Friday, June 10, 2016

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Wilbur and Orville Wright are two men that exemplify what it means to be an American inventor. At a time where most of the world thought heavier-than-air flight was a fool's errand at best, they took their lives in their hands in order to conquer the skies. Neither had a college degree, but Wilbur was a genius and Orville was one of the best mechanical minds of his age. By close examination of birds, careful reading of the work of fellow scientists, and daredevil experimentation they were the first people that safely flew a powered aircraft.

McCullough is an excellent writer and does a great job of telling the story of the brothers lives and their quest. They kept their aircraft and experiments largely private, so even after their initial successes most of the world remained skeptical. After finally holding public demonstrations in Europe and the US proving their accomplishments, the brothers became global heroes. Ironically, their flights to show the world were some of the last they ever made. Wilbur died of typhoid fever less than five years later, and Orville spent the remainder of his life fighting patent infringements and lawsuits. Despite this less than audacious end, the brothers names and accomplishments live on today, with possibly the coolest tribute being the fact that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he carried a swatch of muslin from the wing of the brother's 1903 Flyer.

First Sentence:
In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The B Side, by Ben Yagoda

The B Side: The Death of Tim Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, by Ben Yagoda

My mother loves the theater and my father loved movies, so I grew up with the sounds of Broadway and Hollywood in the house. I'm as familiar with the music of Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington as I am Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The B Side traces American song craft in the early 20th century, including the rise of ASCAP and BMI, the payola scandal, and the shift in prestige from writers to performers. It is sometimes difficult to read a book about music; words are for the eyes, but melody is for the ears (and both nurture the soul). This story often contains long lists of titles, such as "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," "I Got Rhythm," "Always," "Stormy Weather," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "You're the Top," "Sophisticated Lady," "Swinging on a Star," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." I find it virtually impossible to see these names and not pause to hear the tune in my head, making this a very long read, albeit an enjoyable one.

One critique is that the author clearly has a distain for rock-and-roll that often seems arrogant. In places this comes across as broad overstatements such as "the pop music of every era offended and mystified the older generation;" while more true than not, I'm certainly an exception as are many of my friends. In other places, the sentiment is imperiously haughty: "But it isn't possible for [songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, or Paul McCartney] to write a standard—or, as Keith Jarrett found out, it is possible, but really hard." I believe "Yesterday" and "The Tracks of My Tears" are every bit as good as "Night and Day" or "Puttin' on the Ritz." Yagoda's point is that in his opinion rock is less musically and lyrically sophisticated than a standard, but he seems to have deliberately forgotten that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, the ear...

First Sentence:
While not quite on the level of a Richard Rodgers, a Cole Porter or an Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz was certainly in the top echelon of American songwriters.

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