Sunday, the 18th of December, 2005

His eyes -- how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow. The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath. He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

Clement Moore in The Night Before Christmas

The next biweekly issue will be published on News Year's Day

See those ale-quaffing, rowdy, scruffily dressed gentlemen in the corner of the pub? They're all members of Local 564 of the Ancient and Venerable Guild of St. Nicholas, which represents Santas, Santa's helpers, department store elves, tree trimmers, candle lighters, professional gift wrappers, goose stuffers, roast chestnut vendors, plum pudding makers, sleigh drivers, carollers for hire, bell ringers, and related trades. The Guild Hall is not far from the Green Man pub so they come here often.

Those round bellies, wire-frame spectacles, and white beards are quite real -- the Guild accepts only the most authentic of males, as their clients expect no less. No female Santas, no politically correct multicultural Santas -- no, these gents are all as 'authentic' as the one depicted by Thomas Nast and described by Clement Moore so long ago. Indeed, they must be at least fifty years old -- no young whippersnappers are allowed in this Guild!

Why they are in our pub and not somewhere else? 'Tis simple -- there's no Christmas music, instrumental or vocal, allowed when any of them are here. All the Guild members had their fill of Christmas music quite some time ago. The players in the Neverending Session stick to their usual repertoire, which can cover anything from the strictest of Irish and French trad to a tasteful selection of Classical material.

So we'll stand this group of hard-working gentlemen a round of Midwinter Ale on the house . . . but we'll leave the rest of the Christmas cheer up to them. Ho. Ho. Ho.

So what are you getting for holiday presents this year for those who crave something of a materialistic nature? If you're puzzled as to what to get that won't be too tacky or just far too costly, the White-Truex family will now give you some tasty ideas. Yes, all of the featured reviews this edition are written by members of the same family -- Barb Truex, Aurora White, and Chris White! Barb will offer up Nordic music to tempt you, Aurora has a look at two versions of a classic Christmas affair out on DVD in two versions, and Chris looks at a well-loved childrens book with a Christmas theme of cheer and good will to all children. What more could you want? Oh, hot chocolate and warm ginger bread with whipped cream? That we can do, but first, let's see what they are recommending.

Barb leads off with a look at some very tasty Nordic music: 'The five CDs reviewed here are a miniscule sampling of violin/fiddle music from Nordic countries. With this group, the versatility of the violin is evident as we move from solo settings to a sextet and everything in between. Through all of it, the violin is the binding force. The geographical areas represented include Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.' Read her insightful look at Alicia Björnsdotter Abrams' Live at Stallet, Marianne Mans' Marianne Maans, Majorstuen's Jorun Jogga, Jan Beitohaugen Granli's Lite Nemmar, and Kristine Heebøll's Trio Mio.

You may think that the whole 'dysfunctional family Christmas' storyline is relatively new, brought on by the strange need to over-analyze everything nowadays. Not so. Family members squabbling during the holidays has quite a pedigree, as Aurora White reminds us in her review of two versions of The Lion In Winter. 'The title, for those of you rusty with your English history, refers to King Henry II (the lion was his crest) being in the 'winter' of his life. At this point in history King Henry II had a kingdom that stretched into France and was in need of choosing his heir. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's wife, was imprisoned in a castle (thanks to Henry who was the key keeper). Goldman's story is a fictional account of the Christmas court held to determine the future king.' Read her Excellence in Writing Award winning review to see if these films are better than watching tipsy Uncle Ernie hang around the holiday punch bowl

Chris wraps up this trio of holiday gift suggestions with at look at a wonderful book: 'Perhaps it's the season, or the utter magic of [Chris] Van Allsburg's talents, whatever the reasons, the Twentieth Anniversary Edition of The Polar Express appears luxurious and incandescent. If you have (as we do) a beloved dog-eared copy that gets read each Christmas you won't find any misguided, dramatic, self conscious, 'gee, how can we repackage this for media savvy kiddies?' mistakes; just the familiar, wonderful, book in a nice matching slipcase. What you will notice most are the deep, rich, exquisitely printed illustrations.'

Four novels by noted Leftist Tariq Ali -- Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman, and A Sultan in Palermo -- get reviewed by Donna Bird who says of them in her Excellence in Writing Award winning review: 'It's evident to me that all the books in the Islam Quintet have some basis in historical reality. Even in The Stone Woman, an unnamed military officer who attends a clandestine meeting at the estate is undoubtedly intended to be Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. These are historical realities that may not be familiar to many western readers. I happened to figure out the reference to Mustafa Kemal because he is a well-drawn character in Birds Without Wings, and after that literary encounter with him I began to pay attention to references to his life and deeds. But I knew nothing before reading these books about Salah-al-Din's efforts to win Jerusalem or the presence of an Islamic culture in southern Italy and the persecution of the Moors in Spain during the twelfth century. Ali hasn't written any fiction other than these books.'

Denise Dutton has nothing but good things to say about Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World: 'What do you get when you take an assassin sick of killing, a petulant half-demon and his hubba-hubba aide 'Nursie,' a barely pubescent girl who would leave a marathoner in the dust, and a cook so amazing she could make gruel taste like foie gras? The beginnings of The Anvil of the World, one of the most enjoyable romps I've had between the pages in a very long time.' Read her Excellence in Writing Award winning review for the details on this novel which was nominated for a 2004 World Fantasy Award!

The very first edition of The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics and Manga, as edited by the (now departed) Byron Preiss, Howard Zimmerman, and other good folk, was reviewed by April Gutierrez, our Book Editor and one of our most knowledgeable reviewers. Her summing up is worth noting: 'The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics and Manga has definite promise. But if it's going to prove as entertaining and invaluable a resource for sequential art fans as The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series has been for fans of those genres, it needs some definite expansion and improvement, beginning with some actual editorializing from the editors. We, the readers, want to know why these titles merit being singled out. So tell us!' Now go read her insightful review to see where they got it right and where it needs improvement.

Kathleen Hudson's Telling Stories, Writing Songs: an album of Texas Songwriters and Manuel Pena's The Texas-Mexico Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music got the nod of approval from David Kidney even though one of them is a bit, errr, dry: 'These two books, both published by the University of Texas Press, provide a fairly in depth and well-rounded look at the music of the Lone Star State. Manuel Pena's The Texas-Mexico Conjunto is a scholarly work, seeking to 'provide the crucial connection between an analysis of the music itself (that is accordion-based conjunto) and the richness of the culture from which it sprang.' As such, it is successful but a tad dry in parts as the author discusses 'cultural assimilation' and 'contradictory and/or middle-class occupations' held by Mexican-Americans'.

Patrick O'Donnell says 'When I first saw these five volumes of Robert E. Howard stories, I jumped at the chance to review them. I'd grown up on Howard, and after J.R.R. Tolkien, he was one of my first introductions to 'sword and sorcery' fiction. In my teens, I read - and owned -- every single Conan book published. Back then, even the worn old paperbacks I was picking up at library book sales were fresh and exciting, each page seeming to bring some new adventure. Not long ago, having discovered one of those musty, raggedy old paperbacks while moving, I tried to re-read the tales that alternately fueled and helped moderate my teen angst. But twenty-some years had cast a different light on those books, because I quickly grew tired of the pulp prose Howard used to paint his worlds. I realized the tales were largely formulaic, and the action sequences sometimes seemed lifted straight from earlier stories. They were entertaining, but before long it was like watching a sitcom that recycled its jokes week after week. So this chance to read something new by Howard was enticing.' Go read his look at these works (The Black Stranger And Other American Tales, The End Of The Trail: Western Stories, Lord Of Samarcand And Other Adventure Tales Of The Old Orient, The Riot at Bucksnort and other Western Tales, and Boxing Stories) to see what tickled Patrick's fancy.

Constance W. Hassett's Christina Rossetti -- The Patience of Style caused Robert M. Tilendis to offer a bit of sage advice for modern times: 'I suppose it's accurate to say that we live in an archaeological age: we in the West spend a great deal of time investigating and re-evaluating the past, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not so much. (There are, for example, a number of minor baroque and classical composers whose music has been recorded in the past few years, and now we know why they are considered minor and were largely forgotten until excavated by musicologists needing dissertation topics. On the other hand, we have Scarlatti.) The same holds true of literary figures, among them Christina Rossetti.' If all you know of Rossetti is her 'Goblin Market' poem, go read his review of this work now!

This review of Allan Marett's Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts -- The Wangga of North Australia starts off with a warning from Robert: 'First, a brief demurrer: 'Ethnomusicology' can be a really scary idea, drawing together, as it does, the formal study of music and its forms, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and possibly a couple of 'ologies' that I've overlooked, all discrete disciplines in Western thought and each by itself incapable of leading to any real understanding of cultures. By the same token, I found this book fascinating, but it is extraordinarily difficult to discuss sensibly in anything as brief as a review, particularly since I am not really a scholar (honestly, I'm not -- I can prove it, at least insofar as one can prove a negative), and thus I have no scholarly axe to grind, so there's nothing I can even dispute. I think one of the chief difficulties in this regard is simply that the book is successful: it is an intelligent and detailed look at an attitude toward music and performance outside Western traditions that really does a magnificent job of making the subject clear, which simply means that the conceptual base that I or anyone else who has incorporated those Western traditions bring to this study simply does not apply.'

Robert says of John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos that 'Kirkus Reviews compares him to Charles Sheffield and Gene Wolfe. Locus says Orson Scott Card. Library Journal cites Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, and Jack Vance. And Publisher's Weekly adds Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers. They forgot Michael Moorcock.' He goes to note 'Wright has plumbed mythology for his characters, bringing them into the contemporary world in much the same way that Gaiman did in Sandman and even more in American Gods' Very impressive!

Next edition, Elizabeth Vail will have a detailed look at A Feast for Crows, the latest novel in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, so it's appropriate that this week she looks at the first three novels -- A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords -- in the series: 'Since the creation of the first three novels of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, inevitable comparisons have been made, a great deal between him and another revered author and pioneer of the fantasy epic ˆ J. R. R. Tolkien. The two men do have some things in common ˆ both have two middle names that start with R, for instance. However, one might suggest that a fairer comparison might be made between A Song of Ice and Fire and Tennyson's Idylls of the King -- the deliciously soapy medieval human drama that have made these books such a compelling and addictive read. While The Lord of the Rings has its own narrative element, its focus is primarily on plot, on that desperate goal to destroy the One Ring. A Song of Ice and Fire, with its first three enormous, and highly detailed novels, quickly establishes that its complex narrative is built on the back of its characters.' Go here to read her Excellence in Writing Award winning commentary!

Princes Amongst Men is, according to Gary Whitehouse, are a long strange trip: 'Gypsies and music go together. Not just in popular imagination, but in fact. From the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt to the wailing trumpets of the brass orkestar, from Andalusia's Flamenco guitarists to the profound and joyful singing of Esma Redzepova -- and much more -- the music of the Roma fires the imagination and moves the body. Journalist Garth Cartwright goes to the heartland of Gypsy music, the Balkans, to meet the legends and present some of the truth behind those legends. Spending apparently much of 2004 travelling through Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, he looked for the heart of Gypsy music in all its messy glory. It's a long, strange trip to say the least.'

The death of John Lennon has become so well known that it's sometimes hard to remember the man himself. And many see Yoko Ono only as a woman who cruelly lost the man she loved. But David Kidney has come along with a review of The Dick Cavett Show: John and Yoko Collection, a collection of interviews from the early Seventies that promise to shed light on the fascinating couple. The meeting of John Lennon and Dick Cavett sounds like a perfect match: 'Dick Cavett first met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a hotel room in New York City. They liked him. His urbane wit lifted him far beyond many of the presenters television had on offer, and he was hipper than most of them! When he visited the couple in their room, they asked if he would be in a film they were making, and he agreed. He asked them if they would appear on his network talk show . . .'. What went on during those sessions, and should you give them a look? Read the review and find out!

David also brings a look at the 1933 and 1976 versions of King Kong, as a brand new version hits the theaters. 'The first film, the classic, arrived in a two-disc set with hours of bonus footage . . . . I had not seen the film for many years . . . maybe 25!' His review of the original, side-by-side with a look at the last remake, should whet the appetite of Kong fans everywhere. Look for his review of the Peter Jackson's version of this classic very soon!.

English trad folk rockers Brass Monkey's Flame of Fire garnered accolades from David Kidney: I have never heard an album Martin Carthy was involved with that didn't yield treasures. Brass Monkey is no exception. Musical, danceable, foot-tappable, it harkens back to the past to make one appreciate the long history of folk music.'

Bob Frank's new recording was met with approval by Peter Massey: 'I suppose of the entire music genre, apart from Rock 'n' Roll, Country & Western Music probably has one of the largest followings worldwide. So when a Country & Western singer songwriter album pop up for review I jumped at it, albeit from a performer I had never heard before. So if you have panache for Country music and have never heard Bob Frank before, believe me you won't be disappointed with this album. Bob is a great singer with grit in his voice. He has the ability to put feeling in to slower songs and rock when needed. He put me in mind of Merle Haggard amongst others. On this album, in his words, 'Here's a gentle collection of songs, nothing too disconcerting' -- in my view an understatement if ever there was one!'

Peter says 'Seth is widely recognised as a transatlantic musician, particularly in America, as the fiddle player in the band backing for Cara Dillon and the band Equation [but] this album takes its roots from folk music, and why not? But the affected voice and style of singing carries it to another level. Seth Lakeman is still at the beginning of his musical journey and represents the new sound for folk music that is very much favoured by youngsters coming into the genre. It may sound loud and brash, to some ears, - but it's remarkably refreshing and good. I look forward to hearing more from Seth in the future. He, and his kin are on the way up.' Read Peter's look at Kitty Jay to see why he found this recording so appealing!

Robert M. Tilendis notes that 'Handel's Messiah is without doubt the most often-performed work from the baroque canon, to the extent that every December sees concerts organized by symphonies, choruses, churches, and even sing-alongs staged by volunteers. Think about it: it's almost one word: Handelsmessiah.' Ok, so how does this recording fare? Robert goes on to say 'his one catches all the magnificence of which the baroque is capable, and also brings in a sense of intimacy that is all too rare.'

Wolfgang Plagge's Julevariasjoner is from 2L, a Norwegian label that has released some impressive classical recordings. This recording is Norwegian pianist Wolfgang Plagge playing, as Robert notes 'a set of variations on Christmas carols, some Norwegian, but many that will be recognized anywhere that Christmas is celebrated.' Go read his review to see why he found this an excellent recording!

The Infinite Jukebox, the MP3 digital archive, in our Green Man music library has been fatten by many a fine classical recording from Sony and its associated labels. Robert certainly found two more recording to add! A double treat -- Brahms/Tchaikovsky, Violin Concertos, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 -- had him raving: 'This one is a strong candidate for the basic library of great orchestral music. I came to this release with some reservations, simply because the violin is not one of my favored solo instruments (which is a rather damning admission for a classical music fan, but there you have it). Heifetz, Reiner, and the CSO won me over.'

Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto and Opera Diva Anna Moffo's take on Arias from Faust, La Bohème, Dinorah, Carmen, Semiramide, Turandot, Lakmé are two more Classical recordings that Robert tackled this edition. Now go read his review to which recording worked and which didn't. Hint -- he's not into the idea of opera stars . . .

Christopher White notes 'I am always a bit leery of CDs that link themselves to a cause, however worthy that cause may be. The risk is primarily one of balance. Go too far in one direction and you get a polemic set to music, too far in the other and you wonder what the connection to the cause is ... beyond marketing the artist's hip social consciousness. Gypsy Wind is, therefore, a surprising delight. McKay and companions manage not only to maintain their balance but dance along the tightrope with grace and ease. The cause highlighted is the way inappropriate and over development disrupts the migratory avian flyways of the Americas. Specifically it supports the Friends of the Earth's Life is a Flyway campaign. The liner notes give listeners a thumbnail sketch of the problem and direct them to the Canadian Friends of the Earth Web site for more on the topic. Seemingly Gypsy Wind was something of a joint venture between McKay and the Life is a Flyway campaign.' Now go read his review to see why he really liked this recording!

Gary Whitehouse says the 'Black Boot Trio is Steve Fai, who sings and plays guitars and other instruments; Geoff Taylor on bass and Steffany Bennett on drums, both supplying backing vocals. Eternal Return is a rootsy, rocking affair from a mature and seasoned band. He also notes that 'Four horsemen comin' in the early morning,' isn't the usual kind of refrain found in a love song, but it's par for the course for this raucous, rocking recording by Canada's Black Boot Trio. Their boots aren't the only thing black about this trio -- nearly every song is tinged with bleak, black humor.'

Charles de Lint and MaryAnn Harris decided a few years back to put up a short story on his site as a way of, as Charles notes, 'letting you see how the crow girls celebrate Christmas. Or at least candy.' MaryAnn has included 'some illustrations from cards I've made for Charles over the past couple of years. You'll get to see how the crow girls look in my mind's eye.' ! You can go here ro read the story!

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Updated by LLS -- 12/17/05 @ 18:43 EST