All posts by Kendra Leonard

Fortunes Fit: a micro-chapbook for a time of isolation

As promised, here is a micro-chapbook of my poetry.

Many people have been writing about the fact that King Lear was written during a time when the theatres were closed due to plague, and while I didn’t like the implication that we should all be creating masterpieces as we isolate and quarantine ourselves from Covid-19, this line of thought did prompt me to re-read the play. The collection is named from it: in 3.2, the Fool sings:

He that has and a little tiny wit–
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,–
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.

The first set of poems in the collection use works and ideas from King Lear, as well as those generated by anagramming “King Lear” and “Covid” together. Other poems touch on times of personal isolation, rituals, history, and my local habitation.

Fortunes Fit is available through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license for free. You can download it here from the Humanities Commons CORE Repository.

Conference presentation: Jewishness Between Performance and Appropriation: Music for the Merchant of Venice on Film

This Saturday at 10 am at the University of Houston’s Student Center South, I’ll be giving a paper on “Jewishness Between Performance and Appropriation: Music for the Merchant of Venice on Film” at the AMS-SW meeting.

Abstract: While The Merchant of Venice has a long and storied history on the stage, it has not been as widely adapted for film or television as other plays by Shakespeare. Shylock appears on film for the first time in 1908, in a now-lost work directed by J. Stuart Blackton. He returns five more times in silent film before appearing in a variety of  television movies including a 1973 television movie version starring Laurence Olivier; several BBC treatments; and the films of Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production and a production by the Globe. Additional English-language cinema adaptations and those in other languages begin to appear in the early 2000s. While Shylock has been interpreted as against music, based on his command that Jessica close the house to muffle the music of the masques (2.3), music has played a large role in identifying Shylock as Jewish and providing both Shylock and Jessica with the means to perform Jewishness.

Michael Shapiro has traced the visual and aural signifiers of creating Jewish space and identity in stage performances of Merchant, but touches only briefly on the use of music for film adaptations of the play. Using music recommendations and cue sheets for silent films, reviews, analysis of recordings and scores, and Richard Burt’s framework of the “cinematographosphere,” I examine the music for selected silent and sound film versions of Merchant, asking what roles traditional Jewish music, music intended to “sound Jewish,” and non-Jewish music plays in the performance of Shylock’s and Jessica’s Jewishness. I then ask how, in the case of music appropriated from Jewish religious and/or cultural practices, such music reifies conceptions of Jewishness in various settings, is used to demonstrate the universal humanity expressed in Shylock’s 3.1 speech, and influences the reception of the play. Ultimately, I discuss how the intersection of performance and appropriation works in cinematic Merchants, and what we can learn from that dialogue.

Book reviews: Florence Price bio, space travel, mysteries

Shielded by KayLynn Flanders. 1/5
A princess in love with her brother and her brother’s friend must survive when enemy forces attack her homeland and the country adjacent to it, all while hiding a distinctive white stripe of hair that indicates that she’s magic. There was so much in this that was inconsistent and didn’t make sense that I can’t even begin to list it all. Filled with stereotypes and “plot twists” visible for miles, this book screams “bad Disney film treatment” all over it.

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars by Kate Greene. 1/5
In this under-edited memoir, author Kate Green describes her experiences as a test subject for NASA, living in a simulated Martian colony for several months. This would have been fascinating if not for Greene’s self-pity and her repetitive laments about the end of her marriage and search for self following her break-up with her wife. Greene’s account skips from topic to topic, not all of which she makes relevant or interesting in relationship to the rest of the book, and her apparent lack of interest in the other crew members makes this come across as an exercise in self-ego-stroking.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam. 2/5
In this novel, five women astronauts steal a rocket and travel far into outer space, hoping to be the first to land on a Goldilocks planet–one that has just the right conditions for human survival. But the manipulations and lies of the team’s leader wreak havoc on the ship and endanger everyone’s lives. I found the writing melodramatic and the story soap-operaish: life and death decisions daily! couples torn apart! allegiances shifted! misplaced trust! engineered diseases! The whole thing is overdone and there are few reasons given for the decisions some of the crew members make other than that they create more chaos and trust issues.

Elysium Girls by Kate Pentecost. 2/5
This novel takes place in a world in which magic exists, along with unending Dust Bowl conditions, and in which goddesses use humans and constructs to play out decade-long power games. Told from several mostly unnecessary points of view, the plot involves Sal, a young woman with strong magical capabilities, her friends, exiles in the desert surrounding their protected city-home, and a daemon in the form of a man. The plot is rather weak and the author relies on hero fights for tension and character-building. Ultimately, none of the characters were compelling enough to make me care about their fates.

In a Field of Blue by Gemma Liviero. 2/5
Following WWI, a young man must try to determine whether the woman claiming to be the wife of his presumed-dead brother is who she says she is. Things are complicated by the fact that she has a child, who she claims is the brother’s, the fact that the young man’s older brother is threatened in terms of inheritance by this child, that the mother of the man and his brother is unable to take any kind of action, and that the young man is falling in love with the woman. We get the story from the young man, up to a point, and then from the woman, which dispels all mystery. This form means that the book peaks early, and finishes weakly with a lot of plodding narration that confirms much of what readers will suspect early on.

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry. 4/5
This begins much like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides–narrated by the boys in a neighborhood who spy on a house full of sisters, all of whom are trying to escape–until one dies. After the death of their oldest sister, the remaining girls each try to find paths for themselves–through work, relationships, religion. But none of it really works for them until everything comes to a head when the ghost of their sister appears. The reaction of the neighborhood to her appearance gives the remaining sisters the energy they need to leave their abusive father, abusive boyfriends, abusive schools, and to seek out a new path together. A good book about women making do for themselves, about empowerment, about standing up to abuse. Powerfully written and beautifully constructed.

The Indigo Ghosts by Alys Clare. 3/5
A nice period mystery. Set in Stuart England, this mystery grapples with the Atlantic slave trade, syncretic and indigenous religions, and the everyday threats to life in a time when medicine was still in its infancy. The novel is told primarily from the POV of Gabe, a doctor in a small town who is called to help an old friend and finds himself seeking out the answers to sightings of ghosts, the presence of a mummified body on a ship, and the presence of strangers in his town. Asides told in third person broke up the flow of the narrative and added little to it, but for the most part it’s a well-told story with interesting characters and historical lore.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas. 4/5
In this novel, students with traumatic pasts are nurtured, encouraged, and, if they challenge the school, experimented on. Set in an alternate reality in which Catherine House is a mysterious and exclusive North American college, turning out brilliant graduates, Ines is a depressed student who begins looking into the institution’s most famous research, on a material called plasm. Said to heal, mend physical objects, and serve as a conduit between all existing things, plasm is used by Catherine House to make students content and hard-working, but as Ines discovers, those doing research on the substance are implicated in more dangerous applications. A nice SFF thriller with a hefty dose of college-novel-conspiracy added in, this book should appeal to readers of Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, and similar writers.

Figure It Out by Wayne Koestenbaum. 4/5
Any book by Koestenbaum is a dip into his kaleidoscopic mind, where we might encounter anything from musings on size queens to anecdotes about encounters on the subway to beards to art to music to celebrities to fashion to imaginary events and dreams. This collection brings together essays, lists, journal entries, and other short writings that provide the reader with an excellent overview of Koestenbaum’s mostly omnivorous thoughts (although there is a definite focus on white people, Jewishness, men, and gay idols) about his life and life in general. If you can overlook what is omitted and revel in what he does think about and how he does it, this latest entry into the Koestenbaum library is dazzling and thoughtful and entertaining and frustrating and a good sampler of his work.

The Heart of a Woman by Rae Linda Brown. 3/5
This is a very solid and well-written introduction to the life and works of composer Florence Price. Extensively researched over the course of Rae Linda Brown’s career, The Heart of a Woman (despite the sentimental and cloying title) is primarily a biography of Price with a bit of music analysis. Non-musicians can easily skip over the short, more technical sections, and still gain an understanding of Price’s music and the context in which it was written. While I find there to be a little too much supposition without evidence in the book for my comfort and wish there had been more and deeper analysis, the book serves its purpose as a first stop in getting to know Price and her works. A lot of research has been published–and many excellent recordings issued–on and about Price’s work in the last ten years, but Brown’s contribution to the understanding of African American composers in the twentieth century cannot be overstated.

The Burning by Laura Bates. 2/5
In this YA novel, a young woman who has had her nude photos shared throughout a student body relocates with her mother to a small. Town, hoping to start fresh. But of course her past catches up with her, and she has to deal with new harassment. This takes up the bulk of the book, which is too bad, because if the act of resistance the protagonist does at the very end of the book had come earlier, the author could have focused on strategies for pushing back against such bullying. The protagonist and her mother—who is an incredibly naive and inattentive parent—need a lot of therapy, and while the author provides links to anti bullying resources at the end of the novel, none of those actually appear in the book, which is a terrible missed opportunity. A structure and approach that focused more on combating the problem, instead of reveling in the kinds of messages harassers send and what they do, would have resulted in stronger characters and a stronger book overall. A side plot about a historical figure in the protagonist’s new town is okay but not really compelling.

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey. 1/5
I found this YA novel really disturbing. A group of high school girls with magic abilities uses their powers to cover up the accidental death of a boy. While there is great non-white and queer representation, the girl responsible for the death never worries about what she did to kill the boy, and the other girls are equally self-centered in their help in the cover-up. The boy who dies is just an object, and is treated as such by the girls. I’m not opposed to immoral characters, but the cast here seems entirely amoral and without compassion or a thought for anyone outside their circle. The threat posed to the magic girls by an outsider girl turns predictably into an epiphany for all of the group, and ultimately none of the girls ever confronts the very problematic nature of magic or the fact that none of them really know what they can do or how it works.

Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosley. 3/5
A short thriller featuring PI Leonid McGill and his family, a wealthy racist family, and a long-buried family secret. McGill is hired to deliver a letter to a young woman that tells of her family’s true, Black ancestry. But the head of the family is so invested in his white supremacism that he’s got hit men trying to kill off his own father before word can spread. Add to this McGill family drama and a lot of backstories, and the result is an ok thriller with way too much baggage. The side stories–McGill’s wife being in love with his father, for instance–don’t add much to the plot, and Mosley’s writing, albeit celebrated, is too ponderous for my taste, focusing on telling the reader details in contrived ways: He was taller than my 5’&’ and weighted 310 to my 250, etc. Fans might enjoy it, but this one wasn’t for me.

The Down Days by Ilze Hugo. 4/5
A wild ride through a South African society reeling from a highly contagious infectious disease, dead bodies in the streets, pop-up religions, and new belief systems about ghosts and magic. Reminiscent of the novels by Lauren Beukes, The Down Days is a fantasy/dystopian novel with a cast of vividly-imagined characters, lushy detailed settings and scenes, and eye-opening writing about how we think about death, survival, and society.

This Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples. 2/5
In this novel, a Native American man grapples with his lovers’ inabilities to come out of the closet, the traumatic past of his small town, and his sense of self. The author focuses on two threads: the protagonist’s relationship with a closeted former high-school classmate, which the protagonist mostly accepts with a wry resignation; and the lingering presence of a young man killed as a teenager and the son born after his death. While the themes are strong ones, the novel is chaotic in its narrative, and this disorganization meant that certain characters and events appear and disappear in the book without resolution or meaning. A developmental edit could turn this into a truly stellar novel, but as it is, there’s not enough structure or clarity for it to really make a good impression.

Pennsylvania, I am coming to visit you!

Next Friday, Feb 21! :

“Music and Mental Illness in Shakespeare” – Dr. Kendra Preston Leonard

Date: Friday – February 21, 2020
Time: 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM
Location: Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, McGowan Room
Kendra Preston Leonard, PhD – Scholar, Musician, and Executive Director, The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive. This presentation will examine the musical and visual depiction of mental illness in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. By watching and listening to the acting, direction, and musical accompaniment assigned to Hamlet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, & Edgar in various film adaptions, we can understand how what Shakespeare calls “madness” was thought about in the Early Modern period, how it interacted with and was described by music, and how these associations between madness and music continue in film adaptions of the plays. This presentation will be held on Friday, February 21 from Noon-1:30 pm in the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, McGowan Room. This speaking engagement is part of the series Intersection:(Dis)ability and the Arts. Sponsored by the Department of Fine Arts, the Soyka Fund for the Humanities, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts-a state agency, and the Medical and Health Humanities Program. This event is free and open to the public.
CONTACT: Dr. Ryan Weber
Email rweber@misericordia.edu
Phone 570-674-6182
More Information

https://www.misericordia.edu/page.cfm?id=520&verbose=5336482

Book reviews: Boojums in space and more

Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole. 2/5
A somewhat slow speculative novel about politics, workers’ rights, and the Coast Guard–in space. Jane Oliver is tasked with leading a Coast Guard crew in an in-space competitive exercise, and must cope with this amid the travails of her daughter and the loss of her husband. The characters never quite felt real or deep, the stakes not terribly compelling, and ultimately, the book was flat and unexpectedly dull.

Double Blind by Sara Winokur. 1/5
This murder mystery is a convoluted mess that asks readers not just to suspend their sense of disbelief but to believe in entirely nonsensical things altogether. It could have been a good, straightforward crime novel involving a DNA lab, an ancient manuscript, and politics, but instead the author also included kidnapped siblings, false histories, romantic angst (by the protagonist), breaches of professional ethics (also by the protagonist), science that is treated like magic and misrepresented so badly it would win an award to misrepresentation, old friends with fun sex lives (upon whom the protagonist frowns), utterly implausible procedures in terms of everyday politics and work, horses, farms, and much much, alas, more. I wish this had gone through a heavy development edit; it might have yielded something good.

The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg. 5/5
This is a book of great beauty and wit and imagination. In The Four Profound Weaves, R. B. Lemberg crafts a story about growing up and growing old, magic and art, learning and traveling, trusting and transforming. The weaver Uiziya sets out into the desert to to find her aunt, who weaves clothes for assassins from bone, in hopes that her aunt will teach her the last of the Four Profound Weaves: weaving with death. With her travels an unnamed man, who is also looking for a kind of final learning, a name. Lemberg introduces readers to several fascinating cultures and individuals from her Birdverse, whose histories and traditions come together to help a weaver find life and happiness, albeit through betrayal and pain. This is a fabulous, brutal, shimmering queer fairytale but also a story of great truth in terms of identity, gender, sexuality, and sense of self.

Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold. 3/5
A pleasant if not particularly memorable continuation of the narratives begun in Bujold’s earlier books set in the world of the Sharing Knife. In this world, people are born Lakewalkers, with special bonds to the earth and others and capable of certain magics, or farmers, who are, well, not Lakewalkers. Lakewalkers protect the world from creatures called malices, which feed on life and threaten communities. In this novel, a Lakewalker man finds that his daughter, born years earlier to a farmer woman, is developing Lakewalker powers, and seeks to help the girl learn to understand and train her powers. This has never been Bujold’s most imaginative or complex series, but it’s interesting enough for a few hours’ read.

The Best of Elizabeth Bear by Elizabeth Bear. 4/5
A great collection of some of Bear’s truly best work, including short stories and a novella. I’d read some of these before and others were new to me, and most were a pleasure. Bear is best when writing about the deep inner lives of people and things, like in “Boojum,” and when reimagining other places and mythos, like in “Faster Gun,” set in a Wild West, and “Shoggoths in Bloom,” which upends Lovecraft’s racism and Cthulhu mythos in an elegant manner. While a few of the stories drag a bit–mainly those that center around the reader being able to understand either alternate-science concepts or rely on large narrative jumps– the collection as a whole is solid and a great capsule of Bear’s work.

On the Isle of Sound and Wonder by Alyson Grauer. 1/5
A mediocre retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with the characters’ names nominally altered, a fantasy quasi-European-ish setting, and an airship. The retelling does nothing to illuminate the play or riff on it an an interesting way, and instead uses the play as though the author couldn’t come up with a plot of their own. At the same time, the alternate setting and the inclusion of an airship–which the author seems to think makes the book steampunk–aren’t particularly original or compelling, leading to the question of why this book was written at all. Perhaps-inadvertently problematic writing on mental illness, the body, and gender weaken the book further.

Hearing Happiness by Jaipreet Virdi. 3/5
A solid if somewhat repetitive account of how many people who were d/Deaf or hard of hearing have been targeted by false cures over time. Virdi, taking into account her own experiences, chronicles the potions, salves, techniques, implements, and devices intended to help people hear better, defraud those wishing to do so, and/or both. The prose is a bit stodgy and Virdi’s personal sections aren’t always well connected to the reset of the narrative, but the book is nonetheless useful for disability studies, the history of hearing and the d/Deaf, and medical hisory.

Update: Where am I? Winter and Spring 2020

Upcoming talks and events:

8 February 2020:  “Opera in the Silent Cinema: New Findings from Archival Sources,” Opera and Popular Culture Since 1900 conference, Dee J. Kelly Alumni Center, Texas Christian University.

21 February 2020: “Music and Mental Illness in Shakespeare,” “Intersections: (Dis)Ability & the Arts,” lecture series, Catherine Evans McGowan Room of the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library, Misericordia University.

28-29 February 2020: “Jewishness between Performance and Appropriation: Music for The Merchant of Venice on Film,” AMS-Southwest chapter meeting, Moores School of Music, University of Houston.

6-7 March 2020: “Searching for Women in Silent Film Music,” Darkwater Women in Music Festival, UNC-Pembroke.

15 April 2020: Reading of “Moon-Crossed” at the Shakespeare Association of America annual conference, Denver, CO.

16 April 2020: Respondent, “The Supernatural and Transcendent in Shakespeare on Screen” seminar, Shakespeare Association of America, Denver, CO.