Play Golden

One look at Golden legacy : how Golden Books won children’s hearts, changed publishing forever, and became an American icon along the way and I came over all nostalgic. My fave was The Three Little Kittens (cats! in mittens! cute!). My other big love was the Poky Little Puppy, which is Little Golden Books’ biggest seller.

They might be viewed as quaint today, with questionable sexual stereotyping etc, but the anniversary has seen the reissue of many titles and some collections.

What are your memories of Little Golden Books? Did you have a favourite?

Not quite at the other end of the scale is Play Pen: new children’s book illustration. Showcasing some of the best new children’s book looks. The visual diet of children has expanded considerably since I was a kid, and television, comics, computer games have all enhanced the viewing experience of the child. This has had a huge impact on the range of book illustration that is out there now, and the range of media both digital and tradition. Featuring some of my favourites like Alexis Deacon, Marc Boutavant and Sara Fanelli.

If you come over all excited after reading it, and are a hankering to do a little children’s book illustration, you might want to look at Writing and illustrating for children.

Pet Sounds

This morning I read that Meryl Streep is to play librarian Vicki Myron in the film version of Dewey : a small-town library cat who touched the world. If you are not familiar with the story, Dewey Readmore Books was a gingernut cat found stuffed into the return slot of the Spencer Public Library in Iowa.  Luckily Dewey was found by Myron and spent the rest of his nineteen years at the library, where he charmed visitors and contributed to a healthy community spirit.

I haven’t read the book, but the story got  me thinking about animals at Christmas.  It’s well documented that the holiday season can be an especially bad time of year for pets. Abandoned pets turn up regularly at animal shelters, as that cute Christmas kitten grows into a curtain-ripping monster.

Adopting a pet can be a huge decision.  If you are thinking of adopting a pet this Christmas, or giving one as a gift, there are some good resources around for helping you make the choice. The December issue of Pet New Zealand has a guide to help you make the right pet choice for you and your family.

If you do decide to adopt, Christchurch City Libraries has plenty of books on petcare, and links to many petcare websites on our Internet Gateway.

Great Gig in the Sky

Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the Moon and 12 men walked upon its surface. These twelve are still the only human beings to have stood on the Moon. Earlier this year, I watched the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, a film that brings together the surviving crew members from the Apollo missions and allows them to tell their story. Unfortunately the reclusive Neil Armstrong is absent, but the amusing anecdotes told by his friends give great insight into his character (he comes across as a pretty cool guy).  I strongly recommend this movie (which you can rent from Alice in Videoland).  The “rarely seen footage” is beautiful and compelling. The astronauts are all refreshingly down to earth, and I found it interesting how their experience in space shaped their personal philosophies.  The danger of the early missions was really brought home to me – amazing to think what they achieved with such limited technology.

Seeing the movie sparked my interest in all things lunar, especially the intriguing Armstrong. Although I was initially put off by the words “authorised biography” (yawn), I read James Hanson’s  First Man : the life of Neil A. Armstrong and was happily surprised. The book is well researched, with great detail and I learned a lot about the man.  Armstrong also features in Moon Dust : in search of the men who fell to earth,  Andrew Smith’s attempt to track down and interview the moonwalkers.  His tales present a rather darker view of the moon experience, but is very entertaining.

One thing In the Shadow of the Moon doesn’t dwell on are the politics behind the Apollo voyages.  The Soviet- U.S. space race reflected the political climate of the 50s and 60s, when both nations were wanting to establish themselves as superpowers.  The book Dark Side of the Moon explores how the American government seized on the moon flights as a way of boosting public morale after World War II.  Again, it is a worthwhile read.

Moving Pictures

Hounded by authorities because of taxes, left-leaning politics and a liking for young ladies, the once adored comic Charlie Chaplin split the United States in 1952.  On his last day in the country, he finally consented to his portrait being taken by the noted fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon had been keen to take Chaplin’s photo for many years, but the actor continually declined.  After a full day’s shooting, Chaplin gave Avedon the perfect, spontaneous photo. Head down, fingers aside his head like devil horns, he grins at the camera. It’s an unforgettable image, both humourous and political. Chaplin’s goodbye to the States is one of the most memorable in Performance, a new collection of Avedon portraits.  The subjects are all leading performance artists, and while you may recognise the names, many of these images have never been published before.  Avedon had an ability to really capture the vitality of his subjects, and these photographs all possess a charming lack of inhibition. 

The Avedon book has really fancy packaging and will look great laying on your coffee table for a couple of weeks. Indeed, big, glossy photography books abound at the moment. The other one I’m poring over is Vanity Fair the portraits : a century of iconic images.  Vanity Fair has a well established reputation as a stylish chronicle of society, so this celebration of their most famous sitters was always going to be good.  Considerable thought has gone into the  juxtaposition of  the images and the result makes leafing through the pages more thought provoking. I especially liked the placing of covergirl Kate Moss, gorgeous in a Marlene Dietrich style tuxedo, facing a page with a photo of La Dietrich herself.

Some things I have been listening to

Those of you in Auckland and Wellington are lucky to have the chance to see Beach House this weekend.  I’ve been listening to the second album from this Baltimore band a lot over the past week and it has quickly become one of my favourites.  Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally create lush, dreamy pop just perfect for wintry nights.   Of course I like my pop to sound from another time, and Beach House make their keyboards, fuzzy guitars and harpsichords sound other-worldly.  Legrand’s vocals are warm and hazy at times reminiscent of Nico, at others a drugged Debbie Harry.  The lyrical subject matter is the stuff of all good pop – romance, unrequited love, lonesomeness, etc.  The result is an assured and fully realised sound, which I think you will like if you are a fan of Cat Power or Isobel Campbell.  Incidentally, Legrand is the niece of Michel Legrand, the composer of many a hallucinogenic French film soundtrack.  Maybe it is something in the genes. Continue reading

Silver Scroll Top Twenty Announced

In local music awards news, the APRA Silver Scroll Awards top twenty has been announced.  The award celebrates songwriting across musical genres. APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association) members vote, and the five finalists will be announced mid August.  The winner will be presented the Silver Scroll Award on 10 September 2008.

Among the candidates are Bright Grey by The Phoenix Foundation, Dreams in my Head by Anika Moa, Tane Mahuta by The Ruby Suns and Gather to the Chapel by Liam Finn.

Visit the APRA website to view the contenders, read the lyrics and listen to the songs.

Everything I have is down in pawn

Elizabeth Cotten’s unique style made her one of the most original guitar players in the history of American folk music.  Like many great blues musicians, she was unknown until fate intervened and she was “discovered” while working as a maid at the home of famed ethnomusicologists the Seegers.  They recorded her and in 1957, at the age of 62, she released her debut album. Her distinctive guitar playing attracted great interest and she developed a following amongst the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties. Her idiosyncratic left-handed technique (dubbed “Cotten picking”) developed out of necessity; unable to afford a guitar, she secretly used her brother’s, not-restringing but playing  it upside down.  Thus, she formed her way of playing the bass lines with her fingers and the treble strings with her thumb.  The result is a fluid and lyrical style.

Cotten’s classic albums were re-released on the Smithsonian Folkways label a couple of years ago, including her debut Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.  Freight Train is probably her most famous tune (she wrote it when she was twelve years old but it wasn’t a hit for fifty years or so).  Shake Sugaree features a great version of the title track sung by her twelve year old granddaughter.

The folk revival generated a lot of interest in Cotten.  She became an increasingly popular performer, writing and recording  new material, yet she didn’t retire from domestic work until 1970.  The Smithsonian Institute recognised her as a “living treasure” and she received a Grammy Award in 1985.

Smithsonian Folkways have consistently been providing good introductions to their exhaustive catalogue of sound recordings.  Elizabeth Cotten also appears on the American Roots Collection compilation and another good entry level collection is the Friends of Old Time Music box set.  It is well worth taking a visit to the Folkways website, they have great background information on their artists and you can sample lots of tracks.  If you are intrigued by Elizabeth Cotten, read this 2005 article from The Listener.

Truckload of Art

Some fine looking new art books have arrived in the library recently.  My favourite is probably a weighty tome on the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco.  The artist has a prolific and varied practice making sculpture, painting, photography and video. This book features significant works since the 1980s, and Orozco’s output is so varied I find it hard to describe.  Certainly the everyday object is crucial to his work; he twists the known into something playful and imaginative.  Fortunately the essays and interview within provide a lot of insight.  If you want to become familiar with Orozco before placing a hold on this book, take a look at the site for the very good PBS series Art 21 in which he features. 

Local artists are providing some goodies as well.  Nightingale features the evocative watercolours of Christchurch artist Brenda Nightingale.  The familiar painters’ subject matter of children, lakeside outings and lonely dogs are transformed into something haunting. The sketchy, blurry technique beautifully captures the ephemeral nature of these moments. There is also something a little eerie in the images, which somehow remind me of Lord of the Flies.   Continue reading

I see dead people

Recently I saw Dead Time an exhibition by New Zealand photographer Ben Cauchi at the Christchurch Art Gallery.  Cauchi uses 19th century photographic techniques to create spooky and evocative images.   Most of the photos are ambrotypes and tintypes, so they exist as one offs.  The end result is kind of creepy  and reminds me a lot of spirit photography.

The Spiritualist movement began in the 1850s and was founded on the belief that the human spirit exists outside the body and that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead.  The most famous spiritualists were the Fox sisters, who were able to produce rapping noises from the furniture in their house.  These rappings were said to come from spirits, in answer to questions put to them. As the Fox sisters fame spread, they inspired a host of imitators. However, Margaret Fox later admitted that she had produced the noises through manipulation of her joints.  Continue reading

Who do you love?

It’s obvious in The Rolling Stones breakthrough single Not Fade Away, and you can hear it in 80s classics like I Want Candy and Faith.  It’s the distinctive “Bo Diddley beat”.  When its namesake died recently, rock n roll lost a true innovator.  While Bo Diddley may not be as famous as the many artists who have copied his songs, his place in the rock n roll pantheon is secure thanks to his distinctive and influential style.

Born Ellas McDaniel, Diddley learnt violin as a child, but was inspired to start playing guitar after hearing  John Lee Hooker .  All sorts of stories are around about how he acquired his stage name – it was a childhood nickname, someone at the record company named him, he played an instrument known as a diddley bow – whatever the truth, his name gave him his biggest hit.  After being picked up by the pioneering Chess Records, Diddley had some early rhythm and blues chart success. Although he became a favourite with the Brit Invasion bands, he never had the mainstream following of his Chess contemporary Chuck Berry.  Maybe Diddley was just a little too weird for the masses.  He used distortion and played a funny looking guitar (incidentally Gretsch later reproduced his guitar for the public).

Diddley did get some recognition later in life, though.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and Rolling Stone named him number 20 in their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. However he often complained that he never saw the financial rewards.

Read Bo Diddley’s obituary from The Guardian, and I also recommend checking out The Record Men : the Chess brothers and the birth of rock & roll for an insight into the early days of the recording industry.