In James Sturm's "America: God, Gold and Golems," the United States is portrayed in a trilogy of tales that draw from its excesses in fervor, greed and bigotry through a lens of acceptability.
"The Revival" tells of a Kentucky revival meeting in 1801, where true believers gather to create an atmosphere more like a refugee camp than anything else. Joseph and Sarah are traveling to meet healer Elijah Young, on whom they've placed desperate faith to solve their problems. What Sturm understands is that as destructive as the old-time religious fire could be, it was also the fuel of change somehow in their reckless search for a brush with a miracle, Joseph and Sarah find the real meaning of spiritual rebirth in context of a new country to be created.
In "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight," a mine in 1886 Idaho becomes the center point of hate and greed. Built on the ashes of a lynching of Chinese miners, Soloman's Gulch is the place where misguided mine owner Ned Weeks is fixated on a payload of treasure and a workers' revolt peppers the turgid camp dramas that will overtake his greedy quest.
"The Golem's Mighty Swing" introduces the Stars of David, a traveling, all-Jewish baseball team that goes from town to town playing local clubs in exhibition games and struggling for to live. It's a tale of immigrants walking that tightrope to assimilate while still retaining some of their culture. What ends up happening too often is that the assimilation compromises their beliefs team leader Noah Strauss points out in the beginning that they play on the Sabbath and that's just the way it has to be in America.
There are larger challenges to fitting in, however most notably a hovering bigotry that seems to be constantly swooping down for the kill. There are also the more subtle ones, such as the opportunity to sell out their culture. When a promoter offers them the chance for big money by having one team member dress up as the creature of Jewish legend, the Golem, the team at first turns it down, but then changes their mind when they find themselves stranded in a small town. With the introduction of the Golem to the team, though, the crowds get rowdier and more hateful.
Sturm has a great talent for emotionally honest stories told through straightforward means his no-nonsense style, with its clean black lines and olive washes, portray the faces and architecture of times gone by with a simplicity that doubles as power.
Sturm's vision of America is one of crowds where individuals must duck in and out according to the movement of the overwhelming throngs. Decisions are made by the mob, though change often happens despite the stifling movement meant to stomp progress dead in its tracks. Sturm also presents America as a country of outsiders bumping up against other outsiders and the frictions from those interactions. In this way, the country is a chemical reaction, but once the initial explosion passes, more subtle changes take place, and this understanding of the delicacy past the bombast is at the center Sturm's mastery.
"Red: The Next Generation of American Writers Teenage Girls On What Fires Up Their Lives Today" (Hudson Street Press)
It is a popular refrain of the national media to fret over the future of American communication as evidenced through its young. A century ago, Dixieland was certain to destroy serious musicianship in a matter of a generation e-mail and blogging cited as similar culprits in the war against writing. How will novels and journalism ever survive such a descent into trite self-indulgence?
In conceiving and compiling "Red," editor Amy Goldwasser worked from a supposition so opposite the common wisdom these days. It is Goldwasser's belief that because of e-mail and blogging, this has become the biggest, most dynamic generation of writers in American history. Kids today write all the time add texting and instant messaging and posting to MySpace to the mix and it's undeniable that the majority of their communication these days is in written form.
"Red" gives a bunch of teenage girls the chance to take their everyday routine to the next level all the contributors rise to the occasion, telling their stories with candor and with. Many surpass your expectations and reveal that out there in the blogs lurk the strong writers of tomorrow, currently finding their voices in the cyber world.
Let's face it, most people who make their careers as a writer started out as a younger person plying their talent in less formal venues journals, letters to friends, zines. The difference between then and now is that these kids aren't keeping things locked up in their desk drawers, they are allowing some portion of the world to view their means of expression and that is a great thing.
Being a book of short works by teenage girls, there are plenty of the recurring themes that you would expect ruminations on body image and the desire for boys are chief among them. The book also plays into the cliché of teenagers being self-centered yeah, almost all the pieces are about the girls themselves. In some of those works, however, there are remarkable observational passages in others, the writers show the sort of skill in understanding the other people they're writing about that will be required in fiction. It's a fascinating process to watch you learn how to get into the mind of other people by practicing on yourself and that's exactly what the girls are doing. It's riveting to watch creative people in the process of formulating their voice as well as the required writer's empathy.
Apart from the technical side, the book also offers something special to the same demographic who wrote it, as well as their parents. I can't imagine that there is any better eye-opener that you aren't alone in this world than 58 essays by your peers laying out intimate details of their lives and I can't imagine a better tool for an adult who feels distanced from the next generation and wants to understand.
Power can come from some very unexpected places 17-year old Samantha Lewin stands out with her memoir "Finding Myself in Utah," which recounts a misstep that sends this goth girl to a rehabilitation program for teens but the topics don't have to be heavy to draw attention. Whether it's a girl swearing she's different from all the other Johnny Depp fans, recounting the horrors of a job in a pizza place, or admitting to lies she has told a troubled friend to help her feel better, everyone in this book has some small slice of their own self to offer up with dignity and grace.
Some of the girls in "Red" will be happy they took part, but never pursue writing in any professional way. Some will casually write, but have other things they do with their life. Still others will infuse writing with whatever path and career their lives take. And then there are those who will live to write. They all have something to say and we all gain from them saying it not the least of which is the knowledge that writers will not be extinct anytime soon.
The Cuban Cowboys - Cuban Candles (Muy Nice Music)
On his band's debut album, head Cuban Cowboy Jorge Navarro warns "This record is an album. It tells the story of my family's exile. Expect some weirdness."
The band delivers a rock and roll/Latin music hybrid with guitar work that delivers a surf sound while skimming through a Cuban wave and Navarro's over the top delivery tender emotion accentuated by squelching and snarling.
Built around the legend of Navarro's father a womanizing sea captain from whom Navarro was estranged most his life the height of Latin manhood casts a shadow on each track, from "Cuban Candles" with its tough tale and insistent asides about the whiskey-drenched life of a man to "El Capitan," a rockin' paean to Navarro's father that refuses to soft peddle the reality.
Navarro has a Randy Newman-like approach to his portrayal of the Latin male, and his lyrics weave a first person account of machismo and regret. In Navarro's musical world, the Latin male is a creature of instinct that takes cues from his hormones but regrets the burden he must bear in this torture of evolution in regard to wife, sister, children, strangers. He hurts even as he hurts those around him.
"I tell you that language is a mask, the heart, it too disguises its good intentions," Navarro sings in Spanish on "Better Off." This captures the psychology of the character Navarro portrays it's not about a person being right or wrong, it's about a style of manhood that does what it must because that's the way it is. It's an honest statement that leads Navarro to add, "It's worth repeating: You'll make mistakes." This is the sad advice passed on from one Latin male to another, from father to son.
The Cuban Cowboys have pulled off an evocative debut album, capturing the aural depth of its subject matter as well as the lyrical. If you were going to be a wounded tough guy, this would certainly be the soundtrack to your life. By infusing traditional Latin sounds with rock Americana as well as some Spaghetti western tinges the band has created something that captivates beyond the surface that catches your ear initially.
Visit them online at www.cuban cowboys.com.