>Review: Ralph Ellison – A Biography by Arnold Rampersad


Ralph Ellison began his life in Oklahoma in 1913, an area far removed from the cultural changes happening in America and an area that, despite its promise of a new life, still held blacks in the throes of Jim Crow racism. As a child, Ralph desired more from the America he grew to love and respect, and he would reach new heights through an unwavering love for the arts, especially jazz; he saw musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as heroes because they made it into the heart of American society, despite their skin color (later, in his novel Invisible Man, Ellison’s unnamed narrator would also find solace in Armstrong’s music).

Ralph would eventually get there. His life ended in 1994 as a man who overcame odds against him as a kid to become a literary icon whose novel Invisible Man is still revered today. He was a man who always set the bar high, and despite accomplishing much in his life, he never finished the second novel he always promised would be a novel about the African-American experience that would rival Faulkner and Melville. In many ways, Invisible Man became that novel, and Ellison’s short stories, essays and literary criticism would become standards for reading America and American literature.

It was the second novel that would always weigh on Ellison’s mind. With his heightened expectations, the novel would fall under the weight of prestige and fame. Ellison also became the victim of time, and the longer he waited to bring his novel out, the more America–and, therefore, Ellison’s expectations of America–changed. He would blame everything from writer’s block “as big as the Ritz,” the changing cultural expectations of black writers, and a house fire in 1967 that Ellison claimed destroyed the majority of his novel.

In Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, the myths surrounding Ellison is finally rebuffed. Rampersad’s biography digs deep into every event surrounding Ellison’s career, and strikes a balance between his personal demons and his public persona without placing the writer on a pedestal. Ellison is shown not only as an intelligent voice for his generation, but also as a man prone to anger and a man who stubbornly stuck to what he knew to be true.

Rampersad begins his story by looking into Ellison’s tumultuous childhood in the segregated Oklahoma City, where his mother raised him and his younger brother Herbert with the help of neighbors and friends (his father died early in Ellison’s life when a shard of ice stabbed him in the stomach after lifting a block of ice). He recalls the difficulties of Jim Crow in Oklahoma; at one point, Ellison’s mother was turned away from the city zoo with both her sons, embarrassed by the white security guard. Rampersad does not just focus on Ellison’s career, but shows how Ellison’s early years helped shape his literature.

When Ellison grows up and heads to college, Rampersad shows a life that closely reflected Ellison’s fiction, especially his most famous novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, and his reasons for leaving the institution, shape how the narrator of Invisible Man will form his own identity. Rampersad sweats the small details, showing the progression Ellison took as he moved to Harlem in the 1930’s and became a writer. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright directly influenced Ellison’s desire to write a great novel, even though Ellison would later distance himself from these writers due to his changing political beliefs. Rampersad also tracks Ellison’s political evolution, from Communist sympathizer in the 1930’s to moderate Democrat in the 1960’s and beyond. In Invisible Man, Ellison’s narrator would make a similar political change, albeit on a smaller level. Indeed, Ellison’s fiction was often closely linked to his own changes.

Rampersad’s exhaustive research also reveals a man who was prone to arrogance and, as a result, was often viewed as out of touch with modern American literature, especially in the ever changing 1960’s. While Ellison worked night and day on the novel that would rival Faulkner (that he ultimately never finished), a new perspective on race relations, especially among blacks, emerged. Ellison was stuck between two conflicting worlds: a white America that accepted Ellison and allowed him to move up in society, and a black America that accused Ellison of being an “Uncle Tom.” Ellison never backed down; despite younger writers seeing him as out of touch with the struggles of the modern world, Ellison always believed that race relations were more complex than black versus white, and that African-American culture was distinctly American. As he aged and black radicalism subsided, many young scholars turned back to Ellison’s words, and his view of America endures today.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Rampersad’s biography is his mention of the 1967 fire that destroyed Ellison’s Plainfield, Mass. estate. What is interesting about this event is how minor it truly was. As Ellison continued to labor away with his novel-in-progress, he would claim to those who asked him that most of it was destroyed in the fire, and therefore spent years trying to re-write the novel from memory. The truth, according to Rampersad, was that Ellison lost only a small portion of the novel, since most of the novel was left at his home in Harlem. The novel was never finished or published during his lifetime because Ellison fell under the weight of it, as it grew to be well over 1,000 pages long without any real direction. Later, a portion of the novel would become Juneteenth, published posthumously (the rest of the novel is supposed to be published later this year).

Rampersad ends his biography with Ellison’s 1994 death. Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Ellison went peacefully at his Harlem apartment. While listening to a Louis Armstrong song, Ellison signaled to his wife Fanny that the song was perfect, suggesting that Ellison, even on his deathbed, still regarded jazz as one of the most important experiences of his American adventure.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography is an excellent look at a man and a career that, despite its ups and downs, deserves respect. Although he faced his critics (sometimes head on) with a bullish attitude, it was done because of his true belief that America would endure. Although he never finished the second novel he always promised, Invisible Man and his collections of literary and cultural criticism have become classics. Rampersad’s exhaustive research leaves nothing behind, revealing a conflicted man who still knew what he ultimately wanted, an integrated America that recognized a multiplicity of views, and in many ways, he got just that.

Originally published at Blogcritics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/02/21/144546.php

>Review: Jack Kerouac’s American Journey – The Real-Life Odyssey of “On The Road” by Paul Maher Jr.


Jack Kerouac has become one of those larger than life characters from American literature. Like Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman before him, Kerouac’s mythic status as a road-weary traveler and writer of spontaneous, explosive prose is the reason readers are still drawn to his work.

Of course, the real Jack Kerouac was quite the opposite. Although he truly believed in an America that’s only discovered on society’s fringes, and tried to express this by writing in a prose style that mimicked jazz music’s improvisational techniques, he was still a self-conscious writer who worried about what people thought of him and who methodically mapped out every word he wrote, constantly self-editing and re-writing as he went along. While Kerouac’s fans thought of him as an independent man who was just out for kicks, Kerouac’s reality was that he longed to settle down, own a ranch in Colorado, and marry a perfectly submissive and quiet wife who would bake and clean for him. At the same time, Kerouac was trying to come to terms with his Catholic past and his changing spiritual views that eventually led him to Buddhism (and, later, back to Christianity).

In Jack Kerouac’s American Journey, Paul Maher, Jr. shows how a young man with grand ideas tries to seek out meaning in an America that became increasingly meaningless to him. Along the way, Kerouac decides that he must write the perfect modern American picaresque that would rival anything his heroes Mark Twain and Thomas Wolfe ever wrote; in On The Road, Kerouac takes his adventures and desires to new territories and American experiences and creates the perfect novel to express the yearning Americans felt at the time.

Maher’s well-researched book about Jack Kerouac’s journey as he wrote and published On The Road begins with a young Kerouac attending classes at Columbia University, when he meets his lifelong friends and literary confidantes Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. At the time, Kerouac was obsessed with writers like Thomas Wolfe and Fyodor Dostoevsky who inspired him to keep writing. Kerouac sees in these writers and friends that life is lived best on the fringes of society, or, as Sal Paradise puts it in On The Road, life is lived best with “the mad ones … desirous of everything at the same time.”

Maher’s research of this first trip shows that Kerouac’s re-telling of it in On The Road is almost exactly as it happened, but it took Kerouac a while to finally decide to make it out on the road. As Cassady and Ginsberg moved out to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac finally got the nerve to get up out of his mother’s home (where he had spent several months typing out his first novel The Town and The City) and travel by bus to Denver. Maher dives into Kerouac’s personal journals and letters to Cassady and Ginsberg (plus interviews with the girls he met along the way) to reveal a lost man trying to find some meaning in what seems completely meaningless. Through his many other trips across America and into Mexico, Kerouac realizes the hope and dreams of the America he tries to re-create, and as a result, Kerouac is able to find his way along the road to self-fulfillment.

Jack Kerouac’s American Journey also takes us into Kerouac’s process of writing, and reveals a man who was a careful recorder of his life. Maher explains that the crazy spontaneity of Kerouac’s life is more of a front than anything else. The Kerouac who sat in the bedroom of his mother’s house typing away was not nearly as improvisational as we may think. After late evenings typing away, he would write ideas and criticism of his favorite writers in his notebook, and he’d also write an exact number of words he had typed up that day. Sometimes, the number would be near 3,000. Other times, 800 or so. But he was careful to write down the number, especially in the early days while working on The Town and the City.

Of course, Kerouac’s life was more than just the subterranean life of a hobo on the road. By the time Kerouac sits down to re-write On The Road from scratch, he is married to Joan Anderson and trying to settle down. He also “took eight sheets of drawing paper and Scotch-taped them together, end to end, creating one continuous roll that he could feed into his typewriter,” a typing technique that he used to create the scroll version of On The Road and establish the myth that he was a spontaneous writer who never self-edited (he would allow this myth to carry on until his death). Maher, of course, demythologizes this myth and carefully puts Kerouac among other literary giants of the 20th Century, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, showing that Kerouac spent years and meticulous planning in order to create his great American novel.

Kerouac’s world, of course, was ever changing. Maher shows how the changes in post-World War II America affected Kerouac and his fellow “beat” writers, and how Americans slowly move to the suburbs and into lives of domesticity. At the same time, Maher is quick to show that Kerouac was heavily offended by this new found domestic world, and America’s increasing desire for conformity and restraint deeply affected how he shaped his novel. By 1957, the year On The Road was finally published, America was a much different place. Rock and Roll had taken over, the civil rights movement was finally taking hold, and Americans didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to elect their first Catholic president in the 1960 presidential elections. Although Kerouac had wanted the novel published earlier and had moved on from its themes by 1957, he was happy to see his American picaresque find a place in the youth of the time.

Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is a carefully recorded book about one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and unlike many other Kerouac scholars, Maher doesn’t fall into the traps of myth and legend. Instead, Maher shows the real-life struggles Kerouac faced to create On The Road, and as a result, Maher reveals the profound influence the novel would have on America’s changing and maturing attitudes through the 1960s and beyond. Today, Kerouac’s novel still influences new generations of readers to live out their own personal fantasies of the American dream, whether those fantasies are in their home, on the page, or out on the road discovering the mad corners of America.

Originally published at Blogcrics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/12/20/031429.php

>Review: Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story by Kim Powers


There’s something about the ghost story that comes alive in Southern literature. Maybe it’s the fact that, scattered unevenly across the Dixie landscape, there are large, former plantation homes that carry the pain and anguish of slavery, wealth, and suicide. It may also be because the hills and cotton fields of the South hide some of America’s worst moments in history, and the trees have the scars and bullet holes to prove it.

Yet, the ghost story has never come alive as richly as Southern history may suggest; although the Southern landscape harbors a truly scary past, modern fiction writers would rather focus on how the past dictates the present, and the “ghosts” represented are those moments in time where things were left slightly skewed.

In Kim Powers’ latest novel Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story, the literary past comes to haunt the 20th-century’s most prominent literary duo: Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Powers re-writes the moments leading up to Truman Capote’s death in 1984 by bringing back the dead, and Truman is left haunted by the family murdered in Holcomb, Kansas in his famous “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood.

Capote in Kansas begins as Truman calls his lifelong friend and literary confidant Nelle Harper Lee. Because his life has become a mess of drugs and alcohol, he claims that Nancy Clutter, the woman murdered along with her family in In Cold Blood, has appeared as a ghost, but Nelle is not buying it — she has harbored bitterness toward Truman for years. Powers then reveals that the Clutter family ghosts are “coming for [Nelle] as well,” our first indication these ghosts are more real than Truman’s drugged-up phone conversations suggest.

Unfortunately, Powers doesn’t set us up with much more than a weak storyline about ghosts that, unless you are familiar with In Cold Blood and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, remain flat and uninteresting. He bases all of the events, feelings and opinions between Truman and Nelle on biography, but there’s not much here that is fresh and original. Even if all you know about Truman Capote and Harper Lee is based on 2005’s excellent film Capote, you know enough about this novel’s central themes, since most of the book uses ideas presented in that movie and a little extra research.

Granted, Powers has bulked up his story with a lot of research on the Capote/Lee friendship. Throughout the story, Nelle reflects back on her past (particularly her friendship and support of Truman), and along the way, Nelle is visited by the ghosts of the Clutter family. These visits lead Nelle to question Truman’s intentions; in the process, Truman sends Nelle creepy messages in cardboard boxes. Powers does a great job of getting to the heart of Nelle’s insecurities and Truman’s self-inflated ego, but he never takes us beyond this.

The problem with Capote in Kansas is, quite frankly, the plot. The story revolves around the resurrection of ghosts from the past, who visit both Nelle and Truman late at night. But that’s about it. I’d write more about their encounters with the ghosts, but there’s really nothing left to say about them. For Nelle, the ghosts bring back her bitterness towards Truman’s sabotage of her novel, and Powers uses old rumors about the authorship of Nelle’s To Kill a Mockingbird to show why she is bitter. Truman, on the other hand, believes the ghosts are there to seek revenge for In Cold Blood, but despite this, Truman continues his downward spiral of paranoia.

The question remains: why write a ghost story in the first place if the ghost story is such a minor aspect of the plot? If Powers had created a story that relied less on established biography and more on the fictional world he’s trying to create, the ghost story could have worked. Instead, Capote in Kansas reads more like a poor attempt at mimicking Capote’s “non-fiction novel” style than a convincing Southern ghost story.

If you are a fan of Lee or Capote’s fiction, Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story may be worth reading, but don’t expect much original information. For everyone else, this ghost story is not that exciting. It may use some Southern gothic traditions to re-visit this infamous friendship, but it doesn’t have the plot or imagery to hold you through to the end.

Originally published at Blogcritics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/12/04/190912.php

>Review: Happy Apple – Happy Apple Back on Top


There is much debate about whether our universe is ordered and purposeful or just a random, chaotic mess. At face value, our lives seem to have a purpose, and everything seems to happen for a reason, until everything comes crashing down. And then we are forced to either see these failures as a life test, some weird thing we call “fate,” or just another step in a completely random system of life experiences that inevitably lead to death and suffering.

OK, wait a minute. This is getting way too heavy for a music review. But I say all of this because we can use these two opposing views of the universe to try and figure out how music works. For example, those who accept the verse-chorus-verse, three-chord pop-song structure of music probably believe in an ordered universe, since their music is ordered and predictable. When a musician comes along to challenge this song structure, they can be easily tagged as poor musicians or too “experimental.” However, those who accept music that goes beyond the predictability of most pop songs probably don’t see much order in the universe, and are willing to try new things since there’s nothing to lose anyway. This view of the universe works especially well for jazz, since most jazz musicians are willing to improvise around a single song riff, and just let loose.

Minnesota-based jazz trio Happy Apple are certainly not afraid to experiment with chaos, and their free-form jazz style breaks through almost all possible genre barriers. Happy Apple’s latest album, Happy Apple Back on Top, takes some of the best aspects of rock, punk, jazz, blues, and funk (and about every other possible genre) and throws it all together in a complete improvisational package.

In fact, there is hardly a moment of complete sanity on Back On Top. Once Happy Apple lulls you into thinking they’re going to stick with one thing for the rest of the song, they’ll switch gears, leaving you with either a headache or some serious admiration. For most jazz ensembles today, you get a fairly predictable mix between song structure and improvisation, but with Happy Apple, it feels like complete improvisation. Back On Top is just a complete grab-bag of the trio’s favorite musical styles, and it isn’t afraid to abandon its jazz roots every now and then.

Happy Apple Back On Top kicks off with “The New Bison,” a song that immediately establishes saxophonist Michael Lewis as the central player in this band. But there is also a heavy presence of drums and bass; in fact, the song starts with a muddled bass riff, and breaks into a fully synthesized drum jam before making way for Lewis’ sax arpeggios. Since the album is completely instrumental, the dynamic between bass guitar and saxophone seem to work as the melody and harmony of each song, propped up by drummer David King’s great sense of rhythm. Even then, it’s still hard to make sense of any melody or harmony, since every member seems set on improvising every riff in their own way.

Even though Back On Top is a heavily improvised album, Happy Apple still show that they are excellent musicians. The band feels as tight as possible, and on songs like “1996 A.D.” and “Density in Dan’s Fan City,” the band doesn’t miss a beat. Like their previous albums, such as 2003’s successful Youth Oriented, the band is not afraid of lengthy jam sessions that are hard to re-create. But since this is one very talented group of musicians, everything feels planned out and methodical. Certainly, Happy Apple are able to mix the best parts of jazz improvisation with one or two motifs that hold each song together and create a unified (albeit chaotic) theme.

If there’s any complaint for Back On Top, it’s that it seems much more subdued than their previous work. For example, 2003’s Youth Oriented had some louder sax moments and didn’t shy away from some excellent electric guitar work; in fact, the inclusion of a distorted electric guitar is partly why Happy Apple got lumped together with other indie rock musicians. Including drum machines and synthesizers is certainly a step forward for the band, but it doesn’t have the same punch as their previous albums.

Happy Apple Back on Top is an excellent album that will attract fans from all sorts of musical genres, but it remains true to its jazz roots. Certainly, Happy Apple love to mess with your head, and their music is a bit chaotic, but it seems to work. Instead of accepting the inevitable decline of the universe, Happy Apple seems to just let it be, and as a result, they are here on this earth to create some excellent music.

Originally published at Blogcritics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/11/17/110305.php

>Review: Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War

>Canadian indie pop darlings the Stars are one of those bands that always seems on the verge of something huge. 2004’s “Set Yourself on Fire” was so well received amongst critics and fans, you can only expect something even more amazing for the next release.

And then the band released “In Our Bedroom After the War” to online retailers two months earlier than the official release, and fans were left confused: was this it? And why the early release? Reviews from both fans and critics were mixed, some saying it lacked the bravado of “Set Yourself on Fire” and wouldn’t have the lasting power of its predecessor.

Granted, “In Our Bedroom After the War” had some large shoes to fill. “Set Yourself on Fire” was a huge artistic success, and any album coming after it would be like comparing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” to “Darkside of the Moon.” Basically, it doesn’t have a chance in hell.

But despite the mixed reviews, “In Our Bedroom After the War” is an excellent album, portraying the love and loss that comes with the end of war. This theme is spread throughout the whole album, with lyrics stemming from the opening line: “Will we wake in the morning and know what it was all for? / Up in our bedroom, after the war?” After this, the album continues this theme, showing the ambiguity of love and personal identity after the turmoil of war.

Although the narrative of the album sometimes lags behind its grander theme, it seems a relevant theme in our modern times, and fits within Stars’ aesthetic of emotional turmoil and loss. And sure it may not be as biting or nihilistic as “Set Yourself on Fire,” but it does the job. In “The Ghost of Genova Heights,” the sense of loss in war is at its strongest: “He hoped to be remembered as the one / Who told his men to turn back … Roses are the flower he would prefer / Scatter all his ashes on the pier.” Clearly, war is devastating, and this album takes it on directly.

Of course, the lyrics are only one small part of this album. The music certainly builds upon the indie pop aesthetic the Stars have developed over the years. Vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan continue their boy/girl vocal styles, playing dueling vocal roles. In “Take Me to the Riot,” the best blend of male and female vocals portray the brewing relationship within the narrative of the album. In comparison of “Set Yourself on Fire,” “In Our Bedroom After the War” displays the dynamic between Campbell and Millan in a much more diverse way; instead of splitting vocal duties song-by-song, “In Our Bedroom After the War” shows that the two vocalists blend together exceptionally well.

Stylistically, “In Our Bedroom After the War” makes use of synthesizers and traditional instruments, but with a more subdued sound. Gone are the samples and lengthy synthesizer riffs of the past; instead, Stars rely more heavily on strings, piano and drums. The opening track (“The Beginning After the End”) suggests an album heavily layered with synthesized drums and lead riffs, but by the end the most dominant instrument seems to be a basic piano. Even with this more subdued sound, the music just works.

Right in the middle of this more subdued sound comes the fast rocking but oddly named “Bitches in Tokyo.” The song represents the climax of the album. Sung by Millan, “Bitches in Tokyo” brings in the desire and carpe diem feelings of these post-war lovers: “The time when all our mistakes made sense / You needed it … Well I can’t take it / ‘Cause I just want you back.” And at this point, the album reflects a more positive tone; in “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!,” well, the song title speaks for itself.

The album’s shift toward a more positive outlook of love after war is where most fans and critics seem most upset. But within this, Stars have shown their lasting power through a positive love, not just loss. Unfortunately, the album’s worst moment is in the final song, the title track “In Our Bedroom After the War.” Campbell sings “It’s us – yes, we’re back again / Here to see you through, ’til the days end / And if the night comes, and the night will come / Well at least the war is over,” but the lackluster song doesn’t wrap up an otherwise complete and beautiful album. Instead, it leaves the listener confused; there is no longer the possibility of irony or menace lurking in the background. It is a grand exit that feels more like the end of a broadway play than a indie pop album.

Despite its flaws, “In Our Bedroom After the War” is still a great album. And even though it doesn’t seem to hold up to Stars’ past albums, it certainly shows an extremely talented band enjoying the fruits of their creative peak. Who knows, in a few years time, this might be the album everyone talks up the most.