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Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Casual Critic — Phil Collins' Finally . . . The First Farewell Tour

After back-to-back columns on the work of Hemingway and a first-time author, I figured I'd contrast my review of a singer I've never previously heard with a review of my favorite musician — Phil Collins. It also gives me an opportunity to compare an event I saw live and the DVD version. Besides, Finally . . . The First Farewell Tour may be my last chance to heap praise on Phil.

Covering most of his stand-bys, Collins certainly doesn't disappoint his fans with this DVD. The opening "Drums, Drums & more Drums" was no doubt a bit self-indulgent, and though it went over well live I'm pretty sure only his most avid fans would enjoy it on DVD.

Collins does a stirring a cappella version of his remake of "True Colours" with his backup singers. He weaves fan favorites such as "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven," "Against All Odds," and "One More Night," with new offerings like "Can't Stop Loving You" and, one of my favorites from the Testify CD, "Come With Me."

Seeing Collins sing "I Missed Again" from his debut solo album, Face Value, was a treat. But, being that this was his last tour, I definitely wanted more from the early albums. I was especially surprised by the lack of early songs since in the Philadelphia concert (that I saw) he threw in several, including the Genesis classic "Misunderstanding."

I expected a bit more out of the DVD extras, especially since I've generally enjoyed the humor Collins sprinkles throughout interviews, concerts, etc. Hope of a retrospective on his career seemed reasonable, but a fairly typical interview and an attempt to give the entire crew a minute of face time within a not-too-funny skit highlighted the extras.

Of course, the best part about the DVD is not having to deal with the constant flow of non-fans, I'm-just-here-for-a-night-out idiots that jogged past me every five seconds at the Wachovia Center to buy more food they didn't need in the first place. While fans like me hope this isn't the last we hear from Phil, Finally . . . The First Farewell Tour is something his fans should make a point to watch.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Casual Critic — Maze's "Can't Stop the Love" and "We Are One"

It never really hit me just how personal music can be until I attempted to review Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. My musical tastes are admittedly pedestrian — Genesis is about as far off the play lists of '80s and '90s stations that live on Madonna, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and the like as my musical tastes get. Yet, I've been surprised at times to like albums by Will Smith, Eminem, and Crazy Town.

I remember channel surfing once and landing on a Simply Red concert — a band I'd never paid much attention to — and adding their "Greatest Hits" to my music library. It turned out the album was far from new, but it was new to me, and I played it as often as any new album I like. Yet, selecting new music to buy often feels like a blind tastes test. One hit song on the radio is usually all you get as a sampling, unless you borrow an album off a friend.


Attempting to actually review a CD seems to present a whole host of other problems. How do you review a R&B CD if R&B isn't you "thing?" Yet, that question never seems to come up when we offer our opinion on a book or movie. Besides, I figured my effort to write a review once a week would go much better if I included music on occasion, so I gave Maze a shot.


The better of the two albums I had the chance to review from Maze was "Can't Stop the Love." The first song, "Back in Stride," was the best of the bunch, offering more rhythm and livelier music. There's just something in Beverly's voice that I don't like in the slower songs, which is avoided here. The title track and "Too Many Games" also stood out for me as a step above the rest.


Maze's "We are One" started out strong with "Love is the Key." It moves a little bit, wakes you up, and doesn't over do what seemed to feel like Cool 'n' the Gang leanings, which nobody admits to ever having liked. Seven smooth songs followed, none distinguishing itself from the other.


So, though I wouldn't add these to my collection, I'm guessing they're worth a listen for R&B fans.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Casual Critic — Micheal Robotham's Suspect

I read Micheal Robotham's Suspect because, as a wannabee novelist, I find it interesting to read the first novel an author publishes. I also thought reviewing it after Hemingway would be a unique contrast. However, reading it left me with something else—a curiousity about what exactly readers want from a novel.

Robotham's debut is dubbed as a psychological, mystery thriller. Joe O'Loughlin, a psychologist recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, stumbles—no pun intended—into a murder investigation. He not only quickly realizes he has a past with the murder victim, O'Loughlin begins to suspect a current patient of his as the murderer. The police, instead, begin focusing on O'Loughlin.

Without giving anything away, I began wondering why Robotham's story was published while so many others are not. I'm not ripping the story. There's a few twists that kept me reading, and they were actually better than the twists some novels offer merely to make the movie rights more appealing. But, ultimately, there wasn't anything in the resolution that readers couldn't have guessed 150 pages into the book-except for a twist that almost comes out of nowhere. More to the point, and the reason I began wondering what readers want from a novel, two major elements of the novel just seem to go away at the end.

For example, the main character is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which seemed like a throw-in detail to add suspense at times. He is also guilty of an infidelity, a fact that often drives the story forward. Yet, these two potentially life-altering events are rather easily dispensed with once the action of the novel is resolved. There's no basic change in the character of O'Loughlin.

The whole story is told from O'Loughlin's point of view, which robs some of the novel's suspense since we never have a real chance to doubt him. We even get his side of the infidelity, so he never really looks like a jerk. So, it seemed like character development was all that was left, but we never get that.

The conclusion of many popular novels can be summed up as "everything turns out ok." It seems to be just a bunch of extraordinary incidents, often created by misunderstandings or bad timing, that ultimately get smoothed over and allow the characters we like to return to life as they knew it.

So, are we reading just for the fun of the twists and turns, or for something more that's not always there? I tend to lean toward the latter, therefore, suggest reading Suspect while looking for something better.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises

Certainly I wouldn’t pretend even for a minute to be able to offer any sort of new insight into Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. However, this is exactly the type of book I thought of when I created The Casual Critic.

Though I started hearing folks question Hemingway’s longevity in being considered a literary great almost 10 years ago, he’s still a writer that you’re simply not allowed to dismiss without most people thinking you’re an ass. I’m not suggesting Hemingway should be dismissed. Instead I’m more interested in the idea of an author reaching the status that no longer allows him to be questioned without genuflecting.

I enjoyed re-reading The Sun Also Rises, partly because it's one of the first times I've re-read a book from college. I wasn't concerned with the possible literary significance of every place I hadn't heard of or phrase in French or Spanish that I didn't know and would need to understand for a test that held the fate of my grade—and thus life itself—in the balance. (I did quite well in college, so no, it's not that I just didn't get such things.) I could just read the damn book.

The writing was certainly classic Hemingway — totally unadorned—which I basically enjoy. There were some passages that don't add much to the novel, which reminded me of my feeling as I read The Old Man and the Sea — if not written by Hemingway, and instead an unknown, it would had been considered poor writing. Luckily, unlike The Old Man and the Sea, these characters gradually took on a realness that kept you reading. The love story, if you can call it that, between Brett Ashley, the only woman among the main characters, and three of the main male characters took a little too long to emerge as the main thread of the story. I'd say "plot," but that just doesn't seem to fit. These characters just sort of mosey through a week of vacation at the Spanish fiesta that includes the historic running of the bulls. This is about the point in a college essay I'd launch into a soliloquy about how the running of the bulls and the bullfights were a metaphor for those in love with Brett. They were, and it works ok, but you have to want it and like a lot of Hemingway, it's never explored too much.

The Ecclesiastes quote found (at least in my edition) prior to the novel speaks to the idea that the Earth goes 'round regardless of what we mere mortals do. Setting the tone for reading the book, it suggests that the story may very well be meant as a critique on what people give importance to. The lack of a conclusion, or at least the lack of change in any of the characters, supports this.

Overall, even if it wasn't a classic, The Sun Also Rises is worth reading.

Thursday, March 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Interview with . . . Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister.

Royal Steele Books recently had the chance to conduct our first "E-mail Interview" with Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister. It's a format we hope to use regularly, allowing authors the convenience of e-mail and the chance to respond by doing what they do best—write! (Hopefully, we'll find other authors as agreeable as Simon!) We hope you find it an interesting way to hear from authors.

The author of four books, Simon is best known for her most recent book, the acclaimed memoir Riding the Bus.

Royal Steele Books: You mention that the germ of the book was an article you wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer at the suggestion of your editor. Not
having read the article, I think it's safe to assume the book was more personal. Being that Riding the Bus was so personal, was there any trepidation for
you in it?

Rachel Simon: The original article actually opens Riding the Bus, though in a revised form. It just seemed to be a clean, efficient way to introduce the reader to the material and the whole story. The version in the paper was shorter and a little less personal, and it also had an ending with more closure (a bad idea for a piece that opens a book, but a good idea for a newspaper piece).

I didn't feel any hesitation about writing something so personal, either for the paper or the book, though perhaps I should have. I think initially, before I'd written a single word, I expected to present a picture of how I was supposed to feel, rather than how I really DO feel, and thus I was reassured that readers would be able to handle whatever I wrote. After all, if you're upholding the cliche of the saintly family member, then all's well, right? Of course, as soon as I started writing, things got a lot more complicated. I pressed on, but I doubted myself and the book many times during the 3-1/2 years it took to write the whole thing. Once, after a fight with Beth, I even considered returning it to the publisher.
Fortunately, a friend intervened and said, "So you feel conflict with your sister. Don't you think that will make for a better story anyway? And one that people will relate to a lot more?" So I kept going. But it was a hard moment.

RSBooks: What sort of reactions have you received from readers, family, colleagues, etc.?

Simon: Almost universal praise from readers. It's been amazing. When I wrote the book, I thought about readers of literary memoirs. I didn't think about so many of the people who came to feel that the book spoke directly to their most important concerns. These include other siblings of people with special needs, disability advocates, professionals in the field, bus drivers and their bosses, people of a more spiritual nature, and even very young people. I never thought I was writing something that would appeal to teenagers, but I often get letters from folks who are just entering adolescence. I treasure every letter, and continue to be moved every time.

Colleagues? I've kept a very low profile about the success of Bus at Bryn Mawr College, where I teach. Still, people often bring it up, and the Admissions Department has given it as an award to academically gifted high school juniors. Incredibly, the airing of the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of the book will occur on May 1, which is the date of the most delightful Bryn Mawr tradition, May Day.

As for family, each person has had a slightly different reaction. Beth, not surprisingly, was thrilled, to the point where she set up a book signing for us in the drivers' room of the bus company. Other family members have been very supportive, each in his or her own way.

RSBooks: Having my own experiences with family and disability, it was actually very emotional reading about some of your fears as Beth's sibling. Was there any sort of reaction from Beth in this regard? What about other people with disabilities who may face similar experiences?

Simon: Beth has said only positive things about the book. I think she just feels really honored to have been the subject of the book— and she's also relieved, as am I, that we've worked our relationship out. I did ask her in advance if it was okay if I included certain sections, such as the one about her emerging sexuality, so I think she was prepared in some ways. She hasn't indicated any particular reaction to the sections about my own difficult feelings, so I'm not sure how they struck her. My guess is that if anything surprised her, she discussed it with Jessie and the drivers, and worked it out on her own. Or else she skipped those parts. I don't know, and if she wants to discuss it, she'll let me know.

RSBooks: If at all, how was your writing process for this book different from writing your other works?

Simon: I was working several jobs at the same time, so it was harder to work in the hours. This is part of why I had to write short chapters. I also used a lot of tape recordings, so that was different, since before this I mostly wrote fiction. And I did some supplemental interviews, which, again, I hadn't done in fiction.

Another difference, actually, was that I'd already written another memoir, which I'd never published. It focused on the terrible stuff with my mother, and I spent eight years writing and rewriting it, only to discover that I simply couldn't make it work. So when I hit those chapters in Bus, my writing process was greatly simplified. I don't mean that I did a cut-and-paste job, because I very much did not. But I'd already worked through the emotions behind everything, and had a sense of how to present my mother sympathetically (even though in the failed book I had not figured that out). In addition, I was easily able to zero in on the exact images and moments I needed, and discard all the rest, since I knew the futility of holding onto it all. For instance, the chapter where we move out of my mother's house is now about 2 pages long. In the original memoir, it was 45 pages—and that particular image, of Max and me moving my trunk down the stairs, didn't even appear.

RSBooks: As you mention, the drivers that become a large part of Beth's social life seem almost too good to be true. How do you explain the relationships they developed with your sister?

Simon: Well, believe me, it's true. In fact, just today I went to the hospital to visit one of these drivers with whom I'm now close. He's sick, and Beth is worried, and since he's in a hospital closer to me than to her, I went to see him. Anyway, how do I explain this? For starters, I think bus drivers are as often misunderstood and underestimated as people with disabilities. The cliche is either that they're gruff guys with no interest in people at all, or that they're indistinct, robotic non-entities who do nothing but DRIVE. But in fact the majority of bus drivers, I've found, are very interesting, thoughtful, colorful character who take great pride in having people-oriented personalities. As one driver said to me, "If you don't care about people, and want to give them their dignity, you might as well drive a truck." Many of them see driving bus (as they put it) to be a very important thing to do, and they take it seriously. I realize not all drivers are like this, but I've traveled the country for a few years now, speaking to bus drivers (among others), and I've been deeply impressed by the people I've met. Many are also quite spiritual people, and that seems to be connected to their interest in giving to others. So Beth didn't find people who don't exist. She just found people already there. Many bus riders have found the same. And if they haven't, the bosses at the bus company need to rethink who they hire and how they set their rules. A good manager will hire people FOR their people skills. As one manager said to me, "I don't hire my drivers. I adopt them."

RSBooks: Do you consider yourself an advocate for people with disabilities?

Simon: I aspire to be one. As a sibling, I can't say I've had the full experience of being a person with a disability. But I certainly know a ton more than the average person who's allowed himself to remain unaware and isolated. My goal is to keep learning as much as I can about the lives and dreams of people with disabilities, and then to use everything I've got to help make society get out of the dark ages. It grieves me terribly that anyone is ever discriminated against, but people with disabilities have been treated so horribly by society throughout human history that most people would be shocked and appalled if they really knew the truth. I also believe that, with the proper education, they can change their attitudes toward people with disabilities, and we might finally get rid of the highly oppressive mindsets of paternalism, pity, and better-dead-than-disabled. In other words, that we might finally get out of the dark ages. I'm so glad we finally have the [Americans with Disabilities Act], and will do everything I can to keep it intact.

I also aspire to be an advocate for public transportation, which, after all, is crucial for creating an independent life. This is true for us all, but even more so for individuals like Beth, who can't drive.

RSBooks:The movie version of Riding the Bus starring Rosie O'Donnell is set to air on CBS May 1, 2005. If you've seen it, are you pleased with the final cut?

Simon: I have yet to see it, so I can't say. But I'm sure I'll enjoy watching it, if I can get over the weirdness of seeing famous people looking like us. Fortunately, the Rachel character is quite different from me, and in some ways the Beth character is, too, so that might help me see it without things getting too surreal.

RSBooks: I just have to ask . . . do you ever ride the buses (since your year was up) with Beth?

Simon: On occasion, actually. Usually this amounts to her urgent need to have me meet new drivers, and to do so in the optimum setting. But I'll ride only an hour or two at a time. Interestingly, some of my family members have ridden now, too.

RSBooks: Finally, what can readers look forward to from Rachel Simon in the near future?

Simon: I'm working away! Not sure what will emerge, or even if it will be fiction or nonfiction, but I'll let you know when it does.

RSBooks: THANK YOU so much for being Royal Steele's first author interview.

Simon: My pleasure.

(See the review! of Simon's book. And, check out the film . . .

The Casual Critic — Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with My Sister

If it wasn't a true story, Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with My Sister may have seemed just a touch over the top. Instead, this true story of an older sister discovering her younger sister with mental retardation, which reads as well as any good novel, will stir true emotions.

A self-described hyper-busy person — teaching college courses, writing commentary for The Philadelphia Inquirer, relentlessly pursuing a writing career, and more-Rachel has grown apart from Beth, who is only 11 months younger. A woman with mental retardation, Beth has created a life for herself centered around riding city buses morning to night, six days a week, which both mystifies and distresses her family. When she invites Rachel to ride along for a year, the older sister finds herself challenged in ways she never imagined.

I admit, having heard about this book only by coincidence, I was more than a little reluctant to read it. The premise seemed destined to produce the type of awe-shucks story that, as a person involved with disability community, makes my stomach turn. Quite simply, it was nothing of the sort.

Simon artfully weaves the story of their family—an amazing story in itself — with the year in which she periodically rides the buses with her sister. She deals honestly with the fears and frustration that Beth's disability and strong-willed nature cause the family. Simon even admits to the "dark voice" that is angry at many of the choices Beth has made, and struggles to learn the difference between Beth's disability and Beth's personality.

In her year on the buses, Rachel discovers a world of prejudice, social services, and, most unbelievably, bus drivers that her sister lives in every day. The relationship between Beth and many of the bus drivers is almost too good to believe, as Rachel admits, but is written honestly enough to include the real-life difficulties and pain they cause Beth at times.

I'm tempted to reach for the top of The Casual Critic Scale by saying you can't ask for more, but will hold back and nudge it to an absolute make a point to read it.

(See our interview with Rachel Simon.)