Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Engaging Music


I spent many hours yesterday taking seven music department diagnostic exams, including sight-singing, dictation, playing figured bass and a string quartet on the piano, identifying ten mystery scores spanning the entire range of classical music history, harmonizing a chorale melody, and giving an oral presentation analyzing a piece.  In order to prepare for that last exam, it was recommended that we peruse a book I’d never heard of before: Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, edited by Deborah Stein and published in 2005.  I wish I’d heard of this book sooner – it would have come in handy as an undergraduate!

Engaging Music is a series of short analyses of musical pieces by professors of music theory, directed at an audience of undergraduate music majors and intended to serve as examples for analytical essays.  Stein explains this goal in her preface: when a class of music majors was assigned an analysis paper, they asked for an example upon which they could model their methodology and writing.  Stein had difficulty recommending a reading, and embarked upon the project of collecting essays by prominent music theorists to compile into a collection for other young music majors looking for guidance.  So many people were enthusiastic about the book and eager to supply essays that she had to turn many potential contributors away!

If you’re interested to know what sort of work music theorists do, this book would be a great starting point.  It doesn’t assume that its readers know a lot of complicated musical terminology, and each essay is rather short, explaining the purpose of its methodology and then proceeding to a brief analysis of an aspect of a piece of classical music.  Topics vary widely both in time period and by type of musical repertoire.  Reading Engaging Music in its entirety, you will encounter composers ranging from 17th-century Purcell to Bartók, Schoenberg, and other 20th-century composers.  You’ll read about how instrumental pieces treat form, rhythm, harmony, and motive; how song and aria lyrics express drama, emotion, and psychology; and how techniques of traditional classical music theory can (or cannot) be applied to the analysis of popular music such as jazz and rock.   Taken collectively, these essays served as a useful reminder of the many topics I needed to consider when working on my own analysis for the oral exam (form, both large and small-scale; rhythm and meter; pitch collections; keys and cadences; melody, theme, and motive; instruments and register; textual organization and text-setting).  They would have saved me a lot of stress, had I discovered them as an undergraduate attempting my own first analysis papers.  Perhaps someday I’ll teach music theory 101; if I do, I will certainly recommend this book to my students.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Nine Parts of Desire


Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995) is another one of those great nonfiction books written by journalists, a style I raved about here.  I found this one at the public library’s 2-for-1 sale.  It was actually an afterthought.  I had purchased Girl With a Pearl Earring because I’d been on the lookout for a copy with an illustrated cover, rather than one with a still from the movie version.  When I took it to the desk to pay my 50 cents, the woman kindly recommended I choose another book from the shelf, because it would be free.  Nine Parts of Desire was the only one that looked interesting, and when I took it home, my husband knew of it and was sure I’d like it.  I didn’t just like it, I devoured it.  It was a perfect follow-up to Nectar in a Sieve.  Even thought this one wasn’t about an Indian woman, it similarly introduced me to the struggles of a huge set of women from a culture I was unfamiliar with.  After reading this tremendous book, I’m convinced that you can’t be an American feminist without caring about, and worrying about, the plight of Middle Eastern women.

Geraldine Brooks was (still is?) a Western reporter assigned to cover Middle Eastern politics.  As a woman in a male-dominated society, she had difficulty obtaining permission to go to the places and speak to the people that she needed in order to write her stories.  Eventually, she realized that her gender made her uniquely positioned to write a different kind of story: that of the marginalized and often under-represented or misunderstood Islamic women, their changing place in religious society, and their response to the roles assigned to them.  As Brooks put it:

“Was it possible to reclaim the positive messages in the Koran and Islamic history, and devise some kind of Muslim feminism?  Could Muslim fundamentalists live with Western liberals, or would accommodating each other cost both of us our principles?  To find the answers, I did something so obvious I couldn’t believe it had taken me a year to get around to it.  I started talking to women”  (11).

Each of Brooks’ twelve chapters covers a different aspect of Islamic women’s lives, everything from the clothes they are required to wear or prohibited from wearing, society’s obsessive focus on virginity, honor killings, polygamous marriage, the example set by the prophet Muhammad’s relationship to his wives, women’s participation in the military or in sports, women’s right to vote, and even belly dancing.  I learned so much about Islamic society and religious doctrine, about how religion and politics are often inseparable in Islamic countries, about how Islamic countries all differ from one another in their laws and their level of extremism.  The first chapter alone provided an endless source of conversation with my husband, as I tried to work out the many contradictions Brooks brought to light.

For example, women in many Islamic societies are forced to wear hijab – literally, “a curtain;” an Islamically-approved women’s style of dress that covers their entire bodies and veils their faces.  When there’s a certainty of verbal abuse or even physical violence if a woman goes out-of-doors without veiling herself in this manner, the practice of requiring hijab is abusive.  On the other hand, when wearing hijab was outlawed for a time in the 1930s and 1940s, many women were terribly upset and humiliated at the loss of a style of dress that was comfortable and familiar.  Is hijab liberating or repressive?  Over the last century or so, wearing hijab or deliberately not wearing it, have been overtly political acts in defiance of the current government’s policy on women’s sexuality.  Does the veil make a woman more eye-catching, or less?  To offer an alternative, Brooks discusses the Tuareg, a nomadic tribe in the Algerian Sahara, who believe that men should be veiled because then, enemies will not know what is on the mind of the male warriors – whereas women, who have nothing to hide, go barefaced.  How does the political pressure for women to wear the veil help the economy, particularly clothing retail, a sector that provides many jobs for women?  What did Muhammad really have to say about women’s clothing, bodies, and place in society – and what happens when contemporary religious teachers interpret his words?  And how come Islamic men aren’t required to abide by Islam’s dress code for men?  All of these questions and more are pursued in what I believe to be a fairly balanced approach.  Both extremes of any issue are presented, along with personal stories of individual women experiencing the middle ground.  And this is all just the first chapter.

The founder of Shiite Islam (yes, the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is explained in this book for people like me who don’t know the difference between sects), Ali ibn Abu Taleb said, “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.”  The title of the book comes from this quote, and the entire book is interested in how Islamic practice is concerned with gender and sexuality.  The author’s background, coming from a Catholic school, gives her a unique perspective, allowing Brooks to view Islam with a sympathetic eye.  She points out that Islam, after all, is no different than Catholicism in that devout members seek to follow God’s word on holy living by regulating the activities of women in respect to men.  As Brooks writes, “Women bear the brunt of fending off social disorder in the Catholic tradition because they aren’t considered sexually active, and in the Muslim tradition because they are” (40).  It is a praiseworthy gesture in a book that could have so easily become, through criticism of Islamic tradition, an attack on Islam itself.  Instead, Brooks reminds us that all cultures and religions, all across the world, have to deal with issues of gender and sexuality, and that none have always managed to do so in a liberating way.  Nine Parts of Desire is thus a surprisingly relevant book for readers of any gender and any nationality.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: Nectar in a Sieve


Have you ever had one of those experiences in a used bookstore when a book you’ve never heard of grabs your attention and then, after you’ve pulled it curiously down from the shelf to glance at, demands to be taken home with you?  And so you flip through it, even though you have no idea why it has captured your attention, having never heard of this book before, and in the end, the book wins and you buy it?  That happened to me last fall, before I was even reading classic literature.  Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954) came home with me from a used bookstore in St. Louis, and I’m still a little bemused by my unexpected acquisition of what turned out to be a really poignant, heartstring-tugging novel.

The title is explained in a quote before the book even begins: “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live.  – Coleridge”  And it is hope, the keeping of it even in times of great trouble, that makes up the central premise of this story.  I appreciated this early explanation.  It gave me a guide to focus my reading.  This novel doesn’t keep secrets; it doesn’t try to manipulate its readers.  It just lays out, straightforwardly, the life of an astonishingly hard-working Indian woman who faces devastating losses but endures with stoic acceptance and perseverance.  Rukmani was married to a poor tenant farmer at the age of twelve.  Her husband, Nathan, was not an educated man, but he had great love and patience both for his wife and for the land that was his livelihood.  Rukmani soon bears a daughter, then faces barrenness that is devastating in a society that depends upon sons for their ability to work and care for their families.  Secretly, she seeks help from a Western doctor by the name of Kenny, who restores Rukmani’s fertility, and she goes on to have six sons and adopt another.  Her story is heavily entwined with that of each of her children.  We find out how each of them chooses to spend their lives.  Some of their stories are tragic, others admirable and hopeful, and all of them illustrate the realistic decisions of realistic people, and the consequences of these choices on the people around them.  Along with the raising of her children, Rukmani must deal with a changing India, one that broadens the gap between rich and poor through increasing industrialization.  As her once-tiny village becomes a larger town, Rukmani and Nathan become increasingly poorer, until each day is a struggle just to obtain enough food to survive.

Despite so many tragedies piled one on top of another, Rukmani remains a hopeful woman – a stoicism that frustrates and confuses Kenny.  The collision between East and West, and the lack of understanding between the two, is one of the major themes of Nectar in a Sieve.  Another is attention – Rukmani thinks a lot about attention from men (particularly that received by Kunthi and Ira, both prostitutes), attention one receives from one’s community after moving away (Janaki, in particular), and attention paid to someone at and after their death.  Another topic Markandaya emphasizes is the lack of options for women in increasingly desperate situations.  Rukmani is both angered and deeply saddened when her daughter Irawaddy becomes a prostitute, but the book makes it clear that this awful choice is a necessity.  The ambiguous morality of Ira’s decision is underscored by its consequence – a beloved son, but one who is albino.  Rukmani tends not to dwell on philosophical thoughts of right and wrong, choosing instead to illustrate nature and her changing world, but there are plenty such questions that readers can dwell upon should they choose.

Nectar in a Sieve has the same sweeping scale as R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days (you can read my review of that novel here).  Like Delderfield’s book, this one tells the story of a country through the trials of an individual’s lifetime.  Beautifully written moments flicker by, brief scenes in a larger tapestry.  Markandaya never gives any dates in her novel, so it was impossible for me to tell what period in Indian history this book illustrates.  Is this India of the 1950s (when the book was written)?  Or earlier?  It made me realize how much both my academic and literary attention has been focused on Western culture, and made me want to learn more about these amazingly strong and long-suffering women of the Middle East and Asia, whose lives I can’t picture because their cultures are so different than mine.  Nectar in a Sieve was thus directly responsible for my next choice of book – Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (which I’ve finished and loved, and will review soon).  I certainly intend to continue reading the fabulous English and American literature I’ve been discovering, but I think it would be very edifying if I make a conscious effort to read more of the non-Western canon as well.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks
Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Wives and Daughters, Second and Final Post


When I first started Elizabeth Gaskell’s very long Wives and Daughters (1865-1866) a few months ago, I decided to read it in four parts, stopping every fifteen chapters to pause and reflect.  In my first of four intended posts, I wrote about my first impressions of several of the major characters, and my joy in Gaskell’s subtle wit.  I talked about it being a domestic drama, in the vein of Jane Austen’s novels, and I discussed the slow unfolding of plot and absolutely gorgeous language.  Realizing that the book was so long that I wouldn’t finish it before the library’s copy came due, I found a copy of that same great Everyman edition of my own for $1 (!) (plus shipping) online.  Huzzah!  This did, however, cause me to set it aside for a while.  I finally picked it back up again for the Victorian Celebration, but all the traveling I did in July meant that I had a lot less reading time than I expected.  When I did reach the next self-imposed stopping point, I didn’t actually feel like stopping.  The further I got into the book, the more it grabbed me.  Plot picked up, secrets were hinted at and finally revealed, and things got more and more desperate for our quiet and self-effacing heroine.

Which brings us to now: once we moved to Durham, in the midst of all of our unpacking and acclimating, I found myself devouring Gaskell’s beautiful novel.  It didn’t feel slow and ponderous anymore.  Reading Wives and Daughters in Durham suddenly felt like a breath of fresh air, a time to sit calmly, immersed in what is now one of my favorite books.  I must have gone through a good fifty to a hundred pages a day – and those are dense pages!  For several days, my husband kept hearing variations on “It’s so good, and I’m almost at the end!”  Of course, I still had about fifty pages to go…but the end was so close; I could practically taste the happy ending!  So I sped through them and realized something terrible.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before she could complete Wives and Daughters, her masterpiece.  Her death was a devastating loss to the literary world; she was only a chapter or two away from the end of possibly the most underrated classic I’ve yet encountered.  Happily, readers aren’t left at a total loss.  Conflicts have all pretty much been resolved, and it’s pretty clear what is left to come for a truly happy ending.  Concluding remarks by the editor of the magazine that was publishing Wives and Daughters serially reveal the final events yet to come; apparently Gaskell had planned out the end of her novel and shared these details.  But it’s still dreadfully disappointing to come to the end of a novel that unfolded so slowly and beautifully and be left unable to read those final touching scenes.  The whole point of Wives and Daughters, after all, isn’t a rush through plot events.  Plot moves so slowly because Gaskell has so much to say about each event, about society and its responses, about each and every character’s reactions and choices.  I was left so sad that I had to hear synopses of these final conversations, instead of reading what were sure to be Gaskell’s typically tender, clever, or gently mocking prose.

It makes me wonder how many other fantastic novels were left unfinished due to their authors’ deaths.  If it is common for an author’s last book to be his or her masterpiece, how many of these masterpieces are ever completed?  I know that Jane Austen left a book uncompleted.  Do you know of any others?  Have you read them, and are they complete enough (or just good enough) to make them worth the disappointment of being left hanging?

I kind of feel bad for not having much more to say about Wives and Daughters, especially because I loved it so much.  One day, hopefully within a few years, I’ll read it again and find myself better able to focus on recurring images, themes, or social commentary.  I’ll talk about its discussion of weakness versus wickedness, and what makes someone good or heroic.  I’ll think about what it has to say about pride and naïveté, wealth and classism.  But this time through, I didn’t take notes.  I just enjoyed Wives and Daughters as an absolutely sublime novel.  If you haven’t read it before, please put it on your list!  But be aware: it is very long, over 600 slow pages, and it takes a while for the plot to really get exciting.  It would make the perfect project for a sleepy winter break, or a vacation in a quiet spot that affords lots of reading time.  Also, although I am a total advocate for reading library books, I really think that unless you’re planning to speed-read through Wives and Daughters and thus miss a lot of its beauty, it would be worth it to find your own copy somewhere, so you can take your time to really savor it.


Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Nectar in a Sieve, Kamala Markandaya
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: The Rest is Noise


Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, knows how to write about music.  When he came out with an entire book attempting to make sense of 20th-century classical music, it was highly acclaimed not only by other popular magazines, but also by music professors.  On the recommendation of my 20th-century music prof, I picked up The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) on the day of my graduation, when I had a few extra dollars of credit at the school bookstore.  The Rest is Noise is not a textbook, nor is it a series of disjointed musicology articles, nor is it a monograph examining a single musicological topic in depth – thus, it is different than most of the other music history books I’ve read.  It is a survey of an entire century of music from a cultural and political perspective, arranged in a loosely chronological fashion and organized largely by country.  Thus, there is a chapter on Strauss, Mahler, and other Germans at the start of the 20th century; there is a chapter on American music in the early 20th century, spanning Copland-esque populism to the Ives-ian avant-garde; there are chapters on Russian music before the Cold War and the Western experimentalist tradition during it; there are entire chapters on Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten.  This book is a discussion of how musical trends and ideas reflected, reacted against, or participated in the public worlds of culture and politics.  All of the major composers I studied in my two courses on 20th-century classical music appear, as do a few I haven’t heard of, and along with some very interesting composer biographies, I learned a tremendous amount of world history.  Government, wars, rulers, and nationalism have all played crucial roles in the evolution of music in these busy hundred years.  Over the course of the last century, with all its varied musical trends, music has been composed for political propaganda or to protest against totalitarianism, to engage with social conflicts, to communicate individual composers’ joys and hardships, to express spiritual beliefs, or even just to make a living.  It is impossible to come away from The Rest is Noise without a deepened understanding of music’s role in culture, and culture’s role in music.

I applaud the book for its success at communicating a fascinating history in an engaging manner, but I did have a few minor criticisms.  Most annoyingly, there were hundreds of unnecessary commas – a habit to which I myself am prone, and one I am trying to break.  Perhaps because of Ross’s background as a journalist, The Rest is Noise had very poor transitions.  Ross writes as if he is more accustomed to short-form articles, and thus, the book read like a series of short essays strung together haphazardly.  Sometimes there were line breaks, and sometimes even subtitles introducing new sections, but usually, he jumped jarringly from one topic to another with only a paragraph break.  Overall, the book was somewhat unfocused.  Anecdotes and digressions abound.  Ross embarks on various twisted, spidery paths in all directions to give what he admits is an uncomprehensive, general picture, in which much of the history of 20th-century classical music is left on the cutting room floor.  I can’t fault him for this; the last century contained so much innovation and so many great composers that it would be impossible to cover them all in a book of manageable size.  Thus, specific events and a few major composers stand in for larger musical and cultural trends.

If you can get past the plethora of commas and the lack of direction in terms of transitions and sectional divisions, The Rest is Noise is a fascinating survey of a period in music that is often regarded as inaccessible and difficult.  The book itself is understandable to all readers, even if you lack pre-existing knowledge of music or world history.  You might even try it as an airplane book – I did, and I not only looked smart in the airport, but quite enjoyed my reading time on the flight.  I also now have several more pieces to add to my very long list of classical masterpieces to become familiar with.  An American in Paris or Nixon in China, anyone?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: The Age of Innocence


We read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in my tenth grade English class, and I hated it.  I didn’t yet possess the critical analysis skills to enjoy it on a technical level, and I found the novella to be dry, dull, and depressing.  I’ve steered clear of Edith Wharton ever since, convinced that she was awful and that I’d always dislike her writing.  How wrong I was!  Enough book bloggers with similar tastes to my newfound love of Victorian classics and literature by British women have mentioned Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) that I ended up purchasing a Modern Library Classics edition at a used bookstore in St. Louis.  Still skeptical, I cracked it open a few weeks ago and was immediately in love, instantly delighted by the book.  Within the first few pages, I was already marking favorite quotes.  At once musical humor and wry evaluation of social conventions and expectations, these quotes are completely fantastic:

“Conservatives cherished it [the Academy of Music, New York’s opera house] for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music” (3).

“She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences” (4).

Wharton’s tale of an upper-society man struggling against his love for a woman who is not his wife is one of the great American novels, an enduring classic for its sharp wit, deft characterization, and beautiful prose.  I enjoyed it immensely, intrigued by its depiction of the conflict between strict etiquette and independent thought.  For example: “It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another.  Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side.  But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes” (48).  The tragic love between Newland Archer and the Countess Ellen Olenska is doomed from the start by the passivity required by social convention.  Newland is engaged; Newland is married; just as he decides to flout everything he has been taught to hold dear, he is fully entrapped.


Newland is not very self-reflective.  An unquestioning reader (read: inexperienced or unanalytical) may not even notice that he has fallen in love with Ellen until he announces it verbally, because there is so little internal monologue examining his feelings and actions.  It’s a strange contrast – Newland spends so much time analyzing his society, puzzling out its paradoxes and inconsistencies, comparing it to what little he knows about European society, trying to unpack its complex web of gendered expectations.  The most interesting chapter, to me, is Wharton’s depiction of Newland and May’s wedding.  At the end of the previous chapter, Newland had finally declared his love to Ellen.  Wharton brilliantly goes on to describe all of the details of the wedding – who is in attendance, where they sit, what they wear, how the church looks and sounds – without revealing any of Newland’s thoughts.  Readers are left to fill in the gaps between the array of sound and color with the anguish Newland must be feeling, as he marries a woman he is no longer in love with.  I liked being given responsibility as a reader, and the chapter somehow seemed even more miserable because the despair was only implied, never stated.

The book is called The Age of Innocence and throughout, I tried to determine exactly what Wharton meant by this title.  What is this innocence, the lens through which readers are intended to frame their experience of the novel?  It is not true inexperience, but the turning of a blind eye, the demand to be, if I may quote another favorite novel, “consciously naïve” (I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith).  What sets the Countess Olenska and, increasingly, Newland Archer, apart from their society is the worldly experience that has opened their eyes, so that they can no longer choose the blindness that society demands.  Ellen speaks of the Gorgon, a creature from Greek mythology whose gaze turns the onlooker to stone.  Contrary to the familiar myth, Ellen’s Gorgon, symbolic of traumatic experience, causes involuntary sight: “Well, she opened my eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people.  What she does is just the contrary – she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in blessed darkness.  Isn’t there a Chinese torture like that?  There ought to be.  Ah, believe me, it’s a miserable little country!” (216).  May Welland, her family, and all of their acquaintances remain purposefully innocent, unwilling to become publicly aware of the adultery common among the men of their set or of the growing love between Newland and Ellen.  It’s a strange contrast to their demand for honesty in business affairs.  When Beaufort is publicly ruined, his wife appeals to the Mrs. Manson Mingott, of the Welland family to which they both belong.  Mrs. Mingott refuses to cover up Beaufort’s business indiscretions, for “unblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige of old financial New York” (204).  And yet, Beaufort has been cheating on his wife with a string of mistresses, and while everybody is aware of it, society covers up these indiscretions in order to preserve their comfortable façade of proper appearances.  Why these varied responses to Beaufort’s romantic affairs versus his dishonest business dealings?  Why is society willfully innocent to adultery but not to financial dealings?  Wharton starkly criticizes this purposeful innocence, but at the same time, feels a certain nostalgia for it as the next generation moves on to a new, more liberated set of social customs.

When reading this book, there are many symbols on which one could focus.  In my tenth-grade English class, when we watched the film of The Age of Innocence as a part of our unit on Ethan Frome, my teacher pointed out each instance of director Martin Scorcese’s symbolic use of hands, until the whole class would shout out “hands!” whenever a character’s appeared on screen.  In this, my first reading of the novel, I found myself drawn not to hands, but to symbols of time: clocks and pocket watches, the turning of the seasons, and conversations about how days and afternoons should be spent.  When the life of the idle rich isn’t governed by the advancing of the work year, it must be given shape by the changing of the seasons, be they seasons of climate or seasons of fashion.  For much of the first portion of the book, Newland wants to hurry up the wedding, begging May and her family to advance the date.  At Newland’s first meeting with Ellen at her house, a clock is stopped, as if to imply that their conversation takes place outside of time, outside of their New York society life.  When they later discuss her divorce, the traveling-clock ticks, reminding readers of the inexorability of time and the fact that time, for Newland and Ellen, is limited.  In the Welland villa, time passes but the surroundings always remain the same: “There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic.  The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious” (162).  When Newland travels with the Welland family, there is much discussion of daily schedules – Mrs. Welland cannot bear to have hours “unprovided for,” hating the idea of merely “killing time” (164).  In response, Newland jokes that he plans to “save” time rather than “spend” it, but his kidding is met with palpable distress.  Together with Ellen, however, Newland is able to open himself up to spontaneity and impulsiveness, to unplanned hours and unexpected joys.  “Oh, don’t calculate,” he begs of Ellen when she draws out her watch.  “Give me the day!” (174).  And she does.

I’d love to read this lovely novel again, paying attention to something different, reveling again in Wharton’s sumptuous language, witty conversation, and beautiful descriptions.  Perhaps one day, I’ll even revisit Ethan Frome!  In the meantime, however, I’ve grown old enough and analytically adept enough to finally appreciate this amazing author.  I’m grateful for that – anyone who hasn’t read The Age of Innocence is definitely missing out!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Books 1-4)


Ann Brashares’ quartet of books about Lena, Carmen, Bridget, and Tibby, the self-named Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, formed a huge part of my teenage years.  They came out while I was in middle and high school, and all of my close friends also read them.  Like any circle of teenage girls, we compared ourselves to these characters, and our situations to theirs.  We gamely tried to find a pair of jeans that fit all of us, and when that failed, we gleefully realized that I had a black wrap-around dress that did, in fact, look good on all three of us.  These four books, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood, and Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood are as comfortable and familiar to me as, if you’ll forgive the pun, a well-worn pair of blue jeans.

In a week of exhausting packing, returning to these books was a real delight.  I’ve read them all several times before, but not for several years, so they were familiar without being memorized.  They’re young adult books, rather than the literary fiction I’ve tended to read lately, so I found them light and quick.  It was nice not to tackle anything intellectually challenging after a day of stress and physical work.  Packing, of course, is a lot more wearying than it sounds.  Now that I’m an adult, reading classics and other more challenging literature, I noticed the simplicity of Brashares’ writing more than I used to, and was often mildly perturbed by her insistence on spelling out metaphors and messages, rather than allowing readers to notice the parallels themselves.  But then, these books were never intended to be “great literature.”  They don’t lend themselves well to deep analysis.  Instead, they were intended to explore the changing lives, loves, and friendships of a group of girls as they navigate high school and their entrance into college.  As their families, love lives, and experiences change, not always for the better, the girls find themselves able to manage grief, jealousy, anger, fear, and other complicated emotions because of the friendships they share with each other.  It’s a nice image for teens, and I fully expect that if I have a daughter someday, I will share these books with her as soon as she’s old enough for some of the adult situations these girls encounter.

What are some of these situations? you may ask, if you haven’t read these books before.  Lena, the beautiful Greek girl, falls in love with an older boy, and the two take turns breaking each other’s hearts.  Deciding that drawing is her passion, she faces off with her father, who refuses to allow Lena to attend art school.  Carmen, the Puerto Rican daughter of divorced parents, struggles with anger, jealousy, and self-image issues as both her mother and father remarry and her family continually evolves.  Bridget, the headstrong blonde soccer player, deals with her mother’s suicide by plunging herself into romantic relationships too intense for her to handle.  And Tibby, the introverted filmmaker with two very young siblings, has trouble allowing her true emotions to show through as she faces the death of a friend and a pregnancy scare.  Realistically, these four girls collectively face more issues than most sets of high school friends.  But reading about this wide variety of situations can be a huge help to a teenage girl who might face one herself or might need to support a friend going through something traumatic.  Growing up is hard, and Brashares has such a tremendous sympathy for the trials of figuring out who you are and your place in the world.  Above all, her novels remind readers that troubles can always be overcome with the support and love of family and friends.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Settling In


Well, that was a longer hiatus than I had anticipated!  Packing took a week, moving half of another week, and we’ve spent our time since then unpacking our multitude of boxes and settling in.  We’ve already located a great Thai place and a fantastic coffee shop, invited some of my colleagues over for dinner (Moroccan chicken stew, yum!), acquired public library cards, and become familiar with the running track around the music department’s smaller campus (I hate running, and I’m perversely determined to become a runner because this track is such a convenient way for my husband and I to “unwind” together after our days spent living the life of the mind).  All in all, a successful start in our new home, I’d say!  The only difficulty is that we don’t yet have internet set up in our new place, and because we’re heading out of town again in a few days for my sister-in-law’s wedding, won’t have internet set up until next week.  So, I’m writing this at home and hope to post it tomorrow, when I’m somewhere with internet.  I’ve done a fair amount of reading in the last few weeks, and should be able to schedule posts on the great books I’ve finished over the next little while, even as we drive up to Michigan for the wedding.  Happily, I was able to catch up on my blog-reading this afternoon – y’all have read some really lovely books lately and posted some really insightful and intriguing musings and reviews!

So what have I realized in these last few days, as I’ve unpacked boxes, unwrapped yards of bubble wrap, sorted through too much kitchen stuff to actually fit in our kitchen cupboards, organized our pantry, mopped our lovely new hardwood floors, and happily shelved an entire bookcase of fiction and an entire bookcase of academic texts?  Several things.  First, I now have in my possession just about all of the books I own (save my set of hardcover Harry Potter books, which my mother still hasn’t found since her move), and I’m starting to run short on bookshelf space.  I only have one bookcase designated for fiction, and it’s quite full.  Does it bug you to stack books sideways?  I’ve had to do that with my kids and young adult fiction, to save space, but it looks so…messy.  Crowded.  Unpolished.  Is it just me?  Anyway, the first thing I’ve realized is that I’ll have to make good use of the school and public libraries in the next few years, because until I have another bookcase, I can’t really buy any more fiction.  A pity, because I so love frequenting used bookstores.  I suppose I could banish some of my young adult stuff to a box in the closet, but that thought bums me out, so I’ll hold off on that possibility for now.

Another thing I’ve acknowledged is that I’ll have a lot less reading time once the school year starts in a few weeks.  I’m not yet sure what the workload will be, as a first-year PhD student, but I imagine it will occupy my time more than a part-time job and two audited classes, which was my situation this past spring.  When I have time for non-classwork-related reading, a good bit of that will likely be spent in academic texts.  After all, I have conference papers and an upcoming dissertation to think about.  That being said, I refuse to set aside classics for good.  I find so much joy in my fiction reading, and will cheerfully give up television or other, less-essential hobbies in order to maintain my general well-being.  The consequence of less free reading time will likely result in fewer blog posts.  Books will take longer; writing posts may take second-place beside writing for classes.  I will choose not to worry about this.  The whole point of creating this blog, after all, was not to impose some arbitrary posting schedule on myself.  If reading starts to cause stress, it has lost its purpose.  Perhaps I’ll finish a book and put it on my completed fiction list without posting on it at all.  That would be okay too.  Perhaps the ratio of fiction-to-nonfiction may skew more heavily toward the academic side.  I hope that’s not too boring for any of my readers.  Perhaps, by the end of this first year, I may not have any readers at all!  I’d choose to be okay with that.  After all, amassing readers was not among my goals in starting this blog.  Hopefully, though, a few of you will stick around – it’s difficult to facilitate interesting discussion without a few other people around to chime in.

Things to think about:
Speaking of discussions, I’ve had one in mind as a result of the outpouring of help from my department that my husband and I received in unloading our moving truck: Graduate school life is like socialism.  Don’t you think so?  If you were, or are, a graduate student, is this your experience?

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Books 1-4), Ann Brashares
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

Books I’m currently reading:
Nectar in a Sieve, Kamala Markandaya
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker