Jamey Johnson: Rekindling Country Music

Grammy nominee, Jamey Johnson, is the kind of country singer that skeptical country music fans have been waiting a long time for. Unlike most popular country stars, like Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, or Brad Paisley, where most of the songs sound like straight-ahead pop tunes with some pedal steel guitar and twangy vocals thrown in, Johnson is all substance over style. He is a songwriter first and wrote hits for other country musicians before recording under his own name.

Cut from the cloth of honkey-tonkers like George Jones and Alan Jackson, Jamey Johnson breathes his Montgomery, Alabama heritage and bourbon-soaked baritone into his narrative songs, though he can write the honest-as-bones Hank Williams style ballad just as well. Which is why he was able to successfully release 2010’s double-disc album, The Guitar Song, with the first disc titled “The Black Album” and the second “The White Album”. Black is laced with the darker themes of rejection and loss, while White highlights the more optimistic moments in life.

The Guitar Song comes two years after Johnson’s superb 2008 record, The Lonesome Song, with the latest album building strongly on the gritty lens and focused musicianship that sets him far above his peers.

National Book Critics Circle Awards Announced

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Winners of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards were recently announced.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won for fiction. In nonlinear fashion, each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view, so perhaps it can be viewed as an overlapping set of short stories, rather than chapters. Egan pushes fiction’s boundaries and offers a fresh reading experience. In short, Goon Squad is a story of time, life, relationships, aging, technology, and an evolving rock music scene.

Other notable NBCCA winners include:

General Nonfiction: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Biography: How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

Autobiography: Half a Life, by Darin Strauss.

Sound of Music vs. West Side Story

In the early 1960s, Robert Wise directed two of the most popular and beloved musicals ever to dance across the big screen. In 1961, he and choreographer Jerome Robbins dramatized the Bernstein and Sondheim musical, West Side Story. Wise followed this ten-Oscar-winning smash with the historical von Trapp family saga, The Sound of Music, in 1965. These two films tower among the best in the genre some fifty years later, as the late 1960s and beyond trended toward cinema verite styling and a marked dropoff of the sentimentality of these films.

So which is the better Robert Wise directed musical film: West Side Story or Sound of Music?

If you're in the West Side Story camp, you have the timeless Romeo and Juliet tale, elevated by some of the most brilliantly directed and choreographed dance/fight scenes in film history. But if you're in Sound of Music's corner, you have the filmed-on-location, stunning Austrian backdrop, with enormously talented Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as leads, and songs like My Favorite Things, whose melody shifts like a sea change amidst the song's parade of images. If anybody asks, I'm voting for the latter.

Revisit your favorite or enjoy either movie for the first time by checking the AADL catalog for holdings at your local library.

Two Pulitzer Prize winners expected at Storymakers Dinner May 12

This year's Storymakers Dinner is coming up May 12 at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Special guest will be acclaimed novelist Richard Ford, editor of "Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work," scheduled to come out in April. Ford's Independence Day was the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. And heads up for another Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jeffrey Eugenides, who also is expected to be at the Storymakers Dinner. The event supports 826 Michigan, a non-profit that helps students improve their writing skills.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #246

Keigo Higashino won Japan's Naoki Prize for Best Novel with The Devotion of Suspect X* * *, a stunning thriller about miscarried human devotion.

This is the first major English publication of Japan's best-loved and bestselling crime novelist, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander.

Young Yasuko is caught red-handed over the dead body of her abusive ex-husband, luckily by her neighbor, a middle-aged high school mathematics teacher named Shigami who quickly offers to help, not only to dispose of the body but to construct an elaborate alibi for her.

When Detective Kusanagi draws the case, he suspects Yasuko though he is unable to find any obvious holes in her alibi. So Kusanagi enlists the help of Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a brilliant physicist, who also happens to be a former classmates of Ishigami. What ensues is a high level battle of wits, as Ishigami tries to protect Yasuko by outmaneuvering and outthinking Yukawa, who faces his most clever and determined opponent yet.

Readers of atmospheric and psychological thriller should also like David Peace's WWII-era Tokyo Year Zero (2007), a darkly lyrical and original crime novel featuring Detective Minami of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Or noir mysteries by Natsuo Kirino, at the fringe of contemporary Tokyo society.

Readers interested in character-driven mysteries set in Asia should try James Church's Inspector O series, set in a politically-charged modern Korea.

* * * = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #244

Winner of the 2008 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, Hannah Pittard's debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way * begins with the mysterious disappearance of 16-year old Nora Lindell from the unnamed mid-Atlantic town, all the more eerie as it was Halloween.

Told from the first-person plural point of view of the boys who still long for her and the sister she left behind, the mystery grows kaleidoscopically as years go by, fueled by rumors, divergent suspicions, and tantalizing what-ifs.

Capturing teenage lust, friendship, reverence, and regret, Hannah Pittard's beautifully crafted novel tracks the the boys as they "sleepwalk into an adulthood of jobs, marriages, families, homes, and daughters of their own, all the while pining for a girl–and a life–that no longer exists, except in the imagination."

This suspenseful and melancholy take on what it is like for those left behind will appeal to those who liked Please Don't Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos, and What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and "The Guardian" First Book Award.

The author will be reading and signing at Nicola's Books, Wednesday, March 9 @ 7 pm. (Details). Don't be late for the party.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts # 237

Readers familiar with "Ava Wrestles the Alligators", the opening story in Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) will be pleased to find Ava front and center in Swamplandia!* * *, - her "spectacularly crafted" first novel due to hit the market next week.

Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Florida Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, Swamplandia! and all its quirky inhabitants are unmoored.

Some take off for parts unknown, one falls in love with an ancient ghost. To set things right, 13 year-old Ava embarks on an odyssey to the Underworld that is at once spellbinding and terrifying.

"Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell's archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air."

"Quirky, outlandish fiction", a phantasmagorical tale of teens left on their own. "To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness." ~Kirkus Reviews

Selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and the New Yorker's 20 under 40, Karen Russell is an irrepressible new voice in contemporary fiction. You don't want to miss this.

* * * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #236

Kathleen Winter's debut novel Annabel, a finalist for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Award is a luminous and deeply affection portrait of growing up with a secret few would understand, which one family is desperate to hide.

In 1968, into the devastating, spare atmosphere of the remote coastal town of Labrador, Canada, an intersex child is born. Three people hold fast to the secret - the baby's parents, and a trusted midwife/friend, Thomasina. While the father makes the difficult decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, the mother continues to quietly nurture the boy’s female side. And as Wayne grows into adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting society of his father, his shadow-self, a girl he thinks of as “Annabel,” is never entirely extinguished and only comes to light after a medical emergency.

"Kathleen Winter has crafted a literary gem about the urge to unveil mysterious truth in a culture that shuns contradiction, and the body’s insistence on coming home. A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty...".

Since Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (2002), I cannot think of another novel that treats the subject of androgyne with such insight, sensitivity and humanity. Fearless, moving, and absolutely compelling.

Josh Cox Breaks American 50k Road Record

A couple of Sundays ago, 35 year old American distance runner, Josh Cox, won P.F. Chang's Rock n Roll Arizona Marathon with a blistering, Olympic Trial qualifying time of 2:17:48. But that's not all. After crossing the finish line, Cox kept running in the 50k race (31.07 miles) and not only won that but set a new American record for the 50k road distance, while coming in just 7 seconds shy of the world record. His marathon pace was a crushing 5:15 minutes per mile, while his 50k pace was only one second per mile slower at 5:16 m/m. Unbelievable. As a litmus test for the age group athlete, the current Boston Marathon qualifying time for men under 35 is 3:10:59, or 7:16 m/m. Josh Cox was running 2 minutes per mile faster than that.

If you're inspired to take a crack at a 5k or an ultramarathon or something in between, the AADL has a wide range of run training resources for both the beginner looking to cross the finish line for the first time and the veteran aiming for a new personal record.

Robert Plant Playing Hill Auditorium on Friday, January 21

In the three decades since Led Zeppelin's breakup, singer Robert Plant has found success where many formerly-iconic band members have failed. Namely, he has been recording music as a solo artist that both critics and audiences actually want to hear.

Lou Reed forged similar success in the 1970s, with the popularity of his early solo records largely hinging on the inclusion of songs he wrote with the Velvet Underground. Plant, however, has been taking a different approach by re-imagining songs written by other musicians, many of whom, like the Everly Brothers and Gene Clark, peaked in popularity before Led Zeppelin was a household name.

Plant's 2007 duet album, Raising Sand, with bluegrass superstar, Allison Krauss, won five Grammys -- including Album of the Year -- and sold well over one million units, which in today's market is outstanding. Much like Gram Parsons' collaboration with Emmylou Harris on G.P., Krauss and Plant strike an uncanny balance between the gritty and the seamless in their voices to create a blend as cool as a DQ Blizzard.

Robert Plant plays the Hill Auditorium this Friday, January 21 behind his latest release, Band of Joy, which is also up for Grammy Awards and has received similar accolades for his work with the indelible Patty Griffin.

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