Monday, April 30, 2012

Fun at the Greater St. Louis Book Fair

Apparently, I have lived in St. Louis for four and a half years without knowing about this amazing annual charity book fair.  According to its website (http://www.stlouisbookfair.org), the Greater St. Louis Book Fair “raises funds to promote education and literacy for underserved individuals in the St. Louis metropolitan area” and takes place over a spring weekend each year.  This is apparently such a big event that Thursday, the opening day, has a $10 admission fee, and the rules governing the lineup of people waiting for admission include “Patrons may stay in the parking garage overnight Wednesday provided they remain in their vehicles. No campers are allowed.” and “Patrons may begin lining up at 6 am on opening day.” (The book fair doesn’t actually open until 4 pm!)  It turns out that my husband has known about this mystical event for years, but never found out when it was taking place until the week afterwards.  Thus, neither of us had made it until today.  I highly recommend it for anyone not moving away from St. Louis like we are!

It was wonderful.  And enormous.  Spread out across countless tables in a roped-off section of parking garage at a large mall were stacks upon stacks of books, ranging from art to cookbooks to foreign language books to presidents and, of course, tons of fiction.  After a quick survey through history, I lurked in the paperback fiction section as well as the children’s fiction.  While I tend to prefer hardcover copies of the classics – nicer quality, plus the print is almost always larger – the hardcover fiction section seemed to be entirely contemporary, which is not really my interest at the moment.  I trusted my husband to find anything either of us might find useful in the religion section; in fact, he did come away with a few helpful titles.  And I meandered happily through D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, and E.M Forster.  (I didn’t, in the end, purchase anything by these authors, but it was certainly fun to look.)  There was a ridiculous number of Shakespeare editions available for purchase, and also a ton of Thomas Hardy and Nicholas Sparks (which I found to be an entertaining if strange combination).

I think I made smart purchases.  There were a lot of books that I’m interested in reading, and a few that I’m actively looking to add to my personal collection, but I kept finding reasons not to purchase the particular copies available at the fair.  Does anyone else find this problem?  It’s not enough just to find the right book; you have to find the right edition.  Perhaps it’s foolish of me, perhaps it makes me a poor reader of literary fiction, but I do find that I’m influenced by book covers.  I dislike book covers advertising “now a major motion picture!” with photos of the actors as the characters.  It leaves me peeved that I can’t imagine how the characters look for myself.  Another thing I check is the size of the text – if it’s too small, it would give me headaches on, say, an airplane.  Text that’s too small in a page with nearly no margin space makes a book feel long and ponderous to me, and ups the chance that I’ll find the book boring or difficult.  Finally, I’ve learned to always flip through and check for markings when shopping for used books, especially in novels that are often assigned for English classes.  It irritates me if a book has underlines, or written notes, or highlighted words or phrases.  Which is funny – I sometimes write in my own books and always appreciate the reminder of my thoughts later.  The same thing happens with sheet music.  I adore revisiting a piece of music and having my own written notes to aid sight-reading, but nothing annoys me more than having somebody else’s notes to erase.  On occasion, I erase a marking only to write it in again later!  Yes, I will freely acknowledge my hypocrisy.

Anyway, here’s my haul.  And because it was the last day of the book fair, everything was half price, so all told these cost me about $3.50!  With these costs, I felt free to pick up a few books that I may not end up keeping.  I can always swap anything I decide needn’t remain in my permanent collection for something else via paperbackswap.

The Awakening, Kate Chopin – I actually have this out from the public library, but haven’t had a chance to start it yet.  I’ve had some trouble with library deadlines recently, because I’m only a quarter of the way through the enormous Wives and Daughters, and after that, I have R. F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, which also looks like it will take me a long time.  Owning this will mean that I can return the library’s copy and focus on finishing these two clunkers before they come due.  I’ve read good reviews of Chopin’s novel, which identify it as similar to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I read a few months ago and loved.  We’ll see how this one measures up.

Wizard’s Hall, Jane Yolen – I loved this book as a kid, and have since lost track of my copy.  Perhaps it’s still among the boxes of my books that are currently living in my mom’s basement.  (Is it embarrassing to admit that?)  I picked up this copy in case I was foolish enough to get rid of my old one in one of my periodic childhood book purges.  Wizard’s Hall, about a boy attending a magic school, is remarkably similar to the Harry Potter books – so much so, in fact, that Yolen attempted to sue Rowling for stealing her ideas.  I’m interested to reread it and see if this book is as charming as I remember.

The Time Garden, Edward Eager – I adored Eager’s Half Magic as a child and only recently discovered that there are sequels.  I think this is one, and since it seems difficult to find his books these days, I didn’t hesitate to grab it!  I may hang on to it unread for a bit, until I figure out if it is, in fact, a sequel, and determine whether I can get my hands on copies of Half Magic and the others.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – Supposedly this is the original Victorian sensationalist novel.  Several book bloggers with literary tastes similar to mine have recommended it.  This is a nice, old-school Penguin copy with the trademark orange spine.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson – This book is a classic.  I’ve never read it.  Enough said.  Plus, it’ll be interesting to compare it to A High Wind in Jamaica, which I read earlier this year.  They have the pirate thing in common, and supposedly share the theme of morality and its ambiguity.

Heidi, Johanna Spyri – Another classic.  I can’t recall if I ever read it as a kid – perhaps in one of those abridged versions?  The description on the back makes it sound very similar to The Secret Garden, which has been on my mind lately and sits firmly in my to-be-read pile.  Perhaps I’ll read them back-to-back and start a discussion comparing them.  Would anybody be interested in participating in a read-along?

Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild – Made famous by Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, this is yet another classic kid’s book that I never read as a child.  My reading choices this year seem to be bouncing back and forth between these children’s books that I missed and women’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It seemed natural to add this book to the list, especially after my husband told me that he and his sister were quite familiar with it in their own childhoods.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Good Wives


Good Wives, a serial novel by Louisa May Alcott (as I understand it, each chapter was published in a newspaper much like Dickens’ writing) is now usually sold bound together with Little Women and serving as the second half.  When I purchased Little Women at a thrift store earlier this year, I made the mistake of buying a copy that lacked this second half.  After finding and reading a separate copy of Good Wives, I can say that I am actually quite pleased with this mistake.  The two truly function as two separate novels, rather than one large one divided into two parts.  Not only is there a gap in time – Good Wives picks up three years after Little Women left off – there are huge differences in theme.

Little Women is a book about children.  I hesitate to say that it is a children’s book, because I suspect that many modern children would have trouble sinking their teeth into it.  A brief digression here, if I may: when I was a child, my wonderful mother purchased for me the complete sets of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables  books.  In a completely inexcusable fit of stubbornness (or perhaps simply because I was too wrapped up in my fantasy books to be interested in fiction about such real, normal lives), I never once read any of them.  Heinous!  In any case, Little Women is about childhood and the lessons children learn.  Picnics, school experiences, parental love, and big dreams of the future all play a part.

Good Wives is separated only by three years, but the result of this short time is a complete shift from childhood to adulthood.  Adolescence is somewhat nonexistent.  The concept of irresponsible, rebellious teenage years doesn’t seem to have been a part of Alcott’s experience.  (In fact, the cultural understanding of teenage years is quite a modern construction.  I’m interested now to find out when that came about and what impact it had on literature, as well as real-life experiences of growing up and accepting adult responsibilities.)  In this novel, the March girls are grown up and facing grown-up tasks and troubles.  Moralizing is also much more prominent, and Alcott refers to it quite directly and, on occasion, humorously.

(Spoiler alert.)  In this novel, the four girls’ lives take different directions, but remain fundamentally intertwined, as Alcott believes families should.  Superficially, the book focuses on three of the March girls’ finding husbands, but it would be more accurate to say that this book traces their journeys into adulthood and the changes each must undergo.  Meg’s wedding to John Brooke takes place in the second chapter; her trial is not the finding of a husband but learning to live peacefully and prudently with one, and she finds that the raising of children is no easy task.  Over the course of the novel, Jo’s tempestuous nature turns self-reflective.  She discovers new tenderness within herself, and she is rewarded by success in publishing her writing and with a husband who complements her nature far better than her impassioned childhood friend Laurie ever could.  Laurie, too, finds his own perfect compliment in Amy, who grows from a selfish, vain child into an elegant, thoughtful, and artistic lady.  My mother once told me that she was always disappointed that Jo and Laurie never ended up together, but I think everyone ended up the better for ending up with spouses that compliment, rather than match, their wild passions.  My one complaint is that a discussion of the changes that take place over the course of this book is limited largely to only three of the four girls.  While Beth’s is a beautiful soul, her character remains rather flat.  She alone changes little, and is never given the chance at romantic love.  Alcott often holds Beth up as a model of womanly perfection, through Beth’s devotion to domestic duties and family, but I can’t help feeling that her character exists only to impact the other girls.

While I can imagine that Little Women could be enjoyed by children and treasured throughout one’s life, I have difficulty thinking that children would understand or enjoy the real beauty of Good Wives.  I myself would have found aspects of it quite boring until only recently.  Meg’s process of exploring and mastering her new roles as wife and mother would have been difficult to connect with even just a few years ago – but now, the lessons she learns as she struggles to manage her new roles really resonates with me.  There is some really great advice for newlyweds and new parents in here.  In retrospect, I’m (surprisingly) glad that I never read this book until now.  I suspect that familiarity with the plot would have muted the similarities to my own situation and thus dimmed the freshness of Alcott’s insights.

Things to consider:
When you first encountered this book, did you read it as part two of Little Women or as a separate novel?  How did that color your experience of the two?  I read it as a separate book and was thus predisposed to analyze them as separate novels.  If you read them together, did you focus more on the continuity of the March sisters’ stories?  Which sister resonates most with you – and did this change as you reread the book over time?

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Wives and Daughters; Part I of IV

First Impressions

This is possibly the longest book I’ve ever attempted, clocking in at 620 pages.  Of course, some of the Harry Potter books are equally long, but there is a vast difference between that kind of light reading and more literary fare – which is not to disparage HP at all, as it remains one of my favorite series of all time!  Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is long; so long, in fact, that I have chosen to divide its 60 chapters into four parts, and review it piece by piece.  In addition, it is a slow read: these first fifteen chapters (170 pages) have taken me about three weeks.  Now, I’m a fast reader, so this is really unusual.  It will probably take me several months to finish.  Yet despite its length, reading this book is not a slog or a struggle, but a joy.

This is a book that unfolds slowly.  Not very much happened in these 170 pages, but ah! the language is beautiful and the characterization sublime.  There is a nice mix of “telling” and “showing,” and at this point in the novel, I have begun to get an idea of the major characters’ personalities, as well as see room for change and growth.  The prose (and, of course, characters’ speech) is quaint and old-fashioned by today’s standards, but this contributes to the immersive quality of the reading.  And this novel is clever.  Its wittiness is subtle and understated, so I’m sure I missed many of the jokes – but those I picked up on left me utterly delighted.  For example:

“There was Mr Ashton, the vicar, who had succeeded Mr Browning, a thoroughly good and kind-hearted man, but one without an original though in him; whose habitual courtesy and indolent mind led him to agree to every opinion not palpably heterodox, and to utter platitudes in the most gentlemanly manner.  Mr Gibson had once or twice amused himself by leading the vicar on in his agreeable admissions of arguments ‘as perfectly convincing’, and of statements as ‘curious but undoubted’, till he had planted the poor clergyman in a bog of heretical bewilderment.  But then Mr Ashton’s pain and suffering at suddenly finding out into what a theological predicament he had been brought, his real self-reproach at his previous admissions, were so great that Mr Gibson lost all sense of fun, and hastened back to the Thirty-nine Articles with all the good-will in life, as the only means of soothing the vicar’s conscience.” (36)

There is, so far, a rather large cast of characters, and at times it was hard to keep a few of the minor characters straight.  The novel centers around Molly Gibson, who is seventeen when the book begins.  She is relatively uneducated and lacking in the social graces she would need to move in higher society.  Molly has moments of rebelliousness and impetulance, due to her strong sense of right and wrong and her willingness to speak out when she feels a friend has been slighted.  Her father, Mr Gibson, is a community doctor, the sort who travels to his patients, and her mother died when Molly was very small.  Molly and her father are extremely close, and the drama of this first quarter of the book comes from Molly’s distress when her father decides to remarry one Mrs Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, the former governess of the local noble family, the Cumnors.  Hyacinth has a daughter of Molly’s age, whom we have not yet met, as her mother decided not to recall Cynthia from school in Europe for the wedding.  There is much natural awkwardness between Molly and her new stepmother, but Hyacinth shows signs of causing much future distress.  Hyacinth is lazy and jealous and, having spent so much time with the Cumnors, has grown accustomed to their expensive lifestyle.  Her desire to live well and expectation that Mr Gibson will provide everything she desires may foreshadow disastrous delusions of grandeur or perhaps the ruin of the family.

Like an Austen novel, this book is concerned largely with domestic affairs.  Molly’s living arrangements and her occasional visits to other households formed most of the plot for this first section.  Molly visits the Cumnors’ estate for the first time, finding herself overwhelmed by the grandness of the place and her own social shortcomings.  Mr Gibson then sends her to live with Squire Hamley and his wife for the dual purpose of removing his daughter from the vicinity of his love-struck pupil and providing a companion for Mrs Hamley, who is weak and frail.  In the days leading up to the wedding, Molly stays with the Misses Browning, friends of her father, who have an entertaining (though surely annoying to Molly) tendency to gossip and fawn over the nobility.  The other two characters that I suspect I shall need to keep an eye on are the two Hamley sons, Osborne and Roger.  Squire Hamley is terribly frightened that Osborne, his eldest son and heir, may meet Molly and fall in love with her.  Molly, in his opinion, is lowborn and unworthy (despite the Squire’s obvious pleasure in Molly’s company).  Class issues are likely to remain a major theme of this novel.  The younger son, Roger, does become acquainted with Molly and I daresay they have struck up a meaningful friendship.  His advice to “try to think more of others than of oneself” (111) changes Molly profoundly.  Neither is interested in the other romantically, though I wonder how long that will last.  He also, and this made me laugh, brings her a wasps’-nest as a present – how romantic!

Things to consider:
How far do the similarities to Jane Austen's writing extend?  How will this book unfold?  I'm largely concerned that Molly's new goal of thinking of others first will mean that her own needs are left unaddressed.  The book is titled "Wives and Daughters" - does Molly ever receive the chance to move into the former category?

Things I'm reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Discussion: Susan McClary on feminist musicology and the state of the field

In the course of a library online catalog search – sadly, it turns out that Susan McClary’s new book on divine love in the 17th century is not yet available to me – I discovered that McClary had written an article for a fairly recently collection of essays entitled True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, edited by Susan Gubar of The Madwoman in the Attic fame. I was intrigued by the concept, as I am shortly headed into graduate school accompanied by both feminist ideals and naivete, and interested to find out what she would write for a book that was not directed at an audience of musicologists. McClary’s essay was short, but brought up several interesting ideas. I would like to use this space as a forum to discuss a few of them. Please do comment if you have anything to add to my thoughts.
1) While some of these essays discuss personal reflections, childhood memories, or anecdotes of specific pivotal moments in the careers of these varied academics, McClary’s essay “The Making of a Feminist Musicologist” explores her experiences as a graduate student and young professor, charting the course toward her eventual integration of feminist theory with musicological work. There is a slight tension between the title and her writing – the pronoun in the title implies that she is one of many, yet her essay implies that she opened the field of musicology to feminist theory single-handedly. I don’t know enough of the history of feminist and queer studies entering musicology – was she the only one? I know that her book Feminine Endings caused a great deal of controversy. Was anyone else doing this sort of work before that pivotal work was published? She also makes the claim that the introduction of feminism to musicology is singlehandedly responsible for the field opening up to interpretation based on or at least grounded in historical context. I don’t know enough history of the discipline to comment upon this argument, but I would love to hear from someone who does.
2) Similarly, I knew that the music research of the mid-20th-century used to be much more formalist and less interested in engaging with interpretation and historical context, but I didn’t know why. McClary offers a fascinating and plausible explanation: “Yet what has always seemed to me a self-evident endeavor – the critical engagement with music – was virtually prohibited in postwar musicology. Memories of Hitler’s and Stalin’s policing of music and the other arts had made interpretation of any stripe politically incorrect” (303). My understanding of wartime Russian music was that the possibility of multiple interpretations was displeasing to the authorities. Music and the other arts became tools for propaganda; thus the emphasis on folk songs and the music of the common people. Overly academic music, that of the serialists, was regarded as unpatriotic. It seems to me that the response of the American academy should have been to encourage interpretation of every kind, in order to oppose the obligatory sameness of Russian and German music. And yet, it seems that the exact opposite occurred. What am I missing?
3) In McClary’s experience as a graduate student, the act of performing music was illicit for music scholars. Her language really drives home the sexualization of the physical act of playing an instrument. She implies that her pleasure in practice rooms was derived largely from its forbidden nature, and explicitly likens her time at the piano to masturbation. I wonder if McClary is known for her nearly constant use of provocative language. In almost everything I’ve read, she deliberately chooses words and phrases that serve as double entendres. It works well – she is, after all, known as the scholar of gender and sexual desire – but I also find myself wishing she had other tools from which to select when writing. Is this just me? Has anyone else noticed this?
4) Over the course of this essay, McClary switches back and forth between what seem like two contradictory arguments: “I was discriminated against because I was female” and “I was discriminated against because I worked in an unpopular subdiscipline.” Both of these sources for the difficulties against which she struggled (eventually, happily, succeeding) are institutionalized, but I find it difficult to argue that working in a subfield that does not currently hold much interest for most scholars shouldn’t be a detriment to one’s career. Choosing to write a dissertation that won’t receive much interest just seems like poor planning to me. The fact that gender should not impact one’s career chances, on the other hand, is an ongoing and important battle.
5) In the 1980s, thanks to a few influential colleagues, McClary began reading feminist theory and recognized its potential in her own musicological research. She wrote, “suddenly it became possible to discuss matters such as bodies, motions, genders, and sexualities – not as infantile pleasures or subjective impressions, but as crucial contributions to the leading intellectual current” (306). I applaud this intellectual leap, but I am left questioning her choice of words (thanks in large part to my anthropologist husband). Is it enough to question how body, gender, and sexuality impacted intellectual currents, or must one consider how these ideas impacted culture at large? Particularly since music can be and certainly was both created and performed throughout history by not only members of the intellectual elite, but also by people less trained in “the leading intellectual current.”
6) I quite enjoyed reading the story of McClary’s play, and this anecdote, like the others, brought up some questions. “I composed my play Susannah Does the Elders nearly overnight. I had only to extract and translate parts of the oratorio that best revealed its misogyny and stage them in ways that laid bare their meanings. By representing Stradella’s music and lyrics intact but through a feminist staging, I invited the oratorio to deconstruct and indict itself” (308). I wonder: if McClary had to extract and restage excerpts from Stradella’s oratorio, is this interpretation or a complete reimagining of the work? Must one be able to discern things for feminist critique in the original work for the critique to be valid? Can one eliminate aspects and still arrive at a logical, reasonable conclusion of the work as a whole?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Fire and Hemlock

As an avid fantasy reader, it is probably unconscionable for me to dislike Diana Wynne Jones, but I have to admit that I just don’t understand her appeal. Her style doesn’t seem to work for me, and it’s a real shame because she ranks right up there with so many of my favorite authors of low fiction, including J.K. Rowling, Patricia Wrede, Diane Duane, and Neil Gaiman. It’s true that I found Charmed Life, well, charming, but I’ve had difficulty enjoying The Lives of Christopher Chant, Howl’s Moving Castle, and now, Fire and Hemlock.
It’s disappointing because the premise of the book was so intriguing. While packing for college in her childhood room at Granny’s, Polly reflects on a photograph called Fire and Hemlock and a book called Times out of Mind and realizes that she has vague memories of them both that don’t align with her normal set of memories. Polly looks back and discovers an entire, alternate second set of memories, and most of the book is a chronological relating of what could almost be an alternate life, beginning with a funeral into which Polly accidentally wandered. There, she met an ostrich-looking man named Thomas Lynn, and the story of their ever-deepening friendship as Polly grows up has ended up completely erased from her memory. The pair delight in creating a fantasy in which Tom Lynn is Tan Coul, a heroic adventurer, and Polly is his assistant, who pretends to be a boy and is named Hero. They make up an entire world of characters and enemies, but when the two begin to discover that these made-up characters exist in the real world, Polly begins to suspect that her friend Mr. Lynn isn’t telling her everything, and that his ex-family members, who keep track of Polly in a most sinister manner, are hiding a dangerous secret…
The novel had a fascinating premise, but I found that it just couldn’t deliver. For one thing, Polly’s real life interested me far more than the fantasy part of the story, and this is unusual for me when reading fantasy books. Jones characterized Polly’s family members quite realistically, and her paranoid mother and indifferent father made me want to scream at them to take care of their daughter! Polly’s evolving friendships with her girl friends also rang true; as girls grow into teenagers and then adults, it is natural for people to change and friendships to shift. Perhaps my favorite characters were members of Lynn’s string quartet; they fascinated me and were given far too little page time. One problem with this book is that all of these were peripheral characters. The main plot was played out with Laurel, Lynn’s ex-wife, and Mr. Leroy and Seb, members of her family. Not only were these three characters annoying, the plot in which they featured was difficult to follow.
And this brings me to my main problem with Diane Wynne Jones. Her plots are not well-written or well-paced. Jones can write a brilliant scene, but she fails on the larger level. There are loose ends – for example, what triggers Polly’s sudden retrieval of her missing memories? – and a poor use of foreshadowing. Details that seem to be intended as clues to a final reveal are abandoned and never spoken of again. In all three of her books that I mentioned that I disliked, the story meanders clumsily on until, in the last pages, too many big secrets are revealed, and then the story is over. In the case of Fire and Hemlock, Jones is retelling the myth of Tam Lin. I didn’t know the story before reading this book, but after looking up the myth, I don’t believe that knowing it in advance would have helped the final chapter make any more sense because Jones deviates significantly from this story.
I thought the details of the photograph would play in more. I thought the book would be more important. I thought the plot in which made-up characters and adventures come true was a clever one, one that would have worked well if that was all this novel attempted. As I was reading Fire and Hemlock, I had many expectations, and all of them were disappointed by Jones’ trying to cram an explanation of too many threads into the very last pages.
Things to consider:
Have any of you read this book, or any others by her? Did you have the same issues with plot and pacing that I did? If I were to try just one more of her books, which should it be?
Things I’m reading:
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music, Daniel Harrison
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, Susan Gubar, ed.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought

Alexander Rehding, Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pess, 2003).
It was impossible to keep from comparing this book to Thomas Christensen’s Rameau and Musical Thought in the Englightenment, which I read about a month and a half ago and has since become for me somewhat of a “gold standard” for research on the history of music theory. Not only are their titles structured similarly, but the two books attempt similar goals. Both endeavor to explain how the evolving theories of these two giants in the history of music theory engage with the philosophies and other cultural ideas of their time. Basic knowledge of music theory is essential for readers of these two books, as Rameau’s and Riemann’s theories are explained only as much as is necessary to situate the authors’ larger arguments. Unfortunately, Rehding’s book was far less successful than Christensen’s. I identified some mechanical difficulties with the organization and format of Rehding’s book, and his topical organization lacked the elegance of Christensen’s, lacking Christensen’s simultaneous chronological thread. This may not be entirely Rehding’s fault; it was perhaps serendipitous for Christensen that as Rameau’s theoretical ideas evolved chronologically, they also engaged with various philosophies, one at a time. Christensen’s large-scale organization had an elegance that few musicological books can match. Rehding’s book gave me an overall impression of functionality without elegance. For my taste, he provided too little guidance for readers. There were few to no moments where Rehding included any metadiscussion telling his readers what arguments he would be making. Chapter titles were cute but not descriptive. Near the end of each chapter I had to go back through my notes to assign new chapter titles for myself detailing the overall theme of each. Subdivisions within chapters were numbered rather than titled. This would have worked if Rehding’s prose had clearly introduced the new topic, but it was often difficult to tell where he was going. This constant ambiguity made it slightly frustrating to read. Rehding’s arguments were, overall, quite good, and it would have been nice to have a clearer sense of how he was organizing them.
The goal of this book was to explore conflicts surrounding Hugo Riemann’s theories: internal conflicts within and between his theories, conflicts between his theories and contemporary compositional practice, and the conflict between Riemann’s universal aspirations and his national bias. Riemann, a 19th-century German music theorist, is acknowledged as one of the “greats,” and despite aspects of his theories being completely discarded today, his theory of harmonic function and the resulting notation he created are still in wide use. Riemann’s work was systematic: he wanted to understand music from general principles first before moving on to study specific instances. His goal was to formulate normative rules for all music. He believed very strongly in the idea of responsibility: how the listener “ought” to hear the music and how the composer “ought” to write it. This, of course, put him in conflict with composers whose work did not follow Riemann’s rules. It was fascinating to read about Riemann once re-barring a piece by Beethoven; Riemann argued that Beethoven’s music was right, but that the notation itself was faulty.
In case anyone is interested to know what this book contains, I will list my own descriptive chapter titles here:
Chapter 1 – on harmonic dualism
Chapter 2 – on harmonic function
Chapter 3 – on cadential models
Chapter 4 – on language and national bias
Chapter 5 – on notation and tone imagination
It was interesting to trace Riemann’s evolving stream of justification for his theory of harmonic dualism. He began with a “eureka” moment in which he believed that he had heard undertones in a sound wave. It’s a lovely story, one apparently frequently taught in undergraduate-level music theory classes in Europe, until you realize that the science of acoustics makes Riemann’s experience impossible. He goes through several levels of justification, trying to argue his way around the facts and stating that undertones “ought” to be so, before arriving at an argument in line with the “as-if” philosophy popularized in 19th-century Germany. This philosophy promotes the value of creating a fiction that “ought to be true” in order to support one’s further research. However, Riemann missed one crucial tenet of this philosophy: the fiction must be abandoned when proven wrong. Similarly, his cadential models TSDT and TDST are not normative prototypes, but are presented “as if” they were. Riemann spends much of his time arguing how music “ought” to be, reacting against what he sees as the imminent fall away from tonality, which he likens to the Fall in the Garden of Eden. (And according to Riemann, this fall would be due entirely to French influence.) It’s an interesting metaphor; taken to its logical conclusion, Riemann’s theories are likened to paradise and any deviation from them to sin. (Those wicked French composers!)
Chapter 4 was, I think, Rehding’s most interesting and most successful argument. In this section, he discusses language and national bias. Rehding first establishes how language assumed new meaning in the 19th century, and a particular new significance for national culture. Logicians became comparative linguists, trying to find the origin of language, and the supposed universal grammar. Riemann was similarly trying to identify a universal grammar. Despite his extensive knowledge of non-Western musical traditions, Riemann ended up declaring that the diatonic scale was the universal basis for all music. Of course, ethnomusicologists of the time disagreed, rightly pointing out that the diatonic scale is a cultural construct, not a metaphysical truth, but Riemann simply criticized the researchers and their methodology in response. This strange conclusion makes sense when you understand Riemann’s thinly veiled cultural bias and current ideas of national superiority.
In 19th-century Germany, language was the supreme factor in German nationalism because of the complicated political situation in which Germany was divided up into 39 small states. This situation lasted even after Germany’s unification under Bismarck in 1871. This assumed national language was, in fact, ideology rather than reality; the truth is that the many German dialects made communication between different regions difficult. Riemann’s own theorizing about musical language took a highly nationalist turn in the 1890s. In trying to prove that basic musical principles originated with German music, Riemann created a myth of music history in which he set the “southern cultures of antiquity” (source of monophonic music) against the “Germanic peoples of the north” (who invented polyphony). He constructed subsequent analyses of actual music to explain and excuse German composers, such as Liszt, while condemning others, such as Berlioz, by idiosyncratically interpreting his own rules. Rehding spent a lot of time on what I thought at first was an irrelevant digression: in his historical study, Riemann introduced Stamitz as the missing link between Baroque figured bass and Viennese classicism. Halfway through this subsection, however, the significance of this argument took shape, and the section remains my favorite from the entire book. (This is a further argument, perhaps, for some metacommentary by Rehding, introducing new sections and guiding his readers.) Riemann needed Stamitz to link Baroque and Classical compositional practice in order for his German-led myth of music history to work. Trying to link Stamitz directly to Beethoven marginalized the Austrian Mozart and Haydn. However, it turns out that Reimann re-imagined Stamitz as German, despite the fact that geographically, Stamitz was from Bohemia, which was at the time part of the vague Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Severe bias can make fools of all researchers. Rehding spends time analyzing this intentional forgetfulness on Riemann’s part, and the section is well-reasoned and insightful.
Overall, I found this book to be a good, but not great addition to the set of texts making up the sub-subfield of the history of music theory. The task of interpreting theories and their engagement with the theorist’s culture is a worthy and often difficult one. I commend Rehding for his work in this area, and knowing that this book was a revision of his doctoral dissertation helps me to excuse some if its mechanical faults. My own research is not in this area, but I will remember Rehding and turn to him again if I ever find a need to study Riemann, his theories, and 19th-century German musical practice.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: The Snow Goose

I’m not normally a reader of short stories. I’ve encountered a few, largely through high school English classes. Academic articles are a form of short story, as are disparate chapters in an uncohesive memoir, but neither fills quite the same function as a fictional short story. A short story has a lot of challenges – Susan Hill pointed out a few of them in her recent memoir (or is there a better descriptive genre for this book?) Howard’s End is on the Landing. A short story must accomplish atmosphere, characterization, and plot, just as a novel, but it has so much less space in which to do it. Words can’t be wasted. A short story can be a snapshot of a life, or a description of a moment, or it can encompass the same grand sweeping plotlines of a novel – only it must do so in a matter of pages, rather than a matter of chapters. Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose is starkly beautiful, but may have reached higher than it could fly (pun intended). In trying to make a larger statement about the nature of things, too many ambiguities were explained. I don’t feel as if I would come to different conclusions about what symbols mean, if I were to re-read this every few years, and that left me feeling disappointed. Readers can’t decide for themselves when too many explanations are thrown in or answers made too obvious.
However, this has evidently had no detrimental effect on the popularity of this short story. Written in 1940 and originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Snow Goose became known as one of Gallico’s masterpieces. His story is based on a historical event from that same year: the frantic evacuation of British soldiers via any boat transportation possible from the beaches of Dunkirk. Like 9/11, this event was apparently so shocking to the wider culture that the only possible response for Gallico was artistic creation. And so he wrote this short story, which is beautifully written but again, seems to beat the reader over the head with his messages.
When Frith (also called Fritha in the story) finds a wounded snow goose from Canada in the marshes of Essex, the girl brings it, somewhat fearfully, to Philip Rhayader. Rhayader is a hunchback with a clawed hand, who lives alone and lonely in an abandoned lighthouse. There, he spends his days sailing, painting, and most importantly, tending the wild birds who come to him in their annual migrations. The snow goose is nursed back to health, and at its return each year, Fritha visits Rhayader. Their friendly companionship evolves as Fritha grows up, and when the snow goose chooses to stay and live at Rhayader’s house for good, Fritha feels compelled to stay with him herself. What would become a marriage or at least an unconventional relationship between a young woman and a deformed man is thwarted when Rhayader must take his boat to the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue British soldiers. In the hope that this review may persuade someone to read it, I won’t reveal the poignant ending.
Gallico’s writing style has its allure. He describes, sparingly but specifically, the many birds of the area, and the bleak landscape and sea. Themes of nature and flight serve to advance Gallico’s anti-war agenda. Ideas of home and relationship become entwined: Rhayader, as a beacon, comes to represent home and security, as well as the source of love. The ongoing question, of course, was what the snow goose represented. Each year, when it returned to Rhayader, so did Fritha. The two became inseparable in my mind. Was the snow goose Fritha? Was it childhood, or family, or the circular patterns of nature and life? It was enjoyable to try and puzzle this out, but the fun was lost when Gallico forthrightly explained his metaphor in one of the final paragraphs. No ambiguity here: “Frith saw no longer the snow goose but the soul of Rhayader…” It was an interesting twist that flipped around my previous assumptions. The goose, in representing this aspect of Rhayader, transforms Fritha into part of Rhayader himself. We now know that she is drawn to the hunchbacked man because she is, ultimately, a part of him (meaning that perhaps, he is a part of her as well?) This reveal was fascinating in that it forced me to alter my previous conclusions, but at the same time, I wish this overarching metaphor had been left for the reader to wonder at.
Things to consider:
Might I have liked this better if the snow goose metaphor had not been explained? Or would I have felt that the story was too impenetrable and didn't come to any real conclusions? I wonder if I would have been truly satisfied either way. Do you read short stories, and if you do, do you like symbols to be explained?
Things I'm reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, Susan Gubar, ed.
Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought, Alexander Rehding

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A New Name

When I decided to start a blog, I told my husband that I wanted to find a name for it that was “literary but not pretentious.” He was enthusiastic about this description as the name itself, and while I wasn’t so sure, I decided to use it for a time. I’m one of those people who has a tendency to get bogged down in smaller details, and when that happens, whatever project I’m working on stalls or fails to start at all. I’ve noticed this in my academic writing, when I face problems like “I can’t find the perfect word!” or “This sentence isn’t flowing right!” or “This paragraph needs a transition!” I’ve learned to use placeholders, so that I can come back and fiddle with these problems later, and that in the meantime, my thoughts can continue flowing.

At this time, I would like to announce the new title of this blog, and include some nerdy explanation. In keeping with the dual nature of this blog, its name is derived from both musicology and literature: I crafted this title by uniting a 17th-century collection of early music with a favorite novel by Hemingway.

A Musical Feast

I began my study of English lute songs three years ago. These duets for singer and lutenist from late 16th- and early 17th-century England captivated me since the first time I heard John Dowland’s Flow My Tears in my introductory music history class. After a year of ensemble coaching as a lute duet, my guitarist friend Matt decided he would be too busy to continue on a formal basis, and thus the school’s lute became available for me to borrow. I have now taken two years of lute lessons and while still a beginner, I’m just starting to be able to accompany myself on simpler lute songs. One of the first pieces Matt and I worked on was a version of Caccini’s Amarilli mia bella, taken from the 1610 anthology of lute songs A Musicall Banquet, compiled and published by John Dowland’s son Robert. I have fond memories of singing from this facsimile. A Musicall Banquet was a hodgepodge of lute ayres from various countries – in addition to English lute songs, there are French and Italian. Naming this blog after a mix of styles appeals to me, as my intention is to create a similar medley of reviews on various topics.

“Paris is a moveable feast,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in his aptly named, autobiographical novel A Moveable Feast. I finished this collection of essays this autobiographical novel, based loosely (almost entirely?) on Hemingway's early experience living in Paris with his wife, back in January, though I had begun several months earlier. I savored this book slowly, reading only a few of the short, episodic chapters at a time. His simple prose manages unbelievably rich, sensual descriptions of food, wine, cafes, and the writing process. One scene that stuck with me is a description of Hemingway taking a break from his daily writing to peel a musty orange. The discipline of writing every day, in a different building than that in which he lives with his wife, is a compelling one. Hemingway’s “moveable feast” is a space in which he writes every day with discipline and vigor, while savoring the sights, tastes, and smells around him. Hemingway’s clear prose is a beautiful model, standing in contrast to the unnecessarily complicated jargon and vocabulary that seems to characterize much academic prose. And finally, I appreciate the implicit idea that it is through writing, not merely in reading, that an idea becomes a part of you. My husband and I both consider this to be one of our favorite quotes from literature, ever.

“I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” (13)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Intentionality

Jane Eyre and the discovery of a pair of book blogs that gave me guidance as to what to read next – I’ve always re-read obsessively because I rarely knew what other books to try – have started me reading a whole new set of literature. And for the first time, I feel confident in saying that I’m reading “real” literature. Fantasy and science fiction books were my bread and butter for most of my life, but now I’m reading from the classical canon and other examples of literary fiction, particularly that written by women in the first half of the 20th century. (Thank you to the Persephone and Virago collections, and to the book bloggers who rhapsodized over their merits enough that I had to experience these overlooked women’s novels for myself!) I have also gone back and read classics of children’s literature that I missed in my own childhood. (Seriously, why was I stubborn enough to refuse to read Little Women or Anne of Green Gables after my mother bought me the complete sets?)

If you’re looking for great book recommendations, check out those two blogs:
Teresa and Jenny at ShelfLove, http://shelflove.wordpress.com/
Rachel at BookSnob, http://bookssnob.wordpress.com/

But I digress. The idea of starting a book blog has been in my head for a few months now, and not just because I have enjoyed my unexpected immersion into the world of book blogging. Over Christmas break, I decided to attempt to read 100 new books in 2012. I’m well on track, as you can see on the “Fiction 2012” page. And of course, I couldn’t resist recommending my favorites. However, it turns out that Facebook is a poor forum for recommending books. With the limited size of posts, my book reviews were by necessity dreadfully short. Discussion of these books was nigh-impossible, although there were a few occasions where comments passed back and forth allowed limited conversation. When I checked out John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I realized that I would love to have a mini-book group to discuss it in stages, but Facebook is the wrong medium to facilitate that kind of dialogue.

And thus, the first reason this blog was created was to enable longer, more thoughtful reviews of the fiction I read, and to provide the opportunity for discussion if anyone would like to read some of these books along with me. I have no collegiate training in English literature. The classical canon is all completely new to me. It is exciting to see how the critical analysis I am learning as a music historian-in-training can apply to fictional texts.

This blog will not be limited to analysis of fiction, but of the academic writing I read as well. This includes musicological, historical, and theological texts. I intend for this to be a discursive space in which I can puzzle out connections between books and across the fiction/academic gap. When I was partway into D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I made a passing comment to my husband about the parallel between a major theme of this book and that of the graduate seminar I’m currently auditing (The History of Music Theory). One focus of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the disconnect between the life of the mind and “really living” – the idea being that theorizing about philosophy, sexuality, and artistic ideas prevents one from actually experiencing life, sex, and artistic creation. I had an intense epiphany connecting this theme to the division between theory and practice that characterizes much of the various histories of music theory. However, my husband wasn’t familiar with either the novel or the academic discussion, and because I didn’t write down any of these thoughts, I’ve since lost them. Perhaps in writing this blog, I can find more and deeper connections between the academic work I accomplish and the books I read for fun.

The final push to actually start this blog came from this post over at GradHacker:
http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/04/04/write-damnit/

The author, an anthropology graduate student, began a blog in order to force him- or herself to read and analyze articles from the field of anthropology. This regular practice in writing is absolutely essential for success as a graduate student and one day, professor. My career will require me to read, form opinions, and write them coherently. And if I can establish a discipline of writing regularly (ideally, daily), then the process of beginning my dissertation in three years’ time won’t seem so daunting.

I have finished 38 new books so far this year, including a few in audiobook format. (If you want to see what I’ve already read this year, check the tab above marked “Fiction 2012.” I may try to bring my existing short reviews to this site.) My academic reading has been a little more scattered, and because I presented at a conference about a month and half ago, has rarely consisted of complete books or articles but rather whatever sections I needed for my research. This blog, however, will not look backwards. I will jump right in and post on whatever I finish reading, starting now.

Things to consider:
Perhaps no one will read this blog. I’m okay with that – the writing practice alone will make this project worth the time. If, however, friends or even strangers make their way to this space, it could be useful to make it easy to sort between the fiction and the academic offerings. Thoughts?

Also, I’m a brand-new blogger and could definitely use advice on the mechanics of running a blog! What should I know to make things easier both for me and for readers?

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School, Susan Gubar, ed.
Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music, Daniel Harrison

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reading Habits

I was once a voracious reader. When I was a child, my mother used to joke that “a bomb could go off, and if Samantha was reading, she wouldn’t notice!” I think that may have nearly happened once: I have vague memories of being roused by a friend to rush outside because of the ringing fire alarm. I, of course, hadn’t noticed the strident noise; I was buried in my book. I was never one of those kids who spend their childhoods outdoors. At one summer day camp, I must have read through the scanty bookshelf three or four times, and ended up desperate for new material. The lowest grades I’ve ever received on a report card came in the elementary school subjects “Behavior” and “Work Habits.” I was tearful, until my parents read through the comments and learned that the poor grades were due to my habit of reading during class when I had already finished the assignment, or already knew the directions, or already knew the topic being taught. I’m sure my parents laughed at me, and I’m also sure they instructed me that reading has a proper time and place. I’ve made several friends due to my reading habit. One girl and I became friends on the elementary school bus. As the only two girls who spent that ride reading, we naturally gravitated toward each other because if we sat in the same seat, no one else would bother us or interrupt our books. Another friend made a particular effort to meet me in a high school English class because she was impressed that I carried a Star Trek book so openly, unafraid that anyone would mock me as a geek or a nerd. (I must confess that the thought that I might be laughed at had simply not occurred to me! It was the book I was in the middle of; of course I would carry it on top of my other binders and textbooks.)

Sadly, the start of college marked in many ways the end of an era. The one relevant to this discussion is the fact that I largely stopped reading for personal enjoyment. I had my own shiny new laptop, which gave me access to online television shows. I had moved halfway across the country to a tiny dorm room: by necessity, my book collection stayed home. Reading for homework took up so much time that by the end of the textbook chapters, articles, and research for paper-writing, it simply didn’t occur to me to pick up more books. But in my senior year, for sanity’s sake, I decided that free reading had to return. That year, all of my classes were within my major (music), and I was writing a senior honors thesis. I made the conscious effort to set time aside to read books that had nothing to do with classes, and those half-hours probably kept my academic life manageable.

The trouble is, of course, that by that point I had no idea what to read. I found a few new titles, but I mostly borrowed high school favorites from the library. The following summer, after the whirlwind of changes that graduating, getting married, and moving into your husband’s apartment causes, I rescued much of my childhood library from my mother’s basement and set it up on beautiful new bookshelves that my grandfather had handmade and gifted to us. With a part-time job and graduate school applications taking up most, but not all of my time, I had plenty of time to read through them. Re-reading these books was like rediscovering old friends. I had read them all many times before. Their rhythm, their cadences, their characters and plots were intimately familiar. Even after all this time, Ender still won Earth’s war; Hazel’s leadership and Fiver’s cleverness still led to the rescue of the Efrafan rabbits; Cimorene was just as practical a princess and the Red Star just as dangerous and foreboding as ever. But while these books hadn’t changed, I had. Old favorites like Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small and Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants quartets couldn’t engage with the circumstances of my life anymore. Since young adult fiction was what I knew, I tried a few new ones with the help of my brand-new public library card. (Why, oh why, did it take me four years of living here in St. Louis before I found my local public library??) The trouble was, I was now a married adult, and the young adult genre just didn’t do it for me anymore.

Somehow – I can’t remember how – I ended up checking out the Penguin Classics hardcover edition of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This massive thing had an attached ribbon bookmark and endnotes, for goodness’ sake. Endnotes! I sank deep into Jane’s story and found myself delighted by the challenge, by its depth, by the breakfast conversations it started as I tried to make sense of my strong reactions. It took at least a month to get through this behemoth, but by the end of the book, it had become clear: a new era of reading has begun for me.