "Curious Heart." Don't hold out for a lot of lyrical insight from this album, as most of the arrangements are too hazy, thick, and echoey for us to ponder poetry. The closest Stroup gets to straight-on songs come in the piano/guitar/snare opening of "Hold What you Can" or the pop vibes of "Far From yesterday," but both of these also get an aural bath at some point. The most surprisingly track is "Falling," with its surf guitar and late 1950s feel. It's hard to argue with Stroup's success, though I'm less willing to call Tunnel any sort of artistic triumph. It has its moments, but overall it feels over-produced and under-realized. ★★

When you put yourself on he griddle as often as Ani DiFranco does, you better be able to take the heat. She shocked LGBT fans when she married a man and had two kids. She pissed off hipsters when she did some projects with trad folkies, and took grief from self-styled revolutionaries for going to a songwriters' retreat at a luxury resort that was once a slave plantation. Has Ani sold out? Hell no! Her Play God EP lays to rest that silly notion by reprising some of her rebellious favorites. The title track—included as both a studio and a live take—is a soul- and funk-influenced no-holds-barred defense of reproductive freedom: My right to choose/You don't get to play God, man/I do…. "Subdivision" is an in-your-face smack-down of white privilege: White people are so scared of black people/They bulldoze out to the country/And put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets/And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest/The Berlin Wall runs down Main Street. The only heat DiFranco deserves is that her songs are sometimes so political that her famed staccato guitar style and changing rhythms are necessary to cover lyrics that don't scan well. DiFranco's voice has matured to something akin to a huskier version of Melissa Ferrick and this EP is less folky and more soulful. Don't like that? DiFranco's "All This" is her refuse-to-compromise rejoinder. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir


Why Spring MLB Games Matter (Sort of): And Other Baseball Thoughts

Or do they count more than we imagine?
I usually do a preliminary evaluation of the Major League Baseball season sometime around the All-Star break. This year, though, I want to turn my attention to other matters, including the old adage that spring training games don’t matter at all and those in April and May hardly matter. These are, at best, half truths.

Confession time: I ignored the New York Yankees impressive spring training record and picked them to finish last in the American League East. They currently sit atop it. I still don’t think the season will end that way, but simple math makes my last place prediction unlikely. By the end of May, the Yankees had already won 30 games and unless they fall apart completely, they will put to rest the notion that early games don’t matter. There are 112 games left to play. Tons of baseball, right? Yes and no. To finish the season with a winning record, the Yankees can go a paltry 52-60 (.464). Tweak this slightly. If the Yankees play .500 ball (56-56) they will finish with 86 wins, possibly good enough to get into the postseason.

The Astros, at a blistering 38-16, would have to implode not to make the postseason, but let's consider the Cubs, last year’s World Series champs. At the end of May they were a mediocre 25-27. I still think they will win the weak NL Central, but there’s almost no chance of them duplicating last year’s 103 wins. They’d have to go 78-32 to do so, a stunning .709 pace. None of these numbers mean that the Yankees or Astros will go to World Series or that the Cubs won’t, but they are provocative.

Sheath Your Sabermetrics:

The fast start of the Yankees and the unexpectedly decent ones of the Twins, Brewers, and Rockies fuel my saber-skepticism. I don’t reject all sabermetric analysis, but there sure is a lot of junk science lurking among the useful stuff. The two worst categories are UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and WAR (Wins Above Replacement value). UZR only works if every batted ball goes consistently into apportioned zones, each chance is of equal difficulty, and all external variables are taken into account (field conditions, shifts, weather, the quality of the pitchers, etc.). Impossible. But nothing is as dumb as WAR, a form of voodoo math that purports to measure how many wins or losses an existing player brings to the team in comparison to a theoretical replacement player. A what!?

Those who actually watch baseball instead of spinning algorithms know that among the game’s beauties is its ability to defy logic. Show me the WAR cipher who, in 2016, said that if the Yankees benched Brian McCann—a player most WARmongers like way better than I—that Gary Sanchez would rise from the minors and hit 20 homeruns in 53 games. That was, of course, a statistical fluke. This year he has four after 52 games and that’s my point: you can’t come up with foolproof models for a sport with this many variables. That’s why unexpected players end up as heroes in situations where the models say they should fail.

By the way, that I still think win/loss records matter for pitchers. There are lots of guys with “great stuff” and great stats who can’t seem to miss bats in crucial situations. Witness this year's Cubs' starters (which I predicted, by the way).

On the Field:

Although the Yankees probably won’t bring up the rear as I predicted, I’m not seeing enough pitching to avoid a tumble down the standings. Mashiro Tanaka’s agent is the only reason Tanaka isn’t undergoing Tommy John surgery; it would ruin his chance to use his opt out clause and squeeze a few more bucks out of some sucker. The Yankees have ridden big bats and a great bullpen thus far. The bats are likely to cool at some point and the pen is already exhausted from a subpar five innings and out starting staff.

I will say, though, that it would delight me if the Yankees ragtag pitchers took them further than the Red Sox dream staff of Sale, Price, Porcello, Pomeranz, et. al. Don’t think it will happen, but I’d love to see the sabermetrics crowd try to explain that one.

I’m enough of a Stathead to think Ervin Santana’s 7-2 start is a fluke. Bet the Twins can’t wait to get a haul for him before his past catches up with him. I’ll bet they also wish they could find a taker for Brian Buxton, the new poster child for the Can’t-Miss-But-Did prize. I’m afraid I still don’t believe in the Twins—not yet, anyhow. I might have to rethink the Diamondbacks, though. As for the Rockies, who the hell knows in that ballpark?

I didn’t think the Phillies would be good, but I thought they’d be better. I also thought the Mets would be good enough to win, but I sure didn’t foresee most of their pitching staff succumbing to injuries. The Giants have the same problem. Lousy April-May records will make it hard for either to make up ground. Pittsburgh sure has looked bad as well. Lucky for the Bucs they are in that weak NL Central.

Of course, just about anything could happen. Remember how the Jays went from hopeless to first two years ago with an August/September burst? Or how the Braves and Red Sox fell off the cliff in 2011? But I'm not sending in advance orders for Twins/Rockies World Series tix.  

 Rob Weir