THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA

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I’ve heard people dismiss The Basement Tapes as a bunch of stoned guys goofing around musically.  That’s sort of true, in the sense that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great tragedian goofing around with a comedy.

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The Basement Tapes are more accurately described as a bunch of musical geniuses exercising their genius as a kind of everyday exercise — the sort of practice and exploration that every virtuoso engages in as a tune-up for finished work.

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It gives us a privileged glimpse of creation as a practical vocation — as though we had a record of the songs Shakespeare sang to himself, the poems he memorized, the jokes that made him laugh, in between bouts of writing his plays.

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The genius of America resides in its Constitution, now defunct, and its music, still alive — and the genius of American music is investigated and celebrated in The Basement Tapes.  It’s one of the central documents of our culture.

ON MY FIRST TRIP TO TEXAS

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. . . in 1971 I snapped this picture of my traveling companion Lang Clay.  We had a map, as you can see, but really no idea of how big Texas actually is.  We went a little nuts driving across it, wondering if we would ever get out.  We were also sleeping mostly at rest stops, under picnic tables in sleeping bags, unless it was raining, in which case we tried to sleep in my vehicle, a tiny sports car, though this was pretty much impossible.

The image was part of a project Lang was engaged in at the time to take, or have taken, a photograph of himself every day for a year.  In the end he missed only 25 days.

Lang has since become a successful and respected professional photographer — I’m still on the road, heading for another joint.

Photo © 1971 Langdon Clay

VERA CRUZ

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Ted Cruz is clearly an intelligent man, with many sound ideas, but he has a fatal flaw — he likes to fuck chickens in public.  This draws crowds, of course, and delights many, but there seems to be a rule in American politics that a man who fucks chickens in public, while he might aspire to the Senate or a governorship, can never rise to the Presidency.

That’s the tragedy of the man, not to mention the tragedy of countless chickens.

SERIAL

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Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing has called Serial the best podcast in the world.  There are certainly other candidates for that distinction but Serial has to rank somewhere near the top of the list.  It’s riveting.

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It tells the story, in weekly installments, of the 1999 murder in Baltimore of Hae Min Lee, an 18 year-old Korean-American high school student, for which her recently-ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, a Pakistani-American classmate, was convicted.  (She was strangled to death by someone with their bare hands and her body buried in the wooded park above.)

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The case against Syed (above) was almost completely circumstantial and to many people very thin.  Sarah Koenig (below), of This American Life, decided to review the evidence and the trial, in great detail, and interview those connected to the case, to see what she could make of it all.  Serial is the ongoing result of her efforts.

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Murder cases can have a generic quality — the crime itself, however shocking and tragic, rarely holds one’s interest for long.  It’s the investigation and trial testimony that become addictive, for what they reveal about people’s lives in particular places and times and situations.  They add up to a kind of novel of social manners and mores, ripping the masks off of various public images and exposing another world percolating along beneath them.

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The murder trial of Jodi Arias (above) offered startling insights into the private lives of young Mormons in the Southwest, a view often at odds with whatever image Mormons might want to project to the world at large.  Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee lived lives separate from the ones their immigrant parents wanted them to live and thought they were living, the lives of typical American teens, who had premarital sex, did drugs, and were regularly off doing those things in places their parents had no knowledge of.

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Koenig is seven episodes into the podcast at this point, genuinely mystified as to Syed’s guilt or innocence.  She’s a spellbinding storyteller and scrupulously fair — so that her own voyage of discovery and doubt becomes as suspenseful as the question of who actually killed Hae Min Lee, and why.

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Enter the tale here — Serial — and for goodness’ sake start at the beginning.

A STEAMBOAT RACE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

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. . . by George F. Fuller, 1859.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Steamboats virtually wiped out upriver traffic by keelboats on the Mississippi by the 1830s, but downriver cargo traffic by flatboats lingered on for many decades.  Keelboats going upstream under sail or oar power were slow and labor-intensive, but farmers upriver could build their own flatboats for their own produce, steer them to markets downriver, break up the boats afterwards to sell as scrap lumber and then walk or take steamboat passage back home.

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It was almost a rite of passage for young farmers up north, including Abe Lincoln, and reliably profitable — until the railroads in turn made the flatboat obsolete.

NEW AMAZON CUSTOMER REVIEW

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Captivating novella takes you from the the south seas to NYC and back again

So I was on a plane somewhere above the flat states. I’d done a little work. My peanuts were long gone, and I still had a couple hours to kill.

I turned on my Kindle . . .

. . . and found my perfect afternoon diversion: Black Pearl.

What an enjoyable read it was. The pacing and plot twists kept my attention, and I also love that this novella absolutely defies neat categorization: there’s a big crime/noir/thriller angle, but also paranormal elements and even a heart-tugging love story thrown in for us romantics. Highly recommend to anyone looking for fun, readable entertainment that is long enough to give you that mental getaway you crave, yet short enough that you can go start-to-finish in a single sitting.

For all the reviews and book details, go here:

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