Friday, November 10, 2017
Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99) tells the story of the largely failed 1929 strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina through the eyes of Ella May Wiggins, who became a heroine of the American labor movement after her death. Narrated as a detailed flashback by her grand daughter, and seen through the eyes of a number of fictional or fictionalized characters, whose lives in various elements of society brought them together at the mill during this fateful period of industrial vs. labor strife as well as during the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in its nascent years. Told in leisurely, often poetic, prose, Cash takes his time in revealing these stories as the roots of contemporary North Carolina, where the rifts still affect not only the local elements of this geographically and culturally crucial state, but the nation as a whole.
As Ella Mae sits in the back of a pickup truck with Pittsburgh-based labor organizer Sophia, her life history from Tennessee subsistence farming, to logging camps, to working in the mills mirrors the early history of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont as it moved from mid-nineteenth century rural bootlegging to an area using the region’s resources of running water, cotton, and available labor to build a burgeoning mill industry. The growth of mill culture as rural people heard the empty promises of recruiters offering the secure life of mill villages where, in fact, grinding poverty and constant debt kept them indentured in a manner not too different from the slaves, who had been released from bondage only a few decades before, using Gaston County, NC at the center.
Based on the actual happenings at the Loray Mill strike of 1929, representing an elemental moment in the development of the American labor movement, the story is intriguing, nuanced, and lyrically told through the eyes of a variety of participants. The novel brings to life the non-fiction book Linthead Stomp by Patrick Huber, which describes life and music in the mill towns of the early twentieth century. The strike and riots soon inspired a series of novels, now referred to as the “Gastonia Novels,” which extolled the virtues of class struggle and left wing politics.
Ella Mae Wiggins
As the story, told in vignettes from the perspective of people coming in contact with Ella May Wiggins unwinds, Cash captures the spirit of rural Gaston County, the rise of the mills, the influences on the development of the mill culture as the insatiable need for thread and cloth in rapidly industrializing America is fulfilled against the poverty of white and black workers. Names like evangelist Amy Semple McPherson, Belmont Abbey College, and towns like Lincolnton, Cherryville, Spartanburg, leading to Gastonia give the setting of labor unrest, the communist menace portrayed during the red scare, incipient deep-seated racial animus, and the fight against grinding poverty a living sense of reality. These elements come together in the struggle between the mill owners, their hired thugs, and the northern agitators eager to organize, free, and exploit the workers in a toxic, and ultimately tragic mix. Cash’s rich, lyrical language combines with lively portrayal of the characters who emerge to create a story that touches the imagination while portraying a reality built on facts and extending beyond them.
In two families, the McAdams and the Lytles, Cash describes another aspect of the duality of North Carolina’s aristocracy, pitting the lowland remnants of ante-bellum aristocracy against the post-war growth sparked by the industrialization of the South. Contrasting these two cultures of wealth and privilege to the white and black poverty of workers, Cash creates a rich soup of tension, distrust, and fear. Into this mix, racial, social, and economic politics help create a friction that still can be seen in the mystery that North Carolina presents to the country and the world. Slowly the lives of the characters cross and merge as the coming tragedy begins to take shape. The structure of the novel features a large range of characters from different walks of life – worker, factory owner, labor organizer, plantation owner, railroad porter, and others - whose lives come together in Gastonia, NC in the summer and fall of 1929.
Wiley Cash is the award-winning and bestselling author of . A native of North Carolina, he has held residency positions at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.
In The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99), Wiley Cash shows the ability to take characters who might easily become stereotyped, flesh them out, bring them to life, and place them in settings where their intersection with the other characters becomes believable while taking on a life of their own, leading inevitably to the playing out of The Last Ballad. While the story is a tragic one, it nevertheless points to a hopeful time where both conditions and relationships are improved, while the deep history of these events continues to influence the present. I was provided a digital edition of The Last Ballad by the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app. Highly recommended!
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Thursday, October 26, 2017
Fools’ River (A Poke Rafferty Novel) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho/Penguin, 2017, 368 pages, $26.95/14.99) is the eighth volume featuring expatriate Bangkok travel writer Poke Rafferty as he struggles to secure the world he has constructed around himself since settling into an environment he arrived to describe and stayed to reform, one life at a time. Rafferty, author of a series of travel books called Looking for Trouble which Hallinan describes as "about the things most guidebooks ignore: poor neighborhoods, the best street food stalls, the temples, towns, restaurants, and bars that haven't gone all farang and sacrificed their identities to appeal to foreign customers. Also tells you which highly touted tourist traps to avoid, and little skills -- how much to bribe a cop and for what, how to negotiate with a taxi driver, avoiding common scams, idiosyncratic laws, etc. They're sort of anti-tourist guides." Rafferty is well-acquainted with the world he inhabits, but never, when he arrived, anticipated finding love there himself nor seeking to build a family and a life in that world. Hallinan has created a full-bodied world which constantly seeks to invade and destroy the comfortable nest he provides for his wife Rose and their adopted daughter Miaow, each a product of child sexual exploitation and rampant sex industry that thrives in Thailand.
Fools’ River opens as a benumbed unnamed character awakens in a hospital-like setting attached to tubes and maintained in a drug induced state of confusion. It then jumps quickly to a vignette where Poke Rafferty’s daughter Miaow is helping Lutanh, her friend from acting class, purchase a pair of violet contact lenses, accompanied by Miaow’s friend Edward, whom Lutanh worships from afar. Edward’s father appears to be missing, which is why Edward wishes to meet with Poke. Meanwhile, Rose is pregnant and anxious. Rose, who Poke met when she was a bar girl/prostitute working in Bangkok’s thriving sex industry is four months into a difficult pregnancy, especially since she's had two miscarriages. She’s afraid to lose the child, and Poke fears losing her. Miaow, rescued as a child whose parents abandoned her to the streets when she was quite small, has recently triumphed as an actor in her school and is preparing to try out for a part in Pygmalion.
The chapter in which Hallinan fills in the story of Lutanh, from birth in a rural Thai village to through developing self-awareness to life as a bar-girl Katoey, a lady-boy in a seedy Patpong bar, provides one of the most vivid encapsulations of child exploitation and sex business in Thailand Hallinan has ever written. In one chapter he captures Lutanh’s story. Moving forward and backward through time and Lutanh’s own self-awareness, it sets one of the two central plot and character elements which will dominate this volume in Hallinan’s fine Poke Rafferty series.
It doesn’t matter, much, where the reader first encounters Poke Rafferty. Hallinan’s skill as a writer provides sufficient information and background about the characters and setting to make each novel an effective standalone. However, the increasingly complex world, viewpoint, and background of Poke, the character, and Hallinan, the writer, become most apparent not only from reading all volumes of this series, but from indulging in the currently running Junior Bender series, and the, sadly, ended and now, for at least one volume, revived Simeon Grist series from the late 1990’s. Believe me, reading the back stories won’t be a chore!
An episode in which Poke visits the apartment of Fran Dependahl, the wife of a victim in the plot to steal from sex addicts, provides a view of one of Hallinan’s many narrative strengths. He allows the story to emerge by providing quirky, idiosyncratic characters to add content and depth to the story. Their discussion of her library, their mutual love of books and her relationship with her husband is both funny and deep. Hallinan never seems to be in a hurry, suggesting that he respects his reader sufficiently to allow immersion in the story and sufficient imagination to collude with the narrative and the creator of the work in making sure the story is well-told. While many thriller writers have stripped their stories to bare bones action, Hallinan luxuriates in allowing character, plot and setting to reveal themselves. The story comes together with action packed sequences that are part of Hallinan's particular appeal. There's a cinematic accuracy which closely follows a variety of perspectives, as if different camera angles were required to present the entire story in adequate depth.
Timothy Hallinan is an Edgar, Shamus, Macavity and Lefty nominee who has written twenty-one published novels, all thrillers and mysteries, all critically praised. He currently writes two series, the Junior Bender series set in Los Angeles and Poke Rafferty in Bangkok, and in 2017 he also revived his earlier series, written in the 1990s about the over-educated slacker private eye Simeon Grist. The new book, the first since 1995, is "Pulped." Hallinan had a varied writing career in publicity and the film industry before becoming a full time writer. You can discover more about him and his other writings on his web site.
Fools’ River (A Poke Rafferty Novel) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho/Penguin, 2017, 368 pages, $26.95/14.99) allows the author to continue the important themes that dominate his novels. Poke is consumed with trying to maintain family, friendship, and loyalty within an environment filled with official corruption and rampant sexual exploitation in the context of Thailand, where Hallinan himself maintains a second home and Poke functions as an alien divorced from his homeland and culture. Hallinan presents a completely believable world in which the main character strives to set things right. The novels are enriched by quirky, often funny, and always interesting characters fleshed out with affection and compassion by the author’s command of language. His friends and antagonists on the police force, at the Expat Bar, and in each story have back-stories contributing to the total effect of his novels in ways seldom achieved by lesser writers. I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher in both hard copy and electronic versions. I read it on my Kindle app. Fools River has my highest recommendation.
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Sunday, October 22, 2017
Act of Betrayal: A Will Cochrane Novel by Matthew Dunn (William Morrow, 2017, 320 Pages, $18.35/12.99) is a spy thriller from the macho, uber male, perspective of super-spy Will Cochrane, who, for reasons I can't understand, has reached the seventh volume of an apparently popular series. After reading the first few chapters of this book, I decided it wasn't for me. I don't generally read thrillers heavy on the U.S. spy system, special forces, or other gung-ho, macho adventures featuring shooters, shooting, and graphic violence. Nevertheless, I asked myself, why don't you consider continuing to read, mostly in order to affirm your preconceived ideas about this kind of novel. Surprise! While still not finished and having reached the "desire to see how this all works out" stage, I started to became really engaged by the ambivalence and complexity of this novel, so that around 25%, the beginning of Chapter 11, into the book, I decided to stay to the end. However, by the time I finished, I was sorry to have given so much time and credability to a world view I abhor.
Act of Betrayal is filled with action, lots of heroics, and, particularly lots of spy, CIA, and FBI talk. Also, featuring unlikely heroics, and an increasingly awkward convoluted plot that becomes too garbled with characters and too violent to approach plausibility, the novel begins to drag. Never having read a novel focused on this particular audience before, I wished better to understand the appeal beyond the action. It seems to engage the orientation towards conspiracy, admiration for doomed assassins working for “truth” and willing to use huge amounts of violence to achieve it. Also, the character of Will Cochrane stands beyond any sort of verisimilitude. Alliances extend to men (and women) of achievement beyond reasonable alliances, as a secret power within the CIA, a former Israeli agent, and a Russian, combine their efforts to stop the villain(s). The evil encountered rises all the way to the oval office.
The story opens as Will Cochrane, the finest shot of any assassin in the world, undertakes, successfully, to shoot at 3000 yards,a mysterious, but certainly evil, uber spy traveling along the autobahn at high speed. Of course, his head shot obliterates with one shot the man identified to him, and then he disappears. Three years later he appears to have committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge after having murdered a number of “innocent” people. The top agents of both the FBI and the CIA have long since stopped seeking him, until certain familiar habits begin to re-assert themselves, and it becomes obvious that Cochrane is, indeed, alive and back at work. There follow 300 pages of twists and turns as Cochrane seeks to set matters right with little concern for his own life, committed to exposing the “truth.”
In the world of Act of Betrayal the ends always justify the means, even when they include the violent death of ill doers without anything approaching due process. The hero, no... protagonist, is the purest of the pure. Comments about him by others point to his always doing “what's right.” Will Cochrane is beyond competent, a deadly killer with a perfect body, super reflexes, and completely under his own control. He never hesitates to instantly obliterate every person he concludes is guilty. His actions are justified because they are “right.” Legality has little or nothing to do with his choices, because his own motives are “pure.” He's accountable to no one but himself.
The following profile of Matthew Dunn is provided by the publisher: “As an MI6 field officer, Matthew Dunn recruited and ran agents, coordinated and participated in special operations, and acted in deep-cover roles throughout the world. He operated in highly hostile environments, where, if compromised and captured, he would have been executed. Dunn was trained in all aspects of intelligence collection, deep-cover deployments, small-arms, explosives, military unarmed combat, surveillance, and infiltration. Medals are never awarded to modern MI6 officers, but Dunn was the recipient of a very rare personal commendation from the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs for work he did on one mission, which was deemed so significant that it directly influenced the successful conclusion of a major international incident. During his time in MI6, Dunn conducted approximately seventy missions. All of them were successful. He lives in England.” Wikipedia, however, places this description into doubt by preceding it with, “according to his publicity agents,” casting the entire bio into question.
Act of Betrayal: A Will Cochrane Novel by Matthew Dunn (William Morrow, 2017, 320 Pages, $18.35/12.99) portrays a perfectly corrupt government salvaged only by a few hidden “true” rebels who, deeply embedded in various agencies, manage to save us from our own self-destruction. In this fictional world, there are a few “good” men and women with incomparable skills willing to endure the privation and suffering necessary to save the rest of us from the worst of us. I cannot recommend this novel to any reader save those already addicted to such tripe. I read the book in digital format supplied to me by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.
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Monday, September 25, 2017
Cab Calloway School of the Arts
The Cab Calloway School of the Arts is an arts magnet school located in nearby Wilmngton, DE. Their bluegrass band is a club effort spearheaded by Stephen Field who also acts as emcee. As always, they presented a delightful show with kids of a variety of skills but no shortage of enthusiasm.
Delaware Valley Kids Academy
Kids Academies at bluegrass festivals provide young musicians to get to know each other and to begin to grow into the music under the supervision of skilled and able musician/teachers. Here some pictures of the Delaware Valley Academy, and this link provides you with access to a larger portfolio of photos from this year's group. Enjoy them!
Tuesday Mountain Boys
The Tuesday Mountain Boys are a local band of members of Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music who play covers of classic bluegrass and a few of their own songs. Just right for an early Sunday appearance. Apologies to guitarist Jeff Spencer.
Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing
Bob Amos has staged a regional comeback after the disbanding of Front Range, a fine band which toured in the 1990's and early 2000's. Based in far northern Vermont, this band has the discipline, fine writing, and taste that Amos is known for. Furthermore, his daughter Sarah adds vocal color and a winsome personality to the band. It was a delight to see this fine band out of its usual New England haunts. It deserves wider national attention.
The Vocal Trio
Amos, Amos & Wright
Paul & Maria
Big Country Bluegrass
Big Country Bluegrass, from western Virginia and founded during the 1980's serves up hard driving traditional bluegrass without a lot of frills but with plenty of quality. Their name is a reference to Jimmy Martin. Founders Tommy and Teresa Sells, as well as the other members of the band, come from the Blue Ridge region. Singer Eddie Gill has the characteristic high lonesome tenor voice of old-time bluegrass.
Lapp's Cafeteria - Good Food
The Foghorn Stringband Arrives
The Foghorn String Band comes from Oregon, where it has established itself as the gold standard for old time string band music, while not sounding or appearing old fashioned. While celebrating old-time music, Foghorn is uniquely contemporary in its look and feel. They received a standing ovation.
Buddy & Charli Robertson
With Kelsi Harrigill on a brief maternity leave, twins Charli & Buddy Robertson have had to carry more of the responsibility for fronting the band. Charli, particularly, has come into her own serving as band emcee. Already noted for her singing, and showing marked improvement in her fiddle play, Charli has stepped up and proved herself to be able and personable at the job. Buddy and Charli each took a stronger solo responsibility in addition to their brother/sister harmony songs. Charli's rendition of Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," haunts a listener long after the last plaintive note has faded.
Labor Day weekend provides a huge feast of events. Two premier ones, Delaware Valley and Thomas Point Beach lie a seven and half hour drive (461 Miles) apart, and several bands played both venues, in addition to Junior Sisk's going even further to get to Fort Fairfield in far northern Maine. Because of a breakdown, some members of Blue Highway, a band which travels in separate vehicles, was forced to be late. However, rescue was at hand when Danny Paisley and his band, augmented by Eddie Gill from Big Country Bluegrass, stepped up for an impromptu set, really a jam, to more than adequately fill the time, allowing Blue Highway to arrive and organize for their excellent closing performance, at many festivals often presented to a vastly diminished audience, but not at Delaware Valley.
For over twenty years Blue Highway has been at the forefront of contemporary bluegrass bands. As their new CD puts it, they are both traditional and original. With three talented singer/song writers and every member able to hold his own vocally, the band delivers a variety of combinations creating unique and pleasing sound. From traditional a capella sacred harp music through new songs written by Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, and Wayne Taylor examining bluegrass music's big themes, Blue Highway stands out. Gaven Largent, the newest and youngest member has taken on the almost impossible job of replacing Rob Ickes on Dobro and is establishing his own independent instrumental voice and physical presence. Blue Highway continues its high standards and continues to explore new ground.
And so a magical holiday weekend ends with excitement and wonderful music. Next year's Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival will run from August 31 - September 2, 2018. Don't miss it!