January 2013

How Music Works

David Byrne, How Music Works (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2012).

Byrne - How Music Works
David Byrne has lived the life of a musician through his work with Talking Heads. He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He knows what he is talking about. But I didn’t expect such an in-depth exploration. This isn’t just a book about Rock and Roll, nor is it just a book about the music business. It is a far more comprehensive study of music and its impact on our lives. It is filled with history, anthropology, and a whole lot of love for all kinds of music. Whether the reader is a musician, or just someone who likes music, there is a lot to learn from this powerful collection of music and its power in our lives.

The science and art of recording music has evolved as the technology has changed, and Byrne has an extensive knowledge of how music is recorded, and how it is changed by the process of recording. There are lots of illustrations, including some sketches by Byrne. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves music.

Two in the Far North

Margaret E. Murie, Two in the Far North (Portland: Alaska Northwest Books, 1997).

Murie - Two in the Far North
I have never been to Alaska, but I do hope to visit someday. Margart Murie reminds me why I want to visit and why I want to plan my visit in such a way that I get off the beaten path and travel by human power to some of the only places. Walking, canoeing, and just finding places to sit and look. Her stories of her adventures with Olaus and others are reason enough to have wilderness. Even the places I have not visited are worth having because others have visited those places and some of them, like Mrs. Murie, are such descriptive and delightful authors that they have given us readers a tour of the place.

This is a book to read again and again. And it is a book to tuck into my backpack when I finally am able to visit Alaska someday. The only thing more delicious than reading the book would be reading it while camping in the wild country - a perfect activity for a rainy day. When the sun shines, I want to be outdoors looking carefully at the wildness that remains.

Between Heaven and Here

Susan Straight, Between Heaven and Here (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2012).

Straight - Between Heaven and Here
A novelist must be able to write dialogue. Susan Straight can write dialogue. But it is monologue that she uses to mesmerize her readers. She writes the internal monologues of her characters who are like no one I have ever met. At the same time those characters are totally believable. I’ve never lived on the streets in the tough neighborhoods of Southern California. I don’t speak the lingo. I don’t know the stories of the creole people who migrated to the orange groves when life in Louisiana became impossible. But I do know their story because Susan Straight is a master storyteller.

She writes like I imagine those people sound. Whether it is one side of a phone conversation or the thinking of an often alone teenager trying to find his way in the world, she seems to have gotten it right. This is a powerful and emotional novel that deserves to be read again and again. It may be a chronicle of our times – or of a different place in this new generation.

Susan Straight has written eight previous books. I wonder why it took me so long to find her work. I’ll be reading more of her.

Wild Rivers and Mountain Trails

Don Ian Smith, Wild Rivers and Mountain Trails (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972).

Smith - Wild Rivers and Mountain Trails
Don Ian Smith was an Idaho rancher and a Methodist Minister who served in Boise a decade before we lived in that city. This little volume of semi-spiritual essays is a collection of reflections on the outdoors, ranch life, backcountry hunting and fishing with a dose of Christianity thrown in. I picked the volume from a large quantity of books we were sorting for a retired pastor who is in the midst of moving. It was an easy and quick read, full of familiar places and images.

The book, published in 1972, is somewhat dated, but Smith’s use of “man” to mean all humans and the exclusive use of the male pronoun would have seemed awkward to me even then. Some of his ideas about forest management are similarly dated, based in ideas that have since been proven to be a bit antiquated. He has high respect for all managers, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Forest Service. His notions about fish management seem to be ignorant of the effects of dams on the natural migration patterns of Salmon and Steelhead. His eagerness to fish 30 or 40 miles of river a day in a jetboat reflects a different philosophy than those of us who prefer to more fully explore six or eight miles in a driftboat.

However, the essays are fun and the spiritual lessons he finds in the wilderness are genuine and continue to resonate today.