Book Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Immortality — and its consequences — have been on author David Mitchell’s mind. His 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks, involved two groups of immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, who battle over the proper way to remain immortal, through reincarnation or by “decanting” human souls. The next year brought Slade House, a stand alone work about twin brother and sister Anchorites.

To a great extent, Slade House is a ghost or haunted house story about five different days in nine year intervals from 1979 to 2015. The mansion is owned by twins Norah and Jonah Grayer and seems impossibly situated between two ordinary houses on Westwood Road in London. It is accessible only through a small metal door in an alleyway that leads into a large garden on the property. The tale is about what happens to those who enter the house.

slade houseLike any accomplished haunted house or ghost story, detail becomes spoiler. Suffice it to say that when guests enter Slade House things are not as they appear. The hosts admittedly “pass ourselves off as normal, or anything we want to be.” And a substance called banjax will put souls in peril in the twins’ quest for “pscyhovoltage.”

Perhaps because it grew from a short story Mitchell published on Twitter, Slade House is the shortest of his works. It can easily be read in one sitting. And as is Mitchell’s tendency, characters from earlier books become role players. This time it’s Dr. Iris Marinus-Fenby, Slade House’s guest in 2015. She was the male Dr. Marinus in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a 2009 novel set in Japan at the advent of the 19th Century, and reincarnated as a woman psychiatrist from Canada in The Bone Clocks. Mitchell has said he plans for Marinus to appear in future works.

Despite Marinus-Fenby’s prior appearances, it is not necessary to read The Bone Clocks, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2015 and was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2014. In fact, while Mitchell says Slade House is an independent work, it is a kind of “dessert” to The Bone Clocks, something reinforced by the fact it’s about 35 percent shorter.

From my standpoint, though, Slade House is a more enjoyable and far less complicated approach to the world of the Horologists and the Anchorites and their tactics and goals. Besides, aren’t there times when all you really want is dessert?

Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.

”David Mitchell, Slade House

Music Review: Chicago, Chicago II (Steven Wilson Remix)

“This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.”

When the band Chicago made this statement 47 years ago in the liner notes to its second album (eponymously named but commonly known as Chicago II), it could never have foreseen today’s digital music environment. Despite that, it reflects one of the things I dislike about music today. Then, albums were put together in a specific order to help reflect the intended theme or structure the band intended. What with downloading individual songs and the shuffle function, that era seems, sadly, to have died.

Two things likely stood behind the band’s (which shortened its name from Chicago Transit Authority after receiving a cease and desist order from the city of Chicago) recommendation. First, as a two-LP recording, there was a specific structure to its four sides. Second, the band’s intent was to continue to explore and meld a wide range of styles. Yet even though the album presented an impressive array of music and explored multi-part compositions, many fans considered the initial recording of lesser quality than the band’s first album, a feeling reinforced when Chicago III was released a year later.

Despite the sound issues perceived by many, the album launched the band onto the U.S. Top 40 singles and Top 10 album charts. Rhino Records is acknowledging the anniversary of Chicago II‘s initial release, with a remix by British progressive rock musician and producer Steven Wilson. (Ironically, the release also came the week in which guitarist Terry Kath died from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978.) Wilson is no stranger to remixing classic rock albums. Not surprisingly, most have been progressive rock bands, such as Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And there’s a good argument that the wide-ranging and eclectic styles on Chicago II make it a prog rock album.

Chicago II Steven Wilson RemixWhile the band’s debut, Chicago Transit Authority, used strong horns and driving guitar in what was called jazz rock, the follow-up blended a wider variety of genres. Chicago II also reflects the formal and practical music education of its members as three of the four sides of the LP contained multi-part works. In creating the remix, Wilson used the original 16-track tapes, allowing him, he says, to “rebuild the mix from the drums upwards” with the hope of gaining “definition and clarity.”

Those goals are reflected in several components that particularly earmark the remix. Foremost is there’s more upper end, obviating the muddiness of the initial release. Wilson also seems to bring out subtleties buried in the original. For example, while the remix reflects that, except for a couple solos, Kath’s guitar is less prominent than on the Chicago Transit Authority, this version reveals more nuances. Likewise, the drums seem crisper and the demonstrates first. The remix continues that but remix reveals more nuances. In addition, the drums seem crisper and the colors and textures of the horns seem more expansive.

Chicago II opens with “Movin’ In.” It starts out with the band’s hallmark horn sound but moves into a bop-based sax solo by Walt Parazaider. In fact, the first five songs, four of which were originally side one of the two-record LP, are akin to what a fan at the time might expect. But the other three sides show a greater range of musicality.

Perhaps most notable and widely recognized is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”, which, at about 13 minutes in length, took up the bulk of side two. It’s a six-song suite penned by trombone player James Pankow, reflecting his interest in classical song cycles. Despite being the band’s first excursion into lengthy multi-part songs, it also provided two of the three top 40 hits of the album, “Make Me Smile” (No. 9), “Colour My World” (No. 7) and “25 or 6 to 4” (No. 4).

“Make Me Smile” was the band’s breakthrough into the top ten. Yet it’s actually a record company edit combining the first (“Make Me Smile”) and last (“Now More Than Ever”) songs in the “Buchannon” suite. “Colour My World,” which appears in the last half of the suite is a series of arpeggios starting on piano and concluding with flute with a soulful crooning by Kath in between. It would become a mainstay at proms and wedding dances throughout the 70s. The cycle also displays Kath’s vocal versatility. The tenderness of “Color My World” stands in sharp contrast to his bluesy vocals on “Make Me Smile.” The transition between “Color My World” and “Now More Than Ever” is a full bore demonstration of classic Chicago sound.

The highest charting song on the album, “25 or 6 to 4”, was keyboardist Bobby Lamm’s song about trying to write a song at the time of the morning. The opening bass rift not only sets the pace and the chord progression, it is virtually immediately recognizable. It is also one of the song’s on which Kath actually displays his solo chops. It preceded the next multi-part piece on the album, clearly the most divergent work.

Whereas “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” joyfully celebrates love, “Memories of Love” is a four-song cycle about the death of a lover. The first three parts — “Prelude,” “A.M. Mourning” and “P.M. Mourning” — are aptly named, carry strong classical music influence and are heavily orchestrated. Kath wrote the core while Peter Matz, an award-winning composer and arranger, provided the orchestration. It closes with the soft title song. While beautiful, the suite suffers from the great contrast between it and the rest of the record.

The end of the album is reminiscent of the last side of Chicago Transit Authority. “It Better End Soon” is a four movement political work. The second movement is essentially is Paazaider flute solo that builds from soft and straightforward to a hard-edged jazz exploration. The rest features Kath’s earthy vocals on an altruistic theme of political togetherness. Although provably never airing on AM radio, portions of the work would be recognized by those more familiar with the band’s radio hits. They constitute a similar refrain in “Dialogue”, a single from 1972’s Chicago V that would reach number 24 on the pop charts.

The album closes with bassist Peter Cetera’s first songwriting credit, “Where Do We Go From Here?” It takes a softer approach to the theme of the preceding suite — coming together to make a better world. Sequentially, then, the album creates a listening experience that spans styles and emotions.

Chicago II presented a unique amalgamation of rock, jazz, classical and pop music, occasionally combining two or more in the course of one tune. Wilson’s remix provides a tighter and cleaner perspective that more clearly reveals how innovative it was.

What once you thought was a paradise is not just what it seems
The more I look around I find the more I have to fear

Chicago, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, Chicago II

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’

It’s not surprising that this titular lyric from R.E.M.’s 1987 song has been going through my head for a while now. But the last 18 days have reinforced that, unlike R.E.M., I don’t “feel fine.” Years ago, I moved this blog away from politics to write about “things that bring nuance to life.” As then, I’m again hoping that things I enjoy will distract me from the ramifications of a childish narcissist as president.

As a result, I’ve decided to write more about music, books, history and the like. The first album review in years will appear tomorrow and what will be only my second book review in 13 months will show up later this week. There’s at least one other book review in the works and plans for a couple of posts on things I find interesting.

I’ve said a few times before that this site would be less dormant. This time, though, writing and other things I find pleasure in will allow me to escape — or at least forget — for a time the nausea and anger I feel any time I check the news.

See you tomorrow.

I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.

Leonard Cohen, “The Joking Troubadour of Gloom

South Dakota’s socialist experiment

The last couple months revealed a gap in my education: South Dakota history. Granted, I know the basics — the Homestead Act, sod homes, Indian tribes and treaties, the railroads, agriculture, the Dirty Thirties, meatpacking, credit cards. But I’ve never had a South Dakota history course and it became apparent when I learned South Dakota toyed with what most would consider socialism.

This fall I was reviewing materials in the Peter Norbeck papers in the State Archives. I realized I didn’t know much about Norbeck, governor from 1917 through 1921 and U.S. Senator from 1921 to 1936, so I bought a copy of his biography. While Norbeck was a Republican like all but one of the prior governors, I was shocked by his political views and legislative accomplishments as governor.

Norbeck was a Republican a la Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. “Trust buster” Roosevelt’s support for progressive reform grew during his presidential term (1901-09). About 18 months after leaving office, Roosevelt gave the so-called “New Nationalism” speech. In it, he observed that lack of government restraints helped “create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” He said such fortunes should be allowed “only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.” Within two years, he split from the Republican Party to form and run as the presidential candidate of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party. La Follette would form a new Progressive Party and be its presidential candidate 12 years later.

Peter Norbeck

Peter Norbeck

Although Norbeck always was a Republican, he certainly wouldn’t be considered one today. The 1917 legislative session, the first of his gubernatorial terms, reflects his progressivism.

That legislature proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the state to own and operate “proper business enterprises” and to own stock in corporations. Other proposed constitutional amendments embraced state ownership of specific types of businesses: hydroelectric plants, coal mines, a cement plant, hail insurance, grain elevators and warehouses, and flour and meat-packing businesses. Norbeck supported all of them, although he was admittedly lukewarm on the grain, flour and meat-packing enterprises. Even prior to becoming governor, Norbeck promoted creation of a state rural credits system. He largely wrote the law passed in 1917. It allowed a Rural Credits Board to borrow funds on state credit and then, using real estate mortgages as security, make direct loans to farmers at interest rates of no more than five percent.

Norbeck’s support for direct state involvement in the economy is clear. As noted in a book on South Dakota leaders, his actions were “a shift in South Dakota politics to the ideological left[.]” The shift was such that voters approved all of the constitutional amendments in the 1918 election. (Although a workers’ compensation act also passed in 1917, not all the days’ popular ideas look good today. Thanks to the growing eugenics movement, the legislature also passed a bill “for the Prevention of the Procreation of Idiots, Imbeciles and Feeble-Minded Persons.” It allowed the state’s “Home for Feeble-Minded persons” to determine whether residents should be allowed to “procreate.” If not, they would be sterilized.)

A 1918 Norbeck campaign pamphlet reflects his accord with Roosevelt’s ideas. Norbeck argued that the state being in certain areas of business wasn’t socialism. “Where men attempt to extort an unreasonable profit,” Norbeck wrote, “it is the business of government to step in and regulate it and where the regulation can be best had by government ownership and operation, this plan should be adopted.”

In addition to the rural credits system South Dakota would have a state hail insurance program, would buy a coal mine (located, ironically, in North Dakota) and toke steps toward a state cement plant, which began production in late 1924. Norbeck embarked on a massive road construction program and the state funded a survey of possible hydroelectric dam sites on the Missouri River — nearly 30 years before the Pick-Sloan Plan would lead to federal construction of Missouri River dams.

The thought of a Republican governor advocating government business ownership is beyond imagination today. Ultimately, though, only the cement plant, sold at the end of 2000, was a success. Due in part to malfeasance by its treasurer and an agricultural depression after World War I, the rural credits system was shut down after 6½ years. By then, it had loaned $45 million and borrowed $47.5 million. When finally liquidated, it cost taxpayers $57 million.

The state bought the coal mine for a total investment of $185,000 (approximately $2.6 million today). It was sold in the midst of the Depression for only $5,500, although that disregards what state institutions saved buying coal below market rates. The hail insurance program was abolished in 1933. The state ultimately paid just under $279,000 in debt ($4.7 million today), although backers claimed farmers saved $7.5 million in insurance premiums between 1919 and 1929.

I can’t help but wonder if these expensive failures helped lock South Dakota Republicans and politics into conservatism. Legislators and the public felt burned and it was easy to condemn analogous ideas by saying, “Not only is this socialism, look what it cost!” It certainly discredited progressivism in the party that enacted Norbeck’s programs and which dominates state government to this day.

“In spite of his flirtation with state socialism while he was governor, [Norbeck] never embraced its basic theories and strongly opposed ‘radicalism,'” writes his biographer. Norbeck’s actions can speak for themselves. But who today would believe South Dakota dabbled with state socialism while Republicans held the governorship and more than a two-thirds majority in each house of the legislature? It boggles the mind.

Actually [Norbeck] was a New Dealer before Franklin Roosevelt’s era.

Gilbert Fite, Peter Norbeck: Prairie Statesman

It’s Bookmas season

As my kids have told me for years, I’m a hard person to buy presents for. That’s in part due to my varying and often eclectic tastes. But a bigger reason is that for items that are probably $50 or less, I have no hesitancy in buying the things in which I’m most interested. That makes Christmas season dangerous.

booksIn ensuring I’m getting the “gifts” I want, I tend to binge a bit and doing virtually all my shopping online makes it a bit too easy. Not surprisingly, my greatest indulgence comes with books. The accompanying picture reflects the reading gifts to myself purchase on Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year. It’s probably typical, if not slightly below average.

The stack reflects a couple History Book Club sales and the balance came from a couple discount codes Amazon offered. While these will keep me occupied for a good chunk of the winter, I’m sure there will be some more online deals before Christmas arrives. Moreover, I haven’t been to the local B&N with the discount and gift cards I have.

I love Bookmas.

Books as physical objects matter to me … because i find their presence emotionally enriching.

Joe Queenan, One for the Books

The day 343 was my lucky number

I recently finished an oral history of the period from August 1969 through September 1970, one of the most tumultuous of 20th century America. The first chapter dealt with the draft and the draft resistance movement and, as would be expected, the Vietnam war infused the other topics in the book, which I recommend reading. It brought to mind a particular day of my freshman year of college.

For those too young to remember, in December 1969 the Selective Service System began conducting lotteries to determine the order in which draft-eligible men would be called to report for possible military induction. It was the first such lottery since 1942. That day, 366 slips of paper containing birth dates were placed in plastic capsules and drawn individually by hand from a water-cooler size glass bowl. The order of selection was the order in which draft calls would be made for all men born from 1944 to 1950.

I actually was in the last draft lottery on March 12, 1975. By then, it was more randomized. A date would be pulled from one large rotatable bin and a number from 1 to 366 would be pulled from a second. Thus, the order in which the dates were drawn didn’t affect the resulting draft number.

It would be easy to think there was no reason to worry about the draft then. The last draft call had been December 7, 1972, and the last American combat soldiers left South Vietnam in March 1973. But in January 1975 the North Vietnamese started a major offensive and by March 1 the South Vietnamese Army had suffered massive losses and was in full retreat. Whether justified or not, my peers and I began wondering if Washington would think it necessary to go back into the fray. While that didn’t occur, all we knew on that March 12 was that things were quickly going to hell in South Vietnam (in fact, Saigon would fall on April 30).

Given there was no internet, no 24-hour news cycle and the lottery wasn’t a central concern in the country, finding the draft numbers took some effort. I don’t recall exactly how we found out but my lottery number was 343, meaning that even if the U.S. foolishly re-entered Vietnam, there was zero chance I would be drafted. To the best of my recollection, my roommate’s draft number was over 200, also a safe place. We actually threw a party in our dorm room to celebrate.

Fortunately, the lottery wasn’t a life-changing event. And criticism that the lack of a draft skews the socioeconomic makeup of our military and overburdens the National Guard has some validity. Yet it’s something I still and will always remember. I am perhaps more thrilled I wasn’t born six years earlier. In that December 1, 1969, lottery, the first date drawn was my birthday.

A “just war” – if there could be such a thing – would not require conscription. Volunteers would be plentiful.

Ben Salmon, “Open Letter to President Wilson