Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

I recently reviewed Jeanne Birdsall’s second Penderwicks book (you can find that review here), and I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to read her third one this quickly.  Public libraries for the win!  The third in the series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (2011), is a surprisingly great sequel.  I’ve found that the quality of an ongoing series often falls off after the first or second offering.  Too often, as books or films go on, characters undergo drastic personality changes from poor writing, or worse, never change at all.  It can be hard to create believable character growth as a series develops, and scenarios often get more far-fetched as the writers run out of ideas.  However, despite yet another entirely-too-convenient plot resolution, Birdsall’s new tale is simply delightful!  Each of the girls remains herself, yet all are growing up.

Her second book, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, disappointed me somewhat.  The four Penderwick sisters had returned home after their summer at Arundel, and it felt as if Birdsall didn’t know how to handle the girls’ daily home life without inventing an implausible dating requirement for their father.  In this third book, Birdsall sends the girls away again for the following summer, and it seems that it is in summer vacation adventures that she really hits her stride.  There is a surprising twist in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette: the girls split up!  Rosalind, the eldest, goes to New Jersey with her friend Anna.  Thus, she is not present for most of the book.  I was completely prepared to be annoyed by this.  A series about four sisters, and one isn’t even in this book?  And yet, I loved the result.  Rosalind has always been the mother-figure for her sisters Skye, Jane, and Batty.  Now, the other three Penderwick girls must learn how to cope without her (and without their father and new mother and brother, who are all on a honeymoon in England) on their summer vacation with Aunt Claire and their friend Jeffrey.  There, Skye must take on the responsibility of the OAP – Oldest Available Penderwick – and try to remember all the rules for taking care of little Batty after her list gets water-logged and ruined.  Her responsibilities unfortunately increase when Aunt Claire sprains her ankle.  Jane struggles to write a new Sabrina Starr book, but finds that it’s difficult to write about love if you’ve never felt it, and Batty and Jeffrey bond over a shared love of music.  And this book adds a few new friends – the local girl Mercedes, who is Batty’s age and quickly adopted as one of the family, and the next-door neighbor Alec, a professional musician who takes Jeffrey under his wing.  Things go wrong, adventures are had, concerts are performed, messes are made, and all in all, it’s another great story about a really loveable family.

One thing I liked most about this book was about how, in contrast to other modern children’s stories (you can read more of my thoughts on that here), Birdsall doesn’t see a need for the kids she writes about to be on their own, without any adult supervision and influence.  Yes, the children must take on more chores when Aunt Claire ends up bedridden, but she is still the parental figure, and at one point, her adult presence saves the day.  These stories about the Penderwicks demonstrate how loving adult figures create healthy, well-adjusted children by giving them independence and responsibility, while always remaining present to help in a crisis.  I like this image of parenthood.  I like how five-year-old Batty helps make pancakes – and how all the kids pitch in to help clean up the messy kitchen afterwards.  I like how Aunt Claire serves as a confidant, giving wise advice when the girls face problems they don’t think they can deal with alone.  I like Birdsall’s Penderwicks, who are capable and loyal and talented, and I hope she comes out with a new book soon!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Charlotte's Web

I know this wasn’t on my last list of books I’m currently reading, but it was the perfect choice for twenty minutes or so when I couldn’t sleep the other night, and once I’d started, I just had to finish it!  It was pretty perfect, actually – my husband is away and my house is a little lonely.  Just as I got to the part where Wilbur is lonely and finds a friend, I became contented and sleepy enough to turn off the light.

Reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) was like a never-ending feeling of déjà vu.  I read this book so often as a kid, and I must’ve seen the animated film countless times.  It had been a long time since either book or film, so I remembered the basic plot but not specific lines.  As I read, though, the words were so familiar, and on many occasions, I could hear them being read by the characters from the movie.  It was very sweet to revisit this old favorite.

Everybody knows the plot of Charlotte’s Web, right?  Wilbur the pig befriends Charlotte, the spider who lives in the doorway of his pen.  Charlotte is smart and loyal, caring and clever; in short, the best friend Wilbur could have.  Wilbur is slated to be slaughtered for bacon and ham around Christmastime, but Charlotte concocts a plan to prevent that.  Writing words in praise of Wilbur in her web, she makes the pig famous enough to eventually win a prize at the State Fair.  No one would kill “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” after that, and Wilbur goes on to live a long, happy life.

It’s a cute story, full of memorable characters like the goose who can’t talk without repeating herself (repeating-repeating-repeating herself) and Templeton, the self-centered rat who hoards objects and craves garbage for food.  And White’s descriptions of farm life and the turn of the seasons are simple yet vivid.

But the ending is sadder than I remember.  As a child, I wasn’t able to draw the parallel between Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s fates.  Wilbur cries, “I don’t want to die!” and Charlotte makes it so.  But who is there to save Charlotte’s life?  A spider’s lifespan is short.  Charlotte sacrifices her final days accompanying Wilbur to the fair, giving up the chance to lay her egg sac at home as she wanted.  Wilbur lives a long, happy life surrounded by his friends at the farm, but Charlotte dies alone despite all the love and cleverness she poured into another’s well-being.

“She never moved again.  Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died.  The Fair Grounds were soon deserted.  The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn.  The infield was littered with bottles and trash.  Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.  No one was with her when she died” (171).

It’s so tragic.  But of course, Wilbur couldn’t stay at the fair; he was carried away in his crate by the farmer, a force greater than himself.  Of course there was nothing anyone could do to save Charlotte.  No number of clever words could stave off her approaching death.  Charlotte’s Web portrays the inevitability of change and death, a theme echoed by the turning of the seasons and the attention of Fern Arable, the girl who raised Wilbur, turning from her once-beloved pig to the boy who took her on the Ferris wheel.  Fern grew up, her ability to hear the animals’ speech transforming into an interest in dating.  Charlotte grew up, laid her eggs, and died.  Even the goose and the gander lay eggs each year and protect the goslings that emerge.  Wilbur’s growth is a bit more subtle.  Grown wiser through his experience of grief at his friend’s death, Wilbur has children by proxy, the few baby spiders who choose to remain with him each year.  In the end, Wilbur finds contentment:

“Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web.  Life in the barn was very good – night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days.  It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything” (183).

White’s message is not an existential one.  Everyone must grow up and eventually die, but this is cause for living one’s life full of joy in one’s friends and surroundings, enjoying the sunshine and the birdsong and the memory of dear friends gone before.

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Armin
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: The Intentional Fallacy

To the music theorist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of taking several courses – and with whom I’ve had many a good-natured argument about the value of historicism – this one is for you.

Of the several binaries that occupied our attention in a course entitled “The History of Music Theory,” the debate between historicism (studying works as they were created in history) and presentism (studying works as they are received now) was perhaps our most hotly argued, largely because the students tackling this material included me, an early music scholar and historically-informed performance practitioner, and a music theorist of 20th-century music, focused only on what studies of music past can offer him today.  He’s famous in our department for offering up an Italian madrigal analyzed completely (okay, incompletely…there’s only so much you can do with this so-called “pre-tonal” repertoire) in Roman numerals when my class “The Italian Madrigal” was learning about contemporary modal theory.  This theorist friend constantly questioned my basic assumption that the composer’s intention was important, that it even mattered, and for making me aware of my own scholarly biases, I am incredibly grateful.  (It didn’t change my belief that there is value in attempting to determine what a composer meant when he or she wrote a piece of music, and in analyzing that music in the contexts of its contemporary culture and musical practices.  But at least now I’m aware that I start with this assumption, and that it is not a view that is universally shared.)  This theorist would say, “Why does it matter how people heard it back then?  That’s not how we hear it today.  Therefore historicism does nothing for ME.”

Well, friend, in an attempt to understand your perspective, I searched out an article tackling similar ideas:
W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (New York: Noonday Press, 1954), 3-18.  The fact that this article specifically regards poetry rather than music is superfluous.  As works of art, poetry and music can be examined with the same range of approaches.  That’s precisely why I found an introduction on literary criticism to have so many potentially useful applications to my own work as a musicologist (you can read more about that discovery here).  In any case, when Wimsatt’s article begins with this compelling statement, I knew I’d landed upon an article useful precisely because I so vehemently disagree with it: “We argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…” (3).

Poetry as conceived by Wimsatt and music have more in common than I first realized, for they are both a performative art.  Poetry is not created until it is performed; similarly, some musicologists argue that music written on a page is not actually music until the written notes become an aural reality, enabled by the physical action of a musician.  That’s a whole big debate that I don’t want to get into here.  But it matters because, as Wimsatt says, “But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized).  We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference” (5).  Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, all performative works, music included, are created not by the author or composer but by the performer.  Thus, it doesn’t matter what the musical composer intended.  What matters is how the musician performed it – and when it comes to, say, a piece of early music, someone with this viewpoint might not care how it may have been performed centuries ago, only how it is performed today, with  all our modern approaches and reactions.  Another argument is that a poem (or a piece of music) is neither the composer’s nor the listener’s, but belongs to the public, as an expression of the universal human experience, enabled by the universal drive for language.

According to this article, author biography is a legitimate study, but one that must not be confused with research of the author’s works.  Both the study of author history/psychology and the study of the author’s creations are means toward understanding author personality – but these are too easily mistaken and intermingled.  Wimsatt wants scholars to differentiate between three kinds of evidence: public (the internal evidence found in the work itself), private (the external evidence not part of a work but about the author, as in journals or letters), and intermediate (evidence about the meanings the author assigned to particular elements of his/her work).

Wimsatt seems to be arguing, overall, that inquiring what an author intended when he or she created a work is meaningless.  What matters is how successful a performer is when presenting the work, and how it is received by the public as an expression of the public.  Or something like that.  I find it difficult to truly understand anti-historicist viewpoints (which is why I will continue to struggle through articles like this one).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: God's Secretaries

I have been interested lately in history books written by journalists.  There’s something so appealing about a well-researched history book written in engaging, accessible prose.  Not all journalists can pull off the well-researched part (see my review of A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy, for example), nor do journalists hold a monopoly on accessible prose.  However, many journalists seem to approach writing with a very different goal than academics, many of whom have absorbed academia’s trap of using complex sentences and big words for the sake of sounding authoritative.  I own several such books: Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, and David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar.  I read these journalistic histories as models for my own writing.  It’s a bonus that I have been enjoying their contents as much as their writing style.

Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003) is not actually a play-by-play description of the process of creating this Biblical translation.  Much of that process remains unknown because the documents have been lost, and what is known today had already been covered in academic publications.  Instead, God’s Secretaries is a cultural study: Nicolson examines many varied aspects of Jacobean culture that contributed to the idea and execution of the KJB.  This makes for an utterly fascinating book.  Nicolson presents biographies of King James himself and several of the Translators, and descriptions of such wide-ranging topics as contemporary medical theory, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath, architecture, the demand for rich luxury goods, the financial situation at court, the evolving English language, and other Bible translations.  Some of the most interesting passages compare the text finally chosen for the King James translation to that of previous and even modern Bible translations in order to demonstrate the Translators’ zeal for richness of sound and meaning.  And of course, Nicolson attempts to unweave the complicated web of religious politics in 17th-century England.

That is the aspect of this book which I found most compelling and from which I learned the most.  Nicolson discusses the motivations of Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and Separatists.  His balanced approach really tries to understand their disparate beliefs regarding liturgy, tradition, community, Scripture, symbol, and ceremony.  He examines the underlying assumptions that caused communication between these groups to so frequently break down without ever declaring that one religious denomination was right.  This was hugely influential to me personally when I began this book last fall.

I grew up in a nondenominational Christian church, which meant that I was raised as a Christian evangelical edging towards fundamentalism.  In high school, I was hired as a singer for an Episcopal church, and have since been confirmed as an Episcopalian and married an Episcopal theologian.  He starts his master’s degree at Duke Divinity School this fall, and I too expect to take a fair number of courses at the Div School to enable my research on sacred music in its theological and liturgical contexts.  The theology that is now a part of my daily conversations is just about the polar opposite from the beliefs with which I grew up.  And as a new liturgical Christian, it was difficult to keep from opposing those childhood ideas against which I was now rebelling.  That’s where Nicolson came in.  He discussed the fundamental differences of opinion between Anglicans and Puritans, explaining why the Anglicans valued ceremony and ritual and the Puritans valued simplicity and private reflection on Scripture.  I was able to again see value in a belief system that differed from my own.

“Why did these things matter so much?  Why did people care about the wearing of a surplice, or the emblem of the cross, or the use of a ring in the wedding service?  Why was so much agony expended on the relative weight of symbol and word, of text and ceremony, on the precise bodily movements of Englishmen at prayer.  There is a straightforward answer: two entirely different and opposing worldviews, and two views of the nature of human beings, and bound up in this debate.  For the strict reformers, only the naked intellectual engagement with the complexities of a rational God would do.  All else was confusion and obfuscation.  The word was the route to understanding.  Everything else was mud in the water.  Men were essentially thinking and spiritual creatures.  Bodily observance was an irrelevance…For those like Andrews who held on to the place of symbol in the life of religion (and they were a small if powerful minority even among the bishops of the Jacobean church), and who saw God not as an intellectual system but as a mystery, the stripping of the altars was an unpardonable arrogance.  The church had always used ritual and ceremony to approach the divine.  It was the conduit through which grace could reach the believer.  Only big-headed modern ‘novelists’ could assume that, without any guidance from the wisdom of the church fathers, ordinary people could approach God direct, as no one had done since the Apostles.  Mystery for Andrewes required ceremony and a respect for the inherited past.”  (37)

Isn’t that fabulous?  Nicolson respects both views, incompatible as they are, and you can’t help but sympathize with the side that believes differently than you do when he writes with such empathy.  And after establishing this central conflict in the religious life of early 17th-century England, Nicolson is able to make his central point about the importance of this new translation of Scripture.  The King James Bible is a landmark of history precisely because it bridges the gap between these two disparate worldviews:

“In this sentence [“Why was this waste of the oyntment [sic] made?” from Mark 4:4], one can see the extraordinary phenomenon of the King James Bible conforming both to Protestant and to pre-Protestant ideas about the nature of Christianity.  It is both clear and rich.  It both makes and exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.  It has that peculiarly Jacobean combination of light and richness, the huge windows illuminating the densely decorated room, the unfamiliar amalgam of the court-Puritan, both strict and grand.  No one could fault the Translators in their meticulous attention to the detail of the original texts; and yet in doing so, more than any other English translators, the enshrined a high moment of Christian meaning.” (196)

I’ve got nothing to add, other than to say that if you have any interest in Jacobean history, religious politics, theology, or the English language, you should read this book.  The impact of the King James Bible on Western civilization is unparalleled, and it remains exceedingly relevant even four hundred years later.

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Armin