Books and music are so essential to me, and, I think, to a life lived with love and laughter, that I am devoting a separate page to them. (BTW if there are links in here I’m not getting paid for them – not that I don’t hope to get paid for them someday, if you buy something, but that’s not happening right now – just giving you a way to easily find what I’m talking about in case you want to explore further).
I wrote recently about improvisation, which I used to perform, and which, to be perfectly honest, changed my life. Taught me to say “yes” to people and experiences that I would not have said “yes” to before I was trained as an improviser, and my life has been enriched as a result.
So in case you are interested, I thought I’d share a few of what I think are some of the best books about the art of improvisation:
“Something Wonderful Right Away,” by Jeffrey Sweet – an oral history of Second City and the Compass Players
“Impro,” by Keith Johnstone
“Truth in Comedy,” by Charna Halpern and Del Close – this last describes moments and performances I witnessed, people I took class with or performed with, and gives the closest depiction of my experience with improvisation.
There are many more books about improv, some considered fundamental (Viola Spolin) and others just redundant. But here are three I’ve actually read. Three. Rule of threes. Should be in Del’s book, somewhere, but I don’t remember. Which isn’t important, because you’re not really supposed to “remember” things about improv so much as just do them, in the moment, to the benefit of your fellow players and the “group mind.” And then it vanishes, and it can’t be recreated. But that’s why it is especially wonderful.
The Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian
It’s about time I came back to this page and recommended some of my favorites.
Absolutely top of the list are the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian, pictured above in the 20-volume paperback set I have. You will either become hooked, reading and re-reading them over and over, or you won’t get through them at all. “Do or do not, there is no try.” But I hope I’ll hook a few of you on these, they could change your life, and introduce you to a society of persons globally who love and are devoted to these books and their characters. It may take some hunting around the internet to find the 20 paperbacks, but you can get them in hardback individually or as a set in 5 hardback volumes.
I’d recommend buying (or borrowing from your local library) the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain; after the second you’ll know if you’re hooked or if you can’t go on and you’ll be able to decide if you must possess the entire set.
If you do get hooked, there are a great many companion books including recipes for foods mentioned (Lobscouse and Spotted Dog) or biographies of other great naval heroes of the age (Cochrane, Nelson). There’s also a controversial biography of the author, Patrick O’Brian, A Life Revealed, which in hindsight I kind of wish I hadn’t read, but you decide if you want to know about the author of if you want to stick with the wonderful characters he created.
I’ve written about other historical novels and speculative fiction I enjoy in a blog post, but a book I didn’t mention is “Mountain Man” by Vardis Fisher, which was the inspiration for a Robert Redford film called “Jeremiah Johnson.”
This book changed my life, because of its description of the protagonist’s intense powers of observation, which were essential to his survival. It’s a violent story of the old west, but it fascinated me and caused me to pay much greater attention to the world around me and have greater appreciation for my five functioning senses.
I invite you to share books that changed your life in the comments. I welcome your recommendations!
I failed to make any new recommendations for Christmas music for 2018 in time, but I learned some wonderful new stuff in my chorus this year, and you can read about it here.
As of 2017, here are my favorite Christmas recordings, from what I think of as the “it goes without saying” ones to some unexpected gems that Mike and I discovered through our annual gamble of choosing several obscure or potentially awful CDs from the bargain bin.
So, starting with the “it goes without saying” essentials:
Messiahs: one with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Andrew Davis (now Sir Andrew Davis) with Kathleen Battle and Samuel Ramey, among other wonderful singers. Or the John Eliot Gardner version with the Monteverdi Choir.
Charlie Brown, of course, and Christmas Carols sung by choirs in lovely, echoey places – there’s a good one featuring the Londonderry Boys Choir, and there’s Christmas with the Cambridge Singers.
My absolute favorite, the best late-night-after-the-kids-have-gone-to-bed, have yourself soothing little eggnog recording – I just love the distant hush of the sound of this record – In the Bleak Midwinter.
In the unexpected gem category, here are a few I just grabbed because I liked the artist in another context, and I discovered records that were thoughtful and beautifully crafted, where the artist had taken the time to write new songs for the season, or rework classic ones in a new and wonderful way, or just perform well loved songs really well: Vince Gill’s Breath of Heaven. I’m not a huge country music fan, but Vince Gill’s high lonesome voice is always worth a listen (not to mention his guitar playing but that isn’t really featured here) and his recording of the title track will stop you in yours.
I also really like Shawn Colvin’s “Holiday Songs and Lullabies” – I first became aware of Shawn Colvin from “Sunny Came Home,” but I also saw her do a charming turn on “Sesame Street,” (which we still watch in our house) and so I picked this one, and I love it – another good one for late at night to settle down after a busy day of holiday preparations.
And Kenny Loggins December, which I really didn’t like the first time I listened to it, but I gave it another chance and now it is one of my favorites.
For some more uptempo or unusual holiday fun from a great musician and arranger and his great band, I like Harry Connick.
And finally Christmas Songs, which is a lot of fun, with some really interesting tracks I wouldn’t have found otherwise – but the opening “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with Barenaked Ladies and Sara McLachlan is great, and in her (McLachlan’s) version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” you can practically feel the fading embers of the fire and hear the snow-muffled sounds of a lamplit-cabin in the Canadian woods.