kenjari: (Christine de Pisan)
The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

This creepy quasi-horror novel is set in the small English town of Lidcote in the late 1940s, when the country was in the throes of post-war poverty and deprivation. The narrator, Dr. Faraday, becomes involved with the Ayres, the diminished local gentry, after being called up to their mansion, the Hundreds, to take care of a sick maid. Once a wealthy and glamorous clan, the family has been hard-hit by the war and are descending into a genteel poverty as the Hundreds crumbles around them. Roderick, Caroline, and their mother Mrs. Ayres also each have their own sorrows and struggles to deal with in the midst of this decline. Soon after Faraday becomes involved with the Ayres and the Hundreds, strange and alarming things begin happening in the house, which quickly escalate into something more frightening and dangerous.
The beauty of this book is the way Waters intertwines a character study and a horror story. Her examination of the dying out of the pre-war lifestyle of the landed gentry and the changes in British life is deft and sensitive. The ghost story is convincingly creepy. I especially like the way Waters created ambiguity about what was going on, and made these ambiguities serve the tension and creepiness. It i never clear whether or not there really is a ghost or if the family is simply succumbing to their own psychological issues. There is also the suggestion that Faraday is perhaps not the objective and reliable narrator he at first appears. Each of these possibilities carries its own kind of horror and the fact that Waters does not give a definitive answer for what is going on only enhances the creepiness.
kenjari: (piano)
The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich
by Michael H. Kater

This compelling book examines a wide variety of musicians - from struggling performers to world-renowned composers - and how they and their music interacted with the Third Reich. Kater looks at the degrees to which these musicians complied, collaborated, or resisted. He also looks at the value Hitler and his regime placed on music, the ways they manipulated it to serve their political and social ends, and the degree of success they had in these endeavors.
Although I feel like Kater could have tightened up the organization of his material, I really enjoyed his writing. His prose was clear and flowed well. I also like the fact that, when referring to Nazis and their atrocities, he almost entirely eschewed the kind of sanitized, objective prose typical of scholarly writing. Kater directly and bluntly described Hans Frank, governor of occupied Poland, as "that butcher of Poles and Jews". He also described a musician who did not survive as having been "sent to Auschwitz to be murdered", rather than saying that he died in the camp.
The picture Kater paints is often complicated, without a lot of clear heroes or villains among the musicians profiled. Nonetheless it was still chilling in many ways, and there was a sense in which it all read a little like the non-fiction equivalent of a horror novel.

Book Review

Oct. 9th, 2017 09:42 pm
kenjari: (Govans)
The Family Plot
by Cherie Priest

This atmospheric and effective haunted house story hits all the right notes. Priest isn't doing anything terribly innovative here, but she does it all so very well, with the right balance of creepiness, mystery, and horror. The story begins when Music City Salvage takes an offer to strip a condemned old mansion and its outbuildings of its antique fixtures, windows, moldings, flooring, etc. before a demolition. The owner's daughter, Dahlia, her cousin Bobby, his son Gabe, and company employee Brad head to the remote mansion to do the work, planning to camp out in the house as they do the work. However, very soon after their arrival, it becomes clear that the painstaking removal of delicate stained glass, custom tiling, and marble fireplaces is not the only thing they must contend with in that house.
Priest spins a tale of angry ghosts and dark family secrets, with interesting takes on a couple of the tropes, and a really effective ending. I especially liked the way the entire crew is aware of and affected by the supernatural goings-on - there is no questioning the sanity or motives of any of the characters, and a refreshing absence of the unreliable narrator trope. I also like the way a group of people who spend a lot of time working in empty old houses pretty much accept the existence of ghosts - it felt right and allowed the story to cut to the chase a bit more. Cherie does a great job of describing the house and its trappings - I always knew exactly where everything and everyone was, and could really feel the layout of the rooms. The place did not quite become a character in its own right, but it was certainly one of the more vivid settings I've read.

Book Review

Oct. 7th, 2017 03:47 pm
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Johannes Brahms: A Biography
by Jan Swafford

This lengthy biography was an endlessly fascinating read. Swafford focuses more on Brahms' life , psychology, and relationships than on analyses of his compositional technique and development. There is a lot of detail here, but the prose never bogs down. Swafford has a great deal of insight into Brahms' motivations and his position as a relatively conservative yet daring composer caught between the waning of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism. The analysis and discussion of Brahms' music that does appear in the text makes the latter clear, and helps to explain the richness in in these pieces.
He also has a very clear eye regarding his subject, portraying Brahms' as a complex person with flaws that often caused conflict with and even estrangement from even his closest friends and with virtues that drew people to him and cemented life-long friendships. I particularly enjoyed the examination of his relationship with Clara Schumann, which spanned four decades and was foundational to Brahms' personal and professional life.
kenjari: (Eowyn)
March: Book Three
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

The conclusion of this series is rather amazing. March: Book Three concentrates on the push for voter registration and the events leading up to Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. It begins with a wrenching account of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and ends with the march and its aftermath. Given the escalation of violence, this book is a more intense read than the first two, and every bit as gripping. The graphic novel format is quite effective in all three books, too, giving the events an immediacy and a concrete reality that text alone could not have provided.
kenjari: (Govans)
March: Book Two
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

March: Book Two picks up where the earlier volume leaves off. After the success of the lunch counter sit-ins, SNCC expands the protests to fast food places and cafeterias. In addition, the Freedom Riders program to integrate interstate bus lines starts up. SNCC, other related groups, and John Lewis himself become more visible, but their successes and growing visibility also bring increased danger. The members of the movement face arrests, imprisonment, and beatings, but they carry on, gaining increased support from more powerful men, including Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. When Lewis is elected chairman of SNCC, he becomes on the the Big Six of the Civil Rights movement.
This book is every bit as compelling as its predecessor. Once again I enjoyed finding out about the details and the work that went on between big events. The theme and role of non-violent action continues and becomes even stronger as these ideals are tested via the increasing violence towards the protestors.
kenjari: (Eowyn)
March: Book One
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

This is the first of a graphic novel trilogy based on the Rep. John Lewis' life during the Civil Rights movement. Framed by Lewis' attendance at Obama's first inauguration in 2009, this volume covers Lewis' childhood through his college years as he became aware of Martin Luther King's efforts and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. When Lewis attends college in Nashville, he becomes increasingly involved with the movement and joins the SNCC. He participates in the lunch counter sit-ins, staring down bigotry, getting attacked, and being arrested.
This is such compelling reading. It's written to be accessible to younger audiences, but it is not simplified at all, and it doesn't pull many punches. Lew is is frank about the violence and danger the protestors faced and endured. He is also clear about the rightness of their cause, and the personal conviction he felt. I particularly enjoyed the way his narrative filled in the spaces between the major events of the history we have all been taught. The way the lunch counter sit-ins started, developed, and grew is fascinating and instructive.
kenjari: (Govans)
LaRose
by Louise Erdrich

The plot of this book, which takes place in small-town North Dakota, is set in motion when Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his neighbors' 5 year old son in a tragic hunting accident. To atone for this act, he and his wife Emmeline decide to follow an old tribal tradition and give their own 5 year old son, LaRose, to their neighbors, the Raviches. LaRose is able to integrate himself into his new family, forging important bonds with his new mother Nola and new sister Maggie. After some time, LaRose is able to start having visits with his original family and this shared custody gradually heals the two grieving families. However, this fragile peace is jeopardized by the actions of a man seeking retribution upon Landreaux for events of their youth.
While not a cheerful read, LaRose was entirely engrossing and lovely. Erdrich delves into the dynamics of grief and guilt with great sensitivity and depth. Even when the plot takes on themes of vengeance and retribution, Erdrich eschews melodrama, instead opting to look deeply into the way events, complex relationships, and their consequences unfold. The reconciliation between the two families is instead built up gradually, through individual moments and actions, small gestures, and individual decisions. Through it all, she also weaves the tales of the Iron family's forbears and a strand of mysticism that adds extra resonance to the story.
Overall LaRose is a wonderful novel of redemption that does not take the easy, sentimental route. Instead, Erdrich treats her themes with great subtlety and complexity, preferring gradual development over sweeping gestures.

Book Review

Sep. 9th, 2017 09:18 pm
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
by Christoph Wolff

This was one of the best and most enjoyable composer biographies I have ever read. It is extremely detailed, but Wolff makes the meticulous detail a source of richness rather than an exercise in either pedantry or tedium. Despite the lack of personal correspondence or other such information that history has preserved for us, Wolff also portrays Bach as living, breathing person rather than just an iconic figure, and furthermore, give the modern reader a very good sense of what an 18th century musician's life would be like. The coverage of Bach's development as a composer and musician, and of his professional struggles all were extremely interesting and enlightening. I have more appreciation not only for Bach and his music but also for the whole corpus of Baroque music making.
kenjari: (illumination)
All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders

This book is a marvelous mixture of fantasy and sci-fi. Patricia and Laurence are two very odd children, both outcasts among their peers, who find each other and forge a friendship that is equally tenuous and tenacious. Patricia start developing magical powers , which includes the ability to communicate with animals and tap into the powers of nature, Laurence turns out to be a scientific and technological genius, building an AI in his closet, among other things. While they end up on sharply separated paths, they meet again as young adults in San Francisco. Laurence is part of a group attempting to avert an apocalyptic future through dangerous technology. Patricia is a member of a loose collective of witches who work quietly under the radar to alleviate the world's ills. As the world teeters on the brink, events bring Patricia and Laurence both closer together and into conflict.
I really enjoyed this book. The characters were very interesting - I liked how despite their powers and accomplishments, both Laurence and Patricia were often awkward and not always perfectly likeable. I also loved the themes around balance and inter-relatedness that came out in the ways magic and technology worked in the world. There's a lot of charm and wit to the story and the writing, but it doesn't get too precious. Plus, the plot puts it into the rare category of a pre-apocalyptic novel. My only complaint is that it could have been longer so as to have more space to linger on some of the details of world-building and the inner lives of the characters.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg
Edited by Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner

As is typical of the Cambridge Companion series, this volume about Arnold Schoenberg was a fascinating and often enjoyable read. Given how central Schoenberg is to modern music and how much existing scholarship there is on him, I was happy to find that this book included a very thoughtful and fresh selection of writings about Schoenberg. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Schoenberg's row tables and how he used them, his piano concerto, and his relationship to modernism and metaphysics.
kenjari: (Default)
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

This short novel was one of the first Gothic novels, and was a big hit when it was published in 1764. It was indeed very entertaining. The story concerns the misdeed of Prince Manfred of Otranto, the dark secrets his family history holds, and the ultimate collapse of both his dynasty and his castle. It has all the hallmarks of a its genre: supernatural events, a dastardly villain, dark secrets, virtuous maidens, a gloomy castle, star-crossed lovers, and dramatic tragedy. What I wasn't expecting was the way the plot is pretty over-the-top, at times verging on absurdity. The events of the book open with Manfred's heir getting crushed by a giant helmet that falls on him out of nowhere on his wedding day. Yes, really.
kenjari: (piano)
Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall
by Steven Moore Whiting

This book covers Satie's involvement with fin-de-siecle popular and avant-garde entertainment as both an audience member and a participant. Whiting pays especial attention to the ways in which cabaret songs and music-hall entertainment influenced Satie's music. It's extremely interesting and really illuminates Satie's compositional process and the inner workings of his music. I especially liked the exploration of Satie's use of quotation and his incorporation of humor in his works.
My only significant criticism of Satie the Bohemian is tha tWhiting's prose, while clear, is rather inert. This has the unfortunate effect of making the book plod along at various points, resulting in a slow and dull reading experience.
kenjari: (Default)
Effective Management of Student Employment: Organizing for Student Employment in Academic Libraries
by David A. Baldwin, Frances Wilkinson, Daniel Barkley

I read this book for utilitarian reasons, as my job involves supervising about 18 student workers. It's a pretty solid book, and covers everything a supervisor would need to know. My only complaint is that, becuase it was published in 2000, it is now kind of dated when it comes to wages, student loans and aid, and a couple non-discrimination issues.
kenjari: (illuminated border)
The Confession of Brother Haluin
by Ellis Peters

This Cadfael mystery is a bit of a departure from the rest of the series in that the central mystery does not revolve around a murder and most of the action tgakes place at some distance from the abbey and Shrewsbury. During the winter, one of the brothers suffers a serious fall while taking part in the repair of an ice damaged roof at the abbey. Although he recovers, Brother Haluin's brush with death sets him off on a pilgrimage of penitence to pray at the tomb of the long-lost lover whose death he feels responsible for. Accompanied by Cadfael, Haluin, partially crippled from his injuries, sets off eastward towards the dwellings of his youth only to find his past shrouded in unexpected secrets and mysteries. After 15 of these books, I could pretty much see it all coming very soon into the book. Luckily, Peters' characters and writing are good enough that I still enjoyed seeing it all play out to a satisfying conclusion.
kenjari: (mt greylock)
The Hermit of Eyton Forest
by Ellis Peters

In this fourteenth Cadfael mystery, everything hinges on the arrival of a holy hermit and his young servant to the lands surrounding the abbey. When an arrogant and harsh visitor to the abbey is murdered and one of the abbey's schoolboys goes missing, things get quite complicated indeed. Along the way, we get some of the hallmarks of a Cadfael novel: lovers in some difficulty, an obvious suspect who turns out not to be the culprit, and the concealment of true identity. It was good and diverting read.
kenjari: (Default)
Uncle Silas
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Uncle Silas is an early example of the suspense/horror novel. Maud Ruthyn is a 17 year old girl recently orphaned by the death of her father, who has also left her heir to a very large fortune. She is placed under the guardianship of her sickly yet sinister Uncle Silas, whom she has had no prior relationship due to a terrible scandal that left Silas in utter disgrace. Despite Maud's at times naive determination to see her uncle in a positive and charitable light, her life as her uncle's ward soon becomes frightening as mysterious and menacing events start piling up.
This novel has a lot of the Gothic in it - gloomy old manor houses, brooding landscapes, strange people, dark secrets, and a few hints of the supernatural. It also has a lot of the "sensation novel" as well - suspense, mysteries to be solved,and crimes committed. The combination is very successful and satisfying. Sheridan Le Fanu's writing can at times seem a little overwrought, but it works in Uncle Silas because the narrator, Maud, is a teenaged girl attempting to cope with a very dangerous and disturbing situation. while the suspense does build more slowly than in modern thrillers, it was still effective and made the last couple of chapters exciting reading.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

This biography of song collector, ethnomusicologist, and singer Alan Lomax was endlessly fascinating and wonderful to read. This is one of the rare non-fiction books that is as compelling and absorbing as a good novel. Szwed takes an all-encompassing view of Lomax, delving into his beginnings as an assistant to his father's song-collecting, his alliance with progressive causes, the FBI's investigations of him, his sometimes contentious views on the importance of folksong - especially that of African-Americans - to American national identity, and his complex relationships to the worlds of academia and popular culture. The only thing that gets a little shorted is Lomax's personal life and relationships, as Szwed concentrates mainly on Lomax's career.
Although the biography is clearly not a hagiography, it is clear that Szwed admires Lomax and it is hard not to share in that admiration. Whatever Lomax's personal failings, Szwed makes it clear that Lomax was an important figure in the preservation and popularization of American folk music, an ardent promoter of the musicians who played it, and a true believer in its value.
kenjari: (Christine de Pisan)
Managing Student Assistants: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians
by Kimberly Burke Sweetman

Sweetman's book is pretty much what it says on the cover. It's a very easy, straightforward read. I liked the inclusion of real-world examples and explanation, although there are a few out-dated pieces of advice as the book was published in 2006. Sweetman heavily concentrates on the pre-hire steps: including determining the need for student staff, defining student positions, and setting up a hiring procedure. Thus, the book was less useful for those of us who stepped into institutions where the student staff is well-established.

Book Review

Jul. 2nd, 2017 10:49 pm
kenjari: (illumination)
The Kingdom of Gods
by N.K. Jemisin

This last book in the Inheritance Trilogy begins several decades after The Broken Kingdoms, and is told from the godling Sieh's point of view. As the Arameri rule begins to weaken, Sieh returns to Sky, the place of his long enslavement. There he meets the two young Arameri heirs and makes a pact of friendship with them that has unexpected results that precipitate crises in both the Arameri and in Sieh himself.
The Kingdom of Gods was very good and an excellent ending to the trilogy. The plot is intricate and compelling, and the emotional depth and complexity is beautiful and at times wrenching. Nothing is simple or easy - not the characters, not the problems they face, not their relationships with each other. Jemisin takes on a lot of deeper themes - the nature of friendship, the nature and consequences of relationships between deities and mortals, revenge, forgiveness, and growing up. It was surprisingly moving and very rewarding.

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