Book Review: Rita Lee’s Candid and Brutally Honest Autobiography

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By Ernest Barteldes

Rita Lee: Uma Autobiografia

Globo Livros

$ 8.99  Kindle Edition(in Portuguese)/ $ 38 paperback

The music of Brazilian rock superstar Rita Lee Jones has been part of my life as far as I can remember, starting from when her signature song “Ovelha Negra” hit Brazilian airwaves in the mid-1970s until pretty much present day, even if I haven’t yet listened to her 2012 release Reza (“Prayer”).  I have attended her shows over the years (including her last NYC appearance in 2003), and her music has been part of the soundtrack of my life along with every other musician or band that I have admired over the years.

When I heard that she had released an autobiography I was a bit curious but didn’t really make a point of reading immediately. However, my mother so kindly bought it for me as a Christmas present and I could not resist to crack the tome and find out what it was all about.

Like with any rock biography, readers tend to want the author to go straight to the stories behind the music, but since this is also her own story, we spend a few pages learning about Lee’s childhood and her relationship with her parents,  two sisters and extended family in a large house in Sao Paulo.  I was actually surprised to learn that she had quite a stable family life – she went to Communion with her family, and had a pretty normal life save for the horrible story in which Lee was raped with a screwdriver at seven years of age – and that the culprit was never caught.

When we get to the 60s, things get juicy, as she describes her years with Os Mutantes and their relationship with the Tropicalista movement started by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. We also learn the ugly side of the band and the way she was unceremoniously ousted from the band once the two Brandao brothers decided to take the band into a Yes-inspired progressive direction, and then we follow her entire career with details on the recording of every album she made all the way to her retirement, when she decided to stop touring and dedicate herself to family and a quieter lifestyle.

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The book is highly personal, and she does not gloss over the darker moments of her life, including her infamous 1976 arrest for drug possession while she was pregnant with her first son Beto Lee, her addictions and especially the self-destructive behavior that almost destroyed her relationship with husband and longtime songwriting partner Roberto de Carvalho. She is brutally honest when it comes to her disdain to the Mutantes reunion and also her detractors – especially late rock critic Ezequiel Neves, who openly hated her and printed his vitriol in the press with impunity, even spreading rumors about her health.

It is a very good read – it is not yet available in English, but it surely deserves to be translated even if it only reaches a small audience of her die-hard fans who did not have a chance to learn Portuguese, as suggested by the English lyrics of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” – which she recorded with Os Mutantes, by the way.

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Prosecutor Szacki’s Last Stand?

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Book Review: Rage by Zygmunt Miłozewski

(Amazon Crossing)

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

review by Ernest Barteldes

On the final part of his Prosecutor Szacki trilogy that began with Entanglement (Bitter Lemon) , Zygmunt Miłozewski takes us to Olsztyn, where he transferred following the events from Grain of Truth (Bitter Lemon).

Szacki’s life has changed considerably – his teenage daughter is now living with him while his ex-wife is traveling around Asia with her new husband, and he is also in a lasting relationship with a local woman – which prompted him to leave Warsaw for good for this former German city, where he lives in an apartment just across the boulevard from the prosecution service.

But Szacki has not lost his usual bitterness. When he is called at a construction site below a hospital when a skeleton of what is believed to be a “German” (old remains are always – according to the novel – considered to be of Germans who previously lived there), he mutters to himself about hoping to have a “real” case that he can really investigate, not the usual drunken college student brawls that he routinely deals with. Further studies of the remains shows that the bones are actually much newer than previously thought, and that the deceased – a travel agent – had a gruesome death, dissolved while still alive using hydrocloric acid – the kind sold in any supermarket for unclogging household drains.

Rage has plenty of colorful characters – among them a doctor that assists with the investigation – a Dr. Frankenstein, who is also a professor who has alcohol-fueled parties with his students in a his campus lab. He is clearly an eccentric, but he seems to get along well with the prosecutor thanks to his dry personality and detail-focused demeanor. As the story progresses, we find that anger is central to all the main characters, going from the prosecutor himself to the surprising perpetrator.

Miłozewski does no favors to the town of Olsztyn (where he – as of this writing – resides), and describes it as a dark, uninteresting place to be with lousy weather and ugly streets: “Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”

The story line is extremely engaging all the way to its anti-climatic twist ending. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation (she works closely with the author) flows nicely, without leaving the reader with any feeling of being lost in translation at any moment.

In the backdrop of the narrative are the news stories of the day: the political crisis in Ukraine and the the civil war in Syria and minor news headlines from around Poland. There are many other pop culture references, which might make the novel seem dated in a few years – I mean, will anyone remember reruns of the American sitcom Friends in, say, two or three decades?

According to some news reports, this is where we say goodbye to Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and the ending makes us pretty certain of that – but given that the series has been so successful since its inception (the first two books were adapted into movies), will this really be goodbye? As a fan of the series myself, I sincerely hope not.