"Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin (1978)

After surprisingly dry and technical previous book by otherwise favourite Graham Hancock, the time has come to break away from science, cosmos, ancient civilisations and aliens - now I needed good, old fashioned story where each chapter leads to another, where pages are turning by themselves. Before I turned on to my virtual library that by now has more than 1 700 titles (and the whole process of browsing already becomes tedious), I have mentioned "Tales of the City" to a good friend who just pulled it off from his bookshelf so I ended up with a real, physical book as opposed to something digital and immediately discovered how inconvenient it is to lie in a bed nibbling on snacks with a book in my hand (computer kind of makes it easier). Balancing the book, chocolate and earphones, trying not to leave choco fingerprints everywhere, it was a bit difficult and I never imagined that I would come to point where I am so used to digital books that holding the real thing in my hands will be a problem. 

The most interesting thing is - I have actually read "Tales of the City" many years ago but I don't remember a thing, except the title. Which brings me to conclusion that basically all I remember from the books I have read during my lifetime are impressions - "good, bad, exciting, boring, trash, guilty pleasure, etc" - but for the life of me I genuinely don't really remember the books themselves, their characters and plots. The explanation for this might be everything - from the sheer immensity of the titles I have read to the fact that our brain perhaps stores new information's and erase the old ones (or I simply have Alzheimer) - but its a bit alarming that I am aware just of the titles and the general feeling, instead of actual stories. I can look at the books in my collection and recognising that yes, I have read them all, but if I start reading them again, it is very possible that now they would affect me differently, because I am not the same person who read them years ago. And this is why re-visiting some old favourites is such an interesting experience. 

"Tales of the City" was initially published as a feuilleton, serial supplement attached to San Francisco Chronicle - in itself, this is a wonderful continuation of literary tradition where authors like Charles Dickens, Eugène Sue or Alexandre Dumas were thrilling the audiences each week with new chapters and these series were so massively popular that people on the streets discussed and talked about adventures of little Nell, Rodolphe and The Count of Monte Cristo. All of these, now famously classics had a humble beginnings as magazine serials, just like "Tales of the City" and they all had one thing in common - specific, story focused plots that avoided any excessive descriptions and are simply storytelling with exciting cliffhanger endings that motivate readers to continue reading the next chapter. (Nowadays we see cliffhangers in TV soap operas) I should also mention other honourable magazine serials like Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone and Uncle Tom's Cabin. In my own Croatia we had immensely popular magazine serial "Grička vještica" ("The Witch from Grič") that dealt with dark days of the witch-hunts in Central Europe and this was definitely one of the guilty pleasures of my childhood, probably one of the main reasons why I eventually became a book lover. So simply because of its style of writing, "Tales of the City" is from the start immensely readable and impossible to put down ("unputdownable" is a perfect description). 

I have just started yesterday and already gulped half of the book - where with Graham Hancock I had to be patient, focus on his meandering about measurements and calculations, how the the top of this megalith aligns with the solstice and constant repeating of the same ideas from chapter to chapter, here the pages were turning by themselves. Not unlike some delicious soap opera, "Tales of the City" weaves exciting story about citizens of 1970s San Francisco and how, one way or the other, their lives are all connected - I am taking the book with me to work today and no doubt I will finish it until end of the day.


"Ciganska Noć" by Nada Knežević (1961)

Serbian singer Nada Knežević enjoyed great reputation as the most prominent female Jazz singer in post-WW2 Yugoslavia and I even remember my parents praising her as one of the best vocalists around. Unfortunately, local Jazz scene had fairly limited appeal and majority of musicians often switched gears and ventured in pop music - perfect example is backing vocal group, excellent Vokalni Ansambl Predraga Ivanovića utilised here as anonymous studio quartet. 

For a while in the early 1960s, Serbian PGP RTB was actually leading recording company (along with Jugoton based in Zagreb) and they have released some truly magnificent pop albums, this one being one of them - impeccably produced and arranged, they are all without exception fascinating glimpse in a than current pop scene where locals tried their best to emulate high standards of international production. Foreigners might consider this exotic world "behind Iron Curtain" but artists were generally inspired and no less talented compared to their international counterparts - if not for geographical accident, its easy to imagine someone like Knežević performing on the stage of than very popular San Remo. 
The only problem I have with this album is that is very tame - probably reflection of the times, when all these singers were taught to be extremely undistinguishable from each other and as festival compilations can attest, strict juries that controlled who can appear on radio/TV/festivals guarded and restricted any individuality. God forbid that anybody sticked out too much from the mainstream, that was not allowed. So the whole generation of pop pioneers sounded as cloned cookie cutters, bland and non-threatening. It took one more decade until in the 1970s artists were allowed to be idiosyncratic and particular. 

Sadly, there is no trace of Jazz here - Knežević enraptured her concert audiences with capable renditions of songs by Ella or Sarah, but in recording studio her output was limited to lightweight pop music that harked back at previous decade. Judging by this album, the only genuine album she have ever released (not counting two compilations), lady was a capable pop singer with a nice, chirpy and crooning voice but ditties like "Davy Crocket" or covers of Italian, French and American hits don't really point at particular connection to Jazz. My guess is that she thrived on live concerts but was sadly underused in recording studios. 


"America Before: The Key to Earth's Lost Civilisation" by Graham Hancock

Omnivorous reader that I am, after Carl Sagan I have switched to something else completely, namely my old favourite Graham Hancock whom I followed and recommended to everybody for many years now. Hancock is very enthusiastic researcher, mainly focused on ancient civilisations and so far his books were usually completely ignored by scientists but very popular with masses curious about another possibilities and theories - his best seller was "Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth's Lost Civilisation " which I bought back in the 1990s and still love, however my favourite must be "Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind" for the sheer madness and scope of various ideas connected into one book. Hancock had a serious health scare recently so I'm glad that he has recovered and now there is a new book about possibility of ancient civilisations in Americas, long before Europeans ever knew about the place.

The premise is very interesting - contrary to formally accepted theory that Homo Sapiens roamed every continent but not Americas (where people came eventually via Bering strait while it was frozen) new archaeological evidence suggests that people indeed lived in a "New World" for thousands of years and traces of DNA & all sorts of interesting things point that perhaps there was a really ancient society there that has nothing to do with newcomers from the North. So far, so good - but than, to my biggest surprise Hancock really gets into all sorts of technical details and the book becomes so darn complicated and dry that I eventually found myself skipping the whole chapters. Instead following the narrative, page after page Hancock goes for calculations and measurements which for the first time struck me as unnecessary - instead of pointing an angry finger at academic society that shuns authors like himself, he could have simply focus on the story. Alas, seems like he has a very old grudge to bear and feel the need to prove he was right all along - now, to us, his readers, this is like preaching to the choir. We read him, because we love his ideas. But being angry at this or that scientist, page after page, chapter after chapter pointing how wrong and deluded they were, well its simply starts to become repetitive. So with deep regret, I am now (for the first time) reading Graham Hancock book simply because I want to finish what I started but not with excitement or pleasure, like before. I still love Hancock and I believe he is probably too emotional to distance himself from a objective, clear-eyed scientists who accept only proofs instead of theories - the world needs Don Quixotes like him. Strangely, I found this book my least favourite from all of his work, because of above mentioned. 


"Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta" by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1959)

On completely opposite side of the spectrum from her celebrated recordings of "Four Last Songs", these bubbly, sparkling bonbons culled from various Viennese operettas present magnificent versatility of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who could apparently sing everything, from the darkest despair of "A German Requiem" to staggeringly melancholic songs by Richard Strauss or these pretty, fluffy confectionery. Do not forget that her singing teacher was celebrated 1920s star Maria Ivogün who herself recorded many popular waltzes and her lessons in poise and sophistication stayed with Schwarzkopf for the rest of her life - impeccably prepared and serious, she would bring the utmost commitment to everything she approached. 

The apparently omnipotent, silvery voice was capable of everything, in this case of sparkling in dazzlingly melodious hits from bygone era - handpicked from various operettas and different composers, this record almost sounds like "the best of" operetta genre. In fact, its so close to perfection that I must admit that to my ears, every other female singer approaching this material always pales when compared to this recording. Franz Lehár and Johann Strauss Jr. are just some of composers represented here, lovingly orchestrated and arranged by conductor Otto Ackermann and Schwarzkopf is in top form. This is one of the very few albums by Schwarzkopf that are constantly in the print and deservedly so. 

"Ljiljana Petrović" (1962)

Holy Grail for Eurovision fans and collectors, this little 8-songs EP recording must be one of the rarest and most precious albums connected with famous festival - it was the very first time Yugoslavia ever joined as participant on this highly publicised music spectacle, the song climbed to respectable eight place and strangest of all, when Belgrade's PGP RTB ‎finally got around to release the album (next year!) they were so new at it that they never even advertised it as Eurovision song, which became standard procedure everywhere else around the Europe, where sticker with "Eurovision!" would help the sales.

Young and practically unknown Ljiljana Petrović (not to be confused with Gypsy singer with the same name) was practically pulled out of obscurity by famous composer and arranger Jože Privšek who have heard her voice by chance, when girl was recording her very first studio track and he insisted this is the voice he needs for upcoming Eurovision festival (he was composing the song). Eventually that particular song was chosen during the national pre-selection and young Petrović was packed off to Cannes where her youth and decidedly unglamorous, simple appearance were sensation amongst media - she was the first ever participant coming from Eastern Europe which at that time was still known as "behind Iron Curtain". To be honest, "Neke davne zvezde" sounds very much like any other standard ballad of the time and the whole hoopla was simply because TV audiences were pleasantly surprised with novelty of such exotic participant. But it served to break the ice and the very next year, much more experienced Lola Novaković placed fourth.

Even though this was a historical break into Eurovision and the very first time some artists from Yugoslavia had such huge multi-millioned audience, neither Petrović or Novaković actually got much support at home, very probably because local homegrown recording companies were still unaware what Eurovision actually means for record sales. Where song by Novaković was never even released as a single, young Petrović at least got her own album, because of famous composer prominence - the resulting album (released very much after the fact, next year) was a pretty combination of current international pop hits and original material, arranged and produced by Privšek who wrapped everything in the highly polished, sophisticated cellophane. 


"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

The previous book I have read ("Hunt for the Skinwalker") was initially interesting but it somehow petered away in a second half and it became just another guesswork about Alien visit, much ado about nothing - theories piled up on top of theories without a concrete proof or even conclusion. However, someone on Goodreads have mentioned this book as a suggestion of completely different approach to the same subject so I decided to check it out - I am glad that I did, because I enjoyed it very much.

Carl Sagan was of course, one of the most famous scientists in the world, thanks to his work for NASA and TV show "Cosmos" - his work has always intrigued me but for some reason I postponed it, probably thinking it would be "too complicated" and one of those things I have to read "when I grow up". Well, I'm almost 50 now so I might as well check it out (I said to myself) because after all, if not now, than when? To my surprise it was very approachable, without pandering to the audience - Sagan has a gift to explain everything in a relatively simple way, without sounding like he is deliberately dumbing down, in fact it was very interesting. His position is that superstition has no place in a modern world and science works very hard to find all the answers, although we still have a far to go but at least we are trying. Initially my impression was that guy was poking fun at human ignorance and superstition, I thought he was kind of snotty - until I checked some of his interviews on youtube where he really appeared as one of the brightest guys I have ever encountered, very knowledgeable, informed and even witty, real gentleman. I was so impressed that I gulped the rest of the book with a greatest pleasure, since I changed my mind about him completely - I am absolutely sure that if he was my teacher in the school, he would probably inspire everybody to be scientists. Kind of person who is passionate about his work, about new ideas and even open to the strange ones - he claims (for example) that science always needs to be open to new ideas because this is the only way we can progress. 

"If you're only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crochety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries in the borderlines of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful."

I can't put in words how much I have enjoyed this book and it gave me a lots of pleasure to ponder the ideas that Sagan mentioned here, of course I have also watched "Cosmos" immediately because it was natural to enjoy some more of his work. Carl Sagan was a true renaissance man, clever and bright, full of enthusiasm and understanding why things are the way they are. He even understood why in the current society scientists are not highly regarded as (for example) sportsmen, since kids are embarrassed to be perceived as geeks and nerds if they are too "bookish" which is a great pity. No one cares or support the teachers anymore and its not noble profession anymore, as being celebrity is much more important. No wonder we have all these shamans and astrologers today, with ignorance covering the world. 


"Dinah Sings Bessie Smith" by Dinah Washington (1958)

It sounds completely natural - one queen celebrating another, from earlier era - and honestly, when it comes to sass and attitude Dinah Washington followed steps of her illustrious predecessor. In some parallel universe it would be great to have them both at the same table and my guess is they would get along like a house on fire. Both were strong-willed, independent women who lived high life, financed lovers and husbands, bulldozed their way trough male dominated industry and burned like comets too early. It doesn't matter that as a singers they were completely different - both were strikingly original in their way and I doubt that even famously competitive Smith would find her younger successor unworthy of praise. 

By late 1950s Washington experimented with different genres and recorded two tribute albums, one to Fats Waller and another with Bessie Smith songbook. Both were arranged by Ernie Wilkins who was fine musician himself (after all, he worked with Count Basie) but unfortunately he decided to give them a certain almost Dixieland sheen that inevitably made the projects sound outdated - Washington herself sounds like a dream and its clear she loves these old songs but somehow (to my ears, at least) it appears almost ironic. There is something about arrangements that always bothered me and after all these years I am still not convinced that this music needed vaudeville costume - only occasionally, as on spectacular "Backwater Blues" Wilkins let singer rip completely, uncluttered by rinky dink snare drums. Great for collectors but undermined by arrangements. And my opinion has not changed in some twenty years that I own this album. 

"Sings The Best In Blues" by Dinah Washington (1958)

Excellent late 1950s compilation, released just as "The Queen" started to seriously branch in completely different waters, this LP served to remind listeners that before Washington dived in the sea of strings and echoing backing choruses, she was the sassiest, brashest and cheekiest of all gals around. No wonder she was called "queen of jukebox" because hit followed the hit and what you find here is really cream of her earliest work - how strange that her later international pop success eclipsed what is in reality by far her best period. 

Collected here are her singles from 1940s and early 1950s before she turned to LP albums filled with American Songbook and such - nothing bad about those albums, but in my opinion her heart and personality is perfectly described here. Washington, of course could do absolutely everything - torch songs, ballads, country, pop, Bessie Smith blues, you name it, she would put her stamp on it. Initially I was so blinded with her later music that these earliest singles didn't register with me, but than something interesting happened - with time I realised that syrupy ballads can't hold the candle to fierce "Evil Gal Blues", "Baby, Get Lost" or "Salty Papa Blues" - now this is THE album I listen the most when it comes to Dinah Washington. And of course, "Long John Blues" is a dirty joy to behold, something that young Aretha Franklin never dared to cover on her tribute to Washington. 


"Three Identical Strangers" by Tim Wardle (2018)

Well, this was actually excellent - had my eye on this documentary for a while and it turned out even better than I expected. It was a real-life story about three twin brothers, separated at birth and given to adoption as babies, who discovered each other later in life (at the college, at the age of nineteen) and how their lives changed with time. The main question here is the difference between nature and nurture, in fact this was the reason why they were separated in the first place - someone at adoption agency had idea that perhaps these three babies should be given to completely different sets of parents so the scientists could from time to time check on them to see how are they doing and will the completely different household create them in into different people or would they basically stay the same. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out that the least wealthy family provided the most affections - maddeningly, adoption agency never let anybody know that babies have brothers so both parents and children were completely unaware about twins living somewhere. Mothers did remember that boys showed great stress and unhappiness in the start, but never understood why - it became clear much later that little babies obviously grieved for their siblings. Its actually very cruel and sound sinister to use unfortunate orphan babies for scientific experiments, but at least first part of the movie, where grown up boys meet completely by chance is very uplifting - and than it turns much darker, but I don't want to spoil anything here. 

The best is to watch this movie without knowing too much about it, as I did. I was only vaguely familiar with the fact that there were three identical brothers who met by chance, but nothing else. So both me and friend went trough real emotional roller coaster, enjoying their happiness and saddened how life eventually had its own way of connecting the dots and unearthing old scars. It really all comes down to childhood, in this particular case nurture and how parents forever scarred the children - yes, boys were wonderful and genuinely similar but they were also raised by different parents and this determined who will they eventually became later in life. The subject is of course, very close to my heart as mine was very similar story and I also have siblings fostered elsewhere, but we were not twins and never became very close, in fact at very early stage I consciously distanced myself from them as the gap between our upbringing was just too big and we were never able to re-connect properly. To this day we are strangers and I made up my mind that its better this way instead of forcing something that was not there from the start. 


"Riječi Čarobne" by Massimo Savić (1988)

Second in a trilogy of polished pop albums Massimo Savić recorded with composer and producer Zrinko Tutić. In later years, Savić metamorphosed and moved on, so chances are he probably don't like to be reminded on material here but actually its great fun and truth to be told, I play some of these lightweight songs ("Moja Ljubica", "La Lu La Le") rather than what came later. Unlikely collaboration between the singer who came from completely different, new-wave background and producer famous for his blockbuster radio hits is not really as bad as it sounds - for all his commercial ambitions, Tutić seems to genuinely enjoy working with somebody gifted as this young singer and he surrounds him with all than-current studio wizardry available at the time. Expanding a music formula a bit from their debut, guys add some more flavours to the mix so this time we get country duet with Bebi Dol, "Malagueña Salerosa" and obligatory cover of old Italian chestnut "Una Lacrima Sul Viso" with Croatian lyrics - covers were always Massimo's forte and no wonder later he will turn to all-cover albums.

This guy's voice was always sensational from the start - he might not have been obvious pop idol, but in capable hands of star-making Tutić this is closest he came to be actually accepted by mainstream and these songs were played on the radio a lot. So in a way, Tutić helped him a lot to stay visible on the market after disastrous demise of his earlier band and from here he will go on to stay relevant for decades. Personally I didn't care much for other artists this producer was working but his albums with Massimo are still enjoyable and they are produced with knowledge, understanding and just a bit of calculation what might be appealing to wide audiences. For example, "Pusti Me Da Spavam" (one of less played songs here) is a perfect pop-soul example of Massimo doing what he does best, basically he is a first-rate blue-eyed soul singer. Backing vocals of Bebi Dol are excellent and its a pity they didn't collaborate some more because they seem to have been kindred spirits and their voices work very well together - judging from the results here, they could have been our first couple of pop, both gifted with very idiosyncratic, recognisable sounds and strong artistic vision. 


"Hunt for the Skinwalker" (Colm A. Kelleher, George Knapp)

Collaboration between journalist George Knapp and biochemist Colm Kelleher, this book falls into category of "popular science" or perhaps even better "UFO phenomenon" which of course appeals big deal to me - I never get tired reading about Aliens  + I have never heard of Skinwalker Ranch where all sorts of freaky things happened and apparently there is even a movie made about it. The story starts with a bang, since Knapp knows how to thrill the readers and he is very enthusiastic storyteller - its kind of similar to all the stories about new family moving innocently into a house possessed with Poltergeist, except that in this case family moves into a isolated farm where they get harassed by Alien creatures. So far, so good - the beginning is actually genuinely frightening and gripping, unfortunately when we move into next chapters ("The Investigation Begins" and "Aftermath and Hypothesis") it all somehow fizzles away, because even with his best intentions Knapp can't come up with anything concrete - he repeats and repeats ancient ghost stories about strange creatures from various sources but it all sounds like old wive's tales without one single thing we can pinpoint or prove. So the book ultimately loses its initial momentum and eventually becomes just another frustrating saga without any particular explanation or a proof - theories pile on top of other theories, leaving the reader confused with so many possible variations of Bigfoot and such. It does sound very exciting but it really just vanishes in the thin air like Aliens and their strange lights. Personally I find similar books by Graham Hancock far more satisfying, because he keeps the excitement flowing and at least have some explanations for his stories. 


Farewell Maja Perfiljeva

Poets always live quietly at the edge of society and eclipsed by far more prominent "celebrities" who enjoy the spotlight - but if they touch your heart, it is forever. Lovely, late Maja Perfiljeva was lucky in a sense that her most famous songs were set to music so they became well-loved pop hits, though if you ever met her, you understand she was not really a businesswoman - she was one true poetess I have ever met, wonderfully sweet, almost absent-minded, dreamy person who lived in her own world and of course painted on a silk. 

By default, Perfiljeva entered pop waters via her than-husband Hrvoje Hegedušić who composed songs for the popular music festivals and she was the lyricist: many of them were fantastic, beloved songs and for a while the husband and wife team was unbeatable, real music factory, not unlike Carole King and Gerry Goffin - her lyrics were always special, completely different level from usual jingle stuff one could hear on the pop records, if you listen carefully her songs are timeless and still sound fresh as when she first wrote them.

Back in my student days, when I lived trough a brief but unforgettable chapter of enthusiastic journalism, I visited Hegedušić and his second wife, singer Ksenija Erker - lovely people, both of them, after a nice interview and perfectly relaxed conversation about their music, the name of Perfiljeva somehow popped in my head (probably because they wrote the songs together) and being too young to know the details, I naively asked do they have her phone number so I could contact her for possible interview. I must have been 21 or so, had no idea that I am talking about "first wife" - it was a embarrassing moment ("You don't know that she was Hrvoje's wife?") but they saw that I was honest and way too young to know about old gossip. Eventually I found my way to visit Perfiljeva who was everything I imagine poets to be - dreamy, sweet, lovely, very soft-spoken and actually strikingly attractive lady with exotic features (her father was Russian emigrant) - she lived alone, surrounded with her paintings and hats, laughed at my innocent blunder and commented "Ksenija is great" without any trace of bitterness. I imagined her life was not being easy - she made living as a teacher - but everything about her was tender and soft, really unforgettable person and trough many years ever since I always remember her as unique spiritual soul. I just found out that she quietly passed away few days ago and I am deeply saddened about this, because world would be such a completely different place if we have more people like her.