Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Twenty-Seven: Love in Infant Monkey by Lydia Millet (plus a bonus Christmas CD recommendation)

Lydia Millet has received a lot of praise for her work and is seen by many as one of the best writer's in the U.S. Stepping into her world for the first time with her collection of stories, Love in Infant Monkeys, shows a writer willing to take risks in her material. The collection revolves around animals, be they pets, circus elephants, or even the lions from the movie Born Free. Millet further layers the collection with real life celebrities or historical figures so in the course of the book we see David Hasselhoff, hear the musings of Madonna, learn of the religious leanings of Thomas Edison, and witness a confession from former President Jimmy Carter -- and there are more. Many of the stories are based on true stories of animals with famous people, although Millett takes artistic license and uses them as springboards.

The result is a strong, if uneven, collection with the famous names at times proving to be a distraction and at other times an annoyance. The book opens with Madonna pondering a range of ideas as she looks over a dying pheasant she has shot in "Sexing the Pheasant." The animal here serves as a catalyst for her thoughts, but the focus is on Madonna and her musings on celebrity life, her husband's friends, and her attempts to conquer English phrases. Madonna is such an easy target to make fun of that she is hardly worth the effort; this story could be written by some talented undergrads with a sense of humor.

Such entries are frustrating when you see Millet's skills in a story such as "Sir Henry," a moving tale of a dog walker who is forced beyond his dog world when he suddenly recognizes humanity which rises to the level of, well,  dogs. Sir Henry, a dachshund, belongs to a famous performer, but this means nothing to the dogwalker. He likes the dog because of the dog itself, not any association. He walks the dog with "Blackie," who belongs to a dying violinist who asks the walker to take the dog after he dies, which by the violinist's own admission will be soon. The request goes against the walker's own protocol, but he is moved enough to consider it and begins to see the violinist and his caretaker in a new light. We do not hear the final decision, but it is the questioning which is enlightening. Toward the end of the story Millet reveals that Sir Henry's absent owner is David Hasselhoff, who bestows some glancing attention on the dog when he accidentally meets up with the walker in the park. The walker hears the excited reactions of those around him, but is clearly not moved by the connection. The question is, why throw this diversion in what is an otherwise strong story. Millet shifts the reader's attention in a way the dog walker himself escapes, and the rationale is not clear.

Millet does better with less "celebrity" people such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Although not as well known today, Tesla was a influential inventor who counts the radio among his creations. Millet focuses on his death as debt laden scientist living out his life in the Hotel New Yorker. Tesla develops a moving relationship with one of the maids, and the story is told from the viewpoint of another maid who knew both of them. In the story Tesla is devoted to pigeons who share his apartment, causing the maids to spend extra time with the man. Millet's building of the relationship is as light and touching as the relationship itself. That Tesla was famous does not impact the story significantly. Instead of celebrity watching we simply see humans at their best as they try to help one another. Millet has a gift for finding emphasizing the human emotion without cheapening it, in part because the animals serve as a foil to the human characters (and at times this is reversed).

Humor is also an important part of the collection, and is best seen in "Jimmy Carter's Rabbit," which takes on Carter's famous oar defense when a rabbit swam toward his boat at one point during his presidency. As a former President, Carter pays a surprise visit on a childhood friend who is now a psychologist. As children they were involved in an incident which caused the boy and his family to leave the town, and Carter has come to offer a belated apology. The humor comes as the psychologist tries to figure out Carter's real reason for visiting in what is a clearly an attempt not to focus on the incident Carter wants to discuss. A similar sense of avoiding reality shows up in "The Lady and the Dragon" where a billionaire Indonesian businessman purchases a Komodo dragon who had bitten Sharon Stone's husband at a zoo. The businessman hopes to use the animal to meet Stone, with whom he is obsessed, and when one of his employees cannot contact the real one he instead hires a sexually willing substitute. 

The title story uses the real life experiments of Harold Harlow on monkeys as its basis. While Harlow is going against his colleagues in the 1950s and calling for mothers to be more loving, he gets his theories by isolating and thus torturing monkeys. While he claims no love for the monkeys, he pushes away his nightmares about the animals by drinking too much. With his own wife dying at home he spends all his time on his work, and the story ends with the nightmare of a mother monkey screaming for her baby. "He knew the feeling of loss that would last till she died."

Overall we can see Millet using the animals as a way for us to see ourselves differently. She shows a respect for animals most writers do not have by showing they are worthy of our attention as they are. In addition, as Millet any pet owner knows, animals often show us more about ourselves than we are comfortable knowing.

Reading Challenges
Tough motivational week! This is a short book so I though it would be an easy week, but you can see that although I liked the book I was not running to it every night. Perhaps it was post-six month anniversary depression? I also had a very busy week at work and was a bit exhausted in the evening, not to mention working two of the nights. So this is a week I read because I had to since I could have easily gone comatose in front of some movie (any movie) on t.v. But hey, who said this is all supposed to be easy?

Next Up
Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy. This came as a recommendation from a friend who thought I could use a bit of weirdness in life. He noted that Ellison wrote some episodes for the Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and promised a unique read. I asked my oldest son about him and he said the same things, so the weirdness was confirmed. I read the introduction standing up because what I thought would be a quick glance turned into a ten-page read. I've almost finished the first story and really like it, although the ending promises to be crucial.

CD Review: Hot Club of San Francisco's Cool Yule
I wrote this review for Blogcritics and thought I would include it for fun. Hot Club of San Francisco appeared on my artists series last year and were great! This CD is a fun listen and highly recommended.
Another Christmas recording? As certain as the rising of the Christmas tree is the annual release of a plethora of Christmas recordings from a variety of artists and genres. Classical guitar for Christmas? No problem. An accordion fan? Relax to Rudolph on the squeezebox. "Fill in the name" pop star doing the standards? Several available for your choosing. So here comes the Hot Club of San Francisco to add some gypsy jazz from the smoke filled bars of ...uh...San Francisco to the mix?

But relax. Here is a Christmas recording offering something a bit different and worth listening to in the midst of the season. The Hot Club of San Francisco may not be a mainstream ensemble, but they are generally considered one of the best gypsy jazz groups in the U.S. For those not familiar with the genre, gypsy jazz is an acoustic guitar dominated format created by the incredible guitarist Django Reinhardt with violinist Stephane Grappelli in the smoky bars of Paris in the 1930s. The name of their group was the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and gypsy jazz groups often attach the "Hot Club" title to their own city. The quintet arrangement holds with the Hot Club of San Francisco which is led by guitarist Paul Mehling and violinist Evan Price, along with bassist Clint Baker, and rhythm guitarists Jeff Magidson and Jason Vanderford.

Mehling's gift as a leader has been to honor tradition while not being afraid of stretching the genre. In this recording he clearly moves beyond the normal library and also employs several guest singers and other ensembles to offer some new sounds. The result is a wide ranging, but solid, recording of a variety of Christmas classics. The quintet takes on Vince Guaraldi's "Skating" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and pairs it with the traditional "Carol of the Bells," and then soon jumps to "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

While gypsy jazz music is not afraid of the scorching solos, it also relishes the slow, quiet rhythms of the late night. At times it is a bit too slow ("The Christmas Song"), but when balanced with the moving Applachian song, "I Wonder As I Wander," you can hear the power of the slower sound.

Those looking for the upbeat sounds which have captivated so many listeners will not be disappointed. Mehling's arrangement of "Jingle Bells," here called "Djingle Bells" in homage to Reinhardt, is a gem which should be a new Christmas standard. Even "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" benefits from gypsy sound as it finds new life in this rendition. They even manage to add a great deal of life to the difficult to like traditional song, "March of the Toys." These songs feature the Hot Club of San Francisco without their guests and the comfort of the band is clear -- they have a lot of musical fun with one another which shows a camaraderie extending beyond the music. They also extend the tradition with the best over-seven-minute version of "Auld Lang Syne" you may ever hear.

That this CD is successful comes as no surprise since the basis is five excellent musicians. Mehling is a gifted guitarist with an ear for the soulful and the skill to pull off some blistering solos bound to make most guitarists give up in frustration. Price is equally talented as a violinist and can either blend in the background or drive a song forward at will. But gypsy jazz also needs a strong rhythm section, especially since it does not include any drums. The percussive and bass sounds are amply handled by Baker, Magidson, and Vanderford.

So in the midst of the holiday chaos grab this CD to get a respite from the rush. Or if you know someone with an openness to some unique musical sounds, you have a stocking stuffer at hand. You are not likely to find this is mainstream CD outlets, but it is worth the internet search.

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