Reviews: The Magicians graphic novel and more

Before I head off to the Shakespeare Association of America meeting, some reviews:

The Magicians Original Graphic Novel: Alice’s Story by Lilah Sturges, Lev Grossman, Pius Bak. 5/5
I really enjoyed this graphic novel, which shows the events of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians from the POV of character Alice Quinn. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll be fascinated by this new take on the story, starting with Alice’s arrival at Brakebills and culminating with the thoughts and experiences of the quasi-Alice she becomes at the end of the novel. The artwork of the graphic novel allows for readers to literally see how other readers imagined that characters and the places and the events of the original, and the book overall is a great addition to any Magicians’ fan’s library.

The Travelers by Regina Porter. 4/5
This is a sprawling mosaic of a book with fascinating and engaging and conflicted and very real characters that spans generations and friendships and family and good days and bad days and dark times and better ones. Although the beginning of the book and its very clinical tone initially turned me off, I’m glad I kept reading. As the stories of the many characters got underway, the writing became more intimate and interesting.

Blossoms in Autumn by Script by Zidrou / Art by Aimée de Jongh. 2/5
A retired moving man in his late 50s and a cheese shop owner in her early 60s embark on a relationship. When the woman, against all odds and apparently having never been told that even older folks should practice safe sex, becomes pregnant, they flee the judgement of the man’s family and go to Corsica, where the book ends before the woman has given birth. The book is meh–not particularly interesting or deep or thoughtful, but not unpleasant to read.

Executive Assistant: Iris Volume 1 by David Wohl, Eduardo Francisco. 1/5
Fan service and exoticism. Drawn well, but reifies the trope of the beautiful and deadly exotic woman who works for a man.

Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom. 5/5
This is a beautiful novel about family and truth and being an outsider. Sarah , a journalist, takes on a job with a tiger conservation NGO in the small village in India where she and her family once lived, while in the US, her sister Quinn deals with a callous husband, a sick child, and the weight of guilt from her childhood in India. The two work to create a new relationship with each other and those around them, all the while threatened by the politics of their presence in India. The plots are compelling and the writing is gorgeous without being overambitious or false.

When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun. 1/5
This was a near-unreadable mess of polemic, history, family history, and memoir. It’s poorly organized and written, jumps around in a scattered and unedited way, and ultimately is a chore to get through. I think the author has a story to tell and a point–or several–to make, but those aren’t served well in the current state this book is in.

The Fragments by Toni Jordan. 4/5
I mostly liked this thriller about about a lost book, its enigmatic author, an older woman who seems to know more than is possible about both, and the young woman who puts all of the pieces together. Caddie Walker, who left academia after a relationship with a predatory professor and now works in a bookshop, is devoted to the work of Inga Karlson, whose first book was an enormously popular and moving bestseller. Karlson’s second book, along with the ms, all of the press plates and any ephemera, went up in a fire that also killed Karlson and her publisher. But when Caddie goes to see the fragments of that second book on display, she encounters a woman who seems to know more about the second book than is possible, and Caddie tracks her down for the full story. While the reveal of this true story is predictable, it’s done well. The fact that Caddie goes to the predatory professor for help, and then seems to set him up to be hoist by his own petard, is a bit annoying and not easy to follow in terms of readers understanding what Caddie is doing; the same goes for her will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with another man burned by the same professor. If the relationships and Caddie’s intentions had been a bit clearer, the end would have been even more delicious.

Swords, Sorcery, & Self-Rescuing Damsels by Lee French. 2/5
There are some okay stories in here, but not enough that I could really recommend the book. Often the “self-rescuing” women and girls aren’t really so much self-rescuing as they are simply engaging in good manners or being friendly to the friendless and so on.

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly. 4/5
An atmospheric gothic read about a wealthy family and its secrets, as teased out by a newcomer to the family and its estate in Bethlehem, PA. It could be dismissed as just another entry into the long line of books about rich white people and secret love affairs and tragically short lives, but it’s beautifully written and the author’s inclusion of class-based conflict makes it seem more real and more compelling than if that aspect hadn’t been present.

Reviews: two with complications

The Ethereal Squadron by Shami Stovall. 2/5
I enjoyed a lot of this novel, but it’s overall world-building is very problematic. The plot focuses on Geist, a member of the Ethereal Squadron, a secret group of WWI soldiers with paranormal talents who use those talents to fight for Britain. Geist has several secrets: she’s a woman, and her father and brother–who also have paranormal capabilities–are fighting on the opposite side of the war. Geist and her team discover horrifying information during a raid, and Geist must lead them to stop a German attack sure to decimate Paris and to stop actions that will lead to the death of civilian and military sorcerers alike. The action is fast and the novel moves quickly, including the slow burn romance between Geist and a magic-using German defector who knows her true gender and identity. What bothered me, though, was the author’s construction of how magic works in her world: it only occurs in certain families, and those families deliberately practice eugenic breeding amongst one another, seeking to create more versatile sorcerers through the generations. Few if any of the characters in the books find this as disturbing as I think many readers will. The author could have cast this deliberate breeding in a poor light–as historians have done in recounting the close relative-marriages of European aristocracy–by making it one of the reasons Geist and her father are not on civil terms, but it’s treated as a good thing by everyone. And that’s troubling. Perhaps later installments–if there are any–of the series/setting will show the protagonists moving away from the idea of breeding an uber-race, or perhaps the heroes of this novel will become the villains of one set in WWII.

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman. 3/5
This is a beautifully written novel in which Jewish children survive WWII in France via extraordinary and supernatural means. Ettie, a brilliant young woman, agrees to create a golem to watch over Lea, a child sent by her mother to relatives . Over the course of the novel, Ettie and Lea grow up, forge lifelong relationships with others, and, along with their various love interests and vengeful desires, work towards the end of the war. Ava, the golem, watches over Lea, falls in love with a crane, speaks languages no human knows, and eventually faces Azrael, the Angel of Death, in a lovely but predictable encounter. While the characters never felt very deep to me, the book is mostly a pleasure to read, and Hoffman writes descriptively and fluently.

I do wish, however, that her reference to homeopathic treatment was not a positive one. She suggests that eating homey can save a person from thousands of bee stings. Not only is this not really a homeopathic treatment, but in this time when people are shunning vaccines and dismissing medical science, it’s dangerous to suggest that remedies like this are efficacious.

Reviews: lots, some excellent

Starting with the best things I’ve read recently and moving down:

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. 5/5
This is an outstanding book about queer Brooklyn, organized by time and including insightful but never pedantic commentary on the area’s development; its famous inhabitants, particularly those who helped make parts of the borough a safe space for queers; the role of the military and industry in Brooklyn’s queer lives, and the contributions queer Brooklynites have made to American and world arts and civil rights. Author Hugh Ryan writes in a clear, accessible, and personal style that is a pleasure to read. I learned a great deal from this book not just on the topic of queer Brooklyn, but also about the fantastic resources Ryan used, the ways in which a book dealing with histories of overlapping place, people, and society can be crafted, I highly recommend this book for school, college, and university libraries in addition to individual readers.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch. 5/5
A delicious entry in the Rivers of London series, this novella introduces readers to the German equivalent of Nightingale, Grant, and the Folly denizens. Tobias Winter, one of Germany’s only two practitioners, is paired with Vanessa Sommer to investigate the supernatural death of first one man, and later several, near a vineyard struggling to make a comeback. Readers get to learn about German magic traditions, werewolves, river goddesses of Germany, noble rot, and more. It’s a fantastic treat for fans of this series and can be an introduction to the series for newcomers.

Lust on Trial by Amy Werbel. 4/5
This is a great account of Anthony Comstock’s career, one spent obsessing over and trying to shut down sexual freedoms ranging from masturbation to birth control. Comstock notoriously raided bars, art studios, the mail, and private homes in search of what he considered obscene material, which could be paintings of nudes, sculptures, pornographic photographs, and erotic novels. Werbel examines Comstock’s motivations, his successes, failures, and legacy in America in a highly readable and entertaining manner, including images of many of the items Comstock sought to suppress.

Aristophania, Script by Xavier Dorison / Art by Joël Parnotte. 3/5
I liked this first installment in a French graphic novel series. This volume establishes the setting in 1900 France, and provides us with an origin story for the three protagonists. These are impoverished siblings, Victor, Basile, and Calixte Francoeur, whose father is killed and whose mother has been sent to prison. Enter a mysterious older lady of considerable wealth and power, Aristophania, who takes the children to her estate . After the children witness magic and unexplained events, Aristophania explains that their father was a member of the same magical order as she, and they can choose to join her in it or continue in their mundane lives. I’m a little leery of the rich-person-fixes-it-all trope indicated by this first volume and the somewhat stereotyped and as-yet mostly undeveloped children–the fighter, the scholar, the innocent–but I’d like to read more. The art is gorgeous and evocative.

The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle. 3/5
A well-constructed novel about the real-life trials of Robert Carr and Frances Howard, figures in the court of James I. Their stories are told here in alternating viewpoints, allowing author Fremantle to create not just one but two unreliable narrators. Details about the trials and the lives of those involved are rich and interesting, but the pace drags a bit. For readers not familiar with the court, Jacobean naming conventions, and other historical matters, the novel may be a bit confusing.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. 2/5
An interesting intellectual exercise in questions of IA autonomy, emotion, motivation, alternate history, and self-reflection, but also kind of a drag to read and a bit preachy. In an England where technology is far more advanced than the present, and where Alan Turing lives as a 70-year-old, highly decorated celebrity, AIs in human-like bodies have become available for sale. The novel follows the purchaser of one such AI and in time finds that, predictably, some AIs can become more like humans and some humans more like AIs. I finished it because I usually enjoy McEwan’s work, but this was a chore to read.

Nation of the Beasts by Mariana Palova. 2/5
I understand that this was a huge hit when it was published in Spanish a few years ago. It didn’t really work for me, and I’m not sure how much of that is how the book is constructed and how much might be attributable to translation. Set in New Orleans, the story involves a white teenage orphan whose father abandoned him at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet as a baby. The orphan, Elisse, grows un in India, and then makes his way to America to search for his father. Once in the US, he’s taken in by a Buddhist center in New Orleans, but is quickly pursued by rival forces who are shapeshifters and what the author calls “voodoo” practitioners. Elisse is told that he has shapeshifter-type ancestry, and tries to learn more about this before a loa, or vodun god, comes after him seeking Elisse’s death. Along the way there’s a slow-burn possible-romance building between Elisse and one of his shapeshifting “brothers.” The novel switches POV frequently, and while these different voices make for unique perspectives, it’s not always clear why they’re used or why the author found them necessary. Elisse’s own voice is inconsistent throughout the novel, moving from a formal tone to slang and back again without rhyme or reason. Elisse’s backstory about being a blond American kid turned monk/acolyte doesn’t seem to be very relevant, and his interactions with the Buddhists who take him in don’t seem to matter much either. The use of stereotypical tropes surrounding the treatment of “voodoo” is pretty insensitive, as is the treatment of New Orleans culture. The writing makes it seem as if the author visited NOLA once, during Mardi Gras, did lots of touristy things, and never learned anything else about the city. This is the first in a projected series, so maybe the following books will be better, but I’m not inclined to read them based on this one.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse. 1/5
A mystery set in the Catholic-Hugenot wars of the sixteenth century, this novel is unfortunately a total bore. The history is presented pedantically; the main characters are a tired stereotype of lovers from different religions, the kind aunt/nursemaid, and evil priest; the plot is absurd; and it is all overwritten, slow-moving, and long. Mosse’s previous works also generally involve absurd plots and French history, but none have ever seemed as slow or as dull or as full of non-developed characters as this one.

Readymade Bodhisattva by Sunyoung Park and Sang Joon Park. 1/5
This might be the most tedious collection of short stories I’ve ever encountered. The introduction tells the reader all about what they’re going to read, then the intro to each story does the same. The stories themselves are mostly political comments dressed up as SF, and are dull and badly written (pr perhaps badly translated?). In any case, I can’t recommend any of the stories in this collection, much less the collection as a whole.

Review: I’m desperate for a good book here

The Ghost Manuscript by Kris Frieswick. 1/5
I thought I would like this book-it’s got lots of elements I usually enjoy: archives, antiquarian books, manuscripts, lost documents, secret places and things related to history. But alas. It’s got too many problems for me to enjoy, starting with the use of the term “Dark Ages,” which historians and literature scholars and everyone in the know stopped using years ago because of its problematic assumptions. Right there the book’s offended or come across as so poorly researched and written that no one with interests in history would read it. Then there was the claim that Welsh was “incomprehensible.” That just turned off all of the language nerds. Then there were the characters, who were right out of central casting and notably lacking in depth. In fact, the main character’s complaint that her relationships go nowhere–and/or that she can’t maintain relationships–is because she’s so flat as a character that there’s nothing for anyone to be attracted to. Add to these things a bevy of minor irritations because of lack of research and understanding of the scholarly fields the author is trying to tap into, and the book is a mess.

The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. 2/5
The beginning of this book hints at the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and others from Latin America, but the novel never really fulfills this. What follows is a rather tepid family saga, set during the Spanish flu, Mexican governmental reform and land rights issues, and women’s rights during the early 20th century. None of the characters are particularly well-developed or deep, and the writing was occasionally awkward and difficult to parse.

Death and Destruction on the Thames in London by Anthony Galvin. 1/5
By the writing style I assumed this was for young readers. Then I read a passage quoting Samuel Pepys’s description of him having sex with one of his servants and it was a bit explicit for the ages 6-8 set. So then I though, “perhaps it’s just condescending.” This was verified as I read further. It’s condescending and annoying and not very historical. It’s full of anecdotes, mostly told badly, with some asinine sexist jokes. There’s little actually about the Thames; the connections are very tenuous, as in Jane Grey was executed and was transported via the Thames to the Tower. Give it a miss.

Book reviews: the good, the boring, and the sociopath

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks. 4/5
On the surface, this is a surreal story in which the living can be haunted and possessed by the dead, create walking, talking, cogent pigs that will slaughter and package up their own kind in a meat factory, there are people who can remove their own hearts to stay safe from the ghosts, but lose their memories as well, and aliens, and all sorts of other supernatural things. Below that surface, though, this is a book about innate talent and what it can give to and take away from those who have it. It’s also about race, and how white society, no matter what class, is always on the lookout for the Other, in order to oppose and oppress it. It’s also about class and social status and whether you eat this week or fix the car you need for your job. It’s about creating underclasses to do the worst work, and what happens when the underclass becomes too successful. It’s about domestic abuse and taking or abandoning responsibilities. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a book that can be read in a great many ways, and would be excellent as a class read for high school.

City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay. 1/5
This isn’t terrible, it’s just boring and predictable and uses a lot of cliches. The characters are cardboard. In the mid-1920s, three white folks–responsible, clever Irene, dim, cuddly MIllie, and handsome, gay Henry–go to Hollywood to become stars. Along the way, of course, there is sexism and a rape and gay-bashing and the perils of heroin addiction, but then everyone is spotted as the talents they are and get jobs they like! Irene becomes a writer, Millie becomes an actress and then a mother, and Henry learns about gay Hollywood and has a romance with a director. The director is murdered, but Henry gets over it, marries a white woman in a relationship with a black man, and gets to find new lovers. Everyone lives near each other and have a happily ever after. The author calls women’s breasts “orbs,” and uses about a thousand other tired descriptors and phrases I could do with never reading again. The author also tries to cite a lot of 1920s events and realities of Hollywood, but they remain on the surface, window-dressing. The reader’s guide at the back is terrible and earnest and is apparently geared towards five-year-olds.

Miraculum by Steph Post. 1/5
Less a miraculum than a slightly over-stuffed novel in which not much happens. Ruby, tattooed by a stereotypical and offensive “vodoo” woman and covered in symbols that protect her from supernatural evil, works as the snake charmer in a carnival owned by her father, who is incompetent are barely shows up in the book, and another stereotype, the noble savage, an African man whose knowledge of everything is unsurpassed. Ruby has a friend, January, who dances in the “cootch show,” and an on-again off-again boyfriend who is pretty useless and doesn’t play much of a role. When Daniel, an ancient immortal evil, joins the carnival to entertain himself by causing evil chaos, Ruby is the only one immune to his powers of suggestion. When he causes multiple deaths and the carnival burns down, taking Ruby’s father and January with it, Ruby decides her destiny is to fight Daniel. Accompanied by the useless boyfriend, Ruby and Daniel have a stare-down that is the most boring climax of any book I have ever read. Daniel is defeated. Ruby lives. The boyfriend remains useless.

The author hints at things she never develops, or drops altogether. In the first few chapters, there are references to Ruby seeing things others don’t. This apparently turns out to be that she can tell when people are untrustworthy. Not so much seeing in a supernatural way. We read about Ruby’s long-dead mother, but she ends up not being terribly important. We read about arcane books, one of which turns out to be kind of useful but not very interesting. the trappings of the carnival are present, but there are no interesting characters and none of those who survive develop at all. I’d have liked it better if Ruby and January had teamed up to stop the immortal evil. Or if she had become apprenticed to the owner of the arcane books and they had worked together. But nope, Ruby is special and capable only because of a mixed-race woman who gave her magic tattoos (and who is killed off in a gruesome fashion by the immortal evil). Ultimately, this is a story in which white folks triumph, the black folks mostly get killed, and women are reduced to being skin.

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova. 1/5
Oksana doesn’t need to be have so much as she needs to be able to have feelings, admit that other people also have feelings, and stop being quite so sociopathic. Told in first-person, this novel follows Oksana from Kiev to the United States, where she grows up, is disaffected, lacks interest in anything, is unwilling to try very hard to do anything, uses people like tissue, is totally self-centered, and is instantly recognizable as a person I wouldn’t go anywhere near. I don’t care that she smokes and does various drugs and drinks and has a lot of casual sex, cheats on committed partners. Maybe those are the things where she’s supposed to “behave”? The things I did want her to do were stop being such a quitter and stop being such an asshole. But maybe she can’t. Maybe she is, actually, a sociopath. That would make sense for most of the things she does. SO maybe the title should be less, Oksana, Behave! and more Everybody, Avoid Oksana! That said, the book is well-written and I liked a lot of the other characters and how they were developed.

Thank you, Music Library Association!

I am very honored to be one of this year’s Music Library Association Dena Epstein Award winners! Enormous thanks to Jim Cassaro at the University of Pittsburgh and James L. Zychowicz at A-R Editions for writing letters of support for my project and for mentoring me in my archival and music library endeavors, and to the MLA for being such a welcoming and helpful organization.

My proposal
The Dena Epstein Award will support two weeks of support to examine the full print run of the early twentieth-century magazine Melody [Magazine] for Photoplay Organists and Pianists and all Music Lovers, which is held by the Library of Congress. My research will
both inform my book-length study of women in early film music, currently in progress, and
also result in an online, open access database of the magazine’s contents, indexed by author, title, subject, and keywords.(1) I will create the database as a WordPress site at Humanities Commons, which will host the site for free.

Project Description
In 1914, the manager of a thriving silent cinema wrote that having a successful theater often depended on being able to provide “good music…. furnished in the way of an accomplished [female] pianist.”(2) The job of cinema accompanist was a respectable one for women, and was compared positively with secretarial work, teaching, and nursing. The presence of a female accompanist indicated that a cinema was intent on being an artistic and moral institution, especially as the film industry worked to establish itself as a legitimate business producing respectable and creative works. Although no census of cinema accompanists was ever taken, reports from trade and industry publications suggest that while white male musicians were in the majority in the earliest days of cinema accompaniment, women, both white and of color, soon outnumbered them. Women unquestionably comprised the majority of cinema accompanists after the spring of 1917, when the United States joined the war effort and all-male cinema orchestras were dissolved so that their members could join the military. As Ally Acker has written about women in the silent film industry, “women are as integral and transformative to the cinema as [well-known men], and yet their stories have consistently remained untold.”(3) The influence of these women, particularly during the Great War and its immediate aftermath, cannot be understated; as Acker continues, “more women worked in decision-making positions in film before 1920 than at any other time in history.”(4) Acker’s claim certainly includes female musicians. Working in cinema music, women took on roles as performers, composers, inventors, and innovators within the film industry, their responsibilities often overlapping and becoming inextricably entwined. It is clear from interviews of accompanists and audience members and recent research that these musicians’ performances for newsreels, animations, live-action shorts, and feature films served in multiple ways. Their accompaniments, which used already existing music, new compositions by themselves and others, and their own improvisations, shaped and helped define the musical sensitivities of the time. Accompanists created music and approaches to using music that would become part of the audience’s expectations for film music; established musical standards for film scores that would carry through into sound films; educated listeners as to different types of music and musical genres and to musical traditions relating to affect and meaning; and demonstrated how music could serve as a narrative and interpretative force in the cinema. They designed methods of matching music to the action on the screen; developed ways of supplying cinemas with synchronized sound for pictures; and invented machines that allowed a single woman to represent the sounds of an orchestra for accompanying a film.

Despite their constant presence in and contributions to cinema music, the scholarly
bibliography on women musicians in the silent cinema is essentially nonexistent. There are a number of reasons for this. In an era when women were often named only as “Miss [Last
name] or “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” in print and those who wished to publish songs or
other kinds of music still often had to do so under pseudonyms or with their first initials in
place of their names in order to be considered seriously, only a limited number of female
composers and performers were made easily identifiable or recognized for their work. Most research that has been done on silent film music has focused on male performers and
composers active in New York and in Hollywood, in part because the trade magazines,
house publications, and other necessary documents for study were both focused on activities in those places and were held by institutions there. These resources generally lack coverage of the activities of women in the profession. The lack of information and research on women in silent cinema music is also due to the overwhelmingly canonized music history narrative in which successful women musicians were somehow “extraordinary.” In these cases, acknowledgment was granted only because a woman’s social standing or extracinematic musical career was considered unusual for a woman, such as in the case of violinist Helen Ware, who toured Europe and America as a soloist and campaigned for the use of classically-informed improvisation in the cinema. Finally, very little work has been done with primary sources that covered cinema music outside of New York and Hollywood, despite the fact other parts of America boasted some of the finest motion picture theaters and largest audiences in the country during the silent era.

Melody [Magazine] for Photoplay Organists and Pianists and all Music Lovers is unusual and
important in that it included reports from correspondents across the entire United States and regularly published significant amounts of material both written about and by female
performers in the industry. Melody in particular was heavily advertised to and written for
women in the profession or considering entering into it, recognizing and treating them as the equals of male accompanists but also understanding that they were still often marginalized. The articles and letters from the few Melody issues I have been able to work with confirm that these publications contain exactly the kinds of information I seek on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges. They strongly suggest that female cinema musicians were from a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and had a variety of musical backgrounds and educational experiences, indicating that such women were not the rare few, but were in fact part of a large population of well-trained and creative female musicians. They also reveal that female cinema musicians were just as active as their male counterparts in composing original scores for films, creating compiled scores (using pre-existing music), and directing cinema ensembles. My investigation and analysis of Melody and its coverage of women in film music will constitute an essential counterpart to the current studies on silent film music that focus exclusively on men, including Richard Abel and Rick Altman’s edited volume The Sounds of Early Cinema and Altman’s Silent Film Sound; Martin Miller Marks’s Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924; and the essays that appear in Claus Tieber and Anna Windisch’s The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. Identifying women as commercial musicians and charting their work has the potential to rewrite the traditional history of American female performers and composers as working in a rarefied environment and one in which few achieved success.

While I have conducted research at the Newberry Library, where I was able to examine
periodicals such as American Organist and numerous Midwest publications on music, and in several small archives belonging to individual women and cinemas containing materials that help fill in the lacuna of knowledge about female silent film musicians, there remains much more to be discovered. Melody is an important source in which, as my preliminary research indicates, I will be able to find out about individual cinema accompanists (through reviews, reports on performances from Boston, Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle, and other major American cities, and the regular “Let’s Get Acquainted” column, which introduced readers to cinema musicians from across the United States); the music accompanists used in accompanying different genres of silent film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, instrumentation in cinema ensembles, and reviews of new music composed specifically for film accompaniment. Even the advertisements in these silent-era publications are helpful for research, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. By examining this important publication devoted to music in the silent cinema, I hope to uncover an important part of American cultural history. This research is an essential part of my larger project on women in silent film music, and will provide other scholars with in-depth information about this period and its publications, as well as the aforementioned index of issues.

Plan of Work
If granted the Dena Epstein Award, I will spend two weeks at the Library of Congress.
During this time I will catalogue and take extensive notes on each issue, particularly articles about individual cinema accompanists; the music they used in accompanying different genres of film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, cinema ensemble instrumentation, and reviews of music composed specifically for film accompaniment. The advertisements in these publications are as pertinent as the articles and pieces of sheet music, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. I will take photographs of useful and informative visual materials, such as advertisements and the sheet music that was included in each issue (which is now mostly in the public domain), for my personal reference.

Following the research trip, I will analyze the materials for information on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges using methodologies from feminist and queer musicologies and feminist history as well as traditional methods of musical analysis, archival research, social history, and historical criticism. Based on the materials I have seen so far from Melody, I am outlining an article on the reception of female cinema musicians’ performances, compositions, improvisations, arrangements of film music, which I will have ready to submit for publication by late 2019. I believe that my research will enable me to write a second article as well, on the gendering of music that was published and reviewed in the periodicals; I hope have that study ready for submission for publication in early 2020. The information from this research will be included in my monograph on women in early cinema music. I plan to complete the monograph by late 2020.

My work as the founder and Executive Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music archive
(, an open access database and repository of silent film music, has provided me with the skills to build a similarly open access database indexing the contents of Melody. I believe that in addition to the research I am doing with this journal, making this information available for free will also enable to scholars and performers to undertake further and different kinds of research and approaches not just to Melody but to music journals and magazines, music publishing, and music-making during the early twentieth century.

(1) There is some controversy in musicology about the use of the term “silent film” and its lexicographical cousins. Many scholars object to the labeling of film during this period as “silent film,” because such film was almost never silent: it was most frequently accompanied by live music, but was at times also provided with external sound via the means of sound-on-disc, unscored sound effects (blurring the supposed line between
music and sound), and other sonic technologies that preceded the invention and widespread use of sound-on-film technology. I refer to this body of film simply as “early film” or “early cinema.”
(2) R. H. Pray, Motion Picture Magazine 7, no. 6 (July 1914): 102–103.
(3) Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991), xvii.
(4) Ibid., xviii.

Reviews: two to read, two to compost

To read:

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire. 5/5
This stand-alone novel from McGuire is a rare bird: a time-manipulation novel that doesn’t try to justify itself with bad or fake real-world-based science, and which is compelling rather than a chore to read (in other books that deal with multiverses and temporal repeats, it’s often a drag to have to remember things like “which life are they on? who died this go-round? It gets tedious, as do the inevitable paradoxes that are too often solved with nonsensical machinations) . In a world very much like our own but in which magic and necromancy and alchemy also exist and function, a megalomaniac decides to take control of the universe by embodying paired traits like Chaos and Order, Language and Math, and so on, and then controlling them. He creates flesh golems, breeds children, and generally wreaks havoc and kills a lot of people on the way to creating a few sets of twins who embody the things he’s seeking. But the twins have minds of their own, and use them to great effect to put their abusive creator out of business. Middlegame, like all of McGuire;s books, is an excellent blend of the mundane, everyday world, and original, fantasy elements. As she does in her October Daye books, McGuire is able to make high fantasy compatible with cell phones and cat litter and pizza. The characters might be embodiments of abstract and powerful things, but they are still completely relatable to: they brush their teeth, get embarrassed, have odd quirks, do annoying things, do endearing things. And for readers of McGuire’s other books, Middlegame contains a few small Easter Eggs for close readers.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. 4/5
Midnight in Chernobyl is perhaps the best English-language account of the 1986 nuclear disaster available. Higginbotham writes directly and clearly about complex scientific topics for lay readers, making the murky manageable, and covers the story from various aspects, adding depth and humanity to the facts of the accident. I appreciated the explanations of processes, hierarchies, and the bureaucracy that condemned so many both inside and outside of the USSR to death. The Higginbotham detail provided in describing locations, the geography, and the lives of those involved is excellent. The coverage of nuclear medicine is fascinating and often neglected in stories about Chernobyl. My only objection is the use of the term “abortion epidemic,” which comes near the end of the book and is highly problematic and politicizes the book in a way that is neither appropriate nor meaningful. I would otherwise give this five stars.

To avoid like the plague:

Find Me Falling by Fiona Vigo Marshall. 1/5 (0 if I could)
I utterly loathed this book. It’s cynical and perpetuates offensive models of disability and mental illness. It’s characters and their actions are devoid of humanity. The author’s attempt at writing a Gothic work is superficial and ultimately boring.

A woman musician gives birth prematurely; after the birth she is somehow disabled and cannot read or write or play or do much of anything, but of course her disability is somehow Gothic and magic and nothing helps except for perhaps retreating from society and trying to become a human ghost, which would be fine if the author actually addressed depression and other disabilities but she doesn’t, so that is a major problem with the book.. The musician and her husband and child move to a grand house overlooking the sea, where she and her spouse cannot communicate with each other, do not seem to care at all for each other or for their child, and do not seem to understand how to be human beings in any sense of that word. The woman wanders the area. Her husband is angry at her because she can’t fix herself. She meeds an enigmatic and manipulative street-sweeper. Her husband presses her for a second child. She has an affair with the street-sweeper. There are ghosts in the house. Everyone is emotionally abusive to everyone else. Some people will love this book. I feel bad for their partners and kids.

Merlin’s Shakespeare by Carol Anne Douglas. 1/5 (0)
This is a book that seems to have been written by a very young child, one who dislikes logic, thinks they’re extra clever when they’re not, and hasn’t had enough experience writing to understand how to write well. If it was written by a child, that child’s parents or guardians should not have allowed it to be published, because it will embarrass the child to no end when that child is even a little bit older. If it was written by an adult, then it still shouldn’t have been published, because it’s a complete mess. Everything in it is poorly done: the names, the characters’ descriptions, the dialogue, the plot, the writing overall. It was painful to read.

Reviews: a good handful

The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. 2/5
I have mixed responses to this book. On the one hand, it’s a very important study of how race is used, viewed, and created in children’s and YA literature. Thomas discusses various authors’ approaches to race in their works and in the adaptations and fan creations made of them, with studies on Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries. This discussion can be nuanced and thoughtful, but at times it is repetitive and superficial, relying on single statements by fans that are cherry-picked to fit Thomas’s hypothesis, On the other hand, Thomas’s work is clearly influenced by her involvement in HP fanfiction and is still smarting from being criticized for using another writer’s texts in her own FF. In any other field this would be outright plagiarism, but Thomas makes the case that in FF, it is acceptable. Her argument is weak, though, especially as now she is a PhD who should have some scholarly and personal distance from her own, younger, naive understanding of how ethics in fiction works, fan or professional. In any case, I found the book to be unready for publication: it needs better-integrated discussions of theory (not just dropping in a useful quote here and there, but real, deep engagement); it needs more clarity and focus in each chapter/case study (these read like student papers that had not been outlined well); and it needs editing, both developmental and copy-. The book feels rushed, unpolished, and rather simplistic. Thomas has a lot of important things to say about race, fantasy, and fanfiction, but this book was a big disappointment.

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge by Kimura Yūsuke, translated by Doug Slaymaker. 3/5
This pair of twin novellas examines life in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear 3/11 disaster. The first, Sacred Cesium Ground, is more successful: it follows the thoughts and actions of a young woman who has left–at least temporarily–an abusive marriage to help take care of cows abandoned when they were dosed with radiation. As she mucks and feeds them, and interacts with the others who live at or regularly visit the remote area where they are kept, she muses on the nature of animals and the human-animal connection, its responsibilities, and its function. The language is often lovely and the entire work is thoughtful and meditative. Isa’s Deluge, on the other hand, is a rambling account of men seeking to understand their relative, Isa. Isa is violent and a sexual predator, and through memories and interviews, the protagonists seek and understanding of him, but there is none. The novella may be trying to point to human connections, the ambiguous natures of family and familial behavior, work cultures, and/or Japanese culture in regard to men, but I was anxious to finish it and be done.

Brides in the Sky by Cary Holladay. 5/5
This collection of short stories and a novella is a wonder and a delight. Focusing in part on middle-class Americans in the 1960s and in part on women’s experiences in westward expansion, the book is full of astonishingly original and evocative description and character realization. In every piece included here, Holladay captures historical contexts and deftly weaves them in with personal crises, concerns, and changes. The women in the stories come of age, detach from family, and grapple with identity in fascinating ways. The historical settings and use of real-life figures mirrors in some ways Emma Donoghue’s books like The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits, but the writing is uniquely Hollday’s. Revel in this book.

Underground by Will Hunt. 5/5
Will Hunt writes about being underground so well that I actually experienced a touch of claustrophobia reading this book. It’s a terrific read: one very individual lifelong interest in what lies beneath our cities, fields, farms, mountains, and deserts. Hunt goes caving and lives with the dark in numerous places and with complete respect for the cultures into whose caves he ventures.I loved learning about how cave spirits are universal, that the worship of cave deities is common, that caves have preserved far more art and archaeological information than just cave paintings. My only complaint is that the photos desperately need captions. In the Kindle version I read, none of the photos were captioned, so I often wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Add those in, and you’ve got a book everyone who has ever wondered about what’s under their feet will love.

A Tear in the Ocean by H.M. Bouwman. 5/5
This is a great book. I love that it’s both an adventure story and an allegory, that it shows readers why history is important and talking to each other is crucial without being pedantic or preachy. I love that the characters are not white. I love that each character has their own special competencies as well as a bunch of common ones. I love that it’s full of terrific description and resists easy answers and has character growth and doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. It’s a perfect book for kids and for parents and for kids and parents and families to read together.

Clade by James Bradley. 5/5
An astonishing and compelling novel of climate change and the effects–physical, emotional, practical–it will have on human life. Set in Australia, Clade is an outstanding companion to Nevil Shute’s classic On the Beach, which is about the end of human life on earth. Clade, with its survivors and vision of the future, addresses many of the same responses and feelings, couched in an entirely modern and well-researched manner. By following a single family line through the 2020s and forward, Bradley creates unique characters who clearly learn from and are influenced by their progenitors and their actions. I’d love to teach this novel in conjunction with Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and On the Beach, as they all offer distinct and endlessly fascinating ideas of what will come.

Where am I? Spring 2019

Links and more information to follow as details emerge.

Monday, March 18: Colloquium talk at the University of Colorado-Boulder, “Phantoms of the Archives: Music for the Early Cinematic Supernatural and Other Tales”

Tuesday-Saturday, March 19-23: Society for American Music annual meeting, New Orleans

Friday, March 22: Co-chairing (with Paul Allen Sommerfeld) the Seminar Music and Sound in Horror Media (8:30-10:30 a.m., Queen Anne B). My paper is on music for early film horror and hauntings.

Saturday, 23 March: guest at Student Forum, chaired by the awesome Kori Hill and Andrew Tubbs (10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Iberville D) I’ll be talking about doing scholarship and being an academic when you’re not employed in a college/university teaching position.

Wednesday-Saturday, April 17-20: Shakespeare Association of America meeting, Washington DC. I’m in the seminar “Shakespeare in Film History” (Saturday, 4-6 pm). My paper is on early Shakespearean film and the music used to accompany it.