Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hip Hop Hippie

Lang, Michael with Holly George-Warren. “The Road to Woodstock” Harper Collins: New York, 2009, 781.6607 L271
Tiber, Elliot with Tom Monte. “Taking Woodstock: a true story of a riot, a concert, and a life” Square One Publishers: Garden City, NY, 2007, 92 T5528

I was thinking about all the books and the film that have come out recently about the Woodstock Festival of 1969 among them “The Road to Woodstock” by Michael Lang, and the memoir and movie “Taking Woodstock” by Eliot Tiber. It has been a long time since that eventful weekend but interest in the event remains strong. One has to ask oneself why is there still such interest in a festival that represented excess, mud, and great music. It think the reason is that there was more too it than meets the eye. Woodstock was a staged event if you accept the term that was meant to express something of the vision of peace, harmony and opposition to a war that was behind the whole hippie and peace movements of the 60s. It was in a sense the culmination of the high craziness and idealism of that era.

The symbolism we remember: long hair, colorful clothes, and connection to nature, all pointed to a larger ideal that some developed of how things ought to be. Their idea was if we could resist certain negative trends in our technological and overly urbanized society. Like the Be-ins of the previous year in New York’s Sheep Meadow Park and the original Be-in in San Francisco this was a designed happening. The spontaneity came from the flood of up to a million people that actually came and the ordered chaos that ensued. But overall there was a message behind the madness. In some strange way the vision of harmony with others, closeness to nature, and the creation of a small utopian city became real at least for one weekend.

Today there are other creative movements among them the work of Hip Hop musicians, rappers, and oral poets. They are trying to shape the vision of another kind of utopia with their creativity and energy. Strange to say, in some ways they are attempting to do something similar what the hippies were doing. They are confronting society with its problems of crime, racial injustice, and inequality with the magic of words and rhythm. The styles of different, hip hop tries to be hard and edgy emphasizing the realness of the real while the hippies of Woodstock emphasized a softer image that was oriented toward a back to nature philosophy. Yet both movements try to confront the larger society with a message of how things could be. The stereotypes of hippies as sentimental and soft fall aside when you consider the Woodstock festival had a cultural and political ideal behind it. It was confrontational in its craziness. It was a search for three days of peace and brotherhood. At the same time hip hop isn’t all anger or the description of hard times in the city. It includes a flow of wild images and creativity with words that defies gravity. So one might combine the two terms and call a these purveyor of the utopian arts a hip hop hippie.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy and The Hero's Quest

Lewis, C.S. “The Magician’s Nephew, Book 1 Chronicles of Narnia,” Harper Collins: New York, 1955

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism,” Houghten Mifflin Company: Boston, 2004

Having enjoyed a good escape in reading the “Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis over the weekend, I began to consider about how fantasy literature provides something that no other genre gives to the reader: a second world of conflict and adventure. What fantasy literature offers is the opportunity to imaginatively enter into a second world that has its own structure and rules that one assumes when temporarily living in that world. The world of C. S. Lewis called Narnia is such a special world. It is a world created by Aslan, a lion/savior figure. It is governed by magical forces and where human intentions are manifested physically. Animals talk and any object can sprout like a plant. Time is totally different from time our world. Events occur at a different pace. Time is more like eternity and death does not seem to exist. To operate in this world one must learn to live according to the new rules. But the advantage of this world is that it can teach us things that lie closer to the core than what we learn from daily experience.

Why does C S Lewis create such a different world in his fiction? It may be: because this kind of a world responds to heroic endeavor much more readily than in our world of objective laws. The very nature of the heroic quest demands such a world to frame it. The heroic quest according to the poet W H Auden, involves a call to a task for the hero that only he/ she can fulfill because of his or her unique qualities and the actions of the quest have strong influence on the destiny of the world he or she lives in. This kind of thinking helps one consider one’s identity as a reader in another light. In the pre-scientific view of the physical world in the middle ages that included miracles and magic lent itself as a setting to stories of heroic deeds and great quests. Narnia functions in a similar way to create an appropriate setting for heroic action of Digory, Polly and other characters.

But with C S Lewis there is another secondary world that appeals to us: the supposed “real world” of Victorian England that he portrays in all its detail from ornate streetlamps to horse driven carriages. His characters come from that Victorian world at the beginning of his novel and return to it at the end of the action. The nostalgically manufactured Victorian world of Lewis is as mythical to us as the fantasy world of Narnia. The furniture and fashions of Victoriana are everywhere in the Narnia saga. They are saturated with affection and homeliness. Victorian London is also a consistent world with its own laws and established patterns of action. For the modern reader contemplating that Victorian world is also an escape and one that makes certain kinds of moral reflections more real. So we are living in CS Lewis’ fiction in a two layered universe both worlds are secondary worlds, fictions of escape and settings for action. The two worlds are both set up to help reflection on human possibilities.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Memories of Back Home

For our Great Coffee, Great Books book club selection this month we're reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. I began reading it yesterday and fell so deeply in love that I made it half way through the novel in an afternoon. Apart from the simple fact that reading letters is a quicker endeavor than reading a narrative story, the book struck a chord in me and I couldn't bear to put it down until I was falling fast asleep.

My family's lived here in America for nearly 400 years, and though they were English when they came here, we've not kept any ties to whatever distant family there may still be out there across the sea. But it's not the blood-connection to the English that's resonating with me. It's the story telling. The characters in Guernsey remind me so deeply of my family, and the way they tell a story; such that I want to hear every single detail. I want to hear how Elizabeth McKenna slapped Adelaide Addison across the face in the church, how they rendered pig fat into soap and how the ladies cried over it, and what a loving reunion it was when the children returned from the countryside and young Eli learned how to whittle animals, even though wood was a scarce commodity. It's the little stories of their lives that intrigue me.

But Guernsey isn't the only book that has caught me up like this. I fell in love with Lake Wobegone Days by Garrison Keillor when I was a teen. The quiet humor and the subtle pathos of the people living their lives out there in rural Minnesota was yet another tie to those stories my parents told me about their lives growing up in small towns in Ohio and Kentucky. That got me to start listening to the Prairie Home Companion on NPR and making an evening of a Saturday night with knitting, hot tea and colorful stories on the radio. Moments like that just warm my heart.

Other books that captured that spirit of down home storytelling with a sense of humor were Ferrol Sams book Run with the Horsemen about a boy growing up in rural Georgia. I read Horsemen around the same time as I read Wobegone, and they both tapped that same chord with me. Similarly, David Sedaris's short stories in Barrel Fever and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim about his wacky family in South Carolina, while more contemporary also have that same evocative flavor. Though sad in their own way, the movies Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias also have that resonance. I'll never forget moments like those.

There's something about knowing the lives of the people around you, and the sheer joy that comes from hearing those tales. It's the best part of calling my mother, just to find out what's been going on in town and who got hit by a tractor, who's having a baby, who got mad at who in church, what did my cousins down by the river do now. Though I've been gone from there nigh on fifteen years, to hear my mother tell me those stories, it's like being right back there again. Sitting on the front porch swing, drinking sweet tea, waiting for grandma to make Sunday dinner after church and being there with the whole family. That's where these books take me. Right there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WTD Photo Shoot - Take 2

Hey Neighbors!

For those of you who couldn't make it to last Monday's photo shoot, you get a second chance to be a part of the photo mural for the new Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library. If you would like your face to be included in the mural, please come to the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Interim Library, Monday, May 24, from 5:00-8:00 pm. Our photographer will be there taking pictures for the mural. You will need to sign a photo release form to participate, and minors must get the signature of their parent or guardian. This is the second chance for a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of your neighborhood library, literally!

For more info, contact

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Playing Those Mind Games

Of late, I have been completely obsessed with watching back episodes of LOST. To be honest, I hadn't really been into the show until fairly recently (last on a bandwagon), so when I got hooked I had to catch up fast to make it to the series finale. But as much as the story lines, and all the twisty-turny unexplainedness pulled me in, there was one scene in particular that was the absolute clincher for me. In Season 4, Locke has Ben held captive in Ben's own basement. He brings him a plate of breakfast and a book. But what book gets chosen? VALIS by Philip K. Dick.

Now, I've written about a lot of Philip K. Dick novels on here. You can just look back a few entries to the Are You Living Underground post, as well as the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep post. But I hadn't touched on VALIS before. Why not? Because VALIS is the head trippiest book I have probably read in my entire life, and to even begin talking about VALIS means that you're going down the rabbit hole into the land of the ultra-surreal.

The main narrator of the book is Horselover Fat, and VALIS is the story of Fat's slow revelation that the world he lives in is not the world that truly is. To compare it to the Matrix would be fair, but a vast understatement. See, the folks in the Matrix get to see the reality behind the curtain. The characters in VALIS know that there is a deeper, different reality behind what's seen, experienced and known, and the story is about the dawning realization of this unseen realm, the interconnectedness of everything and the hints that point us toward the "real" world. You're also probably wondering why I keep capitalizing VALIS. It's because it's an acronym, but I'll leave you to find out what it stands for.

Needless to say when I saw this scene in LOST it reaffirmed that the show is firmly rooted in the realms of the bizarre, and that's a place I love to go.
If you're looking for something to blow your mind here are a few additional recommendations.


2001: A Space Odyssey
Being John Malkovich
Lost (Season One)
The Matrix
Twin Peaks

Children's Works

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman

Graphic Novels

Black Hole by Charles Burns
Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Ring / Spiral by Koji Suzuki
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Everything is under Control by Robert Anton Wilson
Occult America by Mitch Horowitz
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Teleportation by David J. Darling
Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Friday, May 14, 2010

Want to be in Pictures?

The new Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library, located at 7th and Rhode Island Avenue, NW, opens this summer. The new Shaw library will feature a large photo mural depicting 300 faces of the Shaw community. If you would like your face to be included in the mural, please come to the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Interim Library, Monday, May 17, from 4-5:30 pm. We will have a photographer there taking pictures for the mural. You will need to sign a photo release form to participate, and minors must get the signature of their parent or guardian. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of your neighborhood library, literally!

For more info, contact