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Sunday, December 25, 2011

The New Neologisms Club

a delicious and inspiring fragment from
by David Malki!

 (check the link under FUN, COOL, FUNNY)

I had this quick thought, here amid the preparations for Christmas. I love the ability of English to generate new words. Actually, I love English for a lot of things, but one of them is certainly the spontaneous and welcome generation of new words. I even love the the word "neologism".

I recently wrote 'common-sensical' in an email, and the 'sensical' part came up with a spell-check underline, as it is right now in Blogger. I checked 'sensical', which did sound strange alone, and got, from Wiktionary (oh yeah!) that it is a neologism, used to make other a 'sense'-oriented adjectives, back-formed from 'nonsensical'. Of course. Perfect.

And then I wanted to write 'calendarize', a word I love to use, and feel as though I coined. Oh no, I di'n't! (Is that right for that funny way of saying it?) Wiktionary had that too, and this is where is English is so kewl  (note to self, send out tweet: OMG English is kewl). Calendarize is a perfectly recognizable neologism, which English readily permits, turning a noun into a verb and vice-versa.

So one thing I love about English is neologisms, and the other thing I love is the flexibility of English pronunciation and I also love the irregularity, oh wait, among the many things things I love are neologism, flexibility of pronunciation and the irregularity of its spelling, which permit jokes, puns and neologisms that are easily communicated and understood: Thus 'common-sensical', 'calendarize' and 'kewl'.

I challenge any other language on earth to offer such openness such newness (oh wait, there's an old word for that: novelty - sorry). Bring it!

PS Thanks Alison - I never thought of making it a club! So fun! You are all welcome to join and feel free to send in your favourites.

Oh dear. Now the marigold is wondering nervously if anyone will join the club. Oh no! The magic eight-ball says "very doubtful": Yes, that's for you, too, Alison. And what should the annual dues be? I guess it doesn't matter.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thumbnails of the hot Young Adult book series: A Primer for Grown-Ups

OK - I have been reading the hot kids' series along with my kids, and I realized I could help other parents at Christmas time by providing an easy-to-use reading list covering the biggest book series that everyone is talking about, and answering questions such as what are their strengths and weaknesses? will it be good for you? and what about the movie? Plus, you will be able to "Talk About Books You Haven't Read" in an appropriate way. (See my post on Pierre Bayard's fantastic How-To book by that name here.)

In more-or-less chronological order of the first book published in the series:

Harry Potter by JK Rowling (1998)
            Read: 4/7 (so far)   We began reading these because we had started watching the movies, and after reading some of the books, and seeing all of the movies, I find that although the books are naturally more complete, the movies don't miss much that is essential. We periodically reviewed the movies, when it was time to watch a new one, and we always enjoyed noticing something new, which is a good sign.
                            The Harry Potter books are excellently plotted, strong on character, but not so literary, although I can proudly say my 10-year old pointed out a Macbeth-like feeling to Voldemort. I am still reading thru the series with my younger kid. My older one read about half the books, but in reverse order, to the annoyance (or fury, apparently) of enthusiast-friends. I am an admirer of Snape, so I can't wait to get to book six, The Half-Blood Prince, to catch up on his back-story.We have also bought a couple of the books about Harry Potter which we all rummage around in. The books in this series are worth the time they take. Good enough for anyone to enjoy reading. (Duh!)

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett   (1999)
             Read: 2/13   Loved the movie - it really allowed Jim Carrey to maximize his abilities. I wish there had been more outtakes, as he riffed on the uncle, Count Olaf, a character he was born to play.
            The books were fun at first, the language and voice are very interesting, and this was one of the first of the huge hit series, but it got old fast. Neither of my kids took them up. The series is now old and weak, but it helped establish the category, and I felt it ought to be here.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan  (2006)
            Read: 1/5   LOVED the movie, which we saw before trying the books, and it is one of my kids' all-time favourites. It's charming, and the actors are cute.
           I wanted to like the books a lot, as I love the idea of extending Greek mythology into our era, (grown-ups: you must read American Gods by Neil Gaiman if you like this idea) but I couldn't be roused to read past the first one. Somehow, I FOUND THE BOOKS BORING! Older kid also liked, no loved, reading PJ,and read them all. My 10-year old would like to, but isn't quite there yet.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins   (2008)
             Read: 3/3   The movie is being made now. I believe the trailer for this movie to be the most anticipated and most watched trailer of all time. I thought it was pretty much kids, but many of my adult friends SENT ME A LINK to the trailer to make sure I saw it, too. And it looks pretty good, I must say.
            In my opinion, this is the best of all the series, not only for plot and character, but it is literate and literary, too. It had been MANY years since I finished a book one night and HAD TO GET the next book the next morning to find out what happened. That was fun. They are such a perfect read for any adult as well that I never hesitate to recommend them. My then-12-year old was obsessed, for half a year, and I think they qualify as a first book-love.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2008)
            Read: 1/4    The first book was at least 50% too long, repetitive and unnecessarily wordy. Get to the point already. The movie helped by cutting the action down to 1-1/2 hours of real time. I have managed to see the second movie, but I haven't bothered since, but I guess if I turned on the TV and one was on, I would watch. My then-12-year old felt the same in all respects.
                           On the other hand, and thanks Christabel, I recently read a review of Bella's character, Our Bella, Ourselves, written by Sarah Blackwell on a blog called The Hairpin which got me re-thinking my response.

Gone by Michael Grant (2008)
             Read: 1/4 published, fifth to be released soon, a sixth in the works. Surprisingly, no movie talk, but I imagine it is just a question of time.
             I wasn't too crazy about this when I read it, but it is my 13-year old's current obsession, so I promised to re-read Gone, then read the rest of the series. In fact, I also promised I would update my opinion on this list once I get going with them. So...Whip Hand, Fearless Leader, Little Pete, special powers, a place with no adults. Conclusion: must try Lord of the Flies (Golding) again.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare  (2008) and Clockwork Angel (2011)
            Read: 4/4 and 1/2 (second book to be released in a couple of days!)
I really powered thru the first series, and then read the first one of the prequel series, too. Lots of fun. The characters are cute, and the New York City setting of our day is pretty cool and relates to our trips there. My now-13-year old was enthusiastic, and we will be trying to be in the store on Dec 6 for the release of the second book of the second series.

Maze Runner by James Dashner  (2010)
            Read: 1/3
Twilight for boys, oddly high emotional pitch, except the action is the manly withstanding of danger rather than crushing on vampire boys. Like Twilight, the book is way too repetitive and much longer than it ought to be. Movie is being shopped, natch. My kid was put off by my review.

Matched by Ally Condie (2011)
             Read 1/3, but only the first two are currently available.
I liked it because instead of a brutal, deadly, dystopian future, Matched cleverly shows our current social trends projected into an extremely benevolent future. Central planning is working perfectly, beautifully minding the health and happiness of all citizens, but individuals are left with virtually no choice at all. Even their healthful meals are delivered in perfectly controlled portions. The result is still dystopia. My kid didn't want to read yet another book in the category at this point, but I was convincing enough that it was worth it, that it got read, and we agreed.

Divergent by Veronica Roth  (2011)
             Read: 1/3
Only first book is available so far, with the second in the pipeline for pre-orders, and the third as yet un-named. I liked this book, even though I was at first expecting to be bored by another entry in the future dystopia category. The writer is notably young. The heroine is a Katniss*-style power-house, and the boys are quite interesting. My kid and I both grew to like it as we read on thru it.

These two are both graphic, and for younger kids:

Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi (2008)
            Read: 3/4 so far
For the younger set - very beautiful, very sad and dark, much MUCH more interesting than Bone, which was the first huge graphic novel series for kids. My younger kid loved this series so much, it got me reading them, too, but the older kid read them too.

Bone by Jeff Smith (originally 1995, re-issued in book form 2005)
            Read 2/9:
Its success with the under-10 set is inexplicable to me. The look is deliberately like Pogo, a comic of 50 years ago, the characters are mean, and their world is unfathomable. I didn't like it or get it, and I still don't understand if my kids did, how my kids did if they did and what they got or what they liked. And not just my kids read it and said they loved it. All kids read it and said they loved it, reluctant readers even. Go figure.

I do have to admit that there are a couple of big ones that my kids haven't picked up (possibly yet), but that if they do, I will want to share them, too:

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (2001)

Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2002)
There is a movie, but, strangely, I haven't seen it either.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Johnathan Stroud (2003)

As I prepared this list, I realized that the first two series are pretty old, but only one has held up (and made the author AND HER AGENT) reportedly richer than the queen. 2008 seems to have been a banner year, and some kind of category shift happened so that since then all books are tried as a start to a series, and 2011 seems to have been a strong year, too.

The marigold is wondering nervously if there are other series I should have mentioned...of course there are tons of other series, but are there some I should have known about, should have been reading? Just started The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness - not that big, but quite good...fret...fret...

Bonus question: Is Cassandra Clare is a real person? There are some clues that make it seem as though she is actually the pen-name of a collective of writers who are pals in a writing group (including Libba Bray, Kelly Link, Holly Black...) Anyone got any ideas?

*Katniss, in case you have been in a dark cave and did not yet see the trailer, is the amazing female protagonist of The Hunger Games. Trailer is here.

OK - This just in: Knife of Never Letting Go was really terrific, a cut above, another whole category of original. Up-twinkles! Clockwork Prince is good, glad to be still following it.

Even later update: Now I have started reading Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield - Steampunk for boys, OK so far, and he has another set that goes, like ... Uglies ... Pretties ... I dunno ... Crazies? ... Zombies? I'll keep you posted.

Later still: My younger kid just started Magyk from the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage, so I guess I'll be reading that pretty soon, too. Yay!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Opera and Kids, Version 20.11

First this breaking story: Yes! A breaking opera story! Who knew? And you read it here first!

Jacoba Barber-Rozema, a very young Toronto opera singer, whom I interviewed for this post, and hoped to be able to follow in her future performances, has just won the role of The Shepherd Boy, in Tosca, to be performed by the Canadian Opera Company early in 2012! This is so exciting! Can't wait to see her. Or should I say hear her! Keep reading this post to find my interview with her after her first outing on the COC stage this past spring.

And now back to our regular programming:

My plan has finally paid off! Choosing artful, beautiful opera performances to share with my kids, in order to let them be open to opera as a source of pleasure in life, has worked!

One of my kids has most willingly gone to the opera the last few times, but this summer my kid generated the idea of selecting something to see at the Rossini Opera Festival, which takes place in the town where we vacation. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, literally. We chose Mosè in Egitto, for the story, showing at the decommissioned sports arena. The day after we bought tickets, it was revealed in the local paper that the young(ish) socialist, English, stage director, Graham Vick, had decided to use the opera as a metaphor for the displaced people and freedom fighters of our day, complete with land mines, and machine guns and burqas. Many people found the idea distasteful, we thought it might be frightening, and we heard later that it was not well-enjoyed by the audience, usually composed of long-time festival fans. Luckily we were allowed to change our tickets for something else. We had heard that the scenography of Adelaide di Borgogna, featured video, while the costumes and props were in period, so we thought it would be the right choice to engage a kid, and it was.

Adelaide, an opera based on a true story about a strong and influential woman of 1000 years ago (the wife of Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor), seen from an old-fashioned box, in a theatre built during his lifetime in Rossini's home town, was a smash hit, at least in our family! I always love the ROF for making it possible to see the lesser-known, if not unknown, Rossini works. The singers are often specialized in this beautiful bel canto repertoire and I have to say most of the performances were really thrilling. Especially fabulous was Daniela Barcellona as Ottone (Italian for Otto). She is beloved for pants roles in Rossini operas at the festival, and for good reason. And in this case, I have to leave the music comments at that, because it was director Pier'Alli's multiple video screen backdrop that made the whole thing notable. It was pretty fun, if not exactly perfect.

photo: Elio Crociani

There were endless raindrops falling in puddles, artful pathetic fallacy, but also giving a sense of the time of year and the life of a soldier in a camp in the plain of the Po River at the time (ie the year 950!)

photo: Elio Crociani

For much of the opera, the look was sort of Battleship Potemkin, maybe kind of an homage to Eisenstein?

photo: Elio Crociani

Strangely, at the end, we got into floating umbrellas alla Magritte and a royal coach, all early 20th century - rather awfully out of period - but as James Ehnes said when I (sort of) interviewed him for another post on this blog, art comes from commitment, and I certainly would rather see a failed reach for the stars than an easy sure thing, so I was good with the attempt.

The enthusiasm of my bigger kid left my littler kid saying "Isn't there an opera I can see?" and we had to say "Sorry, that was the last night of the festival! Next time."

I think this success was built on our other opera outing of the year,  the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Family Performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute this past spring. That was a wonderful evening. The tickets were at the right price to allow for a rustling and restless audience filled with children, and even to leave early if need be.

Of course, The Magic Flute is not only sensational musically, with quite a few parts familiar to many kids, but also has a brilliant story and the surtitles had everyone laughing at jokes we could not have understood otherwise.

photo courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company

As well, and here is the connection, it also benefited from great scenography and innovative rethinking of the staging, and fabulous costumes. I mean, punk-viking girls with glasses! Does it get any cooler? And the idea of a play being performed at a garden party within the opera, the small stage slowly taking over the larger, was really well executed.

The whole effort absolutely showed the comedic sense of pre-romantic opera, rather than the tragic of the romantic and post-romantic tradition. (I want to say baroque rather than pre-romantic, but I don't want to get into another argument about it. I am still working on a post on my own theory as to what should constitute the end of the baroque period, and why the "classical" period is really just transition from baroque to romantic, and doesn't deserve to be considered a separate period, and that Mozart actually bridged over the end of the baroque into the "classical", crossing paths with Beethoven who took up "classical" and pushed it into romantic and...wait...take a deep breath...I'm supposed to be saving this idea and my research for another post.)

photo of Nicola Smith, First Spirit; Emily Brown Gibson, Second Spirit; and
Jacoba Barber-Rozema, Third Spirit;  photo courtesy of Jacoba Barber-Rozema
In any case, the killer feature of The Magic Flute for us was that a girl from my kids' school had a big role, as the Third Spirit. Her performance was SENSATIONAL and we will be hoping to follow her career as the first members of her fan club. She managed to dig up for me a picture of the spirits crossing the stage, pedaling slowly, but traveling very VERY slowly on their enormous tricycles, while singing ethereally. The effect was amazing, and audience members of all ages loved it. The spirits are really major, spending quite a bit of time onstage through-out the opera, so it really went a long way towards the overall success of the performance that they were so effective and so effectively staged. The kids I was with found it incredible that a schoolmate was such a star.'s not every day that you can ask a very young opera singer what they are all about, so I found a mutual friend who helped me ask her some questions, and I got back some very interesting answers.

Nervous Marigold: Do you want to be an opera singer, or is this a way of rounding out your experience, or testing opera as a future career? Or other?

Jacoba Barber-Rozema: I saw my first and "fell in love" (I guess you could say) with opera when I was 8, and knew I wanted to be an opera singer since I was 10. Being in Flute and seeing more and more of what the professional life is like, makes me want to do it even more. But it's definitely not the easiest career! You said you saw the Ensemble show? Unfortunately, I didn't spend very much time with that cast, which I would have loved to do. It gave me a more realistic look at first cracking into the business and it was a completely different energy - much more excited. I'm fifteen now and my dream still hasn't changed, but who knows what the future holds.

NM: Was it weird doing a pants role? Do you sing in your adult voice, or is that still to change? Are you a soprano now, and what will you be in the future if it is different?

J B-R: You know, doing a pants role was actually a lot of fun! At the very beginning, at the audition, there was kind of a competition to see who can look the most like a boy, but I'm very good friends with the other girls who were chosen, so that soon faded. The lovely Isabel Bayrakdarian, who sang Pamina, once called us "bearded ladies", which we found very funny. I am a mezzo, but I sang the third spirit in flute. I think my voice is still yet to change, yes, but probably not too drastically from what it is now.

NM: What is your favourite opera (and maybe why)?

J B-R: My favourite opera is Madama Butterfly. I got to see it at the Met a few years ago and it moved me to tears. I love the contrast of Puccini's light music in an opera with such dark themes. [It was my first opera, too. - ed.]

NM: What is your favourite current song? (Do you have Bieber fever, like Emily [our mutual friend - ed.])? OK - this is a bit banal, but it's so fun to know.

J B-R: That's too hard! I think I may have Beatles fever, if there is such a thing. I know every song, so that and other sixties music is mainly what I listen to. As for contemporary music, some of my current favourites are Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson. It's been SO strange not rehearsing or hearing music from The Magic Flute, so I've been listening to a lot of that lately. I ate, slept and breathed Flute for almost a year and suddenly it's completely gone. Sometimes I have dreams about it - the pre-show adrenaline, listening to the overture while watching from backstage and waiting for the curtain to come up. I hope my future opera experiences are even half as amazing as The Magic Flute was.

What a clever and interesting person, in addition to being a gifted performer! How rare! How inspiring! What a great role model for arty kids!

La Clemenza di Tito, photo: Opera Atelier
Finally, and related, although not thru the kid connection, this spring I saw my beloved Opera Atelier with no kids, (thank-you, Diana!) as usual doing their utmost to specialize in the obscure, performing La Clemenza di Tito, an opera seria by Mozart. I noticed that I had seen the cast before in Idomeneo in 2008, that is, fabulous soprano Measha Brueggergosman and exotic male soprano Michael Maniaci and the amazing tenor Krešimir Špicer and others. And in fact, at the performance I learned that, very delightfully, OA had promised this cast to bring them back for Tito.

Idomeneo is considered Mozart's most successful opera seria (a HIGH BAROQUE form - notice this, James Ehnes - most often used to praise or flatter a monarch or noble). I really loved it when I saw it, and here is my review from that performance.

Tito had everything in place - but somehow was less of a thrill, just as historical critical opinion would have it. Luckily we were told in artistic director Marshall Pynkoski's usual on-stage opening remarks about the personal commitment of the performers to doing the opera. I think it gave everyone a warm fuzzy open-ness to the production. He explained that that the story was well known to audience's of Mozart's period. The program illustrated the point on the cover, using this quotation from Racine's play Berenice, instead of a picture: Pity my rank. Lord of the world, I guide its destiny. I can make kings and unsceptre them, yet I cannot give my heart to whom I choose. WOW! The opera tells the true story of the Roman emperor Titus. He was renowned for both his love for his Judaean mistress Berenice, whom he sent away, realizing he could never allow himself to marry her, and his clemency toward a couple of traitors, refusing to have them executed, and in fact sharing an inspection with them at the arena. It is marvelous to think of things that were once so well-known and admired, that are now so completely gone from culture.  I know, I know, like "opera", right?

On the other hand, although the music was lovely, and the performance was fine (despite a funny scene-changing error, requiring a hot two-girl kiss scene to be repeated while they finally made the change), but somehow no thrill. Won't stop me from going to Don Giovanni, which they are remounting this fall. [ed. note: just about now] The 2004 performance of Don Giovanni was my introduction to Opera Atelier, and I have had a crush on the company ever since.

Don Giovanni, photo: Opera Atelier

As to the idea of everything connecting...well...I guess within opera everything does connect somehow, but...

To start with, Tito was written by Mozart as a commission for the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II and Mozart wrote it at the same time as he was working on The Magic Flute.  Cool. More interestingly still, (to me) is that Adelaide in Borgogna felt like opera seria to me, about pair of monarchs of high honour and personal bravery. When I was looking for a connection, I saw that Rossini was called "the little German" because of his admiration of Mozart. He was born in 1792, a year after Mozart's death, and apparently he attempted to revive the baroque-leaning opera seria style. But for whom? During this period he worked for an Italian princess, for Charles X of France, and for Charles's father- or grandfather-in-law Ferdinand IV of Naples. Although it seems he wrote Adelaide for one of the commercial opera houses of Rome, Charles and the Ferdinands were important Bourbons with the royal family's strength based in Burgundy. I wonder if it was just on his mind, or if it was a hopeful attempt to flatter? I wonder if the truth is out there?

Now the marigold is wondering nervously if it is possible not to kill this fragile bud of kid-interest with over-enthusiastic adult encouragement. Perhaps I should start discouraging interest in the opera, to get them really going? Or is that too much of a game? Plus, why are there so many editorial comments in this piece? Who is that nosy editor, anyway?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

DOUBLEDAY Early Review

You Against Me
by Jenny Downham

Published by Doubleday Canada
Hardcover, $19.95 CAN

This is pure genre fiction, on a number of accounts, but quite deft. I read once that we judge the formulaic not by its originality, but by its fulfillment of the formula. By that measure, this book is successful.

Here we have yet another version of Romeo and Juliet - two families at war over the most serious of crimes between them, the young blade of one family and the shy innocent of the other falling in love before she knows their families separate them. Romeo and Juliet, or should I say Mikey and Ellie, are perfect teen-novel characters. He is kind and caring, despite his desperate background, and stunningly attractive. He works in a pub kitchen, hoping to become a chef. It is one of the leit-motifs of the novel, his food preparations, alluding to his state of mind, his growing wisdom and even his dangerous and difficult situation. She is studious, and thoughtful, with a scar on her face from a dog bite in her youth (not sure what to make of that). Her motif is nature, the imagery expanding from birds to whales, as she gains in independence and rebelliousness.

The supporting families are still more sketchy and stereotypical: on the one hand Ellie's family, from the world of the highly entitled, are exam-taking, golf-playing and rich, with the father and son united in their bullishness and TV tastes, and a repressed and proper mother; on the other, there is the distressed and fatherless family of smokers living in a public estate, comprising not only the sweet Mikey himself, but the creative and light-hearted 8-year old sister, the feckless yet loving mother. Even the victim of the situation, Mikey's middle sister, is hardly drawn out. For much of the novel she is only a bundle of nervous rage refusing to leave the house. She is only a catalyst. Her story does not matter here.

In this case, the issue itself, the crime between the families, is also a hot-button genre for our times: did a slightly older, privileged boy (her brother) actually rape the 15-year old drunk, mini-skirted, poor girl (his sister), or was she asking or even hoping for sex with him?

The Romeo and Juliet theme continues as the two families spin towards implosion, and the two lovers realize that they cannot survive the situation. (Da-da-daaa–imagine the dramatic music) Or can they????

Although I read the praise for Downham's first book as "luminous" and "thrilling" and "mold-breaking", I found this book to be no more than competent and readable. It's not art, but I think girls will take it out of the library in droves.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

DOUBLEDAY Early Review with Bonus Feature

The Summer of Permanent Wants
by Jamieson Findlay

Published by Doubleday Canada
Paperback, $14.95 CAN
Juvenile Fiction

I have become a connoisseur of everything in a book besides the text - notes, footnotes, translator's notes, bibliographies, colophons, acknowledgements, blurbs and anything else there might be. I picked this book up first, from a small pile of YA books to review, because the back cover summary hit all my buttons: sailing in southern Ontario, on a boat-bookstore, selling slightly obscure books; the story extending slightly into the realm of fantasy; the main character having language issues, requiring the use of Sign Language (a secret interest of mine). No blurbs at all! I have to also say I love cover art (and follow Chip Kidd - superstar of cover design and also novelist - see Bonus Feature below) and this book has a particularly appealing and apt cover. First impression: this grown-up's delight. The questions is, will a kid want to pick it up?

As I was reading, I realized how great it is when a writer works within his knowledge zone. It is fuddy-duddy-ish of me, I know, but my hackles are raised by ignorant elisions, and my serotonin flows nicely when a writer writing about living aboard a small boat knows things like you need to use two anchors to anchor a small boat offshore, that you must have a boat hook aboard for its myriad uses, that the water looks exactly "still and otherworldly" at the break of dawn from an anchorage. It just so happens that I actually spent my young life enjoying summer vacations aboard a sailboat on Lake Ontario, from Toronto over to the Thousand Islands. It gives a feeling of reliability for other parts of the story where I know less, like kinds of lizards, and motions made for certain signs, and that makes me comfortable recommending the book to the young and impressionable.

Because of that underlying feeling of accuracy, I kept checking and rechecking the biographical notes on Findlay – ah yes! a science writer and, LIVES in Ottawa. I admit I was surprised that I had not noticed at first that the writer was a man, with his two main characters an 11-year old girl and her grandma, both so well-imagined and voiced.

The writing in the first half of the book is just that unobtrusive, more descriptive than poetic, not author-y, if I may coin a phrase. However, the intriguing and apocryphal title, and the fantastic chapter headings (my favourite is "At War with the Caliph of Darkness") hint at what is to come. Suddenly, just before a chapter called, darkly,  "The Patriot of the Night" there is a shift in the narrative style: a first person narrator takes over from the omniscient narrator, in post-modern kind of way, talking to the reader about these stories told to him by the main characters, and the language also shifts toward the starry and poetic. The wrap-up is cute and sweet, making sense of the novel's time and the book's.

This really is a delightful book, a cut above, remarkably free of the tics and habits of kids' fiction. I prize freshness above almost everything, and A Summer of Permanent Wants offers that. I have said, and hopefully will get to say again, how much I love books like this that are Canadian without being CANADIAN. And, it gave me another experience in discovering the existence of a new category for LibraryThing. Let's see...I'll tag it "shipboard naturalist children/SNC" wait..."kid explorers on board/KEOB"...I'll think of something. It is pure pleasure to be able to say that I will put this book on my kids' shelves, and suggest they look into it. I will make a point of finding Findlay's first book, which also has an intriguing title: The Blue Roan Child. I imagine we would all like to read it, too. What about you?

Bonus Feature:
Although I don't usually do this as part of a book review, for this book there is kind of a related reading list:
Joshua Slocum: Two Years Before the Mast (my sailing father's on-board bible and the first title mentioned in this book)
Leah Hager Cohen: Train Go Sorry: Inside the Deaf World (a stunning autobiography of a deaf person at Gallaudet University for the Deaf that will forever change your ideas about the language-ness of Sign Language)
Chip Kidd: The Cheese Monkeys (I mean, honestly, that title alone...although it's not for kids) and Veronique Vienne's monograph on his covers: Chip Kidd
Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea (a lovely book from the new category "shipboard naturalist children", or uh...)
Jacqueline Kelly: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (honorary "SNC" book, because it happens in Texas, not on a boat)
Ernie Bradford: Ulysses Found (my favourite live-aboard book, which I read aboard one summer holiday, tracing the possible voyage of Ulysses in the modern Mediterranean)

Monday, August 15, 2011

LibraryThing Early Review

Domina: Society's Ilk
by Edmund Alexander Sims

My trip through E-books has been like eating too many sugary snacks.

You never know where the thrill of the unexpected comes from: by definition you can't chase it, but sometimes you stumble across it. I have absolutely reveled in the frontier feeling of reading current e-books (by which I mean neither classics nor literary fiction in an e-version). It makes me feel like I am sharing in what must have been the thrill of the first Victorian pulp publishing, or the first detective pulp or the first of the sci-fi pulp. These are highly individual, unpolished, self-published (or nearly so) and cheap. Super fun. More exciting than roaming a bookstore or a library.

Additionally, you all know by now that I’d rather be offended, even by faulty or irregular grammar, than bored by mass-marketing.

However, with this book, I found myself scraping the bottom of the barrel. It was below even my accepting standards on all accounts. Silly, pretentious, unintelligible. Unreadable. Unfortunate evidence for the old saying: you get what you pay for. A free sample of a book that retails for $1.99. Never mind. Time to go on a diet.

The marigold wonders nervously if this is perhaps a diet tip that can be turned into a book. No?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Letter from Italy

Our old wooden mailbox
I seem to notice more each year how much more ritualized and regularized life is here. I think our stays here, usually two months or so, are just the right length to give us a unique perspective that is neither local nor tourist. We must join in daily life, but we never do so without noticing how it is.

For example, I can NEVER get used to having to remember to get milk and bread between 8:30 am and 1:00 pm, or 5:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and not on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.  I go to make lunch when we’re hungry, say at 2:00 pm and uh-oh! No bread. Or oops, I didn’t realize the milk was nearly finished at breakfast. The stores are only two steps away, but they are closed. And, if I forget breakfast milk on the way home from the beach at 7:30 pm, that’s it. I can’t pop out for some after dinner. I have to run out in the morning, BEFORE I HAVE HAD MY COFFEE, to get some milk to make coffee with.

All this to say: if this knowledge is ingrained from childhood, you manage your life accordingly. It never surprises our neighbours to realize that on Monday morning there is no milk to be had in our neighbourhood. And for them the shopping for bits and pieces all the time is ritualized and regularized. I am always buying as much milk and bread and fruit and cold cuts as I can carry on my bike, to minimize the number of trips. None-the-less, they are very small shopping trips compared to what I would usually do at a grocery store with my car. Meanwhile, everyone else in the store is buying one etto (ie a 10th of a kilo or 100 grams: in English it would be useful to have a “hectogram”, wouldn’t it?) of prosciutto and 2 buns and 3 peaches. And, they’ll come back later for a piece of veal and some spinach for dinner.

I feel and observe the same rituals around going to the beach, setting up at the beach, going home from the beach and cleaning up for dinner out. We are so used to our regular rushed pace, and so committed to maximizing our relaxation time, that it takes conscious effort to slow down and be thorough, and some of it we can’t always manage.

We do now try to think over the list for the beach bags, despite having a cabina (a rented cabin) where we store beach toys, towels, spare books and bathing suits. Does everyone have a couple of suits? Does everyone have a current book? Hmmm. Are there enough towels down there? Do we have some spending money for the bar? What about something to put on to walk home in?

Our space at the beach
 Then, arrival at the beach. Get the key and open the cabina. Carry down the towels and the suntan lotions. Pull out the lettini (Italian beach loungers – unrivaled for comfort and practicality, and practically unavailable in North America). Lay out the towels. Take off clothes and drape them over the spokes of the umbrella, all this while staying politely within the space to which your rented beach umbrella entitles you. Then, if you have children, there follows half-an-hour of putting on their sun protection creams, including arguing time, and resulting in sandy, lotion-y hands that require a wash. Then, and only then, can you spend another 10 minutes putting on your own, and arranging yourself at the correct angle to the position of the sun, with a smooth towel underneath you, and your book in your hand. Ah, bliss!

Now, going home from the beach is quite long too. First, beach toys need to be de-sanded as much as possible and taken up to the cabina. Just as the kids are old enough to do it for themselves, they basically lose interest in toys, so that is a total loss. Towels need to be shaken out and assessed for re-use potential. Mostly they are good for a couple of days, but when it’s really hot, and there are a lot of bagni (swims), it might only be one day. In any case, all the towels need to be either folded VERY neatly (this is what I observe ALL Italians doing, especially when taking them home at night) or hanging them on pegs in the cabina to dry out. Then, we all  get dressed, throw out our garbage and pack up our bags. Then, we go give our feet and flip-flops a good rinse at the fontanella (actually a little tap provided for cleaning your feet, but also good for cleaning your hands, your buckets and  your screaming toddlers). Then we leave.

Evening at the beach, just before toy-clean-up time
To this point, we have more or less conscientiously adopted the local customs. We allow half an hour prep time for leaving the house, and arriving at the beach. We allow ourselves 15 or 20 minutes for leaving the beach. Pretty good, considering. At this point however, we often diversify from the locals, scandalously! Instead of going home and cleaning up and dressing up, we go straight to dinner, from the beach, as is! Shocker! We regularly eat (by this I mean 2 or 3 times a week at each) at two or three of the best restaurants in town, which happen to be near the beach, and even near our section of the beach. Thus, we feel it our right, as regular clients, to show up as we wish. The proprietors are kind enough, and sensible enough, to accommodate us, no doubt putting our strange eccentricity down to our foreign-ness. 

I have also come to realize that this same ritualization is a diet secret of the Italian, although it is perhaps lost to the younger generation. For about a dozen years now, we have seen the same people at the beach. Many of us have watched each others’ kids grow up from baby-hood, as we have visibly entered our middle age. However, many of the people around us, from middle age and beyond already those dozen years ago, still look exactly the same, and here is why. Not only do they meticulously clean and fold away their beach towels and beach bags and bathing suits at the end of each day, they also do so at the end of each season, and they can pull them out again in perfect shape year after year. (Side note: from personal experience I know ladies who have pulled out bibs their children used 40 years ago, clean, pressed and ready to be re-used by their grandchildren. Bibs. Pressed.) What does this have to do with diet secrets? Their eating habits are every bit as ritualized.

Completely different flavours: anise, sour cherry, mint....
They consume the same modest amounts at the same time of day as they always did: one espresso and 2 cookies for breakfast 1 peach at 1:30 pm, 1 cigarette at 3 pm, one blue popsicle at 5 pm, 1 glass of wine at 8pm, perhaps with a second cigarette. They do not share the greedy self-indulgence of finding oneself in this world of deliciousness, nor our habituation to abundance. We love everything that is offered – not only pastries, nutella (don’t get me started on nutella), pizzas, gelato, pasta, and so on, but the milk! the yogurt! the eggs! the butter! the figs! There is nothing we CAN resist, and we are not able to consume with modesty.
This is one of our favourite breakfasts

The Marigold wonders nervously: Could we actually lose weight eating cookies for breakfast? Is it worth trying? Should I write a book?

Monday, August 1, 2011

LibraryThing Early Review

The Textile Planet
by Sue Lange

It took me a while to catch up with the process of reviewing an e-book. First I found it, in iTunes. Next item on the agenda was finding it and opening it on my iPhone. Then: reading it and reviewing it. I loved the idea and hoped it worked.

A friend finally tipped me off to the real advantage of reading an e-book on an iPhone: when you stop reading (and touching the screen to turn the pages) the book, which is the light by which you read the book, TURNS ITSELF OFF! Is this  not the ideal way to read in the middle of the night?

Once I got into it, I gave this book a try, and right away it showed itself to be a kind of new category: distaff-dystopian. Shall I create a new tag in LibraryThing?? Must rummage around for that.

In the end I found that this book gave me an insight into how short the curve is in e-book publishing. It was actually like reading a promising but unedited manuscript. Lange created a fully realized future universe, but the book needed a strong hand to rein it in a make it a complete winner.

For example, the narrative voice moved smoothly between an omniscient narrator and the stream-of-consciousness of the main character. It was interesting that way, and it worked well. except for the stumbles which could have been fixed. The F-word appeared in full several times but also as "what the eff?" but neither phase of the voice demanded a euphemism.

The characters were believable, but the dialogue was naturalistic to the point of sloppiness, ("Don't try that ol' guilt trick.") with slang of exactly TODAY ("You got the shaft, didn't you?") mixed with self-conscious futurisms ("It was a faster boat, one equipped with a turbo time driver...") Huh?

And there were other glaring anachronisms, as when a character preparing merchandise for inter-galactic shipping marks them with sticky notes and a sharpie–brand-names pin-point-able to our time–while the writer also made up future trade names and marked them with an ®, in itself something that seems like it might not last 100 years let alone 1,000.

I think what could have been useful would have been a rubric to govern future-speak in all its phases–narrative, descriptive and spoken. It would be such a fun project it is almost tempting to just do as an exercise. If only time permitted...

This did turn out to be a fun try at reading an e-book, and how better to enter the immediate future than with a science fiction work on a multi-purpose hand-held device?

The marigold is wondering nervously about "distaff-dystopian".  Am I overstating it as a category? Aside from this book I can only think of The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, yet it seems as though it should be valid as a tag. Are there others? No-one seems to be categorizing anything similar. Help!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Novel Bookstore

 by Laurence Cossé
translated from French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, English translation 2010, original French publication Éditions Gallimard, 2009

Here's a book that simply must be read and then talked about among my reading pals. Get on it please, everybody!

The idea is that two mismatched loners start a bookstore for people who are, like them, uninterested in all parts of popular culture, and passionate about interesting books. They will stock only good books, and they call it THE GOOD NOVEL. This mission comes very close to my ideas about reading, and culture generally. They organize a secret selection committee, a group of writers who choose books with their identities shielded, to avoid unwelcome pressure and/or attention from publishers and media and prize committees, so they can work from conviction only, without any commercial considerations. Ahh!

In fact, Cosse writes on p. 385 "...if...The Good Novel was so successful that it brought about the unexpected rebirth of a practice you would have thought was timeless–the appreciation of talent as its just value." Isn't that just the problem with contemporary culture?

Apart from the novel's value per se, and despite it's slightly shaky translation, it offers a fabulous reading list for someone who would rather be offended (or anything other) than bored. As soon as I finished it, I went to look to see if someone had created the list of books mentioned as a stand-alone document, and what I found, to my pleased surprise, is that, as described in the book, exists with (at least a partial) book list available. Now the book I was hoping would be captured there was not: El pintor de batallas by Pérez-Reverte. I do not own (or even know of this book) but I was attracted to Captain Alatriste by Pérez-Reverte, don't know why and it was probably a delete, which I bought for my reading pile. Gratifying and motivating. Must pull it up to nearer the top. Must look for El pintor, in English.

Here in Italy I know from the beach two very cultured sisters, from Prato, and they chase down art shows nearby, and go to the opera, and they finish each others' sentences like: "Well yes, of course,..." "...Stendhal." Is that cool, or what? Now Stendhal is on my list anyway, as an all-time star of literature, and in one of those delightful connections of life, he wrote a biography of Rossini, which I would also like to read, for the usual reasons (ie opera and Pesaro) and of course he in stock at The Good Novel. Again, gratifying and motivating.

And very much in line with part of the ideal position of The Good Novel: to create a community of readers, recommending and suggesting and exploring and enjoying. Next job: print out the list and check off the titles I have read. I keep a file of interesting reading lists, lists that are as quirky as I can find, of course.

Funnily, when I was looking for the reading list from A Novel Bookstore, I found the Time Magazine book critics Top 100 since 1923, Here on the beach I recently read Codex by Lev Grossman, Decent beach reading, in the books-about-books category, mashed up with a story about video games. I was puzzled that there were no biographical notes about the author, of whom I had never heard. Turns out, he is a book critic at Time magazine, perfectly illustrating EXACTLY the other way of book publishing: connected, eye on the prize, hitting the current cultural memes with precision, an author with a foot in a few camps within the industry. Little to do with "...appreciating talent as its just value". Still, I think I will print this list too, and check it off, but all the while I will be thinking cui bono (who benefits?).

I also found that Wikipedia (my beloved Wikipedia, I should have said) has a list of reading lists! Quite long, but I see I will have to add a few items, like the best reading by country, math fiction, art fiction and, of course, the list from A Novel Bookstore.

The marigold is wondering nervously: How much time can I spare from reading to consider and compiling reading lists? So compelling....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Canadian in Italy

People who know me know I prefer not to read the newspaper. The biggest events in current history I get from the unavoidable chitchat that surrounds us. Everything else I find to be noise, and unpleasant noise at that: crimes, transgressions and the inevitable idiotic bureaucratic bumbling at all levels of government, reported from every corner of the earth. I even say that the more I hear of the news, the more I long to read Jane Austen. (Substitute any other author from the past according to your own taste.)

However, this policy does not hold while I am here in Italy on vacation. Part of the reason for my change in policy is that here I have reading time to spare (see my prior post). In my normal life I save all my reading time for books, not newspapers, not even book reviews, and I watch virtually no TV to boot (although I would if I had more time for it). But even more, the variation in my habits is due to the charm and interest of the papers I can get here.

The local paper,  called Il Resto del Carlino, (adorably meaning it costs only the change from an old coin: the Carlino) covers the world, of course, but it also has about 4 or 5 pages covering Pesaro, plus 1 or 2 covering each of the smaller nearby towns we also know well, like Fano and Urbino. The stories are of genuine local interest: lost cats, dogs improperly brought to the beach, numbers of people admitted to the local hospital during a heat emergency, events in the piazza, a daily feature on “the cute girl under the next umbrella”. I always look for people I know, or know of, and I often find someone. 

I also love, but LOVE to read the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune. The news of the world is presented thoughtfully and yet the paper is kept short not by shortening the articles or making them graphic (in fact, the exact opposite of USA Today, which I enjoy reading when I am in the US for those differentiating reasons), but by lengthening the analysis on only the most important stories. Plus, I love the arts coverage, which always makes me long to catch the current big show in Bruges, or Tokyo. And, best of all, it carries the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle, to my mind the only crossword puzzle worth doing. None of this is stale-dated, so if it takes me until Wednesday to get to it, all 20 or so pages are still of deep interest.

Can you tell I am writing this on Saturday morning, just waiting to pick it up and start reading it? I am just finishing an article from last week about the divide between opera and musicals and attempts made to bridge the gap. Isn’t that something I could easily think about and write up myself? Ahhh! Vacation bliss.

Thanks for the idea, Rob!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes from Italy - Good and Bad - 2011

 Good - Food, of course! Burro di Bufala (butter made from buffalo milk [as in the mozzarella]) is awfully good. I think it might be a new product even here, as I have never noticed it in the stores here before. I had read about it in a magazine not long ago, and possibly it is available all over the world by now. It takes a lot to get me to pass up my beloved Burro Sorresino, which comes in an adorable old-fashioned yellow tin, but I had to try it, and it was worth it. Even the butter, on toast, has that slightly “farm-y” taste that I love in mozzarella di bufala. I am keen to try making a spaghetti alla carbonara with it. I love butter with the eggs and bacon of carbonara, even if olive oil might be more authentic.

I am always impressed with the care given to every part of food here. I live in a more northerly climate, in the middle of a big industrial city. Everything is grown elsewhere and shipped in, except for a very few precious items, which can be found in a very few precious restaurants. Food pleasure is available, and must be taken where you find it, but fresh and local, it mostly ain’t.  On the other hand, here everything is fresh and local, and that actually can be so extreme as to limit the menu. It makes me laugh (on the inside) when people are asked to describe what is served at a new restaurant in the area, because the local menu is already set. 
BUT, when you shop at your  little local grocery, the farmer picked the figs (ficchi bianchi - white figs in this case) this morning, and brought them in to his friend at the store (in a kind of gray market transaction). The shopkeeper asks if you are eating the melon right now, because she wants to sell you one that is PERFECTLY ripe right now. The different plums have different seasons a few weeks long and different names, and the nearby town of origin is indicated (or the province of Italy, if they happen to come from that far away – which is still only something like identifying peaches from Niagara in Toronto). The bread has to be eaten today, and all milk is only sold by the litre, and lasts only 3 or 4 days. That’s pretty fresh, and unpreserved.

Bad - Internet access. Will the torture never end???? Somehow trying to arrange for internet access showcases the worst of Italian organization. So much potential, so much openness to new technologies, so much bureaucratic bungling and delay. The past couple of years I have really been excited by the prospect of mobile internet access, and I even bought a device that not only receives a mobile internet signal, but broadcasts to its own little wireless network. Isn’t that awesome for a family of tech users – one little mobile key, powering the internet on a number of devices, and portable to boot? Last year we arrived in mid-July. By the time I purchased the device and tried my best to set it up, fruitlessly, it was already August, the Italian vacation period (yes – all of August) and no qualified help was available. I limped along, at least, with one wireless connection to my device. OK. This year we arrived good and early. I went in good and early to get help setting up the network. No problem. Bought a new sim card, loaded in unlimited data for 30 days. 36 beautiful hours of a mobile wireless network. Then…it died. And the bill had gone home to Canada, and there is no recourse. Now I am in the midst of trying transfer of the sim to my iPhone, in order to take advantage of the access I have paid for, but it does not seem to like it. Of course - the is phone locked! Should I try putting the sim in my old phone, in case unlocking an iPhone buggers it up for use when I return to Canada? Another visit to the stupid store, to figure it out; I almost can’t face it. Many of our favourite bars offer free wi-fi, but…access is complicated and many of the baristas don’t know how to sign you in, and…there are unexplainable periodic interruptions in service, and…we don’t usually go around with computers, for writing, but rather iPhones for jotting. However…

Good – Opportunity to read! I don’t know if it is the heat, or the freedom from the school schedule or the small town pace we are forced to adopt, or our lack of access to TV during all this spare time, but I feel such a sleepy torpor here (is that redundant?) that I spend a lot more time reading than I usually can. I find I am totally able to read whatever I want, no matter how challenging, or silly for that matter. Shout out to Gil here: I finally understand how to enjoy reading an e-book.

If you read an e-book in bed, when you are tired, and you stop touching the screen to turn pages because you are falling asleep, the BOOK SHUTS ITSELF AND TURNS OFF THE LIGHT, so you don’t have to! Oh yes! I had a some books that I was waiting to get at: a couple of LibraryThing early review titles, and I had bought an indie book from Amazon, on principle, from a girl who wanted to share her writing at the price of a tune on iTunes. You go girl! (This is a screen shot of Amanda Hocking's book on my phone.) And then the book turned out to be fun enough for summer reading, when I got around to reading it last week, that I went ahead and bought the 2nd book of the trilogy. Then I uploaded a couple of sample books from my desktop into iTunes to sync over, and I plan to grab a couple of public domain classics if I can. Now all of you nay-sayers that say “Oh, it’s too small” and “I could never get used to it”: nonsense. Self-shutting-off-reading-light-and-book in one? Doesn’t get better than that at 2:00 a.m. (Said by a person who has always envied insomniacs their extra reading time.)

Bad – No bird watchers among our acquaintances. I think that Pesaro might be quite a diverse mini-eco-system? bio-zone? –sea and shore and rivers and hills, with quite a large nature park nearby. I feel that the birds have multiplied in number and kind over the years I have been coming, probably due to deliberate action to preserve the biosphere, and possibly by the dwindling of the fashion for hunting and eating them. I have a guidebook, but I find I like to look at a few guides to compare for identification purposes, and I can hear lots of birds that I can’t identify through a book. I need a knowledgeable person to tell me which bird makes that trill I am hearing and what bird makes that croak, and whether those large black-winged gulls that I see, which seem to really be northern birds, do in fact range down here now. On fish and shells, a lot of people are pretty good. Birds – still looking for someone.
(PS This is a Blue Tit, the local chickadee, and I have actually seen and identified one this summer, as I usually do. It is just that my list here is so short, darn it!)

Good – The local art shows look promising this year. I plan to attend an opening at the civic museum on Friday, and I have an acquaintance who told me about a small kind of private museum of works restored on behalf of the city by a local business association, and the "new art" museum in town, Centro Arti Visive Pescheria, which is the old (ancient) fish-market is closing a show of documentary photos (yawn) and opening something to do with Rossini that looks fun (yay!)

Bad – None of the music on offer looks like it will offer the thrill of the new that we have enjoyed other years. The Rossini Opera Festival seems to be scaling back (I imagine it’s all about the money). The ancient music series that we have loved in other years is all out of town, so less amenable to impulse. I might try to catch a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle, which is beautiful, and is usually offered several times by several different performance bodies. I've already missed one, but we’ll see,

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Sorry this has been  so long coming - you'll see why as you read on.

I was so pleased and surprised, and yet not so surprised either, that my two besties (as I like to think of them) James Ehnes and Tom Allen, both wrote me back courteous letters in answer to my questions! Two things are in play, I guess: I often think that they are both wonderful examples of Canadian nice-ness; and the public personalities that you FEEL might be sympatico ARE sympatico. James Ehnes, especially, who kindly wrote twice, gave me some real food for thought. I have provided a link to Ehnes's home page under Music Links and Allen's twitter feed under...uh...Twitter Feeds. You can check them out for yourself.

Also surprisingly, or not, as I was engaged in this correspondence and thinking, I realized I had arbitrarily chosen a couple of books to read lately that involve violin history, which was quite fun:

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, is a new book, for young adults, with a little time travel back to the French revolution as a way of approaching homework. The main character is a high school senior with issues and talent and family wealth, yet the story is surprisingly un-clichéd.

Fabrizio's Return, a remarkably adept book by Ottawa writer Mark Frutkin. His Italian is good and the setting feels very natural to me, and in accordance with my experience of a medium-sized Italian city. One of his characters is Niccoló (by implication Stradivarius), a violin-maker in Cremona, historic home of the violin.

Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
 And credit where credit is due - I could not resist this book, which I leaf through...well you know where...and it had a nice couple of pages on the mystery and history of Stradivarius, along with entries like: Bagpiper's Fungus and Twelve Recordings that Changed Music and Odd Homemade Instruments and 16 Random Lists About Frank Sinatra get the picture.

Once I start thinking about similarities, I think about whether there exists a category, so I thought up some other works in the category of violin-history:

like the silly film The Red Violin,

and the remarkably beautiful book  Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa, currently only available in Italian, winner of the Strega prize for literature in Italy. (The word means witch, and it is the name of a absinthe-style liqueur and the prize seems to be awarded to witchy, absinthe-style books - dark and tragic). Stabat Mater is the heart-rending story of an orphan girl under the tutelage of Vivaldi.

Of course that sounds like Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, from the Beethoven Lives Upstairs CD Series, also about an orphan, who rather happily turns out to be the daughter of the duke of Cremona, who also plays a violin for Vivaldi. I had to make a new tag for my catalog on LibraryThing.

So anyway, I was kind of bogged down, with too much to think about and no way to pull it together into a post. As you all know by now: I think everything is connected and long to uncover and understand all the connections. Then I agonized, but AGONIZED, about how to edit a long interview to be more punchy, until my friends said to me "If it's all interesting, and it needs to be complete, just post it all. We'll get through it. Duh!" And then, I must tell you that since Jimmy E (as I like to think of him) had mentioned the old saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture I thought, well, why don't I just finish up and post that video of myself dancing about architecture that I've been working on, as there seems to be some demand for it, but then I thought, no...I'll just finish up writing about music, so here it all is.

Really, the comments made by both Ehnes and Allen pushed me to think about what I thought - hmmmm - does that work? - and learn from them what I did not understand previously, and defend my ideas more robustly where I was too casual in my assumptions.

I decided that what you would find interesting is some of the back and forth. This first post is about playing an old instrument in the current style, which I was finding puzzling as a choice, and about playing Mozart. In a future post I'll cover some ideas on what defines the Baroque period.

Here is the note sent to me by Tom Allen:

If I understand your question, I think you're asking when violin playing progressed past what we now call baroque playing - is that right?
The question is more one of when did people start considering that the old way of doing things might have some merit.  Violin playing went through a huge surge in development around 1700, and then again in the early 1800s. Bows and bowing changed to produce a louder, harsher sound and techniques with it, but it wasn't until Mendelssohn began looking into JS Bach's music in 1829 that anyone really thought there would be any benefit in looking back.  Music was about progress, and the only music worth hearing was new music. Without recording, people simply didn't hear pieces more than one or two times and didn't think that unusual.(My emphasis, NM) Interest in older music, beginning with Bach, slowly increased through the 1800s, but even as late as 1949 it wouldn't have occurred to people to investigate how Bach's music would have sounded in Bach's time.  That only started in the early sixties, gaining major popularity through the 70's.

Allen has made a couple great points. I knew that playing period style on period instruments was a relatively modern idea, but I was overlooking the fact that in all the arts there is a strong drive toward the "NEW" which keeps things going forward, especially among the premiere practitioners or virtuosi. I should have been able to think of that.  Also - the very idea of recording the performance for multiple listenings! That is a terrific example of technology actually driving art, one of my special sub-interests in the category of all artistic achievement, and I completely overlooked the impact of recording on playing style and choices.

Ehnes gave his own reason for his playing style:  


When I perform a piece of music, my goal is to be completely, 100% convinced of my interpretation. Only then do I feel there is any chance of convincing my listeners. Naturally, I am influenced by the playing I hear around me, and my experiences as a listener inform my sense of taste and style. The playing I enjoy as a listener is playing that I consider to be musically committed.

So I wrote back to him:
I was thinking about what you said, and although I did not get it immediately, overnight I had a kind of epiphany: the sound and expression you consider meaningful you create when you address music of any period, with your current technique, played on a piece of technology in which an old box, with some re-engineering and modern parts (like strings), makes a beautiful sound, loud enough to fill a large modern concert hall, work with a modern-size orchestra, and reach an audience which responds emotionally or even passionately to the performance. I get it, now, I think.

I am always interested in how technology both drives and constrains art, and I just couldn't fit the pieces together quite right for the violin. The technology can be used in any way to support the art in any way. Not everyone will agree with or find pleasure in every choice, but who cares? I too believe commitment makes art. (Can't seem to get this the right size - sorry. NM)

I scored this response:
I think you get exactly what I mean!

Phew! I could do a dance-video about this, too, perhaps. Maybe I'll get to work on that, later. 

I can't say what a thrill it is to get information like this directly from the artist. It makes sitting in an audience of thousands feel so personal. 


I will even feel that we are having a personal exchange on the subject when I watch my friend's copy of the Ehnes DVD Homage with her, on which he plays: "...on 12 of the greatest instruments ever made. The Fulton Collection is perhaps the most important private collection in the world and contains many examples of the legendary names Stradivari, Guarneri, da Salo and Guadagnini. 

Ehnes performs 21 selections in a carefully planned recital programme specially chosen to suit each instrument and to work on its own terms. It finishes with a section comparing each instrument in an excerpt of the same piece, a unique opportunity to contrast the sound qualities of these spectacular instruments."

Yeah, baby!

Then, to begin the second part of our "interview", here is picture of the opening of the score of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 In A Major K.219 in Mozart's own hand, just for the beauty and awe of it.

I love to see the "hand of the artist", so much less common for the composer than the performer. But in order to also see a special part of the hand of the performer-artist at work, I asked Ehnes about his approach to the pieces I saw him play, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K.218 and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K.219 "Turkish".

When we were listening to your cadenzas, they sounded very similar to each other and with enough fast fingering (like Paganini, which I have also seen you play) and discord to sound very modern. I understand that it is the tradition that the soloist improvises or composes the cadenza. On the other hand, the program notes for the concert indicated that Mozart was one of the first composers to score the cadenzas in his concerti. As you have gathered, I am no expert on music or the violin, (although I am an ardent learner) so I am of course wondering whether you or Mozart or some combination is responsible for those musical moments which were the most interesting of the performance.

And got this very personal answer:

Cadenzas – while Mozart did notate some cadenzas for some (though not all) of his piano concertos, there are no surviving cadenzas for his violin concertos, and it is doubtful that he ever wrote any down. The cadenzas you heard were all mine; when coming up with them I took into account the form and length of the surviving cadenzas for his piano concertos of the similar, early period (there are a few from the 8th piano concerto, I think? Maybe 9th – can’t remember), and tried to take into account the types of figuration he wrote in his piano works as well as the kind of virtuoso violin playing that would have been popular around that time. Not Paganini, it is a bit early for that, but some of his predecessors, like Viotti, Locatelli, etc. Even late-Vivaldi. I’m glad you found them interesting! 

Says me, "Some listening homework to do, here."

As a further exercise in comparing modern and period playing of a Baroque composition, I dug out my Nigel Kennedy version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and added it to my iPod. Kennedy is a punky-looking and -playing genius who specifically wrote in the notes for his all-time best-selling Four Seasons CD (1989) that he did not want to be beholden to tradition or period in his performance.
I already had Il Giardino Armonico's Four Seasons CD (1994) in there. They were about the first period chamber orchestra in Italy. I think I can safely say that the period performance movement started in Great Britain, and remains strongest there, and Il Giardino was radical for Italy at the time. I first heard this performance on my beloved CBC Radio 2 (or CBC FM as it was those many years ago.) I have loved this recording and memorized it with so many listenings, relegating Nige to the shelf. It's great to have him out again, and I have been playing them side-by-side as I walk, and drive, and listening carefully. They are actually both just awesome, and I keep coming up with new questions. 

Sadly, IT APPEARS THAT THERE ARE NO EHNES RECORDINGS OF VIVALDI AVAILABLE! I checked for music on iTunes, CDs and even had a look at the DVD. Oh man! How is this possible? I would really have loved to put an Ehnes version beside the other two icons, too.

Right now the marigold is wondering, not-so-nervously, about why Vivaldi chose the keys he did for each season. It is a delightful little chromatic grouping, and each of the three sections of the seasons is written in the same key:
Spring - E major
Summer - G minor
Fall - F major
Winter - F minor
Why? Answers or suspicions welcomed.