Feb 092019
 

I grew up in a house that didn’t really listen to music even though I took violin classes when I was young and my sister played flute. The stereo I bought with money from my first job was the first in the house (that worked) and I didn’t know anything about what I liked or didn’t. At university, I learned to pick out basic chords on a guitar. More importantly, I took some introductory music theory classes taught by Suzanne Summerville, a teacher I adored and who invited me to study singing with her.

For the next few years, every semester, nestled in among all the history, math and political science I was taking for my very oddly constructed BA degree were the credited private lessons with Dr. Summerville. We met twice a week for an hour and I learned to make sounds on key and to work with an accompanist. I also sang in her university chorus and at recitals where she introduced archival music from her research. She was a specialist of the then much-less-known Fanny Mendelssohn (the sister of Felix) and for end-of-term juries, I always prepared German lieder—often Schubert, sometimes Wolfe—and American piano songs.

When I think back to my undergraduate studies, it’s those lessons that come first to mind because it was Dr. Summerville who, in our long rambling conversations about art and music, laid the foundation for what became my education. That she took me under her wing despite my utter lack of knowledge and extremely limited talent was a gift of love and I still wonder why she chose me to receive it. But then, she was a generous teacher, and I imagine I am not the only student who felt as specially chosen.

Anyway, I continued to sing casually after I left Alaska but stopped studying and no longer performed. Once I got to Montreal and moved into apartments with thin walls I mostly stopped singing completely. Instead I began to listen to vocal music—classical, yes, but also increasingly, and then obsessively, jazz. But recently classical singing has again become something I listen to often.

This renewed interest has roots reaching back years ago to when I was introduced to my first opera by a friend who offered tickets to see La Bohème at the Met Live in HD series downtown. I went and was astonished. Everything I loved about cinema and theatre were here fused with beautiful singing. I thought of opera as old-fashioned, maybe a joke and didn’t realize it could be so beautiful. I was overwhelmed and—to my surprise—reduced to exultant tears. Since then I’ve watched a half dozen of the Met projections, but no one else I know is more than hypothetically interested. So it’s been easy to skip buying tickets in favor of doing things that family and friends like and we can do together.

But I’m interested in opera! I enjoy it! So it annoys me that I don’t know anything and haven’t made an effort to see more. So finally, during winter holidays this year, I did a bit of research and decided that over the course of the year I was going to make a not-haphazard tour of a bit of the opera repertoire using the Met’s Apple TV app. My thought is to have something like a regular Sunday-afternoon opera. That’s my thought anyway.

Levine’s book is an introductory reference and one of the books I’ve ordered to help me figure out what to watch. It’s light and I read through all the framing materials in the early part of a morning. But the lists of works and brief contextual information is useful for where I am. I’ll have it at hand for the next few months I think.

Feb 042019
 

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Jan 312019
 

An extraordinary collection. Leach’s voice is allegorical and ironic, knowing yet naive, more poetry than prose, and cagey.

Near the middle point in an essay called “God” we learn that the people’s words—not the animals’—are like stones, hard to swallow and heavy and they say “God” and “God” and ”God” and it is too much to bear. God’s words are outdoors. They are the bat, the frog, the animals, the woman walking among them in the night.

Leach speaks his language, ornamenting it with a glorious, exuberant English, and in full-throated peals, hymns praise for a world.

But that is not all. Pandemonium is here too and a night sky and so very very many of the fireflakes that tug at a mind or a soul, fueling caprices. And this great bear we see is made of stars. And the beast feeding on jellyfish clinging to the sand is a star. And you? “You be the moon.”

Do you want to be? Because you can be, if you want to be. Here in these essays.

Be the moon.

Jan 302019
 

When I watched Glenn Close win her Golden Globe in January, I learned that the film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name. Googling, I learned it was by Meg Wolitzer, the author of The Interestings and the editor of last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories. (The “excellent” isn’t a given in the short story series–or at least, what counts often doesn’t match my taste. Wolitzer’s matched mine closely.) 

I ordered the novel and, reading it, realized that I like what Wolitzer does: careful, serious development of characters within relationships defined by history, and all of this handled without affectation or self-importance. She writes novels, and I’m going to read more of them.

Jan 132019
 

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”

Jan 122019
 

In general, I don’t like movies about children. What I learned reading this book is that I may not actually like books about children either. This bodes ill for the rest of the series.

(This was a problem with my response to Carson McCullers’s fiction as well, but one that I got past because of the narration.)

Dec 272018
 

By its end, this trilogy reveals itself to be nothing less than a deep thinking through of the historical consequences of racism and its relentless transformation of the world day-by-day, year-by-year into something worse. The corruption is familial, it is sexual, it is social and political, it is climatic. 

The fantasy here is not that a wrong can be righted, even if only allegorically. The novel doesn’t right the wrong.

No, the fantasy is the idea that with courage, sacrifice and love, on-going destruction can be halted and the wound staunched long enough, to leave room for people of good will to begin the hard work of building up something better from the ruins.

What I find most political about this fantasy isn’t the representation of characters who are women and brown and queer, as powerful as that clear commitment to their visibility and their stories is. No, I think it is the hope that (and the confidence that) enough people will want to stop the destruction and that they can do so, even though the work required will necessarily begin with and take as its materials a world made a wasteland by the horrors of the past.

Dec 162018
 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read something, liked it for the first few chapters, but then chapter by chapter liked it less and less. This book is like that.

Johannes is not a pleasant or endearing character. His brother is, but he’s very much off-stage for long stretches of the action. And story-wise, the book is essentially a series of self-contained “bits” or set pieces that are wrapped up in the end with a few long final chapters suggesting just enough character growth to justify a happy ending.

None of which is necessarily a problem. Lord knows I like plenty of deeply risible claptrap. And this book is better than that.

It’s just that it’s a book that plays to a particular taste. You’re either going to eat up the constant winks, nods, puns and, most importantly, Johannes’s Victorian Gothic posturing or you are going to find them dropping like bricks, one by one and page after page, onto your last nerve. 

Dec 152018
 

The second book in The Broken Earth trilogy shifts the narrative in ways that I found disorienting for the first half of the book.

In part this was because—as was the case in The Fifth Season—narrative point-of-view is so central to the effect the book is aiming for. Again the principal point-of-view is a disorienting second person and it’s used to put identity—who is speaking? to whom?—and my efforts to “identify with” on centerstage as questions. By the end of the book, I’d finally clued into the fact that in being constructed as challenges, these concepts were also being thematized.

I was also slow to catch on to the new narrative stakes. Narrative lines established in the first book seemed to have faded into the background here without me having a good sense of what was taking their place. With the point-of-view holding me at arms length from the characters, my uncertainty about the direction of the story initially made for shaky (pun intended) reading.

Only once I was past the mid-point had I settled back in enough to catch on to the true source of my problems: the scale of the story had changed dramatically. What I’d understood as a of coming of age fantasy—a young country woman is brought to town, educated, discovers she’s important—wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t simply that familiar story and resemblances to it were a distraction. The stakes here were social, historical and philosophical and the narrative was reaching for and attempting to establish the cultural resonances that support strong allegory.

I’ve already read The Stone Sky as I write this, so I should probably go ahead and admit that this second book in the series remains my least favourite. But seeing how successfully the final book arrives at the deep allegorical force this book is building toward makes me admire this one for all the work it does to make that final triumph possible.

Dec 082018
 

I stumbled across a reference to The Snow Leopard a year and a half ago reading something somewhere about Buddhism. I bought a copy, read it, read it again, and have continued to read it, a bit here a bit there, right up to the present day. That is a long time to spend with a book, and yet it remains as fresh to me, as extraordinarily beautiful, and as deeply moving as it did when I first picked it up.

The story it tells is simple enough. Matthiessen and his friend GS, a wildlife biologist renowned for his field research, hike from Katmandu in Nepal up (and up and up) into a remote region of the Tibetan Himalayas to observe the rut of a little understood mountain goat. If they are fortunate, they also hope to see one of the elusive snow leopards known to live in the mountains. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, would like to visit the aging Llama of the Crystal Monastery as well. Weather threatens them continually on the ascent and both supplies and the porters to carry them are limited, but the men eventually make it to Inner Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, much later than planned but in time for the rut. GS studies the goats; Matthiessen visits the monastery. The men then descend back down into the world of the lower altitudes.

Within the frame of this simple story, Matthiessen experiences something that feels like the entirety of a life and his writing evokes that experience anew each time I read it. In this the book echoes Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps.

The foundation here is a spare taut prose with breadth and sweep enough to capture an immense natural world while also remaining grounded enough to read as the language of a particular man and of his mind’s workings. The writing is always stunningly concrete even as he moves within deeply philosophical considerations of love, death, family, friendship, the nature of reality, and the existence of the self. His mind is strong, energetic, even stubborn yet also (amazingly) open, pliable, and generous.

I’ve spent eighteen months with Matthiessen’s book, and I’m certain he was a difficult and imperfect person, but as strange as it is to say, I suspect that many of the people who knew him fell in love with him and that, if I had, I would have as well.