"Last Letters" documents a love story among German Resistance fighters in World War II

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Last Letters book

“We are only here because of Harald Poelchau, the prison chaplain who risked his own life to smuggle these letters back and forth to my grandparents,” says author Johannes von Moltke. “There is no other way that my grandmother would have gotten these letters and been able to keep them the rest of her life.”

The messages von Moltke refers to are the heart of Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence Between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, which contains the intimate notes between German Resistance fighters in World War II. The book is published in English for the first time thanks to von Moltke, his sister Dorothea, his uncle Helmuth, and translator Shelley Frisch. 

Late in 1944, Freya von Moltke waited at home while her husband Helmuth James von Moltke was being held in a Berlin prison, awaiting his trial for his part in the Kreisau Circle, one of the crucial Resistance groups in Germany. In the months leading up to Helmuth’s execution in January 1945, the two exchanged heartfelt, moving letters about their lives and love for each other. Poelchau risked his safety daily to smuggle these writings in and out of the prison. 

Dr. von Moltke, now a professor of German and film at the University of Michigan, says his grandmother always had the letters with her.

Bill Kirchen reminiscences on Commander Cody, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan before the Ann Arbor guitar legend's Honky Tonk Holiday

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Excerpt from Bill Kirchen's Holiday Honk Tonk 2019 poster

Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen is instrumental in creating the rootsy country-rock-blues-folk mix we today call Americana. 

Kirchen hit it big early in his career as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; he’s responsible for the dazzling guitar work on their enduring 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s since become known as an absolute master of the Telecaster guitar, playing with a nearly endless list of impressive names through the years. 

Most recently, though, Kirchen has found one more way to shine: He’s become well known for his Honky Tonk Holiday tours, which showcase some of the most amazing, overlooked Christmas-themed gems you’ve never heard, alongside some other favorites from throughout his storied career.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, Kirchen brings his annual holiday spectacular home to Ann Arbor for a show at The Ark.

Dusting off should-be-classics like “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” “Silent Surfin’ Night,” and “Truckin’ Trees For Christmas,” Kirchen -- now based in Austin -- will appear with his backing band The Hounds of the Bakersfield, featuring Rick Richards on drums and David Carroll on stand-up bass. 

Kirchen took the time to answer a few questions via email, reflecting on the upcoming show and his time in Ann Arbor.

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.

Get Away With She: Nellie McKay wants to escape from it all

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Nellie McKay

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

This story was originally published on May 9, 2018, ahead of Nellie McKay's May 13, 2018, concert at The Ark in Ann Arbor. McKay is returning to The Ark on Monday, November 19 in support of her new 8-song EP, "Bagatelles," which you can hear below in addition to her 2018 LP, "Sister Orchard."

Nellie McKay often seems like she’s at a loss for words.

During our phone conversation to promote the pianist-singer-songwriter’s show at The Ark on May 13, her answers were often preceded by a swarm of ums, uhs, I means, and various other utterances. And when McKay did get to the answers, it wasn’t necessarily in response to my questions, instead offering long vignettes about politics and the stark realities of being a full-time musician. 

On stage, McKay has a similarly discursive way of speaking, mixing funny anecdotes, political pleas, and stammering self-effacement.

But once McKay strikes a piano key, everything flows. Words stream from her gorgeous voice with confidence and warmth. The quirkiness that defines her conversations gives way to sass and power, and listeners get invited into her world -- which is not of this era.

Regrets, He's Had a Few: Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards is forever "Doing It My Way"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Braylon Edwards' book Doing It My Way

Former University of Michigan All American wide receiver and NFL Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards has a reputation for being outspoken, to say the least. But even so, he had to warm up to the idea of writing Doing It My Way: My Outspoken Life as a Michigan Wolverine, NFL Receiver, and Beyond.

Triumph Books, my publishing company, originally approached me in 2017,” Edwards said. “I had no idea what my book would be about, and to be honest, at the time, the money was laughable. … So we said, ‘We’ll pass.’ And by we, I mean me and my mother. She’s my business manager, so I run everything by her. But as we started telling people that I was presented with this opportunity -- my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, my coaches, my friends, everybody -- I started to think there enough things I’ve gone through in my life that make my story unique.”

This included constantly traveling between two sets of parents as a child; being a “legacy” athlete since Edward’s father, Stan Edwards, played football for Michigan under Bo Schembechler; the ups and downs of Edwards’ football career, both at Michigan and in the NFL; and his struggles off the field, including his battles with drug use, anxiety, and depression.

“It became evident that the book should happen -- that this was something we should definitely sign up for,” Edwards said. “So when [Triumph] came back to us in 2018, I didn’t care so much about the money. It was more about my story out there. … People forget that there’s more to athletes than a helmet, or a golf club, or lacrosse sticks -- especially now, with social media and fantasy sports. It’s like no one cares about athletes anymore. It’s all about, ‘What can you do for me?’”

Edwards wrote Doing It My Way with ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren. And while you might assume that Edwards felt a bit nervous and vulnerable when his highly personal book debuted in September, that’s not the case.

In "Find Me," author André Aciman resumes the stories of characters from "Call Me by Your Name"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Andre Aciman and his book Find Me

Author photo by Christopher Ferguson.

How do we know if we are fully living our lives? Does asking that question mean that we are not?

Find Me by André Aciman is a novel obsessed with these questions. Its characters find such great love that they feel as though they had not been living previously. This book also continues the stories of Elio and Oliver, among other characters, which first appeared in Call Me by Your Name, Aciman’s 2007 novel. While reading Call Me by Your Name before Find Me would provide helpful background, you can enjoy Find Me without having read the other book, as I read Find Me first for this interview with Aciman and then Call Me by Your Name after.

Aciman is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and lives with his wife in Manhattan. He will be in conversation with Zahir Janmohamed and also answer audience questions at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Saturday, November 9, at 7 pm in a ticketed event by Literati Bookstore.

In the four-parted Find Me, the first section focuses on Samuel, who is Elio’s father and receives a bigger role than in the previous book. On the topic of whether someone is truly living, Samuel reflects, “Some of us never jumped to the next level. We lost track of where we were headed and as a result stayed where we started.” As he interacts with Miranda, a woman he meets on a train, he muses about embracing life and how conversely, “Perhaps going about one’s daily life with all its paltry joys and sorrows is the surest way of keeping true life at bay.” This concern becomes not only a call to action and attention for Samuel as he comes to this awareness while his relationship with Miranda simultaneously grows, but also a theme as other characters reconsider their lives in subsequent parts of the novel.

The next three sections of Find Me center on other characters -- Elio, Oliver, and Elio again -- in their first-person voices, and they pick up what has happened in their lives since Call Me by Your Name. The subject of how to live gains more nuance as those characters discuss who they have been, who they are now, and how they have changed over time. Michel, Elio’s lover, says to him, “I suspect we have first selves and second selves and perhaps third, fourth, and fifth selves and many more in between.” He recognizes how, at different times and places in life, we are different people, and then later we are no longer those people. This concept becomes especially poignant between Elio and Oliver.

Not only do people evolve during their lives but they also reveal unique parts of themselves in different relationships and situations. As Samuel says to Miranda, “Most of us never meet those who’ll understand our full rounded self. I show people only that sliver of me I think they’ll grasp. I show others other slices. But there’s always a facet of darkness I keep to myself.” Find Me is also clearly preoccupied with who we are and how we know -- and are known to -- others.

The events and musings of characters in Find Me expose the situational nature of relationships and also embrace intensity and sensuality, though it may be hard to believe the ways and speed in which relationships progress. Fate plays somewhat of a role in bringing characters together, but the novel suggests that the characters’ choices and desires have a bigger effect on their lives. At so many points in the relationship between Samuel and Miranda, or Elio and Oliver, someone chooses or chooses not to say something, or they get scared and bolt. Yet, they discover a greater life when following their desires.

Aciman answered some questions from me before his visit to Ann Arbor.

All the Young Doogs: Ypsilanti's Doogatron makes electronic music with a human touch

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Doogatron

Building the Perfect Robot: Take one Kyle, add a Stevie, mix with a Mike, and you've got a Doogatron. Photo by Kate de Fuccio/AM1700.

Doogatron is one of three acts performing at the Ann Arbor Synth Expo (AASE) on Saturday, November 9 at AADL's downtown location. Below is an interview we did with the group earlier this year, prefaced by a band update written by synth player Stevie:

We've mostly been recording and trying different workflows this year. These new processes have yielded a few singles we're excited about releasing next year. Ann Arbor Synth Expo will probably be the only chance to hear some bits and pieces of those before we put them out. We also did some remixes this year that we're debating on releasing or just keeping in our back pocket to play at shows. The last of four EPs we're releasing this year is out on Friday, 11/15/19. The other three are currently available on our Bandcamp and all streaming platforms. Mike moved to Brooklyn in May so he won't be appearing with us at the AASE but he recorded with us quite a bit earlier this year and he might continue recording with us remotely.

Synth music is often a solitary exercise. It's easy enough for one person to program all the music and not have to deal with band dynamics.

Electronic music duos are more common and count influential acts such as Orbital, Mouse on Mars, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Coil, and many more in those ranks.

Less common is a synthesizer trio, quartet, or quintet, but there is a rich history of synth groups, too, from Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Throbbing Gristle, Add N to (X), and Hot Chip. The combination of personalities mixed with live playing over sequenced sections gives the music a more human quality, and Washtenaw County trio Doogatron is part of this lineage.

Stevie, Kyle, and Mike -- family names are for families -- make loose-limbed techno that mixes programmed parts on computer and live playing on vintage synths. The group's sound is elastic and trippy even as it's framed by linear rhythms. 

Doogatron's self-titled debut LP came out Nov. 2, 2018, and the group has followed that with a New Year's Day 2019 mix of original tunes, reworked album cuts, and earlier tunes initially heard on Soundcloud. In February, Doogatron will release the first of at least four EPs/singles scheduled for this year. "Each release comes from one continuous recording session," Stevie said, "so each track will serve as a part one, part two, part three experience," starting with "Before Subsidized Time" b/w "After Subsidized Time."

Stevie gave us the lowdown on Doogatron's history, name, and work process.

Instinct to Play: Thollem McDonas at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Thollem McDonas

This article on June 28, 2017. We're re-running it because McDonas is returning to Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, and he'll again collaborate with local improvisors Piotr Michalowski and Abby Alwin for an evening of spontaneous music.

Thollem McDonas might be a compulsive collaborator. The American pianist, composer, keyboardist, songwriter, activist, teacher, and author's many projects have included several renowned, and lesser known, players over the years, and he doesn't seem to be slowing.

From improvisations with perennial experimental music headliners -- guitarist Nels Cline; double bassist William Parker; the late composer, accordionist, and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros -- to his Italian agit-punk unit Tsigoti and the art-damaged spiel of the Hand to Man Band (also featuring American punk icon Mike Watt on bass and Deerhoof's John Dietrich on guitar), there's little ground McDonas hasn't covered or isn't covering. He might just be the ideal "six-degrees-of" candidate for people into that particular Venn diagram of weird improv, challenging chamber music, and thinking-people's punk rock.

McDonas plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, with a trio completed by two accomplished locals: reedman Piotr Michalowski and cellist Abby Alwin. We talked with the restless, and very thoughtful, pianist by email about his many collaborations, balancing political action with music, and sitting down at Claude Debussy's piano.

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

Fifth Avenue Press celebrates the release of 9 new books on November 10

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Fifth Avenue Press logos and November 2019 authors

The Ann Arbor District Library's Fifth Avenue Press celebrates the release of its latest batch of books with a release reception at the downtown branch on Sunday, November 10, at 1 pm.

AADL cardholders can download PDF copies of the books here; print copies for most titles will be on sale at the reception.

To read interviews with the other authors, click on the book titles below:

➥ The Elements: A Love Letter to All Things Everywhere written and illustrated by Hannah Burr
➥ Intersections by Shanelle Boluyt
➥ All That We Encounter by Bethany Grey
➥ Shape Notes by Judy Patterson Wenzel
➥ Fantastic Planet: Modern Crab Adventures written and illustrated by Douglas Bosley
Over in Motown by Debbie Taylor, with illustrations by Keisha Morris
The Dragon Library by James Barbatano, with illustrations by Douglas Bosley
➥ Breaking Through by Johnny Thompson
➥ The Planet We Live On by Shanda Trent