Books

Veracity by Laura Bynum

It is hard to write a dystopian science fiction novel that is as memorable and thought-provoking as 1984 or A Handmaid's Tale, but Laura Bynum's new book comes pretty close.


Veracity

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Length: 384 pages
Author: Laura Bynum
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-01
Amazon

Imagine a world where the government is all knowing and all seeing. Fear, violence, and/or government sanctioned drugs control the masses. The smallest crime results in torture or death. Books no longer exist. Words like freedom, mother, and individuality have been banned. Sex with multiple partners or prostitutes is encouraged. Emotional connections are discouraged or sometimes even forbidden.

Sound familiar?

If you read science/speculative fiction, it should. These are the traits that the holy trinity of dystopian literature (Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451) established in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Add the The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps the first feminist dystopian novel, with its thoughts on sex, class, and reproductive rights, and the defining elements of the dystopian novel are complete.

Let’s face it -- it’s hard to write a dystopian novel that can compete with these classics. Yet to write a science fiction novel with a totalitarian government, forgotten words, banned books, and unspeakable violence and torture invites comparison. So much so that the back cover of Laura Bynum’s debut novel Veracity includes quotes that liken it to 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fahrenheit 451.

While most probably aren’t going to label Veracity an instant classic, Bynum does manage to follow the traditional tenets of dystopian literature and still add a few twists and turns that make the book suspenseful, engaging, and thought-provoking. Until the last few chapters, which feel a bit rushed and simplistic, Veracity is a remarkably good read and a read that, at times, seems entirely too plausible for comfort.

Drawing inspiration from both the United States’ Patriot Act and recent outbreaks of viral infections, such as the avian flu, Bynum creates a world governed by the Confederation of the Willing. Sex and drugs are plentiful and encouraged. Dangerous words (i.e. courage, honor, ambassador, poem) are banned, or Red Listed, and are quickly forgotten. Mandatory implants called slates monitor word usage and keep citizens from secretly voicing Red Listed words.

Along with the slates, and the Blue Coats, a brutal police force that rapes, tortures, and/or kills any one suspected of criminal activity, the Confederation also relies on psychics to keep order. Harper Adams, the book’s main character and protagonist, is one of these psychics. Employed by the Confederation, Harper, and her best friend Candace, use their psychic abilities to read auras and help the government find traitors, troublemakers, and members of the resistance. But when Candace is killed and Harper’s daughter’s name, Veracity, is Red Listed, Harper decides to join the resistance and the war against the Confederation.

Harper’s character is one of the twists and turns in the book. She is carefully crafted, full of humanity and humility, and very relatable. In other genres of literature, this might not be so surprising; however, one drawback to many science fiction novels, particularly classic texts, is that character is often sacrificed to make a point. Classic science fiction tends to be plot driven, and character development is often sadly lacking. For example, Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowe, from Brave New World, are cleverly named characters but are rather flat. Audiences know what they do, but not who they are. These characters participate in recreational sex, go to the feely movies, helicopter off to the Obstacle Golf Course, and take their soma; activities very removed from the typical reader’s reality, making it difficult for most readers to form any type of emotional connection to these characters. Simply put, most readers probably don’t really care what happens to these characters.

Despite her psychic ability, Harper is easy to connect to and care about. She’s a single mom. She’s divorced. She loves her child more than anything else. She doesn’t really like her job. She has a somewhat unrealistic crush on/infatuation with a man she barely knows. She has a silk blouse she really likes. While Harper’s world may be somewhat unfamiliar, the every day elements of her life, most likely, are quite familiar.

Her psychic ability, while perhaps not something most audience members can relate to, does add another twist to the text. It’s more reminiscent of the Force from the Star Wars movies than it is of elements traditionally found in classic science fiction. After all, there is nothing really scientific about either the Force or Harper’s psychic ability. Instead, Harper’s psychic ability is deeply connected to emotions. Harper “sees” people’s emotions as colors: “Blobs of color are everywhere, of nearly every hue. Dull red fear and deep red anger. Mustard-yellow self-concern. Dull blue-arrogance. Light pink guilt. The prolific mold-brown of confusion...”

In the opening sections of the book, the plot is drawn just as carefully as the characters. The narrative moves slowly and thoughtfully allowing tension to build. There is a detailed description of Harper’s best linen jacket being ruined as she goes through a security checkpoint. Another vivid scene takes place in a high school classroom where students suspected of having psychic ability are singled out for testing. When a young Harper and her mother are forcibly separated by the government, the audience feels Harper’s angst:

We’re taken to the local community center, a flat, wide building shaped like the sheet cakes they sell at fund-raisers. My mother thought we’d be put in the same line but I’m pulled out of her arms as soon as we come through the front door. She’s swallowed up by a bunch of blue suits and somehow disappears. Or maybe I’m the one who goes away. All I remember is we’re together and then we’re not.

While the major themes of government control, censorship, and freedom of speech do hit the audience over the head like the proverbial ton of bricks, there are subtler points being made as well. The overall theme about the simple power of language is presented beautifully and is designed to make people think about something we use everyday, but often pay little attention to: words.

Another interesting theme is the resistance itself. The resistance is composed, primarily, of aging academics, intellectuals, and college professors. If the resistance succeeds, linguists are going to be running the world. As an aging academic myself, there is a part of this plan that appeals to me, but whether or not this group could successfully run a country is a debatable question. The infighting among the resistance, some brief glimpses of elitism, and their lack of organization suggest that Bynum herself may not be sold on this group’s ability to lead. All of this should make the audience question this proposed new government and whether or not it can create and maintain a truly democratic state. But this is what great, or even just really good, science fiction does: it leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

Veracity is a very good book, but the nitpick in me wishes a couple of things had been done just a little differently. The pacing of the last few chapters feels rushed; a few weeks worth of action is compiled in just a few paragraphs. At times (again in the last few chapters) the plot feels simplified and is perhaps a little too predictable. Another minor irk was the romantic subplot. First, I don’t know if it was needed. Second, because Harper falls in love with a man she doesn’t even know, this relationship feels like it belongs more in a Hollywood blockbuster rather than in a serious work of science fiction.

These are, however, very minor complaints about a very well written and plotted book. Veracity is a book I’ll enjoy rereading. I read it quickly the first time around, anxious to see what would happen to this world and to Harper, but with all its layers and well developed characters, it’s a book that is easily returned to and offers something new with each reading.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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