Friday, June 11, 2021

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!


Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear came out late last year and was a book I did not want to put down. For avid “Jeopardy!” fans like me, this was a speedy read. McNear had access to sit in on auditions and see how the show narrowed down its prospective contestants to find those select few who were TV-calibre. She interviewed the key people working behind the scenes such as the executive producer and contestant coordinator as well as the most familiar face of “Jeopardy!”, host Alex Trebek. In addition to the production staff, the author interviewed many players who had appeared on the show over the past 36 years during the Trebek era and I made notes to check them out on-line. While I may have forgotten some of their names, I didn’t forget their faces or famous appearances.

Some of my friends have appeared on the show and even been in the Tournament of Champions and other special tournaments. Since I have insider knowledge by proxy, many of my questions about the inner workings of the show had long ago been answered. Nevertheless there were some rules I was not aware of, such as wagers of $69 or $666 are prohibited. A tournament player told me that prior to the Final Jeopardy! round, players are given all the time they need in order to calculate their final wagers. In the words of my friend Leslie, “your math skills go out the window” when you’re under time pressure, so the producers do not rush the players’ calculations. What I did not know is that the same kind of time allowance is given for Daily Doubles:

“Contrary to how it appears on TV, contestants are given as long as they want to calculate their Daily Double wagers. But while players theoretically have limitless time to add up the remaining money on the board and riddle out how close their opponents might get–three-time contestant Alan Lin is known for elaborate midair counts as he sorts through his options on his fingers–they still contend with the host, who likes to keep things snappy.”

McNear covered the history of the second incarnation of the game with Trebek as host and included chapter topics such as betting strategy, knowledge acquisition, clue selection, as well as the lighter side of the game such as its influence on popular culture. She listed some of the show’s records, both remarkable as well as infamous. Every time I read more of the book I checked on-line to find clips of some of those historical moments.

When McNear was writing the book, Harry Friedman had just announced his retirement after 21 years as executive producer, and Trebek was battling pancreatic cancer. We have since lost Alex Trebek and have as new executive producer Mike Richards (who has also served as guest host, and is my personal favourite among the guest hosts so far). The inevitable question is whether a new host and EP will change “Jeopardy!”. I believe that the show will continue to be the massive success it has been for close to four decades.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir


All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine, the bass player of the Go-Go’s, was published last year. It follows the first Go-Go’s memoir, Lips Unsealed by Belinda Carlisle, which came out eleven years ago, and it was inevitable that I would make comparisons between the two. One contrast that I found striking is how well the Valentine memoir was written. I had no suspicion that it could have been transcribed from interviews and it thus read like a written book. Within the memoir Valentine revealed she had an English degree and is a songwriter after all so she is perfectly capable of writing her own memoir. I did not see any additional author credit so it could very well be that the genuine Valentine herself penned it. She had kept her old journals and calendars so had instant cues to trigger memories. In regards to Lips Unsealed, however, I got the impression that Carlisle’s book was more of a series of transcribed interviews. The only other comparison I wish to make about the two memoirs is that during the Go-Go’s heyday in the early eighties, the five band members were certainly proverbial rock ‘n’ roll party girls who liked to drink and do drugs. Not all of them got deep into drugs, mind, as Jane Wiedlin and Gina Schock never became addicts as Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey and Valentine herself were. Yet both Valentine and Carlisle spent the latter parts of their memoirs documenting their quests towards sobriety.

Valentine wrote a rapid read, which as a fan I naturally lapped up, but seeing that the book was comprised of 44 chapters over 265 pages, it meant that the reader was never far from a new development in her life. In spite of their brevity, the chapters were loaded with reminiscences which were not tainted by the perspective of today–often a flaw in memoirs. By Valentine’s own admission, she retained all band records (“I keep everything!”) so when she wrote about getting high as a 22-year-old, it read like the words of a young woman, and not of the 62-year-old she is now.

We relive the moment when Valentine had her first guitar lesson at her alternative (dare I say “hippie”) school:

“I doubt that I knew my hands on that guitar would forever shape my life. But while I strummed those songs, the diaphanous thread that tugs us down any given path fastened to me like a strand of spider’s silk. It would stay intact and attached forever, with music on the other end pulling me forward.”

Valentine was the last of the Go-Go’s to join the band–in the ensemble that made them world-famous–and described the meeting with Caffey in the washroom of the Whisky a Go Go on Christmas night, 1980, when she asked Valentine to play bass for them for eight upcoming Go-Go’s shows. I learned more of the rough days of early Go-Go’s history from Valentine’s book, yet I acknowledge that Carlisle had more to say before Valentine had even joined the band.

At first, critics looked at the Go-Go’s as a novelty band of cute chicks, and ignored that they played their instruments, wrote all their material, and had hundreds of gigs behind them. Their punk roots gave them an edge that kept them from being branded pure pop, yet it was still hard for them to snag a record deal. As women in such a male-dominated industry, they experienced the sting of sexism, yet, as Valentine would say repeatedly throughout her memoir, never from their fellow male musicians. The men whom she gigged with or otherwise encountered in showbiz always showed her respect as a musician. It was always the industry types such as record executives, radio people and interviewers who acted like sexists. This was reflected in the questions they asked:

“Reporters never asked our opinions on anything of substance. There were no conversations about sexism or feminism. The most common question remained ‘What’s it like to be in an all-girl band?'”

Being part of the Go-Go’s enabled her to meet many of her rock heroes, including Keith Richards. I especially liked Valentine’s use of simile in her account of meeting him:

“I couldn’t take my eyes off Keith, watching how he moved and played. His signature rhythms were like algebra, the reduced essence of each song.”

I consider myself a Go-Go’s fan and own some of their albums and follow the band’s as well as each member’s career, yet I don’t follow the gossip. Valentine wrote about the behind-the-scenes panic that ensued after Wiedlin announced her departure from the band, and the Go-Go’s urgent need to find a replacement. She took us along on the recruitment project that eventually hired Paula Jean Brown as the newest Go-Go. Unfortunately Brown had only two Rock in Rio shows under her belt before the band broke up in 1985.

Valentine did not shy away from the scandals or the low points and wrote openly and maturely about what drove the band members apart and what led them back together again. On more than one occasion she dropped hints of resentment towards the Bangles, who followed the Go-Go’s superstardom while her own group of “big sisters” collapsed. Her alcoholism impeded her attempts to establish herself after the band broke up, and a phone call to sober Caffey saved her life with her introduction to AA.

The memoir ends formally with the band reuniting in 1990 but she summed up the thirty years that followed in a two-page epilogue. Truth be told, I thought the Go-Go’s would never perform again in their famous lineup of five when I heard that Valentine had been fired from the band in 2012. In All I Ever Wanted, Valentine poured her heart out confessing how much she felt most comfortable being part of a band. And in order to remain part of the Go-Go’s, both Valentine and her fellow band members resolved to work things out. Now sober and reunited with her beloved band, Kathy’s happiness bleeds between the lines.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles by Kenneth Womack was published in 2019, on the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ final recorded album. Womack interviewed people who were at EMI Recording Studios where Abbey Road was recorded and gave a song-by-song recording history of the album. Alan Parsons, who at the age of twenty was the album’s assistant engineer, wrote the foreword and contributed to the story. What I did not know is that Parsons was in attendance for the Beatles’ Apple Records rooftop concert on January 30, 1969 and was pictured in the Get Back book that accompanied the Let It Be box set. Since I own this set I had to thumb through it to find him. Good thing Parsons described himself to the reader:

“…I can be seen sporting a striped jacket, an orange shirt, and a trendy thin black tie.”

because it would have been impossible to find him otherwise. The orange shirt was immediately visible, even in the smaller of the two Parsons photos.

The story begins with the introduction of the eight-track TG console at EMI Studios in late 1968. This piece of equipment gave the Beatles more versatility to layer and enhance their music than ever before. Abbey Road was also enriched by the new invention of the Moog synthesizer, and for Beatles fans like me who are not technologically savvy I was pleased that Womack made these first chapters such captivating reading. The Moog chapter also provided a history of George Harrison’s experimental Zapple album Electronic Sound. Beatles fans are lucky to find more than a single paragraph devoted to this album. Womack to his credit took this album seriously. It was Harrison who introduced the Moog to Abbey Road and Paul McCartney added it to songs such as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. It was the Quiet Beatle (I was always annoyed when Womack referred to Harrison by this nickname, and spelled with a capital Q) whom the author praised most of all for his blossoming of songwriting genius with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”.

We were taken into the recording studio and sat in on the multi-hour sessions, which often involved the recording of the same song sometimes dozens of times. Womack gave piece-by-piece accounts of how the songs were put together and all too often new directions for a song would be recorded and then trashed weeks later. Abbey Road‘s side two medley provided the most enthralling reading as we watched the various snippets of songs finally find their set order. Contrary to popular belief, the individual songs were not all spliced together one at a time. For three pairs of them, they were recorded as a single song: “Sun King” and “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight”.

Womack filled his book with reputable sources and the endnotes and bibliography were filled with works by Beatles intimates and documentarians. I had to continually remind myself that the revelations Womack was presenting were taken from and properly credited to the works of Mark Lewisohn, Geoff Emerick and George Martin. The author could tell the story of the recording process so intimately that it did not read like a series of quoted passages with superscripts. It was a pleasure to read Solid State and sit in with the Beatles as they recorded Abbey Road.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Walmart: Diary of an Associate


Walmart: Diary of an Associate by Hugo Meunier (translated by Mary Foster) was a brief (120 pages) account of the author’s infiltration into the Walmart workforce in Saint-Léonard, Quebec. On assignment from La Presse, Meunier worked for three months stocking the warehouses and replenishing shelves. I picked up this book because when I saw it I was expecting a revealing exposé full of corporate dirt and employee shenanigans yet the blurb on the back did not state this. It was simply a diary of Meunier’s experiences working for the billion-dollar American behemoth. And without any dirt or shenanigans, the day-to-day life of a Walmart employee can be a boring job and thus a boring read. Meunier’s superiors and coworkers were depicted as ordinary people who were, to use a well-known expression, “nothing to write home about”. The best chapter was about another Quebec Walmart, the one in Jonquière which corporate headquarters shut down after its employees voted to unionize. Walmart has an active strategy in place to kill any internal movements to unionize, and Meunier spoke to the Jonquière union organizers who recounted their failed efforts which cost them and their colleagues their jobs.

For such a short book I was alarmed by the number of spelling errors: cemetary, Georgia O’KeefeCelciusdispell, and connaisseur. There is no excuse for leaving these mistakes yet in the case of the proper nouns–you don’t have to translate those. Some of the phrases used the incorrect preposition and expressions were awkwardly translated, as seen here:

“Well then, my friend, you’ve seen nothing yet.”

No one says this in English. I would suggest “Well then, my friend, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Meunier’s experiences with his managers and customers did give me a few chuckles. Shortly before being hired, he had to listen to corporate pep talks and selling techniques. The moment of truth came over him when:

“Seated on my plastic chair, I wondered what bothered me the most. The totally stupid and infantilizing sales strategies or the certainty that they were effective.”

Each day he had to deal with annoying customers, sucking it up because the corporate slogan by Sam Walton stated that “There is only one boss. The customer.” Meunier had to be subservient, “But still, do they have to treat us like doormats?”

He filled the book with eye-rolling and ludicrous customer demands and complaints, and my favourite of the bunch was:

“‘Your slogan should be, “Walmart, out of everything,” fuck!’ he said, incensed. I must have been tired because I found this very funny.”

And so did I.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread

In Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, former New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani shared her thoughts on some of her favourite titles. These short reviews, either two or three pages long, surprisingly encompassed few of the classics and focussed on contemporary fiction and a high proportion of new nonfiction. Thus in addition to The Great Gatsby and Moby-Dick, we read about Trevor Noah's Born a Crime, Tara Westover's Educated and Roz Chast's graphic memoir Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? There is none of the caustic evisceration Kakutani is notorious for here, as she is not pillorying authors but rather celebrating them. Her praise was succinct and expressed as carefully as a Flaubert sentence. I credit her for turning me on to some authors I had never heard of, and added their names and titles to my notes. 

This collection was a treat for the eyes and fingers, as the illustrations by Dana Tanamachi evoked both centuries-old gilt woodcut bookplates as well as summer of love Haight-Ashbury concert posters. I read a pristine new copy and the page edges were uniform and flush and a pleasure to feel when the book was closed. I am a merciless critic of those who are ignorant of the rules of forming the English possessive. I was thrilled to no end to see Kakutani getting it right every time when she wrote Eggers'sCamus'sBorges's, Richards's and so on. Of course she would know this. Would she please have a word with the writers of "Jeopardy!", who belie their intelligence by dropping the S when making nouns ending in X possessive. Thus Max' and Lorax'. It looks hideous. Yet Kakutani did err in the misspelling millenium on page 80, while she did get it right as millennial(s) on pages 91, 144, 247 and 291. 

To supplement the 1001 Books You Must Read series, read some of Kakutani's recommendations too. 

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History


The Flyer Vault: 150 Years of Toronto Concert History by Daniel Tate & Rob Bowman was light on content but heavy in its mass. Its pages were substantially glossy and thick, rendering its 306 pages as weighty as most books twice its size. 

The title refers to Tate’s vast library of concert flyers which he and music journalist Rob Bowman researched and wrote about. They reproduced these posters in vibrant colour, and found yellowed newspaper ads for some very early Toronto shows. I always had to use a magnifying class to read the fine print on the posters, which are essentially illegible when shrunk to fit the dimensions of even a large paperback. 

Chapters were divided by musical genre and era. The authors deliberately ignored classical music, yet profiled inasmuch as it could genres by chronological history, starting thus with minstrel shows and vaudeville, followed by jubilees, spirituals and gospel tours, then jazz, blues, country and folk, followed by all forms of popular music from post-WWII. 

A book of such length should have taken me merely a couple days to read, but unfortunately I found I could only take in two chapters at a time. The format of showing a poster and then listing the contents and a concert review, if there was one available, made for a sleepy read after an hour. 

Tate and Bowman were competent researchers who often proved the newspapers wrong when concerts were cancelled or rescheduled last-minute, leaving the public record–newspaper ads and public posters–still showing the incorrect dates. Their research proved that even the memories of the performers themselves were wrong at times. I still found some inconsistencies, though, for example in regards to the date of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first concert in Toronto. Was it in July 1983 at the CNE Bandshell (as stated on page 52) or in June 1983 at the Concert Hall (page 53)? The text was otherwise flawless with the exception of the possessive apostrophe error of it’s for its on page 278: “…it certainly had it’s coming out party in Toronto.” I also wondered why they always referred to Patti Smith as a poetess and not simply a poet.

Bowman exposed the sometimes racist reviews left by Toronto newspaper columnists. Open-mindedness was not a trait of some reviewers, who preferred to see and hear exactly what they expected on concert stages. Innovative artists who decided to shake up their performances were often given the thumbs down. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to read Bowman’s favourable review of Yoko Ono’s performance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival:

“Yoko Ono contributed an astonishing version of ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow),’ which the conservative Toronto media of the time predictably trashed. History would prove their take on Yoko to be both racist and artistically wrong-headed given the influence Yoko would have on numerous new wave and alternative rock bands to come.”

The Flyer Vault is a rich trip down memory lane where clubs and venues of the past come back to life and on more than one occasion I stopped myself and recalled “Oh yeah, I was there!”

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Pelee Project: One Woman's Escape from Urban Madness


The Pelee Project: One Woman's Escape from Urban Madness is Jane Christmas's account of her three months spent on Pelee Island during the winter of 2000. Stressed out at work and by her daily commute to Toronto from Hamilton, Christmas was feeling the urgent need to get away from the rat race. After previous visits to Pelee Island, Christmas felt the call of the Lake Erie island as the perfect place to relax. Accompanied by her eight-year-old daughter Zoë, Christmas left her two sons and boyfriend behind and braved the winter on a virtually abandoned Pelee Island.

I discovered this book when I visited the island this past summer. I spoke to plenty of locals who claimed that only a hearty seventy souls stuck it out all winter; if that number is true then it is about half the winter population from twenty years ago when Christmas was there. Even so, it's still a tiny fraction of the summer population. I lapped up her story because I could identify with it so intimately since I had also decided--twenty years ago, as well--to take a leave of absence from work. I wanted to study the Finnish language in Helsinki. It was a break I needed and it made me a stronger and more confident person. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made. However Christmas found that those around her were not always supportive of her plans to take some time off:

"What really ticked them off, it seemed, was not that I had dared to dream but that I had dared to turn dream into reality." 

I recall the quizzical stares I received when I told some people that I wanted to study the Finnish language during the summer of 2000. "Are you Finnish?" and "What could you possibly use that language for?" were typical reactions. Some people were quite thrilled to hear about my desire to do it and maybe I inspired some dreaming in others. Christmas used the end of her book to stress the importance of taking time off such as in leaves of absence and the need for more companies to grant such leaves to their employees. 

Christmas arranged to transport her car to the island before the ferry discontinued its service over the winter. She rented a house from a travelling islander and enrolled Zoë in the school, but she couldn't plan everything in advance. There was one important thing that slipped her mind: it was a culture shock to find herself without adequate groceries and a store that wouldn't be open for a couple more days. You will laugh with her as she regales you with her first attempt to use the island's gas pump. Yet she adapted and quickly made friends who were generous to share and help out.

Her descriptions were stunning. The stillness of a wintry island in the middle of Lake Erie--the white landscape surrounded by white ice topped with a white sky--made for an image that literally gave me chills as I read it. She experienced sunsets that were unlike any she had ever seen before. I witnessed such a pink explosion of sun over the summer. With life at a slower pace, she could pay attention to the birds and identify each species--and plenty of birds stop at the island during their migrations. Conversations mattered and people were more honest with her. It was easy for her to feel at home among her islander friends when she developed the skills to listen:

"I had long lost the capacity to listen--really listen--to my children or to anyone; I had perfected a habit of intently looking at people with compassion-filled eyes while simultaneously making a mental list of things I had to pick up at the store."  

Christmas could see the positive, calmer changes that had come over her. She had developed a closer relationship with Zoë and even her own mother, who had stopped by the island on a visit, remarked at her transformation. It was as though Christmas had been baptized in Lake Erie. While she was on Pelee, she remarked: 

"I wished I could live my life over and make decisions based on the quality of my life rather than on the elusiveness of some imaginary career quest mapped out by media messages, social expectations, and a myopic women's movement that ignored the richness of a rural life."

My brief time on Pelee Island ignited a spark to see more of the island during the summer and now that I have read about the winter there I think I would enjoy a wind-battered snowy stay too. 

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue