Queen Harvest’s 2017 Reading Recap

Early this year I followed Marie Kondo’s advice and put every book I owned on the floor to be judged. Image-1

I held every book and decided whether it brought me joy–if yes it stayed, if no it was discarded. Unfortunately, the joy a book brings can fluctuate based on all those words between the covers. Many of the books I read this year did not bring me joy, but I had to both hold the book and read it to find out.

1. White Rage, Carol Anderson (2016)

White Rage supplies a lot of pieces that are missing from the average American history curriculum. Anderson methodically lays out how white Americans used the law to prevent black Americans from attaining equal status with themselves, beginning with the abolition of slavery until the present day. Anderson examines the white-supremacist objectives of Presidents from Andrew Johnson to Ronald Reagan, the undermining of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, various detrimental Supreme Court decisions, the failure of the criminal justice system, and the gutting of any progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. Particularly striking to me is Anderson’s explanation of how questions of race and civil rights were completely redefined (by white people) in the 1960s and 1970s, when economic inequality was substituted for racial inequality and civil rights were “won” by the desegregation of water fountains and bus seats. There is so much more to learn and know, but White Rage is an excellent introduction to the institutionalized racism that simply succeeded our country’s institutionalized slavery.

2. The Thirteen Problems, Agatha Christie (1932)

The best phrase I can think of to describe The Thirteen Problems is a “murder-mystery Canterbury Tales.” Over the course of two dinner parties, each attendant lays out a mystery from their lives for the others to solve (answered one and all by Miss Marple, of course). These are fun and fast-paced mini mysteries.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

800px-rotarydialThe plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude is like the dial of a rotary phone: it begins in one place, is quickly rolled back in time, and slowly returns to the place of beginning, over and over again. The narrative seems like a progressive stream of people and events, but the individuals and their habits and their lives continuously circle and swell, building into something complex, beautiful, magnificent.

 4. One Hundred Years of Solitude: Modes of Reading, Regina Jones, ed. (1991)

This collection of essays includes historical context, biographical notes on Garcia Marquez, publishing history, and critical essays. The more I learn about One Hundred Years of Solitude, the more incredible the novel is; that’s how you know it’s the Real Deal.

5. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)

The Sea, The Sea combines light literary farce, dramatic introspective discovery, and ambiguous supernatural forces with flawless prose. I was on the main character’s side at the beginning; he seemed like a fun-loving, living-for-himself-but-harmless guy. It is difficult to maintain this affection as we see how the hero’s ego affects those around him in numerous and devastating ways.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

After Rowling’s Hogwarts, Orwell’s Airstrip One is the fictional world invoked most often in the current political climate. Instead of reading the actual news, I reread Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yes it is a great novel. Yes it is a terrifying novel. Yes fiction is a powerful tool to better understand reality. Yes I wish a lot of dummies read more novels. Yes I’ve stopped being courteous to dummies.

7. A Brief History of Ireland, Richard Killeen (2012)

Reading Killeen’s A Brief History of Ireland was such a pleasure it caused me grief—I can’t believe I forced myself to read The Making of Modern Ireland when this book was available. A Brief History of Ireland details the history of Ireland from its prehistoric past to its state in the 21st century. Killeen goes a step beyond breakdowns of historic events and biographies of essential figures. The really rewarding feature of Killeen’s writing is the way he explains the social and cultural context of various events. He describes the impact of, say, the Great Famine on the average citizen, or the reasoning that led to any one of the many popular revolts. Knowing that history does not occur in a vacuum, Killeen makes Irish history feel like a continuous narrative, rather than a disjointed succession of disgruntled secessionists.

8. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1980)

Admittedly, I remember very little about this book. I remember there were beautiful sentences and sorrowful characters. There are albums that suit people in a certain state of mind or phase of life; this may be a novel for another mood.

9. Wolfish Girl, Andy Mascola (2016)

Wolfish Girl, written by under-the-radar Twitter star @andymascola, is an entertaining horror-romance novella. The plot is unpredictable and difficult to put down. Wolfish Girl puts a really interesting twist on the monster story.

9.5 Superbosses, Sydney Finkselstein (2016)

Superbosses (of which I read about 65%, hence the partial numeration) looks at the phenomenon of business leaders whose proteges consistently succeed after striking out on their own. Nick Saban comes to mind, as a coach who has had many assistants go on to become successful college football head coaches (of course, Saban is a branch on the mega-coaching tree of Bill Parcells via Bill Belichick). The gist seems to be that many bosses are great at their jobs, have a vision for their future, and are nurturing to employees. What sets “superbosses” apart is that they are not threatened by possibly superior talent, intellect, or ability. Where a mediocre boss might not hire the brightest candidate, or might discourage or prevent the progress made by their subordinates, “superbosses” give their proteges the space to become the best version of themselves.

10. The Book of Kells, Edward Sullivan (1920)

800px-kellsfol032vchristenthroned

Are those corners unadorned because a monk had to escape when his monastery was attacked?

Joseph Campbell recommends reading this book of examples of and commentary on The Book of Kells as a key to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The glossy prints of Kells pages are colorful and intricate, and Sullivan’s text provides insight into the creation and meaning of many of the illuminations. There are probably plenty of Kells images online, but looking at a copy in your hand, in natural light, is a rewarding activity.

11. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

After intense research, I have uncovered two types of Wolf Hall readers:

  1. Those who completed it and adore every line.
  2. Those who could not complete it because they despise every line.

I am proud to conquer virgin territory: I completed it despite despising every line. Read my reasoning here.

12. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, Thomas R. Flagel (2010)

A history book organized by Top Ten lists: of course such a project cannot encompass the vastness of the Civil War in all its horror and meaning. Nevertheless, Flagel conveys a great deal of information without coming across as flippant. Perhaps being limited by brevity forced the writer to condense the events and facts to their essential, undiluted heinousness.

13. Germania, Simon Winder (2011)

German history is European history—ancient, consequential, continuously relevant. Yet it seems difficult to find much historical literature that doesn’t focus on 20th century Germany (admittedly a significant period). The Third Reich managed to occupy three generations of academic German historians and three generations of interested Germophiles. Germania is written not by a historian, but by an enthusiast who doesn’t even speak German. Winder does not discount or disrespect 20th century German history, but revives the wonder and beauty and terrors that preceded the World Wars. It is all I could do, midway through reading, to not jump on a plane to Germany(/Czechia/Poland/Austria/etc.) to explore the castles and restaurants and other living artifacts of Germany’s bygone past.

14. Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson (2007)

Image-1(1)Instead of hypothesizing, guessing, or projecting possibilities about Shakespeare’s life, this biography delivers exactly what you want to know about Shakespeare: What do we actually know about him? Where did this information come from? Where do those images of Shakespeare come from? Why do people think Shakespeare did not write the works under his name? Why are those people most likely wrong? Bill Bryson is at his best when he is writing about literature and language (and generally things other than himself), and this little biography is a joy.

15. The Waste Land (Norton Critical Edition), Michael North, ed. (2000)

This edition of The Waste Land (like the critical edition of Solitude, above) contains historical context, literary sources, and critical essays from the time of its release to more recent scholarship. I had not read the poem before, and I assumed it was universally revered; many of these essays undercut that notion. I personally found the essay by Cleanth Brooks, Jr., most truthful, and F.R. Leavis’s essay offered helpful insight into Eliot’s world.

16. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

Bloomsday simply felt incomplete without reading from Ulysses, so I started the whole thing over again. Every reading is so rewarding; I look forward to returning to Dublin again soon.

B1. Deuteronomy, KJV

This is as far as my Biblical readings took me this year. Deuteronomy seems to be a summary of all the important stuff from the preceding books. Like Moses is doing an exam review before the Israelites are tested in the Promised Land.

17. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

Early in my journey into the Congo, I knew The Poisonwood Bible was a treasure. I listened to the audiobook, which is a format particularly suited to this novel. Kingsolver relates most of the novel through characters who have an incomplete view of the situation; the audiobook narrator worked wonders with the five voices and personalities. It feels like it could have ended about 75% of the way through, but I still enjoyed the remainder of the book.

18. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)

This narrative presentation of two concurrent American sagas was easy to immerse myself in. I wrote about The Devil in the White City here .
Tl; dr: It stands on its own, but also could serve as a useful introduction to reading The Fountainhead.

19. Loon Lake, E.L. Doctorow (1980)

I finished this book out of spite. Spite against what or whom? I don’t know. But I really did not enjoy any of it.

20. Dubliners, James Joyce (1914)

Rereading Dubliners was long overdue. The first time I read it I could tell there were depths I was not plumbing; this second time around I did not fare much better.

20.a Dubliners (Norton Critical Edition), Margaret Norris, ed. (2005)

This, my third critical edition of the year, provides tremendous insight into Joyce’s short stories. Each essay illuminates some connection between stories, some implication within an interaction, some gem of hidden meaning ready to gleam in the light of recognition.

21. The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie (1942)

This mystery novel is set in the same universe as The Thirteen Problems, above, and has about as many mini mysteries packed into a single narrative. Apparently it also takes place in our reality, because Agatha Christie mentions her own name among a list of autographs by famous mystery authors.

22. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

I expected Cloud Atlas to be confusing and complicated in the tradition of Infinite Jest—needlessly, a vanity project. Instead, it is somehow straightforward while being complex in a lovely, entertaining, and fascinating manner. Though it gets a little self-aware toward the end, I really enjoyed this novel and could see myself (or perhaps a reincarnated version of myself) returning to it in the future.

23. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)

David Sedaris is like a childhood friend that I don’t see very often, but whenever we get together, we laugh like idiots. Of course, it’s a pretty one-way street between me and David; he does most of the heavy lifting and I do most of the laughing. I was surprised to learn that not everybody knows Sedaris is greatest living essayist, so I’ve started recommending his books to my friends. Woe unto him who heeds not my counsel!

24. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1967)

Upon publication this novel met two diverging, powerful responses: negative backlash from the black community, and critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize (from the white community). I decided to read the novel before investigating the substance of either response; I wanted to experience it without outside influences, and then read the criticism. I admit, as a white person who is not well-schooled in identifying the racism that pervades the world I grew up in and who knows nothing of the historical Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner was a literary pleasure. While reading, I felt Styron artfully lampooned the hypocrisy of the courts passing sentence against the rebels who were themselves trying to escape the life of imprisonment, torture, and death imposed on them by their “victims.” Styron’s “good” slaveowners are portrayed as guilty of perpetuating the institution of slavery, even as they lament its evils. I did not pick up on the many problems contained in the novel for much the same reason Styron did not feel troubled to write them; we have had the luxury of ignorance. Regardless, I had the following book of criticism on the shelf before I began the novel, and I was open to what the writers had to say.

25. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, John Henrik Clarke, ed. (1968)

Published the year after Styron’s novel, this collection of essays is alive

Image-1

God save the used bookstore.

with the energy of an ongoing conflict. I originally felt some empathy for Styron—a creative mind with an interest in history made a misguided attempt at fictionalizing a fascinating figure of American history. After reading these responses, I doubt not only his methods but also his motives. These writers make it clear that Styron had all the information and resources he needed to write about Nat Turner accurately, but he willfully ignored history and created a fictional Nat Turner who embodies all the degrading, harmful stereotypes historically imposed on black people and their enslaved ancestors. Styron concocted his own facts, which not only diverged from the historical record but were patently racist. When the facts are wrong, the truths arising therefrom are flawed. Through the corruption of facts, Styron’s novel churns out flawed conclusions—Turner is emasculated, rebellions are futile, rebels are criminals, and slaveowners are generally good people. Styron ignored the history and ideas of black people and wrote a novel beyond redemption; the progressive white public ignored the voices of these black writers and others and awarded Nat Turner a Pulitzer Prize.

26. Holidays On Ice, David Sedaris (1997)

On my third try, I finally finished this essay collection. I also realized the reason Holidays on Ice never grabbed me like Sedaris’s other books: This one has a higher concentration of fictional stories. The succession of fabricated Christmas curmudgeons don’t do it for me like his usual genuine misanthropes.

27. High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Robertson Davies (1982)

Robertson Davies was the Master of Massey College of the University of Toronto from 1963 until 1981. Davies told a ghost story each year at the school’s Christmas party, and those are collected in this book. What a treasure and a blessing it must have been to be present when this master storyteller related a charming tale, written and delivered for your ears only.

28. Poem A Day, Vol.1, Karen McCosker and Nichols Albery, eds. (1994)

I began reading a poem as soon as I woke up about two years ago; this book took the guesswork out of selecting which poem that should be. Running from January 1 to December 31, poems in Poem A Day are intended to be memorized; I gave up on that project some time around January 5. Selections cover all periods of time and style (though not place), and most poems include a brief biographical note on the author, usually with some indication regarding why a poem was chosen for a particular date. Thanks to Volumes 2 and 3, I hope to benefit from the simplicity of this series until 2020.

Upon Reflection

I didn’t achieve any of my reading goals this year. Most of my selections were for the purpose of self-education (history, criticism, literacy) rather than pleasure. Reading in 2017 was hard because I made it hard; I often read out of an obligation imposed on myself by myself. In 2018 I want to bring reading back to a place of ease and delight. I want to read more fiction, and I want to allow myself to stop reading a book if it does not bring me joy.

Advertisements

2017: Third Quarter Note

I feel like several years have passed since the second quarter of 2017. For reference, in the last three months I have graduated with a master’s degree, left my job of over three years, and moved across the country to start my career in a new landscape and climate, where I know no one but my cat. The change of routine (when am I even supposed to listen to music?) and the change of focus (do I need a vermicultural habitat for my apartment?) have allowed me somewhat to neglect my album project.

Pre-life transition, I primarily listened to music (1) driving to and from work, and (2) working out at the gym. Post-life transition, I don’t drive to work and I don’t have a gym. It took a couple weeks, but I have discovered two rich mines of previously unavailable musical opportunity: (1) walking to and from work, and (2) during work. Music enhances these experiences, and the experiences make the music better.

As always, my impersonal rating system follows. The mid-level three-star rating has come to mean “I’d like to hear these songs mixed into a playlist, if not the whole album in sequence.”

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it (in a mix).
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Twenty-Seven

The_Knife_-_Deep_CutsThe Knife – Deep Cuts (2003) ★★★★★

I can hardly believe I’ve only known this album a few weeks. Every time I listen to Deep Cuts (which is often) I’m surprised by how many tracks knock my socks off. Whether in the car, at home, or working out, “Heartbeats” gives me no choice but to do body rolls for the duration. When I hear “Is It Medicine” and “Got 2 Let U,” I feel the full-body musical experience I imagine is sought when people go clubbing. I love this album so much.

Week Twenty-Eight

CureDisintegrationThe Cure – Disintegration (1989)
★★★☆☆

I don’t dislike anything about this album. Perhaps one must be in a certain mood or in a certain time of life for it to click, and I am not there. I can imagine other times when it would have hit me harder. As I am, I can see its appeal, but it doesn’t speak to my soul.

 Week Twenty-Nine

Sky_Blue_Sky_(Wilco)Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)★★★★☆

Wilco is consistently brought up in The Next Bob Dylan conversation, and now I get it. The resemblance to Jack White’s music is particularly satisfying.

Week Thirty

SantogoldalbumSantogold – Santogold (1980)
★★★☆☆

From song to song, Santogold may sound like Gwen Stefani, MIA, or Sixpence None the Richer. All I can do is marvel at her talent.

Week Thirty-One

Sheperd's-dog (Iron & Wine)Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)★★★★★

The Shepherd’s Dog is addictive. I get sucked in to the hypnotic musical jangle and the continuous lyrical patter. For so many years I thought of Iron & Wine was some band ~other people~ listened to. My loss! I love this album.

Week Thirty-Two

Cate_Le_Bon_Mug_Museum_album_coverCate le Bon – Mug Museum (2013) ★★★☆☆

Mug Museum sounds like Tender Buttons with a healthy dash of Nico. Through repeated listens, the surface ‘60s airy sound gives way to a more complex collection of tunes.

 Week Thirty-Three

Pixies-DoolittleThe Pixies – Doolittle (1989)★★★★☆

The Pixies confound genre definition. They can scream like nu metal, play guitar like surf rock, and write lyrics like an indie band. Some of the songs on Doolittle sound like earlier versions of songs I already love from Bossanova. “Hey” and “La La Love You” are very special to me.

Week Thirty-Four

Fully_Completely (The Tragically Hip)The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (1992)
★★★★☆

News of Gordon Downie’s illness brought a lot of attention to The Tragically Hip this year; I wasn’t previously aware of their importance in Canadian and musical culture.  I really enjoy Fully Completely’s irresistible, energetic rhythms and powerful lyrics. In a world of Canadian musicians accommodating the U.S. market, they also stand out as unapologetically Canadian. Even if I don’t get the references, it feels real and truthful.

Week Thirty-Five

Kesha_-_RainbowKesha – Rainbow (2017)★★★★★

None of us saw this coming. It took a couple of middle aged podcast men to convince me I should listen to a Kesha album, and I’m very glad they did. “Boogie Feet” and “Woman” are undeniable feel-good songs. There’s something about “Spaceship,” with its mesmeric melody and oddly hopeful lyrics, that takes my breath away every time.

 Week Thirty-Six

Dopamine (Borns)Børns – Dopamine (2015)
★★★☆☆

I was prejudiced against Dopamine prior to hearing it because I hate the album cover. Dopamine is generic, hear-it-in-any-commercial pop music. Even so, this album is full of bangers, and I admit I came to enjoy it quite a bit.

Week Thirty-Seven

Welcome Home ('Til Tuesday)’Til Tuesday – Welcome Home (1986) ★★★★☆

Aimee Mann’s music always strikes me as good driving music, particularly “David Denies,” which is on repeat in my head all the time.

 

 Week Thirty-Eight

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Open Mike Eagle)Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (2017)
★★★★☆

These songs sound like no others I’ve ever heard. Open Mike Eagle has a unique voice and style. Even when I don’t know what he means I can tell it’s meaningful.

 Week Thirty-Nine

PrintFlight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky (2009)★★★☆☆

This album has a lot of funny. I’ve loved “Carol Brown” for years; it is a perfect song.

Fourth Quarter Projections

Even though the third quarter did not hit the high heights of the second (see: Cher and the Great Comet), it did not drop to the valleys of the previous quarter, either. Overall I enjoyed more of the albums an average amount, which is all I can ask.

I am committed to finishing the year out strong. There are still many crowd-sourced recommendations I haven’t listened to, and I will try to attend to those before I close up shop.

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois)

In Review: The Devil in the White City and The Fountainhead

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a remarkable piece of pop history. Cover of The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonLarson takes two very different historical narratives–one bringing pride and hope to a city, the other leaving shame and fear –and sews them into one fascinating garment. I expected the serial killer to keep my interest, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the ins and outs of a group of architects (the collective noun is a “facade” of architects) similarly engaging.

Another surprise was The Devil in the White City revealing itself to be an inadvertent introduction to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Those who object to Objectivism may be surprised to find The Fountainhead palatable, even enjoyable. Written before Rand fully developed her signature philosophy, The Fountainhead is not concerned with the economic or political morality that is inextricably linked with Atlas Shrugged. Instead, The Fountainhead‘s ethical agenda is individual artistic integrity. Howard Roark is the superman who cannot be threatened or bribed to abandon his artistic architectural vision, and Rand makes a convincing case to draw the reader to his side.

Howard Roark is a wholly fictional personage, but his work and architectural Cover of The Fountainhead by Ayn Randphilosophy are based on that of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is a minor figure in The Devil in the White City. Wright was the protégé of Louis Sullivan, one the team of architects who designed The White City. The Devil in the White City touches on Sullivan’s proposition of “form follows function” (a fundamental principle of The Fountainhead) and lays out Sullivan’s decline. Rand clearly drew on Sullivan’s history for her novel. She fictionalized Sullivan as Roark’s mentor Henry Cameron: an architect who fell into poverty and obscurity because he did not have an audience for his work, and would not betray his ideals.

I never thought I needed to read a history book to understand The Fountainhead, but The Devil in the White City proves me wrong. Larson illustrates the forces at work in the world of American architecture in the early 20th century. The magnitude of the World’s Fair and the effect the The White City on the public’s architectural ideals were more powerful than I realized—Rand was not kidding around. The White City was the actual cause of a national nostalgia for a nonexistent classical past.

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois)

The Devil in the White City provides the background of the architectural milieu into which Roark is born. Throughout The Fountainhead, Rand ridicules the use of classical Greco-Roman architecture in 20th century America, and Roark fights this American obsession. Looking at this style through the lens of her trademark objectivity, Rand sees unnecessary ornamentation, spatial inefficiency, and sub-optimal design. In contrast, Larson lovingly describes the circumstances that brought The White City into existence and the reasons it took hold of the American imagination. The White City did not draw thousands of visitors from all over the country because they were interested in the functionality of its buildings; The White City brought people to Chicago for a display of American magnificence and the pride of knowing that their countrymen could create something beautiful on par with the grandeur of Europe. For good or for bad, these are feelings that Rand and Roark do not share.

The Devil in the White City stands on its own as an absorbing book of true crime and colorful history, but it also pairs well with The Fountainhead. Just as Rand’s philosophical writing is best balanced with counterpoints and differing arguments, Rand’s architectural opinions are subject to scrutiny. Readers of Rand are always at risk of developing insufferable superiority complexes, and The Devil in the White City provides a soothing antidote to Roarkitis.

2017: Second Quarter Note

Since my First Quarter Note I have diligently, doggedly, at times reluctantly, maintained a rigorous schedule of listening to a new album of music each week. There have been difficult dry spells when I felt burned out (See Weeks 17-19) and times of glorious abundance when I had the world on a string (See Week 22). This self-imposed pursuit of music has not had a 100% success rate, but my persistence continues to reward me with gems from time to time.

Again, my impersonal rating system:

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Fourteen

Purple RainPrince – Purple Rain (1984) ★★★★☆

Until his death, I was not aware that Prince was considered a serious musician. I only knew him as a punchline and a very strange recurring SNL character. Thankfully my misunderstanding has been corrected, and I can fully enjoy his smooth voice and banging tunes. The Purple Rain songs I know from the radio (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy”) are even better in context. “Take Me With You” and “Darling Nikki” are two other favorites.

 Week Fifteen

Fear is on our sideI Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Fear Is On Our Side (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

My memory of this album: first song sounds like the Pixies, and I don’t remember a single lyric or note after.

Week Sixteen

Thing_a_Week_TwoJonathan Coulton – Thing A Week Two (2005)★★★★★

Not since Hamilton have I heard an entire album of insatiable earworms. “Chiron Beta Prime” and “Re: Your Brains” are the sci-fi novelty songs I needed in my life. “Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance” is an absurd delight. “Stroller Town,” “Curl,” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” are brilliant ideas, executed perfectly. “Take Care of Me” is beautiful satire, and “So Far So Good” is just beautiful.

Bonus Tunes: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (2017)

DAMN. is incredible by every metric–the intricate lyrics, the powerful beats, the unity as a concept album, the depth of the concept.

Week Seventeen

Through_the_Looking_GlassSiouxsie and the Banshees – Through the Looking Glass (1980)
★★★☆☆

“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” is a slamming opener, and I also enjoy “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Hall of Mirrors.” I would like to hear this album’s songs mixed into a playlist, but not necessarily as a front-to-back unit.

Week Eighteen

Led_Zeppelin_IVLed Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin IV (1971)★★☆☆☆

The softer, acoustic songs are lovely, and I learned to like “Stairway to Heaven.” This is the fourth Led Zeppelin album I have listened to (progressing chronologically through their catalog), and I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that their music is Boy Music. It is not meant for me, and it is ok if I don’t care for large portions of it.

Week Nineteen

BlacklistedNeko Case – Blacklisted (2002)
★★★☆☆

I wanted to be drawn in to Blacklisted, but that hasn’t happened. I will keep it in rotation; I think it needs more time to creep in.

Week Twenty

Power,Corruption&LiesNew Order – Power, Lies & Corruption (1983)★★★★☆

As a friend recently observed to me, New Order is “a rock band that makes dance music,” and I am grateful to finally have those words to describe them. I find long, instrumental songs rarely have lyrics worth sticking around for, but Power, Lies & Corruption has just the right mix.

 Week Twenty-One

Nancy_lee_album_coverNancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood – Nancy & Lee (1968)
★☆☆☆☆

Nancy & Lee…confuses me. I cannot tell if it is a joke. Hazelwood’s vocals on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” are so poor, so painful, that I don’t know why else someone would choose to open an album with them. Even so, some of the songs are very enjoyable, particularly “Some Velvet Morning.”

Week Twenty-Two

Heart of StoneCher – Heart of Stone (1989)★★★★★

This may sound like an overstatement, but Heart of Stone is the greatest album of all time. “Just Like Jesse James” is a masterpiece of raw energy and lyrical wonder that could only become manifest through the power of our blessed goddess, Cher.

Bonus Tunes: Original Broadway Cast – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

This musical captures with remarkable effect the social interactions and subtle character portraits of great Russian novels. The music flows masterfully between grand orchestral style and modern electronica. The performance of each singer is striking and unique: Sonya’s dark, sweet voice; Anatole’s foppish, hair metal crooning; Natasha’s naivete cut with lines like a stake through the heart. “Dust and Ashes” is the “Memory” of the 21st century. I love this album.

Week Twenty-Three

Violent_FemmesViolent Femmes – Violent Femmes (1983)
★★★★☆

Even more stripped down Modern Lovers. I like it! Considering the fact that I thought “Blister In the Sun” came out in the early 1990s, I suspect this band influenced a lot of those grungy folks. (I’m receiving word that I’m the last person to realize this. Yup. Common knowledge. Got it. Over and out.)

 Week Twenty-Four

Waiting_on_a_SongDan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song (2017) ★★☆☆☆

Like a lot of recently released music, each track on Waiting on a Song sounds like a tribute to 1970s genre music. Some are especially catchy, like “Malibu Man” and “Cherrybomb,” while others are more clever, like the title track and “Stand by My Girl.”

Week Twenty-Five

Boys_and_Girls_in_America_coverThe Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

This album plays like a series of indie movies about bored white people doing drugs. Arena rock is not my scene.

Bonus Tunes: The Killers – “The Man” (2017)

Another new song heavily influenced by the ‘70s. I’m guessing this is somewhat satirical, but it’s a pretty hot jam. I look forward to the release of the album.

Week Twenty-Six

Aimee_Mann_-_WhateverAimee Mann – Whatever (1993)★★★★☆

At the intersection of Joni Mitchell and Liz Phair, Whatever balances beauty and skepticism using incredible songwriting. “Say Anything” and “I Should’ve Known” rock especially hard. I don’t know if another song like “Mr. Harris” exists.

Third Quarter Projections

I enter the second half of 2017 without expectation. There are many albums remaining on my to-listen list, both from external recommendations and personal choice. I have faith that the next 26 weeks will bring me the music I need to hear; I will keep my ear to the ground and my heart open.

In Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I ought to warn you that this essay will contain spoilers for Wolf Hall (and lots of them), img_3096but I am not sure that this book can be spoiled. Wolf Hall is historical fiction, based on the actions of Henry VIII and his councilors surrounding the English Reformation. In addition to the king, the three main characters are Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. The death of one of these is particularly notorious, but (and here’s where the Spoiler Alert gets tricky) all three met the same, headless end. Wolf Hall concludes with the death of More, prior to the deaths of Boleyn and Cromwell. Evidently Wolf Hall is the first novel of a Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) ends with [Spoiler Alert] the execution of Anne Boleyn. Presumably, the final installment will put an end to Thomas Cromwell, as well.

Surely the author intends the reader to anticipate their executions. Indeed, if one does not know that everyone involved is doomed to decapitation, there seems little weight to the novel. It is a spoiler to say “Thomas More dies,” but unless you know Thomas More is going to die, you are missing a crucial piece of the dramatic puzzle. Historical knowledge of the personalities involved in the English Reformation is a prerequisite to grasping Wolf Hall. This is not in and of itself a flaw; a good book can be enriched by a historical founding, and I don’t dispute the possibilities of historical fiction. This book rewards those familiar with the history, while those unfamiliar must hold on tighter. Titles are used interchangeably with names, somewhat aggressively at times, challenging readers’ history and memory.

THomas More by Hans Holbein

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

The driving literary device in Wolf Hall (and much historical fiction) is dramatic irony: the reader knows Katherine will be dethroned, the Church will split, heads will roll, Mary will be bloody, but the characters do not. If the reader knows what is going to happen, why bother reading? Two main reasons: to learn the history more intimately or to enjoy the book as a literary work. I certainly learned a lot from Wolf Hall. I gained a different perspective on the historical sequence of events surrounding the English Reformation, and what feels like familiarity with the names and actions of the individuals involved.

For the other purpose, to enjoy the novel qua novel, the piece of historical fiction must cross from a simple dramatization into a work of literary art. To stand on its own, it needs to do more than go through the historical motions. Wolf Hall does not. It is as if each of the many characters is simply a vehicle for his or her historical actions. We know Anne Boleyn and her family wormed their way onto the throne, so they are constantly worming, deceiving, scheming. We are shown Thomas Cromwell’s childhood with an abusive father and the devastating loss of his family members as an adult, but these events don’t seem to change his personality or motivation. He is a calculating, family-oriented boy, and he is a calculating, family-oriented man. We are told he was a fighter as a youth, but the novel opens on Cromwell not fighting back, and we never see him throw a punch.

We do not receive the literary joys of character growth, philosophical insight, or linguistic novelty. The prose drags. Instead of the cleverness or subtlety of real irony, Wolf Hall is dripping with dramatic irony, which is an excellent supplement but a poor substitute. The weight of the novel is borrowed from the subject matter, so that the whole book is written with a faux gravitas that is more muddled than affecting.

The one literary device with which the author takes great liberty is her disregard of the rules of pronouns and antecedents. Most of the time, the pronoun “he” refers to Thomas Cromwell. Unless and until the reader internalizes this convention, the text is almost unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

On October 2 the cardinal reaches his palace at Cawood, ten miles from York. His enthronement is planned for November 7. News comes that he has called for a convocation of the northern church; it is to meet at York the day after his enthronement. It is a signal of his independence; some may think it is a signal of revolt. He has not informed the king, he has not informed old Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury; he can hear the cardinal’s voice, soft and amused, saying, now, Thomas, why do they need to know?

The subject is established as the cardinal, to whom the following “his”s and “he”s refer until the second half of the final sentence. The last sentence uses “he” twice to refer to the cardinal, and a third time to refer to Cromwell.

Jarring shifts like this are on every page of the book, and require some mental rewiring

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

to read comfortably. The implications of typical sentence structure are upended, as in this sentence: “When he meets the king, Henry rages about Gardiner.” In a normal sentence, “he” would refer to “Henry,” but in Wolf Hall, Henry is the king (except when Henry is not the king). Of course, King Henry is easy to remember, but when less distinctive titles and names are used, like “duke” and “Thomas” or “secretary” and “Stephen,” deciphering becomes even more complicated. Thomas Cromwell is given precedence over all other characters, with the effect that Wolf Hall is narrated by something less than first person, but more than omniscient third person. Occasionally a sentence or two from outside Cromwell’s ken is thrown in, and these are often jarring in themselves, as unjustified by the scope of the preceding narrative scheme.

The two things that make Wolf Hall intelligible are getting used to thinking “Cromwell” when you see “he” and simply knowing who everybody is. This brings back the issue of spoilers. If a book contains historical fact, and the reader is presumed to know the fact, and foreknowledge of the fact is necessary to appreciate the book, is there anything the reader can “know” to spoil the book? What is the meaning of Thomas More torturing and executing others unless you know he will meet the same fate? Where is the power in Thomas Cromwell having More executed unless you know he will also be subject to trumped up charges that will be his end? I am a card-carrying anti-spoiler activist, but I can’t imagine a book more in need of a spoiling. I value walking away with the new perspective on history, but I am disappointed that this novel turned out to be a slog.

2017: First Quarter Note

The first fourth of 2017 is mercifully behind us. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, strangers, and society-at-large, my weeks have been full of new music of all shapes and sizes. Every Sunday I choose an album to which I’ve never listened, and throughout the week I listen to it at least five times (to give it a fair shake). Here is how I’ve been struck by albums in 2017 so far.

N.B. My rating system is not based on objective quality, but on the likelihood of me ever choosing to listen to the album again. It’s personal to me, so don’t take it personal.

★★★★★ I love it, and it’s already a regular listen.
★★★★☆ I like it a lot and will definitely play it again.
★★★☆☆ I like it, but I may not listen to it often.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week One

The Jam – In the City (1977)1 The_Jam_-_In_the_City
★★★☆☆

A punk band with interesting chord structures and actually meaningful lyrics, I started off the year hot and hopping with The Jam. Especial favorites are “Away from the Numbers” and “I Got By In Time.”

Bonus Tunes: Talking Heads – Little Creatures (1985)

I have listened to Little Creatures more than any other album all year. I can’t get over how much I like Talking Heads.

Week Two

2 Outkast-atliensOutKast – ATLiens (1996)
★★☆☆☆

For reasons I cannot quite identify, ATLiens had a depressive effect on me. Of the many clever rhymes, my favorite is from “Elevators:”
Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia
This ain’t gon’ stop, so we just gon’ continue

Bonus Tunes: Kanye West – “Monster” (2010)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t Nicki Minaj’s verse on this song. I understand now.

Week Three

Sleigh Bells – Treats (2010)3 Sleigh_Bells_-_Treats
★★★★★

This album is exactly why I started this project. I had never heard of Sleigh Bells, and if I had, I am sure I would have dismissed them as “not my kind of music.” Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I get to enjoy this fresh, high energy, positive, killer album.

Week Four

4 Dead_Kennedys_-_Fresh_Fruit_for_Rotting_Vegetables_coverDead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
★★★★★

Folks, this is what it’s all about. With relentless rock and righteous lyrics, Dead Kennedys condemn you, your mom, and your worst enemy. Everybody can go to hell equally. I’m in.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

This album is the reason I signed up for Apple Music–I was tired of hearing about popular releases but not experiencing them. Now I know I love Run the Jewels.

Week Five

Emmylou Harris- Roses in the Snow (1980)5 Roses_in_the_Snow_(Emmylou_Harris_album_-_cover_art)
★★☆☆☆

The problem with covering “The Boxer” is it’s probably better than anything else on the album (see also: Mumford & Sons’ Babel bonus tracks). “Root Like a Rose” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” are very strong, and I always like a Wronged Woman tune. Crazy to think this album and Fresh Fruit were released in the same year.

Week Six

6 WallflowersBringingDowntheHorseThe Wallflowers – Bringing Down the Horse (1996)
★★☆☆☆

Like many albums of the 1990s, I am convinced I could make Bringing Down the Horse better by cutting three songs, and 30-90 seconds from most of those remaining. If anyone would like to pay me to do this, please contact my agent.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (2013)

There are a few verses on this album that make me bona fide bowled over. Specifically, Killer Mike’s Tyson lines in “Job Well Done” and his description of taking Molly in “No Come Down” are incredible.

Week Seven

Broadcast – Tender Buttons (2005)7 Tenderbuttons
★★★★☆

Another electronic rock album that I would have never chosen on my own. Tender Buttons crept under my skin and stayed there.

Week Eight

8 Cheap_Trick_One_on_OneCheap Trick – One on One (1984)
★☆☆☆☆

This is probably a very exciting album for 14 year old boys.

Bonus Tunes: The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Preservation Society (1968)

In a world of British bands pretending to be American, The Kinks proudly sing about the Village Green and the Sherlock Holmes English-Speaking Vernacular. “Picture Book” is a Grade-A fantastic song, and this album is a joy.

Week Nine

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)9 Marquee_moon_album_cover
★★★★★

I know I like a band/album when I enjoy the 10-minute song with a five-minute guitar solo. I can’t stop singing “Prove It” and “Torn Curtain” to myself.

Week Ten

10 The_Pirate's_GospelAlela Diane – The Pirate’s Gospel (2004)
★★☆☆☆

Nice songs, like a B-grade Rhiannon Giddens.

Bonus Tunes: Migos – “Bad and Boujee” (2016)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t every single person on earth talking about this song. I understand now.

Week Eleven

The Mountain Goats – Sunset Tree (2005)11 Themountaingoatsthesunsettreealbumcover
★★★★☆

This album continues to grow on me. I am strongly reminded of The Decemberists, with less death and more drugs.

Week Twelve

12 Licensed_to_illBeastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)
★★★☆☆

This album goes down easy, like a meal of Budweiser and White Castle.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (2014)

RTJ2 might include the most obscene song I’ve ever heard. Doesn’t stop this old prude from enjoying it! My personal RTJ ranking: 1, 3, 2. Can’t wait to see them this summer.

Week Thirteen

The Sundays – Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990)13 Sundays-readingwritingarithmetic
★★★★★

Sometimes I pick an album because I’ve been eyeing it for years; other albums I pick because I hear people on an old podcast raving about a band I’ve never heard of. The Sundays are very The Smiths-y, and I’m grateful I listened to that episode of Do You Need A Ride? I’m so excited to have this album, and The Sundays’ other albums, to listen to.

Second Quarter Projections

Kicking off Quarter Two with some long-overdue Prince. I have a lot of albums ready to go, but I’m still accepting recommendations. If you have a favorite album, an album you want everyone to hear, or just an album you think I would like, please send it along!

Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2016

This year was not my most musically adventurous. I spent a lot of listening time on podcasts (SSDGM), lecture series (Russia, Ulysses, Ireland), and Hamilton (again), and made minimal efforts seek out new music. I have decided to take action against musical malaise next year. I will listen to a new album every week, at least four times to make sure they get a chance to sink in. I crowdsourced a long list of albums (some new, all new to me), and I am excited to get started. Until then, here are the albums that I enjoyed the most in 2016.

5. Rocket to Russia (Ramones, 1977)

Favorite Song: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”

ramones_-_rocket_to_russia_cover

Listening to Rocket to Russia, I can almost hear the crowded New York club, filled with rollicking girls and  rowdy boys. The songs are not meant to be played cleanly into a silent space (like my car), but played with living energy and breathing motion, directly into the bodies of the listener. Once I got over the impression that the album was made of two songs, each rewritten several times, I found joy in the simple lyrics and driving beats. The repetition and pace are hypnotic. On the downside: I can’t imagine why they included “Surfin’ Bird.” The Clash would never do that.

4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips, 2002)

Favorite Song: “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”

theflaminglips-yoshimibattlesthepinkrobotsOne impression of Yoshimi: So this is what all those indie bands are trying to do.

Though I was initially wary of the musical interludes (I am a lyrics-first person), I soon found the melodies crawling under my skin, making themselves a backing track to my day. Once the lyrics broke through, they hit me squarely in the chakra. The Flaming Lips’ new age philosophy (which is really old age philosophy) in catchy rhythms with just a touch of science fiction makes for a fun and beautiful album that grows on me more with every listen.

3. Sail Away (Randy Newman, 1972)

Favorite Song: “Sail Away”

randy_newman-sail_away_album_cover

Any communication folks have had with me this year has probably included some version of me melting into “Randy Newman is a genius.” Randy Newman is so good at satire, you can love and know every word of his songs and not even know they have meaning beyond

their face value. The title track of Sail Away feels like freedom–sail away, cross the ocean, stop running, take care of your home–but it is a lie coaxing someone to surrender themselves into bondage. “Political Science” is one of the funniest songs I know. At the same time,

it simply relates a terrifying endpoint of American exceptionalism (they’re of no use to us, drop the big one). Newman is not a religious man, so you know his two songs on God, “He Gives Us All His Love” and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” mean more than meets the eye. Then there is “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which is just a jam.

Each Newman album has a handful of gutpunches. Standouts to me are “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Baltimore” on Little Criminals and “Rednecks” and “Kingfish” on Good Old Boys. I have not begun to crack the all nuts that are Randy Newman songs, but there is a whole barrel worth gnawing on. Because I don’t know if you realize this, but Randy Newman is a genius.

2. The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976)

Favorite Song: “I’m Straight”

the_modern_lovers_albumThis album is a gem. I am grateful for John Hodgman’s continual pushing of “Roadrunner” that finally brought The Modern Lovers to me. Jonathan Richman sounds like a self-aware teenager doing an impression of a regular horny teenager. “Pablo Picasso” is the comeback of a rejected adolescent bemoaning the injustices of life and love. “Government Center” is a ‘60s garage band playing a ‘50s dance number. Great music, great lyrics, great delivery. Richman loves the Old World but wants to live in the Modern World, and I want to live in the Modern World with him.

1. Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)

Favorite Song: “Girl Loves Me”

I may not have listened to Blackstar much this year if David Bowie had not died; perhaps I would not feel the weight of its greatness under different circumstances. Nevertheless, Blackstar is inseparable from Bowie’s death–the themes of age, illness, legacy, and life are felt in every song. Bowie knew he was leaving and he gave us Blackstar as a parting gift. The man who once had Friday on his mind is now wondering “where the f*¢k did Monday go?”

blackstar_front_coverTechnically, Blackstar is not “my kind” of music. But there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Whether it is folk, funk, metal, or jazz, David Bowie makes good music. Like a symphony the title track carries the listener from movement to movement, and somehow drops you off where you started with no memory of the return. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” is a slow ballad sung over a breakneck jazz beat in a triumph of musical engineering. “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are mesmerizing, haunting, heartfelt reflections in peak Bowie style.

There is an old monk in a Robertson Davies novel who laments that since Jesus died at 33 he did not have the opportunity to teach the monk how to be old. There is no end of music describing the pleasures and sorrows of youth, but many of us will grow old and all of us will die. In his final months Bowie turned his inner state into art, as he had so many times before, and we are all his beneficiaries.

Honorable Mentions

Little Creatures (Talking Heads, 1985)
The only reason Little Creatures didn’t crack my top five is because I only started listening to it in the last week of 2016. “Stay Up Late?” Are you kidding me with this? Of course.

Hamilton Mixtape (Various Artists, 2016)
I’m not as Hamilton-crazed as I once was, but the Mixtape mostly nailed it. Kelly Clarkson’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” is magnificent. The original tracks “Immigrants” and “Say Yes to This” have convinced me that I need to listen to more rap (please don’t laugh at me).

Elephant Power (MC Yogi, 2008)
I cannot stand Christian rock, but Hindu rap I am 100% in favor of (I asked you politely not to laugh).

Here’s to 2017!

May I have 52 entries on this list next year!