All posts by Kendra Leonard

The Conservatoire Américain: a History

This January marks the 11th anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Conservatoire Américain: a History.

I first came into contact with the Conservatoire in 1993 when I attended its famous summer program as a cellist. After retiring from performance and changing my focus to musicology, returning to the school as a scholar to investigate and excavate its history and influence seemed a perfect project. I began doing research on the Conservatoire in 1998 in the United States, gathering materials and locating stateside archives and individuals involved with the school. In 1999,  I was invited by Conservatoire administrators to go to Fontainebleau and conduct research using the materials located there. Bit by bit, the history of the school emerged from local archives, the school’s haphazardly organized music library, boxes stored in attics, papers that had been subjected to flooded sewers, oral histories, and other sources. I returned to Fontainebleau in 2000 for additional research, and continued to conduct interviews and work with various materials related to the school over the course of the next year or so. Then I began writing  and presenting papers and articles in advance of the book’s completion.

The Conservatoire’s administrators anticipated that I would write something that could be used for public relations and promotion; as a scholar, what I wrote was the truth about the school’s sometimes rocky history and its often-problematic policies, practices, and people. The Conservatoire, I think, expected a glossy and uniformly positive narrative about its past. And while I did find a lot for the Conservatoire to be proud of, I also interviewed numerous musicians  who told an altogether different story about the school and, in particular, its most famous director, Nadia Boulanger. The documents I found in those attics and basements and boxes and files covered in dust confirmed that the school’s history was not a straightforward or simple one. Those who idolized Boulanger were unhappy about and often unbelieving of the negative information about their saint that had come to light, and while I was cheered on by many alumni, others–mostly privileged white men, the student demographic most supported by Boulanger–stalked and harassed me, tried to shout me down, and tried to end my career as a musicologist before it had even really begun.

I don’t back down easily, and especially not in this case, where I had an enormous amount of evidence about the Conservatoire’s workings, successes, and failures. My book was published and received good reviews, and I received numerous communications from former students, faculty, and staff praising it for its honesty.

In 2021, the Conservatoire will celebrate its 100th anniversary. When I approached the publisher of the book last year about creating a new and updated edition for that occasion, I was told that unless I expected the school and alumni to buy 500 or more copies, doing so was not practical. Given the controversy surrounding the publication of the first edition, I’ve concluded that a formal revised and updated version isn’t feasible. So while I will continue to write about the Conservatoire Américain, its people, and its legacy, my work will likely appear in journals and be simultaneously made available through CORE on Humanities Commons. Therefore, I’ve decided to make the 2007 book available in full as a free download through Humanities Commons. You can access the PDF here; the file contains the page proofs copy of the book, so there are some uncorrected errors in it that were fixed before print publication. I hope it will be useful for scholars working on any- and everything related to the Conservatoire, its faculty, students, philosophies, influence, and legacy.

Reviews: 7 for the last day of the year

The Montreal Stetl by Zelda Abramson & John Lynch. 5/5
An excellent ethnography of the Shoah survivors who settled post-war in Montreal. Researched with care and respect, and with ethics and a thoughtfulness and intellect not often found in today’s non-fiction, The Montreal Shetl is an important and beautifully crafted book about Jews in North America, their lives as immigrants and outsiders, and the power of their testimonies.

Ghosts of Gotham by Craig Schaefer. 5/5
Smart and brilliant, this thriller is a roller-coaster ride into a world where gods and demigods and semigods and immortals are all still around and occasionally move not just the scenery but the course of the action as well. Lionel Page, a reporter who has spent his career debunking frauds of the purportedly psychic type, becomes involved in an ever-shifting and complex race to track a murderer, keep old gods from killing, and learn some life-saving magic. Along the way readers meet his mentor, Maddie, members of an elitist cult, several cool witches, and some very hungry ghouls. Super fun.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher (excerpt). 4/5
I really want to read the rest of this book! The dystopian/apocalyptic setting is rich and nuanced, and I liked the characters and premise. (Please change the dog’s name, though: “Jip” is a variant of “Gyp(sy)” and is offensive.) I want to know more about this world and its people and how they are surviving and what they value.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (excerpt). 4/5
A promising start to what I think will be an engrossing novel. Two cultures, two faiths, and two women appear to be poised to break new ground in their own territories by managing political and personal challenges. One, trained from birth to ride dragons in defense of her kingdom, attains her goal of becoming a dragon ride, but her willingness to take risks by sheltering outsiders and seeking answers about her heritage place her in a precarious spot. The other, a servant of the leader of her matriarchal society, is being manipulated by political forces as she seeks political knowledge herself. I hope the full book will be available to read soon.

The Unicorn Anthology by Peter S. Beagle, Garth Nix, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia A. McKillip, Bruce Coville, Carlos Hernandez, Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Yolen, Nancy Springer, Cailtin R. Kiernan, Margo Lanagan. 1/5
Lots of people will buy this book, in part because of Peter Beagle’s name. But they shouldn’t. And it’s a damn shame that Tachyon has pushed Beagle to co-edit it and write an Introduction. As his Introduction states, eloquently and bitterly, Beagle has become “the unicorn guy.” It’s not what he wanted; he thinks his best work is still his first novel, the ghostly romance A Fine and Private Place. But he’s been hemmed in by the unicorn-lovers and especially those who would capitalize on them. This book is an attempt to do just that–cash in on the unicorn-lovers, who may or may not know Beagle’s views on the matter. A lot of these stories are good, but many of them are from other, readily available anthologies, such as Zombies vs. Unicorns, which is very-well represented here (by which I mean: just go read Zombies vs Unicorns instead of this book).

I won’t even get into the problems of all of the pieces in which “virginity” is given actual consideration in the course of the story.

Leave Beagle alone. Go read his unicorn book, and his other books, and the other books that this anthology borrows from. But don’t keep asking him to be “the unicorn guy” anymore.

D-Day Girls by Sarah Rose. 1/5
This book will sell well to general readers. It shouldn’t. It’s disorganized and messy, and both condescends to its readers and lacks essential information on its topic. Author Sarah Rose makes sweeping generalizations about France and its citizens during WWII; misstates historical facts; engages in inaccurate and sometimes offensive hyperbole; and has apparently done little research into the role of women in war, women in WWI, or the history of war in general. She refers to figures in the book by their first names, which diminishes them in contrast with the leaders: she gives Hitler his self-appointed titles, though. She characterizes figures in the book with no documentation to do so: is this person really “sniveling,” was this one “no longer fecund” and why do those things matter? She uses outdated and unacceptable ethnic terms–“gypsy” comes to mind–and uses other inappropriate or incorrect words that an editor should have caught (“snarked,” “fulsome,” others). I’d like to read a good book on the work of women–who, no matter how young, were not “girls”–in the French Resistance in France during the war, but this definitely isn’t it.

Do The Dead Dream? by F. P. Dorchak. 1/5
After wading through several introductory essays in which people claimed that the stories in this book were good, I found that, in fact, they were not. These are unedited, formless, and self-indulgent stories that all too often go on far too long. The author fancies himself a genius, which apparently means that he can mix up multiple genres (badly), be sexist, and run wild with all caps or italicized writing….all for no reason. It’s kinda like early Stephen King but with no editor and no rewrites and less imagination. Pretty much unreadable.

2018 Review round-up

I read 66 new or soon-to-be-published books through NetGalley and about 100 more that were already commercially available this year. You can follow me on Goodreads for all of my non-scholarly reading and reviews. Here’s what I liked that came out this year or will be out in early 2019:

5/5:
A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Women and War in the 21st Century: A Country-By-Country Guide by Margaret D. Sankey
Hildegard of Bingen by Honey Meconi
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
The Lady in the Cellar: Murder, Scandal and Insanity in Victorian Bloomsbury by Sinclair McKay
The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #2 and #3) by Katherine Arden
Guardian (Steeplejack #3) by A.J. Hartley
Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
Salt by Hannah Moskowitz
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood
The Barrow Will Send What it May by Margaret Killjoy
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Night and Silence by Seanan McGuire
Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia by Foxfire Fund Inc
Driving to Geronimo’s Grave: and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale
Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit (Kopp Sisters #4) by Amy Stewart
Selling Dead People’s Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates by Duane Scott Cerny
So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
Stone Mad (Karen Memory #2) by Elizabeth Bear
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey
Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3) by Becky Chambers

4/5 books published in 2018 include:
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
The Penguin Book of Hell, ed. Scott G. Bruce
Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
Revenant Gun (Machineries of Empire #3) by Yoon Ha Lee
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt by Randall Sullivan
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Victory Disc (The Vinyl Detective #3) by Andrew Cartmel
Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington by Patricia Miller
A Borrowing of Bones (Mercy & Elvis Mysteries #1) by Paula Munier
Night and Silence (October Daye #12) by Seanan McGuire
Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985 by Valerie Korinek
Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy #2) by Ruthanna Emrys
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman

Review: folklore and magic to love, and YA that disappoints

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. 5/5
This is the exhilarating and beautiful conclusion to Arden’s Russian trilogy. Beginning with death and ending with resurrection, it is at its heart a romance in the oldest sense of the word, and a story about a girl and a horse. When Vasya, a young woman gifted with the ability to see and communicate with the old pagan spirits of Russia, is condemned to death by a conflicted and zealous priest egged on by a chaos demon, it appears that the new religion of Christianity will cause the old spirits to become extinct. But Vasya throws herself into unknown lands, magic, and war to find a way to allow both faiths continue. This is an epic full of beautifully worked language and images that still retains a sense of humanity and humor among the characters, as mythic as they often are. And I love these books for the relationships between Vasya and the horses with whom she can speak. Her stallion Solovey is a rare treasure in literature about horses. This entire series is on my permanent list of fantasy I recommend to anyone seeking magic in history, history in magic, and the beauty of folklore.

Glow : Book I, Potency by Aubrey Hadley. 1/5
This is the most amazingly bad thing I have read in a long time. In the author’s attempt to write YA, they create inexplicably bizarre characters whose actions make no sense, a plot line that borrows from the worst of 1950s low-budget, low-creativity sci-fi, and dialogue that is pedantic and expository to a ridiculous degree: dialogue that tells…and tells…and tells, instead of writing anything that shows. If this had been satire, it might have been funny. But since it’s not, it’s just bad.

Review: another winner

Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt. 5/5

A great rollicking Western about a gang of outlaw women and their exploits in the 1870s. Led by a freed slave and an Englishwoman with a knack for training horses, this group gets revenge for one of its leaders, runs a ranch, helps out the nearest town, hides and saves abused folks, and lives life to the fullest. People get shot; people die; people get saved; people find love. A wonderful book all around. This will especially appeal to women and girls looking for representation in a historical setting, anyone interested in the “wild west,” and readers who love a well-told adventure story with complex and interesting characters.

Review: Salt by Hannah Moskowitz

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz. 5/5

This is a terrific and fast-paced novella telling the story of four orphaned siblings sailing the oceans in search of monsters to kill and information about their parents. Each character is well-drawn and strongly individual and true to life, the descriptions of the sea-monster hunts are exciting, and the whole thing is perfectly paced. I loved it. It’s a great book for anyone 12 and up, folks who love adventure stories, who wanted a little more excitement in Swallows and Amazons, who like cryptozoology, who like sailing, and who want a fresh and interesting bunch of characters.

Libretto writing: Melisande and Poison Ivy

I’ve been working on adapting Saki (H. H. Munro)’s short story “Tobermory” as a (darkly) comic libretto. In one scene, a character sings the rather lugubrious song “Melisande, In the Wood,” in which composer Alma Goetz set text by Ethel Clifford.

Cover page of sheet music for "Melisande in the Woods"

The piece was published in 1902 and was apparently very popular. Victor put  out a recording of it in 1924 featuring singer Edmund Goulding and pianist Clara Novello Davies. I can’t find that particular recording, but you can hear Essie Ackland singing it on an HMV recording from 1929 on YouTube; there are a few other recordings of it there as well.

However, the song and words are still under UK copyright, so for my adaptation of “Tobermory” I needed to write something to replace it. The composer asked for something very similar in form and style. I wrote three new texts: the first was very much in keeping with the original:

“Melisande, in the Cave”
Look down, look down beneath the stone, Melisande,
and search for your cast-off ring.
With your eyes for tears and your mouth for song
and your fear-clipped little wings.

Bend down, bend down beneath the stone, Melisande,
do you see the ring you rejected?
Only you can know your own truths, Melisande,
and why you alone are disaffected.
Disaffected, suspected, Melisande,
so disaffected.

Breathe deep, breathe deep of the stone, Melisande,
of the still air and the wet breathe deep.
One day you will lie amid stone, Melisande,
and your husband and child will weep.

For the second, I tried to capture a bit of Saki’s language from other stories written around the same time as “Tobermory.”

“Melisande of the Green”
Melisande, Melisande, I can see your tears:
you are a feral girl, full of wildness and fears.
Melisande, Melisande, you speak so few words:
you are a forest cat, preying on little birds.

Woman of the woods, sister of the stream,
you confound us, Melisande.
Walking in the castle, long hair afloat,
have we all just been conned?
Are you a goblin or werewolf, mythic?
You confuse us, Melisande

Melisande, Melisande, lady of the green,
you have hidden depths, natural powers, all unseen.
Melisande, Melisande, the marsh and field
bend to your touch as your magic is revealed.

As I wrote this second text, I began to think of Melisande as a kind of proto-Poison Ivy.

Melisande
Ivy is shown wrapped with ivy and other green leaves.
Poison Ivy

She’s got the long hair and comes from a botanically rich environment and causes conflict between men. Maybe she’s also related to Swamp Thing, being “of the green.”

My third text was entirely satirical, imagining Melisande among  the Victorian or Edwardian society ladies of Saki’s story, out of her depth trying to furnish Golaud’s dreary castle:

“Melisande, in the Drawing Room”
Do sit, do sit down, dear Melisande
and take some tea with sugar.
With your trembling pinkies and blinking eyes,
you look quite snookered!

Do tell, do tell us all, Melisande,
did you make a terrible bargain?
You are new to society, Melisande, quite new,
Perhaps you were confused by the jargon?
It is easy to be taken in, Melisande,
cheated, cheated.

Do drink, do drink some sherry, Melisande.
We all do when it’s bleak.
It has happened before, dear Melisande,
someone’s always selling fake antiques.

The composer liked the very close mimicking of the first song, so that’s what we’ll use in the opera. The second and third texts are available if anyone wants to set them or use them for anything–contact me for details! I’d actually love to write a suite of texts for songs that intertwine comic heroes and villains with well-known operatic or other musical tropes.

Reviews: Death and Hell

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. 4/5
I really liked this slow-paced, somewhat wandering but frequently enchanting tale that takes place in a small English town with borders on the land of death. A child is found in the river, apparently dead, and brought to a pub, where she seemingly comes back to life. She does not speak, and she could be one of several children gone missing in recent years. As the story of the child’s true identity unfolds, so do the related tales of the publican and her family, a local aristocratic couple, a mixed-race family, and the myth of the river’s ferryman. Beautifully written.

The Penguin Book of Hell by Scott G. Bruce. 4/5
A great compendium of writing on hell and hellish places from ancient Greece and Rome through early and later Christianity, as well as the more literal hells of the Shoah and other genocides. The excerpted texts are presented with backgrounds about their authors and time periods, and offer fascinating information about how people have conceptualized hell in different social, political, and geographical contexts.

Reviews: Two to Miss

The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees. 1/5
Written with a Gothic sensibility and lush and formal language, this book is like a lovechild of The Virgin Suicides, Hans Christian Anderson, and every banal YA about Girls With Powers who are also, unfortunately, not very intelligent. Characters are described to the nth degree, everyone is Mysterious and Dark, dreaming is waking and waking is dreaming and visions are reality and reality is—who cares? I suppose this was intended to be “darkly beautiful” with intrigue and secrets at every turn, full of magical animals and magical people and non-magical people and some kind of ideas of what is Just and Fair, but it’s a hot, boring mess.

The Crate by Deborah Vadas Levison. 1/5
If ever a book needed a developmental edit, it’s this one. The author attempts to tell the story of how traumatic it was–or wasn’t, maybe? for her family to find out that one of their hired handymen had killed his partner and left her in a crate under the deck of their country house. Along the way, the author tries to connect this trauma with her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust. It doesn’t work, and the author comes off as naive, privileged, and not terribly bright. The other figures in the book–her husband, her brother, her kids, and even her parents–are all one-note creations and the story itself is surrounded by badly out-of-chronology anecdotes that confuse the timeline and are totally irrelevant. This might have made a good magazine article, pared down to its essentials and written well, but as a book it’s not worth the time it takes to slog through it.