Sunday, April 6, 2014

Some singing for you to enjoy, plus a few thoughts on recent novels

I've been absent from this blog for quite a while!  It's been a wonderful and busy semester, and I'm about halfway through a nonstop month of singing, in which I have a gig of some kind every week or weekend, with more evenings taken up by rehearsals than free to work on homework.  It's the kind of return to a balanced life of research and singing that I've wanted for a while...but the problem is that leveling out singing and academic work doesn't actually mean that my life is balanced at all; it means that I have less time for my husband and less time for self-care like reading, yoga, and bicycle commuting.  It also means that when I catch a cold, like I did three days ago, it's a significant problem (and in this case meant finding a last-minute substitute to sing a wedding).

So what have I been up to?  If you want a sample of the aforementioned singing, you could take a listen to this recording of the Duke Vespers Ensemble singing Orlando di Lassso's magnificent Tears of St. Peter, found here (the concert starts around 6:30).  I'm the second soprano soloist for a lot of the movements featuring smaller forces (which puts me second from the left).  It's a phenomenal set of 21 madrigals tracing Peter's grief after he denied Christ.  Our rendition adds accompaniment by recorders and sackbutts.

I've read quite a lot of children's and young adult fiction books since my last batch of book reviews, most of which were duds but a few of which were amazing and will likely make it onto my top ten list for the year - I hope to write up a few thoughts on those soon.  In terms of adult fiction, three:

Margery Sharp's Four Gardens - a lovely book that charts a woman's path through her first disappointed love, marriage, motherhood, war, and widowhood via the framing devices of the four gardens she loves during these different periods in her life.  I'm not sure I'll ever read it again, but it was a really sweet little book.

Anne Peile's Repeat It Today With Tears - the terrifyingly captivating perspective of a young woman who seduces her father.  The novel in no way promotes incest, but the narrative does force you to understand her reasons.  I thought the first portion was darkly beautiful, but the last section dropped the ball.  Still, I was left haunted, and I continue to think about this book.

Carol Clewlow's A Woman's Guide to Adultery - apparently I was on a little bit of a dark streak, following up incest with adultery!  This novel follows a group of women who basically all have affairs with each others' significant others or family members.  There's a lot of musing on the reasons for adultery, how its participants try to justify it, and how they end up hurting each other.  For a book supposedly about relationships between men and women, there was a tremendous amount of discussion of how women treat each other and themselves.  Not a book I'll read again; pretty much everybody was an awful person.

I'm currently in the middle of Winfred Holtby's South Riding which is taking absolutely forever - three weeks in, and I'm only about halfway done - but I'm surprisingly not fretting about the length of time it's taking, because I'm loving every minute of it.  It's a superbly plotted novel, executed to perfection, and I really care about most of the characters  - it's amazing how she can make you sympathetic to both sides of political arguments and worldviews.  And poor Lydia Holly; I don't even like the girl and I'm desperate for her to have the opportunity to return to school!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Without knowing what to expect

Helen Dunmore's novel The Siege arrived for me at the library today; I had no memory of placing a hold for it.  Don't you love it when that happens?  A book shows up, you don't know why, and you don't remember reading a review that convinced you to ask for it.  You know there was a reason you requested it, but you don't remember what it was, thus enabling what is for a book blogger the fairly unusual luxury of sinking into a book without knowing what to expect.

Today was an incredibly busy day - teaching, singing, and music editing - so I'm only about a page and a half into this book.  But I suspect it's going to be fantastic, because right there on the first page was this stunningly beautiful passage.  Be sure to read to the end, because it was the last sentence that made me catch my breath and close the book, because I wasn't ready to read on.  I have such hopes for this novel now.

Such a late spring, murky and doubtful, clinging to winter's skirts.  But this is how it happens here in Leningrad.  Under the trees around the Admiralty, lakes of spongy ice turned grey.  There was slush everywhere, and a raw, dirty wind off the Neva.  There was frost, a thaw, another frost.

Month after month ice-fishermen crouched by the holes they'd drilled in the ice, sitting out the winter, heads hunched into shoulders.  And then, just when it seemed as if summer would forget about Leningrad this year, everything changed.  Ice broke loose from the compacted mass around the Strelka.  Seagulls preened on the floes as the current swept them under bridges, and down the widening Neva to the sea.  The river ran full and fast, with a fresh wind tossing up waves so bright they stung your eyes.  Everything that was rigid was crumbling, breaking away, floating.

People leaned on the parapets of the Dvortsovy bridge, watching the ice-floes rock as they passed under the arch.  Their winter world was being destroyed.  They wanted spring, of course they wanted it, more than anything.  They longed for sun with every pore of their skin.

But spring hurts.  If spring can come, if things can be different, how can you bear what your existence has been?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Magic, animals, and intrigue: a batch of book reviews

With so much going on with my academic work (including my first article accepted for publication!), I've fallen behind on book reviews.  Here are a few brief thoughts on the childrens, YA, and adult novel I've read recently - some I loved, some were disappointing, but all were wonderful breaks from academic research.

Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet (Magic Steps, Street Magic, Cold Fire, and Shatterglass) is kind of a bummer after her original Circle of Magic set.  The original four books focused on the growing friendship between four lonely children who had magic with everyday things - weaving, smithing, gardening, and weather.  When the four wove their magic together, they found unexpected strength, and even at their young age, were able to help their teachers solve some very real problems, like a pirate attack, a massive forest fire, and even a plague.  The quality of the original books derived from the relationships between these characters, and I think it was a mistake for Pierce to separate the four in the sequel quartet.  As the title (The Circle Opens) implies, the four go their separate ways.  Without the interaction between Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar, the charm is gone, and oddly, the plot of every single book is the same: now a fully-credentialed mage, each has a responsibility to teach a new student - we readers are introduced to dancing, stone, cooking, carpentry, and glass magic.  The student resists, not believing that he or she really has magic, but eventually, our protagonist convinces their new student, and after some lessons, teacher and student help foil a serial killer.  Yes, really.  All four of the books revolve around stopping a serial killer.  With so many possible plotlines for these young mages taking their first adventures in the world, why did Pierce think it was a good idea for every one of these four books to sound exactly the same?

On a brighter note, it turns out that the rumors are true - The Princess Bride book is even better than the movie!  I loved the parenthetical asides, I loved the extended rescue from the Zoo of Death, and most of all, I loved the deliberate absurdity of Buttercup and Westley's romance.  The movie presents an epic romance, while the book has more ironic distance, satirizing the political situation of this fantasy realm and poking fun at the mere idea of an epic romance.

I looked up Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers after hearing that it helped influence the character of Cora on Downton Abbey.  Indeed, the novel is about "new money" American heiresses who marry into the English nobility.  The American women get titles and their English husbands get the infusion of funds needed to support their struggling estates - good for everybody, right?  Except that this is Edith Wharton we're talking about, and so no one can really be happy.  The novel is fantastic, and the real tragedy is that it was Wharton's last, and left unfinished.  Just like Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, readers aren't left hanging - the remainder of the plot is outlined for us.  But it's maddening to get so far into a great story and be left hanging!  (I'm reluctant to read a version completed by anyone else, but if that idea appeals to you, evidently you can find such copies.)

A voice teacher friend recommended James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, explaining it as the very best of English provincial life, and I have to agree - it's an absolutely lovely novel, and largely autobiographical, which tells the story of a young veterinarian in the English countryside.  The book struck me as very masculine, and not just because the narrator was a man.  There are very few female characters, and nearly all of the ones that do appear are peripheral or sources of comedy.  There are a lot of birth stories, but these tales of pregnant farm animals aren't romanticized, and when Herriot isn't reaching up cow rectums, he's drinking or smoking his pipe.  Despite this very masculine feel, these short vignettes add up to a marvelously engaging picture of English country folk: ornery and tight-fisted, but also ruggedly independent and admirably hospitable.  A very funny and very heart-warming book, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, Angie Sage's Flyte, second in the Septimus Heap series following the amazing Magyk, was a bit of a let-down.  It was still engaging and whimsical, but this sequel falls prey to the common trap of not introducing enough new characters.  The thrill of discovery is gone, since we already know all of the major players, and it's just not as much fun to watch the same people run around having adventures again.  J.K. Rowling really handled the balance between new and old characters well in each new Harry Potter book; Sage wasn't quite so adept, and the second in her series also suffered from an uneven plot.  Still, I remain enthralled by the world she has created, and I look forward to the third one.

Monday, February 10, 2014


I think I would have enjoyed Jane Yolen's Young Merlin trilogy a lot more as a kid.  As an adult, despite the fascinating application of falconry metaphors to the origin story of the famous Merlin of King Arthur mythology, the first book, Passager, was simply too short to really grab my interest.  In this retelling, Merlin is abandoned in the wilderness as a young boy, where he becomes feral, living on mushrooms, berries, and the occasional raw fish, and slowly forgets his memories of life in human community and even his language, for lack of anyone with whom he can converse.  But when the wild boy sees a falconer and his bird, he follows the man home, and like a young falcon, is caught and tamed.  A passager, after all, is just that: a wild bird, caught young and lovingly tamed.  When the young boy discovers his name at the end, reclaiming his human identity without losing the intuition and affinity to the natural world, the scene is quite moving.  However, the book was just too short for any meaningful plot advancement.  This really is a brief little children's book, and it was ultimately unsatisfying.  Perhaps if all three were bound together...?  In any case, I think I'll leave the Young Merlin trilogy here, and not bother with the next two books.  Reading Passager instead made me really want to revisit The Snow Child, a far richer story about a child who manages to be self-sufficient in a harsh wilderness.  Sorry, Jane Yolen - turns out I prefer your books with a little more depth to them!  But if you're looking for an interesting, children's-length retelling of the early life of the wizard Merlin, Passager is a nice choice.

Evidently, Yolen has written over 280 books (thank you, Wikipedia).  Wow!  I've only read a few of those - my favorites, which I own, are Wizard's Hall and Dragon's Blood.  Have you read any of her books, and what did you think?

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Folk Keeper

Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper is one of those odd books that I enjoyed while reading, but enjoyed much more after I'd finished it.  It sticks with you, and I've thought about it a lot since putting it down.  It was my first book by this author, and I'm definitely going to check out her others (Well Wished (her debut novel), and the more recent and highly acclaimed Chime), for they promise to be in the same vein: first-person writing, with an otherworldly style and an unreliable narrator, and stories based on fairy tales that aren't strict retellings (I tend to find those boring - why not just read the original?).

It's frustrating for the purposes of this review that telling you the reason I liked this book so much would be a huge and unforgivable spoiler.  Let me just say that despite my recent disappointment with YA fiction, one so acute that it has led me to wonder whether I no longer like the genre, and still like old favorites simply because of nostalgia, The Folk Keeper has restored my appreciation.  YA fiction still has promise; Franny Billingsley is someone to watch out for.  Oddly enough, The Folk Keeper didn't feature a protagonist that I much identified with, nor, I think, were readers supposed to.  Corinna Stonewall is a very interesting narrator, definitely, but I'm not sure I liked her.  She had a selfish taste for secrets, power, and vengeance that often bordered on cruel - she wouldn't be a good role model, and is a far cry from the current vogue for the strong female narrator who confronts the problems of her dystopian world.  At the same time, though, I respected Corinna's courage and independence, and was delighted when she worked out the secrets of her past.

The Folk Keeper is quite short - 162 pages - but it's not a fast read.  Billingsley drops seemingly insignificant clues (although really, most of the secrets are not hard to figure out), but beyond them, it's worth reading this book slowly just to savor her language - choppy sentences, intuitive leaps, and all.  There's a lot to ponder by the time you reach the ending.  I still haven't decided whether I think Corinna's final choice was the right one, but then again, my opinion doesn't really matter; what matters is that she made it and was content.  With any luck, despite my reluctance to give away my very favorite aspects of this book, I've convinced you to at least give it a try!

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Wizard of Earthsea

I'm really not sure what to make of Ursula Le Guin's famous Wizard of Earthsea.  It's often ranked right up there with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Narnia books as classics of fantasy, and as a fantasy nut, I tried to read it as a kid, I really tried.  I put it down halfway through the second page, and never picked it up again until just a few days ago.  I see why I couldn't get into it as a kid - like Tolkien, Le Guin is clearly well-schooled in medieval history and culture, and her prose seems fairly deliberately in the style of the medieval lay and epic poetry.  Her writing style is so grand that it ends up being fairly unapproachable.  Further like Tolkien, she is very concerned with world-building, but through info-dump rather than through the experience of a character who stands in as a reader-cipher.  As a result, there is an awful lot of dry description and geographical information given from the very first page (which, if I remember correctly, is why I lost interest so quickly all those many years ago.  I hated geography.)

I was expecting an epic adventure, some grand triumph of good over evil, but Le Guin seems to be working from an entirely different (non-Christian) worldview, in which the most important consideration is not to defeat evil, but maintain the balance (equilibrium, the book often calls it) between darkness and light.  As a result, though this novel focuses on the coming-of-age of Ged, who is perhaps the most powerful sorcerer in Earthsea, the book relates largely a journey of self-discovery rather than a series of adventures against physical foes.  By the end, I must confess to some disappointment that not very much had actually happened - but it was a feeling stemming from my initial expectations, and in that, Le Guin's fantasy novel is a unique one in the genre.

There are some really fascinating elements to the story Le Guin crafted.  In the world of Earthsea, names are identities, and as in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series (which, now that I think about it, was probably influenced by this one), naming a thing by its true name gives a magician power over it.  Words themselves are magic, and names are embodiments of a thing's identity - this is why each person has three different names, the one they're called as a small child, the one for everyday use, and the true name, selected at a special ritual and kept secret from all but a few trusted friends.  There is even some speculation that the true names of everything in the world "all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars."  Even this philosophy of names aligns with the necessary equilibrium between good and evil, for speaking a word also requires silence.

I also thought the very makeup of Earthsea reflected a major theme of the novel: the concept of a world made up only of islands is hugely resonant with Ged's own isolation.  Reaching any new place required dangerous ship-travel, and passage may be denied by winds, or staying in a new place denied by the island's inhabitants.  Ged spends almost the entire novel in relative solitude, which gives the many sailing scenes narrative heft, but they did get a little wearying for the reader.

I understand that there are more novels in the Earthsea world, but I don't know if I'll ever visit them.  I'm quite delighted to know what all the hype is about, and be able to compare Le Guin's world and philosophies with my beloved Tolkien's, but in the end, this book just wasn't my cup of tea.  It seemed standoffish in its epic prose, and so many aspects of its worldview failed to align with mine that it was a puzzling novel to read.  What do you think?  Do you love Earthsea and its ways?  Have you read anything else by Le Guin - is this novel typical of her writing?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Open Door

Have you ever wondered what the deal is with Orthodox Christian icons?  Maybe you've seen some icons before and wonder what they mean, or why they look so funny and flat.  Maybe you've criticized churches that display icons for being too image-focused, or for improperly worshiping saints.  Or maybe you're just curious to learn more about a strand of Christianity that doesn't get a lot of public focus.

Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote a lovely little book called The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer that helps to answer a lot of these questions.  She's an Orthodox Christian laywoman, a very thoughtful and pastoral woman whom my husband has met and for whom he has a tremendous amount of respect.  It's a short and accessible little book containing twelve plates, some in color and some in black and white, of twelve of the most significant icons found at her Orthodox Christian church.  In each chapter, she describes an icon and teaches her readers about why it looks the way it does, what it symbolizes, and how it expresses aspects of Orthodox Christian theology.  While Orthodox Christians share all of the same core beliefs as the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, they often focus on very different nuances of Christian theology, and there is a lot they can teach us all about our relationships with God, each other, and the earth.  The Open Door is a conversational and poetic introduction to these beautiful works of Christian artwork, and I loved my time with Mathewes-Green's glosses on a few of these masterpieces of human artwork.