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
(www.sfsma.org), 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.

Notes
(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.

Reviews: a January round-up

NEW SUNS ed. by Nisi Shawl. 5/5
This is an absolutely fantastic collection of short stories set in non-Eurocentric/white American worlds. I loved it and am recommending it to everyone i know who enjoys speculative fiction. The stories and settings include Asian-inspired cultures in which translators collude to save vast populations; a stunning South America under a Nazi-like rule by the Spanish; numerous tales in which colonizers get their just desserts (including a euthanasia-vacation tropical island); and erotic encounters that question traditional roles and cultural norms. I want to read more stories set in all of the realms introduced here. And LeVar Burton’s foreword is a gem, a beautiful piece of writing about the long-needed support of non-white writers in the genre.

THE OUTCAST HOURS ed. by Jared Shurin & Mahvesh Murad. 5/5
I really enjoyed this compilation of stories. While some weren’t exactly my cup of tea, enough were well-written and plotted enough to keep me reading. I especially enjoyed the deliberate focus on non-Western/non-North American cultures and writers, and on speculative writing from unique points of view. Many of the ideas–a babysitter for especially difficult children and parents, a story you think will end in gore but has a radically hopepunk ending instead–are new to me and fun to read.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. 1/5
I know this has gotten a lot of positive press and a lot of hype but it felt too much like Ann Leckie or Mur Lafferty fanfiction to me–clones and permanent, immortal memory, and uprisings and politics and etiquette. It often dragged and the characters weren’t terribly interesting. Protagonist Mahit Dzmare veers from being merely unprepared to being ridiculously silly in her actions and choices, and the thriller aspect–who killed her predecessor?–turns out to be revealed in one of those non-mysteries wherein the villain reveals themselves after the protagonist can’t figure it out, making them all look dim. I never truly got a sense of the culture or the why behind many of the events and intrigues conjured up.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) by Lorna Landvik. 3/5
This is a sweet book that will find appreciative readers in book clubs, especially those that include parents and their kids, or are for high-school students. When the long-time columnist–the ‘Radical Hag’ of the title, so-called by one of her detractors–of a paper in a small town has a stroke, the paper begins reprinting her old essays and the responses they provoked. The essays touch on everything from politics to gardening to theater to abortion, and are always personal and unique. People in the town and students at the local high school begin reading the old columns, and gain insights about themselves, their community, and their neighbors. While it was all a little too simple and tidy for me, a lot of people will enjoy this one. And the recipes are pretty good.

Douglas Fairbanks by Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks; Edited by Kelley Smoot. 1/5
A light and glossy coffee-table biography of Douglas Fairbanks, this book is long on anecdote and short on reflection. While relatives of famous stars often pen romanticized accounts of their better-known family members’ lives, this one manages to completely ignore the problematic nature of early Hollywood, its people, and its films. And the author seems to have significant biases as well. D. W. Griffith’s horrific racist film Birth of a Nation is simply described as “famed and revolutionary”; Mary Pickford is written of as “unlike many career women who develop an almost masculine aggressiveness, she remained entirely feminine.” Early film pioneers are “social misfits” and women actors are “bathing beauties” and “sirens,” and perhaps worst of all, the phrase “Southern mammies” figures in a sentence about superstition. I expect this kind of sexist, racist, and utterly unaware language when I’m reading magazines published in the 1920s about the film business, but it has no place in a modern book that uses it without offering context and a reason for doing so. While I’m sure fans of Fairbanks will be drawn to the book because of its numerous photos and the involvement of his niece as a co-author, I cannot recommend it to anyone.

A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn. 4/5
This is a new installment in a series of period mysteries, but requires no previous knowledge of the earlier volumes in the series to enjoy, a big plus for me. Veronica Speedwell and her mystery-solving partner Stoker become embroiled in a mystery that includes elements of the Victorian ghost story The Mistletoe Bough, pirate lore on the Cornish Coast, Spiritualism, and poison gardens. As Veronica and Stoker try to figure out the disappearance of a bride who vanished on her wedding night, they must also contend with Stoker’s brother’s interest in Veronica and their own slow-burn romance. While the mystery solves itself when the murderer announces themselves, the story is still entertaining and a fun read with good characters and little details that charm the reader (Chester the felt mouse, among others).

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe. 1/5
The first book in this series annoyed me for the author’s apparent need to mix up both accurate and totally fantastical things about academia and present them as if they somehow represented real life. She does it again here, and in this case it’s much more irritating because it plays into her plot, which is, even on its own, totally non-sensical, even in a setting where witchcraft is real and people are magic. In addition, the characters are all cardboard and stereotypical, from the witchy mom who knows her daughter is pregnant before the daughter knows; to the daughter, who is a disorganized academia; and to the daughter’s her sassy black friend, er, graduate student. There’s also The Man Who Does Not Understand Academia, despite having had an academic partner for a long time, and the Madman/Old Professor. Also, apparently everything the work of this book is pale: people have pal skin, pale eyes, and there are pale stains on a table. Please hire a copyeditor who knows about academia, can read for sensitivity regarding the Black Sassy Friend, and knows synonyms for “pale.”

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.