Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Debussy: A Painter in Sound took me months to read. Far longer than it should have, really. Why? As a high-school trombonist, I’ve plated loads of loud, boomy orchestral pieces (think Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky) and softer, more delicate, lower-pitched pieces, mostly originally meant for cello (like Bach’s Cello Sonatas). Debussy is most emphatically not that kind of music.

He, like all musicians of his day (late 1800s – v early 1900s), was creating in reaction to 2 main things: Wagner – a bombastic style to be avoided – and Impressionism – a lightness to be embraced. His works are shorter, some only a few bars long, and are largely for instruments like flutes, violins, and pianos. Ergo, the first stumbling block for me was my unfamiliarity with his music.

Debussy is less a biography of the man and more a history of his music. Walsh talks about his rejection of the Conservatory and its standardized notions of what a musician should do, the spareness and lightness of his music, and how it evolves over time. He talks about the spareness of the sound, the arpeggios, the scales, and while I understood the words, I couldn’t hear the music.

Thank god for YouTube, where I could learn about things like octatonic scales, and Spotify, for its numerous recordings of Debussy’s music. Without them, I would have understood so much less. I listen to Debussy regularly now. His music is light and delicate and I’m not sure I would have ever taken the time to listen closely before.

I want, at some point, to learn to play some of his pieces on the piano (and take the years of piano lessons that would render that possible), to listen intensively to all of his music, to go to concerts when we can do that again, and to re-read Debussy with a much more knowledgeable ear and eye.

That’s all you can ask of a book sometimes: to make you want to go down the path it has laid out before you. this one does its job.

Rebecca

A book I would like to rename “Becky with the Good Hair.”

Rebecca is a quasi-classic. I read it for book club and several of the other members had read it when they were in school. I had not. Because I knew it was suspenseful, I went ahead and read the wikipedia plot summary ahead of time. I am a person who doesn’t mind spoilers or knowing how things turn out, obviously. (Yes, I sometimes flip ahead to read the last few pages of a book too.) It helps me concentrate on things other than the plot, like the crafting of the story and the characters and the mood.

Rebecca, the book, made me SO ANGRY. First, it’s three separate types of book: the romance at the top, the psychological thriller in the middle, and then a more straightforward mystery at the end. PICK ONE. Second, the unnamed narrator is very ill-treated by ever single other character in the book – I mean, the author doesn’t even give her a name, which is to illustrate how mousy she is, but then why does anyone take any interest in her at all? But it totally undermines the romance at the beginning when her husband, Maxim, seems to love her, knows she’s out of her depth coming to Manderley, and then gives her absolutely no support? And because Daphne Du Maurier wants to drive home what a mousey non-entity she is, the narrator never takes the initiative on anything, preferring to let the staff do what they want or doing things the way Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, did them. By the end of the book, I just didn’t care.

But we had interesting discussions at book club, talking about whenever Maxim really loves her, how the house represents Rebecca and her influence over the story, and how effectively creepy Mrs Danvers is despite not actually being in the book that much. So while I didn’t like Rebecca, I do appreciate the discussion it spawned and I’m glad I read it in a way that I got to talk about it with other smart people afterwards.

Carrie by Stephen King

Look, 2020 is a shitshow. This is not a revelation to anyone. The year started with Australia on fire and the US being belligerent towards Iran, and then the pandemic hit, squeezing into all of the cracks of US society, making all of our issues worse (or maybe just exposing them to everyone).

This leads me to: 2020 is one long spooky season. All the time. We are living through a slow motion, low grade horror movie. So a few weeks ago, I decided it was the perfect time to read some Stephen King.

Carrie was his first published novel, released in April 1974 (another disaster of a year, including the ongoing Oil Shock, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation – at least Nixon had the grace to resign). If you know nothing else about Carrie, you know the scene of the emotional climax of the book: Carrie, on stage, having been crowned prom queen as joke, just so she could have pig’s blood dumped all over her; she is about to kill everyone in the room via her powers of telekinesis.

The full story is rather slim. The premise is that Carrie’s mother is a particularly over-the-top evangelical Christian, and even though telekinesis runs in her family, that Carrie should be ashamed both of her femininity and her powers. Carrie has been shunned by everyone in town because of her family and she has no self-confidence because of her upbringing.

When she is 17, she gets her period for the first time as she is showering and changing after PE and she has no idea what’s going on. She gets made fun of by every single other girl in the locker room; the teacher punishes them all. Afterwards, one girl feels guilty and persuades her boyfriend to take Carrie to senior prom as a way to make up for it. Another girl is angry about the punishment (and that her father is unable to get her out of it), and convinces her boyfriend to get some fresh pig’s blood and rig it up to fall on Carrie just as she is being crowned prom queen for laughs.

After she is humiliated again, she snaps. She uses her powers of telekinesis to kill everyone at prom, and then she walks through town, ending as much of it as she can.

The nihilism, the idea that the bad will win against the good no matter what, the constant bullying that Carrie has faced throughout her life; it’s all breathtaking. Truly, in this book, everything is terrible, the bad always wins, and all you can try to do is survive.

If there is a better metaphor for 2020 so far, I can’t think of it.

Sontag: Her Life and Work

Here’s where I confess that I didn’t know much about Susan Sontag, her life, or her work before reading Sontag: Her Life and Work. I knew of her, of course, I knew she was a Public Intellectual ™, and that as a result many people had strong opinions about her. My own thoughts were a sort of mild disdain that I think comes from being a member of Gen X, and reading criticism of her without engaging with her own actual work beyond Notes on Camp.

I read Michelle Dean’s Sharp a few years ago. That book is a high-level overview of the lives of many 20th century public intellectuals who also happened to be women; Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, and Joan Didion, amongst others. Without the softening of my views (or maybe a recognition of my own internalized misogyny) by Sharp, I’m not sure I would have decided to read Sontag.

Benjamin Moser has written a very in-depth biography, delving into both her relationships and her intellectual work. She clearly wants to be an intellectual from an early age., and works diligently to make it happen – and I feel like that try-hard-ness is ons of the reasons I was taught to disdain Susan Sontag. Trying wasn’t cool – everything had to be easy or come naturally to be accepted. Susan Sontag was both very smart and didn’t bother to hide her work.

One idea that she engaged with over and over, especially after her initial struggle with breast cancer in her 40s, was the relationship between a thing and its image, how the image, or the metaphor influenced how the reader or viewer thought about the thing itself. Now that we’re all living through the internet because of the pandemic, images and metaphors are what we swim in, even more than normal. I wish she was around and at the top her game right now because I bet she’d have a lot to say about Instagram (and maybe you want to read The Cut essay by Emily Ratajkowski about buying her own images back).

I often end a review with a recommendation, and I often cop out by saying ‘read this if you’re looking for x.” So much of reading and your enjoyment of a thing is dependent on who you are and where you are in your life. Understanding the basics of Susan Sontag’s ideas is essential to understanding how we think of public intellectuals, liberal or conservative, and how our political and media landscapes exist in the world. I would argue that this book will give you a good grounding in understanding those basics, regardless of what exactly you’re looking for.

The Other Paris

The Other Paris is a historical overview of the not-fashionable, not royal parts of the city. It’s a story about the working classes, the poor, the marginalized groups (like the Roma), prostitutes, thieves, political radicals, and more. It is the gritty side of Paris, from when it was a home to everyone of all social classes.

Luc Sante makes a very good, implicit case that it’s these classes that bring life and vitality to Paris, and cities in general. You don’t get vibrant and relevant culture and art and life without people from up and down the social ladder. Paris, and all cities, need everyone, not just the rich and pretty.

Recommended.

Louise Michel tells the story of √Člodie Richoux, a very proper restaurant owner, who oversaw the construction of the Saint-Sulpice barricade out of the largest statues she could find in a nearby religious paraphernalia shop. When she was arrested and made to account for herself, she said, “The statues were made of stone, and those who were dying were made of flesh.”

The Other Paris by Luc Sante, page 228

The Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth trilogy is Hugo Award winning – it’s the first time every book in a trilogy won the Hugo Award. It’s a phenomenal story set very very far in the Earth’s future, after the continents have re-merged back into a new Pangea. But the planet is also a lot more geologically active, with supervolcanoes erupting and earthquakes happening all the time. Every so often, an event happens that basically ends the current civilization – those events are called Fifth Seasons.

There are people – called oregenes – who can control the Earth and they have been enslaved by the people in power. Their lives are basically forfeit – they reproduce with whom they are told and when they are told, they are taken from their parents as children, if they’re born from regular folks, they go where they are told and do what they are ordered to. It’s not a pleasant experience.

The action is driven by the beginning of a new Fifth Season. Our heroine, Essun, fights for herself, her people, and her family. I don’t want to say more than that about the plot. The Broken Earth trilogy really is that good. They are highly recommended.

Renaissance Florence

Renaissance Florence is an old textbook from a Renaissance History class I took in college back in the 1990s. Why have I kept moving it all these years? Who knows. But it came in handy when, after watching a few episodes of Medici on Netflix, I found myself thinking “I don’t think that actually happened, but I don’t really remember.” I was pretty sure that Cosimo de Medici wasn’t an artist at heart, but did he pay to fund the completion of the Duomo? I couldn’t remember. (No, no he did not. His father did.) And Savonarola is a character in the latest season. Were Savonarola and Lorenzo the Magnificent around at the same time as the Netflix series would have you believe? Not really, but I also haven’t watched the last season yet, and I don’t know what claims the series makes.

In short: Renaissance Florence is an academic history of Florence that I revisited so I could understand what liberties the very entertaining show was taking, as well as put some context around who the various families are and what was driving the economic and artistic growth in Florence at the time. I enjoyed it; however, it was also written in the late 1960s, and, not being a scholar of Italian history, I’ve no idea what updates it might need. Not to mention that I wasn’t reading it critically – I was reading lightly. It’s not a book I’d recommend reading for fun, unless you’re into that kind of thing, but it was helpful for my purposes.

The Awakening

The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.

But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.

Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.

The Mitford Scandal

The Mitford Scandal is a cozy mystery that takes place in the late 1920s and early 1930s in London, Paris, and Venice. It’s the third in a series whose conceit is that Louisa Cannon is a ladies maid to each Mitford Sister. Each volume is about her helping out the next sister. Since this is the third book, this is the one that features Diana.

A quick aside: the Mitford Sisters were a bit like the Kardashians of their day. Nancy was the oldest, never married, and became a famous novelist. Pamela was the second, a bit of a homebody and possibly bi? or a lesbian? it’s unclear, given that she was the one who liked to stay out of the spotlight. Diana was the third sister and initially married Brian Guinness, of Guinness Brewing fame. But after a few years of marriage, she fell head over heels in love with Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Fascists and big Hitler fan. (Diana: beautiful but morally reprehensible.). Unity Mitford was the fourth sister, moved to Berlin and somehow managed to catch Hitler’s eye. When Britain declared war on Germany, she couldn’t bear it and shot herself in the head (she lived, somehow, for about ten more years). The fifth sister was Jessica, known as Decca. Decca was a committed communist and ran away from home before she was eighteen, and ended up living in San Francisco as a journalist. The final sister was Deborah, who had kind of had enough drama from her sisters. She did, however, become Lady Chatsworth, and navigated the family estate through some very harsh times and managed to turn it into a successful business.

Got it?

The mystery is about what you’d expect from a cozy mystery: some poisonings, a bit of generational tension, nothing graphic, and lots of glamorous locations. My issue is with the character of Diana.

If you read the long aside, you know that Diana was a fascist and an anti-semite. The Mitford Scandal basically ends right around the time she’s met Mosley, but before she’s left Brian for him. And Louisa doesn’t particularly like Diana, but she’s also very much treated with kid gloves. Diana is a person to quietly move away from rather than a person to be called out. She is beautiful and moves in very high society, which are definitely privileges. But I wanted her to be described as more than “cold” and have more than the few questionable character moments.

And I get that you can’t portray Diana as the fascist she was in a cozy mystery, especially not when you need to have Louisa stay in her employ for four years. So I feel like she is given a bit of a pass, and that didn’t sit well. Honestly, this is going to be a bigger problem in the next volume, because Unity moves to Berlin and becomes Hitler’s friend – I don’t know how you get around who she was and still keep it a cozy mystery.

Anyway: The Mitford Scandal is a decent cozy mystery, but do be aware of the white supremacist character being toned down for your consumption.

Weather by Jenny Offill

There is not much plot in Weather, by Jenny Offill, and that is to its credit. Plot would get in the way of the point, which is the day-to-day life of a librarian and mother of a small child in New York City who is increasingly worried about climate change. This book is full of hilarity, to wit (about a problem patron): “But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password to his own email?” Reader, I laughed out loud.

Her brother is an addict who gets sober, finds someone to fall in love with, gets married, has a baby, freaks out, relapses, and gets a divorce. Towards the end of the book, she may or may not have an affair, her prepper tendencies get stronger. Her son gets a couple of years older, the dog needs to be walked. Somehow, this all results in us asking the question: how do we care for each other and how do we care for the world?

The language is lovely and wonderful, and if you told me that the author was a poet I’d believe you.

I’m also going to say that this is kind of a book about the end of the world, given that climate change features in it. Given that, is it a good book to read during the time of corona? I think it is.

Weather: highly recommended