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.
July 23, 2022 — I have been listening to performances of Brahms’ “Ein Deutches Requiem” (A German Requiem) for over 40 years, since I first learned it as a member of the soprano section of my college choir.
Last night I heard it for the first time.
Conductor Marin Alsop unpacked this work in a way that eradicated previous performances or recordings from my memory. I’d heard the Chicago Symphony Chorus perform this work before, in the same location, at the Ravinia Festival, shortly after I graduated from college. I insisted my mother come with me to the concert, because I was desperate to hear a chorus of that caliber perform the work. The only thing I remember about that performance now was how my mouthing the words and moving my body along with the music irritated and embarrassed my Mom.
But last night, the Chicago Symphony Chorus’ performance engraved itself on my brain in a way I’m certain I will never forget, and that I hope to hear in my memory when I pass from this world into the next. I struggled to find a word to describe it to the beloved companion who stayed with Angelic Daughter while I attended the performance. What I finally came up with was “Olympian.” Maybe “Herculean” would also do.
Maestro Alsop achieved the nearly impossible in the choral world: she shushed the soprano section in favor of the men, which gave the work a beauty and power I had never heard before, even in recordings from other renown choral groups (and I say this as a lifelong soprano high-note animal, who has never met a double-forte she didn’t love). The soaring tenor lines and robust, authoritative bass sound just hit me right between the eyes. If I hadn’t been wearing a mask, you would have seen me smile, and ooh, and aah, at the sound.
Sure, the sopranos had their moments, which they sang with the tenderness required for a work that is not about drawing the dead out of purgatory to their eternal rest in heaven, but rather is intended to comfort the living, who have been left behind to grieve.
I had never heard either of the soloists before, but the baritone, Matthias Goerne, was exceptionally expressive with the text and demonstrated mastery of his vocal instrument, from his rich low tones to his ethereal high range.
Regarding the soprano soloist, I will simply say there must have been a reason she was chosen to sing at this performance, but whatever it was, I couldn’t discern it. The 5th movement soprano solo, to me, is the pinnacle of the work (Brahms added it after the rest of the work was finished) which should be sung in the angelic voice of a loving, departed mother.
The text refers to a heavenly reunion that will give the grieving joy that no one can steal. It says, “I will comfort you as a mother comforts her son.” The movement opens with a rising, then gently descending line that poses a notorious breathing challenge for the soloist. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone get through it in one breath. But that shouldn’t mean the ascent doesn’t float, and the descent gently lose altitude, like a feather, like a gossamer shawl drifting lightly around the shoulders of an angel. I didn’t hear that last night–maybe I expect too much. Others in the audience seemed satisfied, but I didn’t get that angelic presence from the 5th movement of last night’s performance. That was my only disappointment in the midst of an otherwise triumphant concert.
What I did get from the concert as a whole was a resounding affirmation of the power of music to transcend pain, grief, and even death. I got a reminder of how central music has been to my life, both as a listener and a performer. I got to overhear a Dad patiently responding to his son’s every question, explaining which instrument they were hearing warm up, and that yes, if no one came to occupy the seats next to them, they’d move over so the child could get a better view. They even referred to the last and next times they’d be in attendance. The kid seemed genuinely interested in this masterwork of classical music. That gave me hope.
Ravinia is in Highland Park, Illinois. The significance of that was not lost on the performers or the audience. The mens’ heroic, stentorian voices on the text, “Denn alles Fleisch est ist vie Gras” (all flesh is like the grass”) softened to the uplifting passage at the end of the first movement, with text that reminds the listener that the word of the Lord is forever, and the redeemed shall have eternal joy.
May you find comfort from grief (aren’t we all feeling grief, for our Earth, for democracy, for our dimished COVID dominated lives, for each other?) in music–or poetry, literature, or visual art, or exercise or forest bathing, or whatever gives you peace. Putting my headphones on and hoping last night’s performance was recorded, I remain,
Your comforted, uplifted, de-stressed, music loving,
For more on the Brahms Requiem, I stumbled upon some long and informative program notes written by a retired music history professor from Cleveland State University for a 2013 performance at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland.
Progress Report 2
I’ve given myself permission to go slowly with Shakespeare. The Riverside Shakespeare has been sitting in my bookshelf, unread, for over 40 years. Of course, I think of myself as someone who couldn’t possibly be old enough to have owned anything for 40 years, but there it is.
I’m surprised at how easily reading it, including all the scholarly commentary, feels to me. I vaguely remember making several false starts over the decades, burdened with a sense of obligation to read all the introductory stuff before I got on with reading the plays.
Other times I’d feel a bit defiant, and I’d want to just get straight to the text, but felt lost in the textual notes and the shorthand for the “dramatis personae,” so I’d start over, and quickly quit.
I guess I’m just a very late bloomer when it comes to reading Shakespeare. I’ve always been firmly on the side of performance of these plays — they’re plays, dammit! So I was pleased to find in the commentary an acknowledgment of that point of view. I remember a college friend of mine who went on to “read an M.Phi” in Shakespeare at Oxford, expressing the same sentiment.
(I wrote about this before, but I didn’t tell you the whole story): I also vividly remember being the only female in the “middle common room” (lounge for graduate students) of Oriel College, Oxford, at the time the last all male college of the University, watching the BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew with my friend and several of his friends. Their enjoyment of Petruchio’s humiliation of Katherina was significantly dampened by my presence, and their upbringing as “English gentlemen.”
“Taming” is said to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, difficult for modern audiences to swallow, and for good reason. Petruchio describes Kate as “my goods, my chattels, she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing, …” vowing to defend Kate (“they shall not touch you”) but only in the context of her being his property.
And a “tamed” Kate wins Petruchio a bet at the close of the play by being the only wife of the male guests at a banquet to obediently come when called. She rebukes the other women for their failure to do as they are bid, with lines like “I am asham’d that women are so simple,To offer war where they should kneel for peace; Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.”
When that BBC production (displayed on an old tube television that couldn’t have been more than 18 inches diagonally, to a room full of men, and me) was over, I was so perplexed by the final scene that I turned to my friend the Shakespeare scholar and asked him what it could possibly mean…”Enlighten me!” I demanded.
Oh, the Herculean effort it must have taken for those men to suppress laughter at that moment! Maybe that’s why the room cleared so quickly – they just had to get out of there and go “down the pub” to let it all out. I’m sure my friend endured months of dirty jokes and innuendo as a result of my outburst.
All these years later, I came to my own conclusions about the play. One of the commentators, a woman, by the way, writes that Kate obviously falls for Petruchio as soon as she lays eyes on him.
I think it is he who fell for her, and the fact that she can fulfill his intent to “wive it wealthily” is a bonus. After his abusive display of behavior like her own, Kate learns how to get what she needs out of Petruchio by agreeing with any ridiculous thing he may say.
The final speech about obedience, I think, can be played as a description of feminine power–an intelligent, assertive woman who plays her cards right can get what she wants and needs, even in a repressive, restrictive society dominated by men, where women truly were treated like property.
And yes, Kate does love Petruchio. When she’s on to what he’s up to, she starts to understand his game, and maybe even admire him for it. The final scene could be viewed as one that maps out a blueprint for marital tranquility between two people of strong will and equal intelligence. That’s how I’d play it (ok, at my age, direct it) anyway.
I started with “The Comedy of Errors,” got through “Taming” quickly, and now must tackle “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” The introduction isn’t promising, pointing out several problems with the play due to its probably hasty assembly and revisions for performances, and no contemporary definitive text available. Apparently it’s a play with another, quite shocking, marriage.
I’ll report back when I get through the next few plays, but in the meantime, I encourage you to pick up the script of your favorite Shakespeare play, and read the parts out loud. Create a performance in your living room! And “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” (Haven’t gotten to Hamlet yet, but I will!)
I thought I should circle back and let you know how my “all the books I should have read by now” project is going.
I finished both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and enjoyed them both, although I liked the Odyssey much more. Fitzgerald’s translation read like a classy “boys own adventure” type of story. There two big surprises for me in the books: (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if you haven’t read Homer yet):
Surprise 1 – Achilles doesn’t die in the Iliad.
Surprise 2- There is no mention of a Trojan Horse in the Iliad; it’s mentioned in passing in the Odyssey.
Guess it’s time to read Bullfinch’s Mythology to see if or how he explains the origins of the stories of those two things.
On the Jane Austen front, I finished Emma, and was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I’ve often heard it referred to as a lesser novel, but I found it more accessible than the others, and much livelier than Mansfield Park. Now I’m tackling Northanger Abbey (again, after a failed prior attempt) and enjoying it more – I’m not sure what changed. Maybe I’m a more patient reader than I used to be. I’m much better at keeping track of who everyone is and how they are acquainted with or related to each other.
Somewhere along the way in there I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I enjoyed it as much for the technical skill of the author, Audrey Niffenegger, in having her characters jump around in time, as I did for the story itself.
I’m saving Shakespeare for the winter. Somehow the idea of reading him by a crackling fire appeals to me. Unfortunately there are no electrical outlets near my fireplace for connecting a lamp – perhaps I’ll read him by lantern-light!
So, what are you reading these days?
All the books I should have read by now
Although I won’t call it a New Year’s Resolution, in accordance with my “theme” for the year, “now,” I have embarked on a mission to read all the books I should have read by now. One thing I’ve learned anything from the pandemic is to be more conscious of time, and not wasting it. I want to stuff my head with as much great literature as I can in how ever much time I’ve got left. I’m starting with all the unread books I’ve already got, crammed together on my bookshelves, waiting patiently, because I could never admit I’d never get around to them and couldn’t bear to get rid of them.
I’ve made it through Moby Dick (after my 6 rounds of Aubrey-Maturin, I quite enjoyed it – even that long, long digressions about the different species of whales, etc. – I’ll have to go back and re-read the last 100 pages or so, because I didn’t really follow the sequence of Ahab’s and the Pequod’s demise).
Picked up the old Modern Library edition of Madame Bovary, and zipped through that pretty quickly. One of my rules about all of this (and if you’ve been reading my blog you know how I like to impose rules on myself, and on others, a little too often!) is to draw my own conclusions. I found Bovary to be an amusing, if also tragic, satire on bourgeois (or should I be more hip and just write “bougie?”) life and aspirations in post-revolutionary France.
Made it through Mansfield Park after several false starts. Although Patrick O’Brian loved Jane Austen, I find her writing far less accessible than his, and the predictability of the plots (who will end up marrying who, and who will get their just desserts, or lose all, or exit to the continent or the colonies, or whatever) tend to exasperate me, I’m determined to get through my single-tome version of the complete Austen within the next few years (one year is too ambitious, I’m afraid). So that means I’ve still got Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Lady Susan to get through. I watched Sanditon on PBS and decided I’ll leave the unfinished ones alone, as the production included raunchy scenes and elements that I don’t think Austen would ever have imagined, much less written.
Currently, I’m in the middle of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad, to be followed by its companion The Odyssey. I futzed around for decades in a state of paralyzed indecision about what translation to read, rummaging around the house only to find several mismatched sets of Iliads and Odysseys. I wanted to read “Chapman’s Homer” because that’s the version that seems to come up in depictions of the education of young ladies and gentlemen of the 18th and 19th centuries, but I couldn’t get a grip on it. The Fitzgerald version, I’m happy to say, has me totally engrossed – and he’s kept “rosy fingered dawn,” “wine dark sea,”and “grey-eyed Athena” for good measure.
After Homer comes Shakespeare. I’ve read all the usual suspects typically assigned in high school (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, the Scottish play, and several of the Henrys), but I passed on the popular and always over-subscribed course at my college, to my later regret. I’ve got both the Riverside and Norton complete Shakespeares just sitting there on my shelves, waiting, as they have been for decades.
In my youth I had the extraordinary good fortune of spending a term studying abroad at Oxford University. My college arranged a program where the 15 or so students accepted for participation were assigned tutors affiliated with various colleges to “read” their chosen subjects, along with a few “seminar” type classes – none recognized by the University, as at the time, “the University do not accept exchange students.” We got to “in hall” until the “real” Oxford students arrived – otherwise we were on pub grub and at the mercy of our landladies in digs scattered around town.
Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience, made better by the fact that a good friend who had previously participated in the program had returned to Oxford (Oriel College, to be precise, at a time when it was the last remaining all-male college of the University) to read an M.Phil in, you guessed it, Shakespeare.
I had the disconcerting, and ultimately kind of hilarious, experience of watching the BBC’s production of The Taming of the Shrew in the Middle Common Room of Oriel, with my friend and about a dozen other resentful male students. My presence imposed the necessity of decorum on them. They didn’t get to really dive in to their enjoyment degrading Kate. I’m sure my friend, who was my host, got an earful from his less feminist-minded acquaintances after my departure.
After Shakespeare, I suppose I have to attempt Proust. I’ve never, ever heard a women praise Remembrance of Things Past, but I’ve heard lots of men rhapsodize about it. Same for Infinite Jest, which I tried a few years ago, and just couldn’t keep going. But I suppose I’ll have to try again, because otherwise I’ll feel exiled from the ranks of the truly literate.
There are so many more – Anna Karenina and War and Peace (Mike had read the latter before I met him) and non-fiction on mythology and spirituality like The Golden Bough and The Hero’s Journey, and Bulfinch’s mythology.
This barely scratches the surface, and yes, I’m aware these are all from the “dead white male” dominated Western canon of everything I should have read by now. I need many more titles from a far more diverse list of authors, particularly from the 20th century to the present, which offer different points of view born of very different experiences.
So, with all that, I solicit your list of the 50-100 books you think every adult of a certain age should have ready by now, to add to my list. Overwhelm me, I’m up for it.
Books about autism, Asperger’s and disability in general
As most parents do, when their child is diagnosed as living on the autism spectrum, I read a lot of books about it. The ones that stayed with me most were not the clinical sort, full of special diets or supplements, hypotheses about causes and recommended therapies, but the honest and emotional descriptions of life as a parent, or person, living with autism.
A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, by Beth Kephart
Ms. Kephart’s son had the same diagnosis as my Angelic Daughter – “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified,” which I translate as the medical profession’s way of saying, “Wull shit, I dunno, she’s differ’nt!” The descriptions of this brave and wonderful little boy, his fixations and anxieties and the joys and challenges of being a parent to such a truly courageous child give great insight into the lives of families with autistic children, for those who live in a strictly “neurotypical” world. The section about the anxiety and planning that go into one play date will just rip you up. It did me.
The Short Bus, by Jonathan Mooney
Even if your kid was never tormented or laughed at for riding “the short bus,” this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about inclusion, free expression and the right to simply be who you are. Stories of communities that embraced and looked out for their eccentric or disabled members, or didn’t, and how people with differences survive and make their way should inspire you. Next time you see the short bus coming for a child on your block, you’re likely to feel compassion, empathy and even admiration for the endurance, resilience and good humor of many of the people featured.
Look Me In the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison
Being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 40 changed John Elder Robison’s life, and his way of describing this “invisible disability” changed mine, giving me language and stories to help me explain Angelic Daughter’s behavioral differences more effectively to parents and family members who just didn’t get it. Robison’s differences gave him interests and abilities that turned into jobs that have made up an interesting and successful career. So if you have a professional colleague who just seems different, socially awkward, insensitive or dismissive, this book will give you another way to think about that behavior asa possible (emphasis on the possible – were not qualified to go around diagnosing anyone here – that’s up to the individual, if they want a diagnosis, and their doctor) neurological difference.
There are more books like this on my “TBR” list, particularly Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism by Ron Suskind, which tells the amazing story of how a young man without language figured out how to use memorized dialogue from Disney movies to communicate with his family.
Every parent of a person with autism remembers breakthrough moments, often heartrending, when a child whose brain forces them to come at language sideways or upside down, finds a way, struggles through the frustration to finally communicate, their anxiety or their love. With me, it was when Angelic Daughter was going to start kindergarten. She was clearly anxious and afraid, as are all kids who are soon to head off to school and endure the separation anxiety of being away from Mom or Dad. We were walking home from the park, and I was carrying her limp, exhausted self, worn out more with anxiety than play, and I was trying to reassure her about how fun and nice kindergarten would be.
She took a deep, half-sobbing breath, and said, “show you the pictures?”
She meant, will there be someone there to help me communicate, by showing me pictures to use to say what I want or need? To give me pictures to show someone else when I want to tell them how I feel? Mom, please tell me, will there be someone there to show me the pictures so I can point to the one I need?
I remember exactly where we were, in the middle of the street on a little hill, walking toward home. I stopped and held her tight, and through my own ragged breathing and tears, of relief for finally understanding what she was so anxious about, and of love and pain because she had been so scared and lost and unable to say why or about what until then, I told her “yes, yes sweetheart, of course! There will be a nice speech lady there to show you the pictures!”
I felt her relax and slump on my shoulder. I think she fell asleep on the short walk home, having found a way to break through and get her concerns addressed. Now that she’s an adult, we call that “good self-advocacy.” Then, at 6 years old, I called it a miracle.
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.