Thursday, June 28, 2012

Music Review: Scythian, It's Not Too Late

I don't normally do music reviews, but music was my first love. Scythian is a band I've seen play live a dozen or more times. They're extraordinary when doing live shows. It's the only band I've ever seen successfully make their audience do leg kicks in unison. Perhaps they use hypnosis, or perhaps it's the intoxicating strains of the fiddle.
One of the hardest things about a band with so much live charisma is the ability to capture that energy and personality in a studio album. Wisely, the band has released two live albums which are the next best thing to seeing them (though if they come to your neighborhood, I suggest you get to a show). It's Not Too Late is their newest studio album, released just a year after their previous, American Shanty.
It's Not Too Late marks a slight shift in their sound, as they explore the many facets of their musical identity: Celtic, bluegrass, Americana, southern rock, Eastern European gypsy sound, folk, and more. Somehow they blend all these aspects to make a sound that is uniquely Scythian. They've become known in Celtic and folk music circles for their raw and raucous fiddle and guitar sounds that are covered with the dust of the road and the colors of their travels. This album shows us some of the softer side of Scythian; perhaps Scythian in love? The title track of the album, is a gentle song about taking your opportunities to find love. This theme is touched on again in the sweet sentiment of "End of the Street"-- a song about falling a little bit in love while living the gypsy life style of a musician, and that feeling is capped with the penultimate track of the album, the addictive "That Girl." It's a rollicking southern rock song that could have easily been the hot song of the summer thirty or forty years ago. It has a charming sense of nostalgia.
The instrumental tracks on the album show off the traditional Celtic licks of the group with the "Sheldon House Reels," a powerful piece that builds on two fiddles and two guitars. "Halloran's Jig" will definitely tempt you to do some amateurish Irish dancing. The band reached back to their roots with the Ukranian, "Arkan" which takes you another time and place with a sense of tradition captured by its mournful fiddle and masculine chanting.
This has been a transition year for the band, losing one member and gaining two more. Unfortunately the two brothers who form the hub of the band, Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka suffered a personal loss recently as well. This album is dedicated to their late mother who is memorialized in the song, "The Only One."
No doubt, things are changing for the boys of Scythian, they've cut down their touring schedule for 2012 and are maybe developing in some new directions. After about a decade on the road, this shift might be just what they need to breathe new life into their music. They remain one of my favorite groups, especially to watch live. The albums are never the same as experiencing their performance, but their latest offering is solid and has many powerful highlights that emphasize the band's almost chameleon like versatility, but ultimately shows us that in spite of all the variety, it's always all Scythian.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Modern Fairy Tales: Angela Carter, AS Byatt

Fairy tales are one of the oldest and most basic forms or storytelling. How can a writer resist? I began experimenting with writing fairy tales and have now compiled quite a little collection of my own. What to do with them? I'm not sure. There's the possibility of sending some out individually to journals like Fairy Tale Review. There's also the possibility of publishing a collection somewhere down the line.
The idea of fairy tale collections for adult readers is not a new one. Angela Carter published The Bloody Chamber in the 70s. I recently finished reading it this slim volume. It's a fascinating exploration of fairy tale archetypes and the timelessness of imagination and even sometimes superstition. She sometimes explores the same type of tale several different ways. Carter offers two different versions of the Beauty and the Beast story in the collection, and two variations on Little Red Riding Hood. The collection also includes a bawdy and wicked version of Puss in Boots, an unsettling adaptation of the German lore surrounding the Erlking, a story of a young vampiress who is dissatisfied with her role as queen of the night, as well as several other tales. It's a wonderful read.
Over the winter I read AS Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories, it's perhaps more distant from the classic tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm than Carter's collection. The stories of Black Book... are more grounded in the contemporary world, but explore how magic happens in them: how love can cast a spell, loss can make us change our shape, and how monsters can invade our life.
Fairy tales never were intended for children, that's why many of them are far more gruesome than the sanitized Disney films we watched as youngsters. They often explore danger and the deep instinctual fears of humans. That's why themes of lost children, cannibalism, and darkness pervade theses stories. Modern writers take up the cause of exploring these fears and exploring the moral complexities such stories can contain. What it means to be a hero or a heroine is an ever shifting framework.
What are your favorite fairy tales new or old?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The James Joyce Experience

Yes, yes, I know all the Bloomsday posts went out yesterday. I'm too non-linear for that.
In honor of Bloomsday I began reading Ulysses last night. It has sat on my shelf since I started college, but I've always been too timid to delve into it. I tested the waters with The Dubliners, reading it mostly out of order ("Araby" in one class, "The Dead" in another, then finally sitting down to read the rest of the collection on my own). I enjoyed it, some sections more than others. In one year I will be graduated with a BA in English (no singing please), so I decided to finally tackle this intimidating tome.
What has pleasantly surprised me is how funny the novel is. The characters are rich and lively, I can hear and see them quite clearly. The little observations of life and Joyce's tendency to make up and combine words make this quirky and avant garde.
That's not to say this is an easy read by any means. No. I've read the first section in the past twenty-four hours and am currently taking a breather. The end of the section crescendos into a stream of conscience marathon where we're half in the real world and half in the mind of Stephen. Images pile on images. Images of religion, nature, sensuality and meld together and follow the thoughts of a young writer.
James Joyce: literary pirate.
Joyce traveled and even lived chiefly in Paris for the last twenty years of his life, but all of his stories are firmly grounded in Dublin. He even recycles characters between his novels. I didn't realize it until I looked up some of the background information on this particular novel (thanks again Wikipedia) that Stephen from Ulysses is the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce is still acknowledged as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. It was Joyce that perfected the stream of consciousness style that broke new ground in the first half of the century. His novels are lush and have been at times banned for their realistic portrayal of everyday vulgarity. Besides all that, he looks way better in an eye patch than most people can even dream of.
So, I'll continue plowing my way through what may be Joyce's masterpiece. I'll be taking my time with this one. Last summer I spread out AS Byatt's The Children's Book over the course of my vacation, coming back to it through the weeks. This summer it will be Ulysses that is my long term reading commitment. Some books are meant to be read in one sitting or over a few days, some need to be slowly and gradually digested while you have little snacks of other books in between. Now you all have greater understanding of why my blog is called "Book Eater."
And, if you love Joyce, you might want to check out his letters to Nora which are available online. Prepare to see a new side of Joyce, one that might repulse you a little. Or a lot.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Great Book Swap 2012

I'm having trouble finding a few books I need for my Oxford reading list so I have a proposition for my lovely friends of the blogosphere. Let's swap! I have quite a few books (I'm sort of a book hoarder). Here are the books I'm looking for:
-Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
-An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
-Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
-Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

My only requirements are that the book be in decent condition and be in English!
You can let me know what kind of books you like and I'll see what I have. If I don't have a book you want I could always trade you some of my homemade soap instead.
Or, instead of a swap we can do a sort of "book chain." When I finish the book, I'll pass it on to the next reader who wants it.
So, any takers? You can leave a comment or email me at

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When a group of retirement age Brits find that their plans for the golden years have been interrupted by finances, they all end up in India at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. The hotel is run by Sonny, the youngest in his family, he's desperate to live to the success of his older brothers as well as convince his mother to let him marry his sweetheart, Sunaina. During their stay at the hotel, each of the retirees learns something about themselves and discovers whether or not India is really for them.

The cast of this film is fantastic, in fact it was the main draw of the film for me. Veteran actors and actresses Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, and Penelope Wilton lead the cast. Each have their own separate, but intersecting story lines. Overall, the film balances these stories fairly well, giving each actor time to shine. Maggie Smith was a definite highlight in her role as a former nanny who needs a hip replacement. Her journey overcoming her prejudices through a friendship with an untouchable woman who works at the hotel is compelling and funny. Unfortunately we never see much screen time between Smith and Dench. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionare manages to hold his own with a cast of stage and screen legends as the sometimes self-effacing Sonny.
It was a charming, affable British comedy. Part of the problem was that it was a little too wrapped up in its own humorous charm. The plots were largely predictable, coming to satisfying, but in no way challenging, endings. In a few instances they get very close to hitting on some meaty substance, but don't delve too deeply into it in spite of some promising themes. For a lazy summer afternoon, it's a perfect film to enjoy with your family. There are plenty of funny moments that stay classy for the most part. There's no extreme raunchiness or vulgarity, just the occasional naughty euphemism perhaps. It is witty and the cast has great chemistry with each other.
I would recommend it for those that love British comedies with lots of heart.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

On the eve of her ninth birthday Rose samples the homemade lemon cake her mother has made and she is overwhelmed. Within the pale yellow slice and chocolate icing, there lurks Rose's mother's sadness and longing. From then on, Rose's sensitivity to the feelings within food only grows. We follow her into her twenties and watch how her special ability can hurt. Rose explores her relationship with her family: her distant father with a phobia of hospitals, her emotional mother, and her sullen older brother.

This book had so much potential. I was primed to fall madly in love with it. Like the beautiful Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, it set itself in a realm of magical realism. Magical realism is grounded in the real world, but accepts the possibility of the fantastic in daily life- that the things we feel can manifest themselves tangibly.
The first few chapters were like a sweet little dance, drawing you in, flirting with you. The book had an engaging premise and Bender has a good grasp of language, but she failed to bring in the necessary third element: plot follow-through. The story felt half finished, unresolved. It fizzled out with an anti-climax. There were some other fantastic elements introduced besides Rose's ability, such as a plot line regarding her brother and his mysterious disappearances. Ultimately this fell flat and became disorienting. I thought the discovery of her grandfather's similar ability felt like a sloppy quick fix to her relationship with her father.
As the book drew to a close and a promising romantic plot was abandoned, Rose is finally pushed onto a path with some possibility, but we never have any resolution to her story. There is an attempt to embrace her special skill (which makes normal eating almost impossible to sustain), but the ending feels like an afterthought in many ways.
What's good about this book? The beautiful writing and descriptions. What's not so good? The lack of plot movement and unresolved ending. I would attempt the author again because I think she has a strong voice that I enjoy, and hopefully better develops her story in other books.