kenjari: (piano)
Music in America
by Adelaida Reyes

Another volume in my quest to finish off the Global Music Series, Music In America grapples with the American music scene and what makes music American. Covering American music in around 100 pages is a nigh-impossible task, but Reyes does a great job of conveying the breadth. She touches on folk music, Native American music, jazz, popular music, Broadway musicals, and America's contributions to classical and avant-garde music. Her main themes are the diversity of American music and the underlying unity of those who make it. Unfortunately, Reyes is not left with much space to investigate anything in depth, or to look into the way any of this music works.
kenjari: (Govans)
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This short book is a long-form essay written as a letter to the author's 15 year old son. In it, Coates reflects on, explores, and explains the experience of being a black man in America in order to help his son navigate this experience. He takes on the systematic subjugation of African-Americans and how this is embedded deeply in American life and history, and looks at what it means to live as an African-American in these systems and to struggle against them. Coates weaves together history, current events, and personal experience into one masterful whole. His prose is amazing, and this is seriously some of the best writing I have read in years. It grabs a hold of you and pulls you along.
This book gave me so much to think about, and so much I need to think about more. I can't quite write more about Coates' ideas and points because I am still thinking about and processing it all.
kenjari: (Default)
The Rose Rent
by Ellis Peters

This is the thirteenth of the Cadfael mysteries, and it's one of the most enjoyable. A few years prior to the events of the book, young widow Judith Perle gave over her house to the monastery, for the annual rent of a single rose from the house's garden. The mystery gets underway when the monk charged with delivering the rose is found dead, the rosebush hacked in two, and Judith disappears. Cadfael thus has a multi-part mystery on his hands. The working out of the plot involved a tender romance and a few surprises, making The Rose Rent one of the standouts of the series.
kenjari: (illumination)
The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood

This achingly tragic novel is really three nested stories in one. The main narrative concerns the childhood and youth of Iris and Laura Chase, as recounted by elderly and solitary Iris. Laura drove herself off a bridge and into a ravine just a few days after WWII, and Iris tells the story of their lives and how it came to that. Alongside this tale of two sisters, there is the ext of Laura's novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which is about two mysterious lovers who meet clandestinely and tell each other a pulpy sci-fi story as pillow talk. Over the course of these three stories, the truths about Iris and Laura's lives emerges as well as the relationships between the narratives.
I very much enjoyed The Blind Assassin and whole-heartedly recommend it. But it's very hard to describe, because what made it so good for me was not the plot or even necessarily the characters, but the experience of it all. It's very affecting, and so masterfully done. A bit bleak, but I have a thing for bleak literature.

Book Review

Apr. 3rd, 2017 09:41 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Music in the Hispanic Caribbean
by Robin Moore

One of the longer books in the Global Music Series, Music in the Hispanic Caribbean covers a lot of ground in a satisfying degree of detail. Moore largely sticks to the music of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. He gives a lot of attention to ways the music of this region was affected by the slave trade and colonization, which puts the music of these three islands into context. The explanations of musical structures and the selections on the accompanying CD worked well together to give the reader a good understanding of how the different forms and genres work and relate to one another.
kenjari: (Eowyn)
Who Fears Death
by Nnedi Okorafor

This post-apocalyptic fantasy is set in a future Africa. Onyesonwu, daughter of the only survivor of a massacred village, grows to be a powerful sorceress who is destined to change the fate of both her own people, the Okeke, and the genocidal Nuru. In order to accomplish this, Onyesonwu must undertake difficult magical training, travel far from her home, and face down death. She must also struggle with living in and resisting a patriarchal culture, managing interpersonal relationships, and her own volatile temper.
Okorafor breathes new life into the hero's journey story and the trope of the chosen one. The setting is rich and original, and the narrative takes on the sheen of a folktale or legend. The characters have aspects of archetypes without being flat or stereotypical. Onyesonwu herself is prickly, complicated, and impulsive, yet always a sympathetic character. It is largely through her and her relationships with her lover Mwita and her teacher Aro that Okorafor explores complex and nuanced feminist themes.
kenjari: (Govans)
Ancillary Mercy
by Ann Leckie

This fascinating and compelling book wraps up the story begun in Ancillary Justice, and does a damn fine job of it. Best of all, Ancillary Mercy managed to surprise me - I really could not figure out where the plot was going to end up, and when I got there it was not what I was expecting. Yet the ending was extremely satisfying. The major conflicts of the series finally converge, with the Lord of the Radch Empire arriving in Athoek system, factions maneuvering in her wake, the alien Presger getting involved, and ordinary citizens getting caught in the middle. Breq/Justice of Toren forges a path through all this and works out a solution as she tries to protect who and what she can.
Even amidst more complicated plot and a lot more action, Leckie still manages to deftly explore weighty themes of belonging, the power of personal relationships and bonds, the complexities of justice, and the value of autonomy. There's so much to think about, in the best way.
kenjari: (piano)
Mariachi Music In America
by Daniel Sheehy

This slim volume provided a perfect balance of learning about the music itself and learning about its social and cultural context. I'd heard mariachi music before, but Sheehy's book really opened it all up for me. I particularly liked the time spent on the different kinds of piece found in mariachi repertoire, their forms, and rhythmic characteristics. I also liked the careful examination of the typical instrumentation of a mariachi group and how that evolved over time.
kenjari: (Eowyn)
Ancillary Sword
by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword picks up directly where Ancillary Justice left off. Breq now has a ship and has arrived in the Athoek system to keep it safe and stable as the Radch empire wrestles on the brink of civil war. While Athoek looks tranquil from the outside, Breq soon discovers that many things are not as they seem, with a network of tensions and injustices boiling under the surface. As she navigates complicated politics and social relationships in order to improve things, she discovers that there are more dangers in play than just the impending civil war.
Ancillary Sword deals more with the small details of the world, and thus feels more intimate than its predecessor. At the same time, Leckie takes on equally large themes, such as the intricacies of creating fairness and justice in the face of deeply entrenched oppressions, and the significance of small and even individual issues within the context of larger conflicts and events. It is a middle book, though, so lost of threads are left hanging to be resolved later.
kenjari: (piano)
Music in Mexico
by Alejandro L. Madrid

Another solid entry in Oxford University Press' Global Music series, Music in Mexico is a fascinating look at popular music in Mexico from the early days of the country through to the present. Madrid focuses on regional and transnational aspects of Mexican music genres, particularly the relationship that these genres have with Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in the United States. I also appreciated the way Madrid brought in the contexts of Mexican social and political situations during different decades and eras, and the way he tied in the development of Mexican media.* Finally, I enjoyed learning to parse out and recognize different genres and how they fit into what I would recognize as the typical sounds of Mexican and Latin American music. My only complaint is that the book too often directed the reader to a companion website or to look things up on the web.

*This last point did often result in a certain Wall of Voodoo song going through my head.
kenjari: (illumination)
Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie

This extremely compelling science fiction novel is set in a far future in which the Radch empire has spread widely throughout space, encompassing most of the human-populated worlds. Twenty years after the last of the Radch's conquests/annexations, a former soldier known as Breq is pursuing the last stages of her revenge -based quest. Breq used to be Justice of Toren, a vast AI that controlled and linked a starship and thousands of its soldiers. I won't say much about the plot or even the details of the world, since that would give too much away. I will say that the climactic scene involves a bit that will amuse the hell out of early-music nerds.
I loved this book. I could barely put it down, but I couldn't read it too fast because there was so much to think about an puzzle out. Leckie does a masterful job of combining plot, world-building, and character exposition. Plus, she's a genius at revealing how the setting works and what is really going on without either spoon-feeding or frustrating the reader. Along the way, she embeds a through-provoking examination of what it is to be human, what a sense of belonging means, and tghe ethical dilemmas of conquest and empire.

Book Review

Mar. 6th, 2017 10:09 pm
kenjari: (piano)
The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss
edited by Charles Youmans

This book of essays on Richard Strauss is extremely well-written and well put together. There is not a lot of biographical information, but that is easily obtained elsewhere. What this volume does have is a series of really insightful examinations of Strauss' career and music. I especially liked the perspectives on Strauss' early works and on thorny topics like the eroticism in his music and his relationships with the Third Reich and the business side of music.
kenjari: (illumination)
Riddle-Master
by Patricia A. McKillip

This is the omnibus edition of the Riddle-Master trilogy: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind. These books tell a story that on the surface might seem kind of cliched: Morgon, Prince of Hed, after recovering an old artifact in a riddle contest, finds himself pursuing a mysterious destiny. Morgon travels across a realm where long-vanished magic and ancient forces are re-emerging, and along the way he discovers many hidden things about the land and himself. At the same time, Morgon's lover and promised bride Raederle undertakes a similar journey as she attempts to help Morgon and to find her own answers.
McKilip's writing is beautiful, and she executes the narrative with a lot of subtlety, finesse, and elegance. She's not afraid to let the reader figure things out, or to imbue scenes and interactions with great emotional weight. Her world-building is excellent, and is well-served by her ability to pace the way she explores and reveals it for the reader. It's all very like gazing at a very rich tapestry.
kenjari: (piano)
Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
by Bernard Gendron

This fascinating and extremely well-written book examines the relationship between art, the avant-garde, and popular music from the late 19th century Parisian cabaret scene through the late 20th century New York punk and new wave scene. Along the way, Gendron follows the post-WWI European avant-garde's fascination with jazz and the mechanisms through which rock music gained cultural capital and critical approbation in the late 1960s. I kind of wish Gendron had given a little more attention to the ways race and gender intersected with all of this, but perhaps that really needs a separate book to cover adequately. Nonetheless, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club does a wonderful job of looking at the relationships and tensions between avante-garde art and popular music. I especially enjoyed the exploration of the New York new wave scene, since I am a fan of a lot of music that came out of it.
kenjari: (Default)
Lavinia
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This beautiful and thoughtful historical novel retells the last part of Vergil's Aeneid from the point of view of Lavinia, the Latin princess he marries when he arrives in Italy. Lavinia does not speak in the original poem, but Le Guin gives her a full inner and outer life. In the process, she also explores what it means to forge your own path in the context of a society that provides limited options and roles.
The writing is as lovely as any reader would expect from Le Guin. It's lyrical and evocative without being flowery. While a lot happens, Lavinia is not focused on plot, but rather centers around how Lavinia experiences her life and the events that shape it.
kenjari: (piano)
The Cambridge Companion To Stravinsky
edited by Jonathan Cross

I suppose it is particularly nerdy to read Cambridge Companions straight through for fun, but I really do enjoy them. This volume provides a nice look at Stravinsky's works from various perspectives: Russian heritage and material, neoclassicism, modernism, serialism, and reception history. The reader thus gets a good overview and Stravinsky's different creative periods, the historical and musical contexts of his work, and the legacy he has left for 21st century music. I especially liked the way a few of the chapters, especially Richard Taruskin's on "Stravinsky and Us" addressed the myths surrounding Stravinsky and the way the composer himself participated in and pushed back against their creation.

Book Review

Feb. 5th, 2017 08:26 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Hamilton: The Revolution
by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter

Hamilton: The Revolution is a combination of libretto and commentary for the hit musical. It is no secret that I'm a huge fan of Hamiilton, so it should be no surprise that I loved reading this book, affectionately dubbed the "Hamiltome" by the show's fans. The musical's text are interspersed with short chapters covering aspects of the show's development and showcasing members of the original cast. Lin-Manuel Miranda also provides annotations to each number's lyrics. It all makes for an enjoyable read and an entertaining glimpse behind the scenes.

Book Review

Feb. 1st, 2017 09:28 pm
kenjari: (Eowyn)
Reamde
by Neal Stephenson

This door-stopper of a techno-thriller is responsible for my being late to a post-lunch meeting at work and for plenty of lost sleep, as is it pretty hard to put down for almost all of its 1000+ pages. The plot is quite intricate, involving Russian mobsters, Islamic jihadists, a wildly successful MMMPORG and its creators, Chinese goldfarmers, computer viruses, multiple kidnappings, many guns, a couple of spies, and a lot of action spanning half the globe. Stephenson has a knack for writing huge books that don't drag, and for packing them full of characters, action, and intrigue without making the narrative confusing or overstuffed. And while he has a penchant for info-dumps, he at least knows how to make them very entertaining.
In contrast to most action movies, Reamde is not too bad on gender balance: we have three main female characters to four or five main male characters, and the women have agency and drive plenty of the plot. While the ending does have a comic opera level of of pairing people up, I never got the impression that any of the three women were there just to be a love interest. In fact, it is largely the male characters who are motivated by romantic interest or sexual attraction.
I really like Stephenson's pacing. He strikes the right balance between info-dumps and action sequences. Plus, the info-dumps work well as a way to make the book more immersive and to make the reader care about the characters and their lives. He also really knows how and when to ratchet up the tension.
kenjari: (piano)
Essays on Music
by Alfred Einstein

This book of essays by musicologist Einstein largely focuses on music of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Einstein, who died in 1952, was an important musicologist of the first half of the 20th century, so these essays are in several ways somewhat old-fashioned. It's obvious that he adheres to both the "great man*" and evolutionary approaches to music history. Thus, I most enjoyed the essays in which he illuminates a more obscure bit of music history, such as the musicological interest of a series of letters by a 17th century Italian friar, or the circumstances which suggest that at the end of his life, Mozart was asked to set a libretto based on The Tempest. Einstein is also quite a good writer, making his prose enjoyable and occasionally witty.


* And I do mean "man". Einstein regrettably shows no real interest in female musicians or composers even when they enter into the stories he is telling. Plus, he does make a pretty sexist parenthetical comment in one of the essays. And this from a man who taught at Smith!
kenjari: (Govans)
Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks

This novel is based on the story of the real English village of Eyam, which quarantined itself during the plague of 1665. In Brook's book, the plot centers around Anna Frith, a young widow and mother who survives the plague but is deeply changed by it. During the year that the village cuts itself off from the rest of the countryside, Anna becomes close friends with Elinor, the rector's wife, as they do their best to aid the villagers as they all struggle with sickness, death, and its aftermath.
Brooks' writing is lovely, and her characters are terrific. The villagers' wide range of reactions to the plague are seen through Anna's largely compassionate eyes, which also helps to add a lot of nuance to the villagers' reactions to the plague, which range from courage and charity to madness and violence.I also liked that Anna, even while striving to do good for her fellow villagers, is not always saintly in her thoughts and feelings towards them. She's much more realistic and complex than that.
My only caveat about reading Year of Wonders is that the subject is grim enough that one probably does not want to stretch out one's reading over it.

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