Tag Archives: books

The Noise of Time

IMG_6943I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes over the course of about a week. It’s a smallish book, coming in at around 200 pages. I could have read it faster, perhaps in two or three days, but from the very first pages, I knew it was a book I wanted to savour.

 

The novel opens with Dmitri Shostakovich waiting by the lift in his apartment building. A few nights before, Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a well respected, popular, and internationally renowned opera. He and his cronies left after the third act. Shostakovich had also been in the audience, and later picked up a copy of Pravda to read the denunciation of his up until then beloved opera entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.”

 

Composers are used to bad reviews, of course. All artists are. They are used to criticism of their art, and used to people not understanding their intentions or their vision. But a bad review under Stalin was not simply a bad review. On page 26, Barnes writes of the Muddle Instead of Music review:

 

“There were three phrases which aimed not just at his theoretical misguidedness but at his very person. “The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.” That was enough to take away his membership in the Union of Composers. “The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear.” That was enough to take away his ability to compose and perform. And finally: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” That was enough to take away his life.”

 

Such was life for writers, composers, dancers, actors, any type of artist at all under Stalin. In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes focuses on the life of Shostakovich, and does a remarkable job eliciting and evoking this era in Soviet history, and a society that didn’t know how not to be afraid.

IMG_6994

The novel – and at times it was difficult to remember I was reading a novel and not an actual biography – is lyric and wry, funny and heartbreaking, often surreal, and always beautiful. It is also immensely quotable. Barnes has a gift for conveying feelings and ideas in very few, yet perfectly chosen words, causing me to stop and contemplate before resuming reading. In fact, I flagged over 30 lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire pages as potential quotes. Definitely too many to include in a short review, but enough to make me return to the book often, to read the passages again for their sheer beauty, their compact power. The novel’s structure adds to its beauty as well, with paragraphs that are short and succinct. These punchy paragraphs are not without impact. In fact, they trigger a sense of urgency in the writing; quickening the pace at times, and at other points in the story slowing the action down. Much like a composer or a conductor controls the way the orchestra plays music and therefore the way the audience hears it, Barnes is an expert in controlling the way the book is consumed by the reader. The result is lyrical, contemplative, and beautiful.

 

Back to the lift.

After the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Muddle Instead of Music, Shostakovich remained by the lift, night after night. On hearing it ascend, and preparing for the worst, there was relief when the doors opened and it was a merely a neighbour returning home:

 

“Words were never exchanged because words were dangerous. It was just possible that he looked like a man humiliatingly thrown out by his wife, night after night; or a man who indecisively kept walking out on his wife, night after night, and then returning. But it was probable he looked exactly what he was: a man, like hundreds of others across the city, waiting, night after night, for arrest.”

 

To me, to any of us sitting comfortably in a country that has never known a dictator, never known revolution or the fear of arrest for no other reason than your beliefs are no longer in line with those of the Party, it is extremely difficult to imagine how people not only lived under Stalin’s Great Terror, but continued to create. Music, poetry, theatre, novels, opera. Art not only thrived, it flourished. Some of the most incredible writing and music of all time came out of the Soviet Union under Stalin. This is mind boggling and fascinating, and is a testament to the power of the human spirit, and to the power of art itself.

 

Lenin said “Art belongs to the People.” Barnes writes,

 

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe it to a specific function.”

The Noise of Time is exquisite, and is currently among my top 5 reads for 2016 so far. I own a copy, and am happy to lend it. I will even remove the 3 dozen post-it note flags for you, so you can insert your own. Because you will definitely want to.

Bookish and more – sunny Friday edition!

If you’ve noticed, I’ve been really bad in tagging my posts of late.  As in I haven’t been tagging them.  I did come late to the tagging game, which I think I might have mentioned.  I have my reasons for not liking to tag posts, and it has to do with the fact that if I don’t have a predefined set of subject classifications already designed for me to choose from, I am hesitant to create one of my own, in case I – at some poing along the way – decide I don’t like this particular set of tags, and want to change them up.

I realize this is blindingly stupid to most people, but I think some of the library types out there might feel me on this one.  Maybe?  Maybe not.  Anyway.  The UIG + tagging posts = Fail.  Does it matter?  Probably not, but I’m trying to make a conscious effort to go through and tag older posts and attempt to properly tag my current efforts, especially the ones where books, movies, other things are discussed.  It’s just good form, and I like to be able to search other blogs by tag, so I’m going to really try.  As I said, I have an aversion to assigning tags to posts, but I’m working on it.  It would have been nice, when I started this blog, for someone to come along and say “Hey, here’s your subject classification parameters – blog about the following topics, and tag them thusly!”  But that’s bananas, right?  Although, if you think I’m on to something and you have a set of tags you want to assign to me?  I’d be all over that, I’m just putting it out there.

Okay, on to the good stuff!  It’s Friday and it’s gorgeous out there, blogfriends, so let’s talk about some books and stuff.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  The story of the Bigtree clan and the inevitable decline of their alligator wrestling dynasty after the death of their world-famous wife/mother.  Seriously, they had me at alligator wrestling.  The writing in this book so evoked the swampy everglades of Florida that I sometimes felt clammy and mosquito bitten just reading it.  Really funny at times and extremely sad and horrific at others. 

Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter.  This is a slim little book that I mentioned last post, and it was a fast-paced and very enjoyable read.  WWI veteran Henry Bright hears the voice of an angel on the battlefields of France, the angel follows him back to America and has him do his will, to save Bright’s only son, supposedly The Future King of Heaven.  Beautifully written, which is not surprising from an author who also writes some pretty beautiful songs.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  Another book set in a steamy and tropical swampy area – this time the Amazon.  Pharmaceutical researcher sent to track down one of their scientists at a remote research facility, to learn what happened to cause the death of her colleague.  Ethics and morality are called into question, and the book had a sort of Heart of Darkness feel about it to me.  Venturing down the river to locate Kurtz, or in this case, the elusive Dr. Swenson.

And in music news, it would seem that the women of this awesome band are back together, recording new material and maybe even touring!  So if you’re about to go crazy still living here, just get your friends together and dance, dance dance – to one of the best urban summertime videos of all time. 

Happy weekend, blogfriends!

Best of-ing, 2010 style

There are only 3 days left in this year.  Three.  I for one am holding my breath, waiting for it to end.  I really just want to ensure that the remainder of this year does not fuck with me.  Seriously.  So it’s looking good, with just around 72 hours left.  And while 2010 was probably the shittiest year on record – for me, anyway – there were some highlights.  I read some excellent books, discovered some great new music and saw some killer live shows.  All which I will document for your end-of-the-year reading pleasure.

Books:  The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer – this one probably goes on record as my favourite book of the year.  I know I raved about it in an earlier post, so I won’t get into too much here, but I loved this book so much for its story and for its sheer beauty.  You should read it. 

Captivity by Deborah Noyes is another one I read this year that really stayed with me.  Those are the best books, are they not?  The ones that cause you to think about them days or even weeks after you finish. 

All the Living by C.E. Morgan.  This book was just over 200 pages, but that the author was able to convey so much beauty and pain and landscape in such a short work is really quite incredible.  Loved it.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene was stunning, and was yet another book that I had a hard time getting out of my mind once I’d read it.  Beautiful, lyrical and bright, and at the same time dark and horrifying, I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like this before. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.  I really loved this book for the history, the interesting facts behind the development of forensics as a science and also for the crazy shit that went down in NYC during this time.  So awesome.

Music:  The Sadies, Darker Circles.  Fantastic album from one of the best and hardest working Canadian bands ever.

The Black Keys, Brothers.  Hell to the yeah.  I came to this album pretty late in the year, even though it was on my “to purchase” list for months.  But, better late than never, and it truly did not disappoint. 

The Revivalists, Vital Signs.  Here is a band that I got to hear via a Paste Magazine sampler CD, and once I ripped it to my iPod and found myself replaying the song “Not Turn Away” over and over and over, I bought the album.  Absolutely fantastic, and I would bet the farm that they are a damn fine live band too.  So in case you’re reading this, members of The Revivalists PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD COME TO CANADA!  *ahem*  No, really.  Love you guys.

Live Music :  With everything that went down this spring, I have to say that 2010 didn’t see the UIG attending as many live shows as usual.  However, the ones that I did see stand out in a pretty big way.

White Cowbell Oklahoma at Casbah in Hamilton was the first show I saw in 2010, and what a way to start the year.  Damn fine music and a killer show.  See my post from last January for full details.

Blue Rodeo at Massey Hall in Toronto marked the first time I’d ever seen this band at MH and it was fantastic.  We had front row seats and were the first two people dancing up at the stage when Jim invited everyone up.  Magic.

Illusion Avenue, assorted gigs in the Hammer.  You have likely not heard of these guys, and that’s ok.  They’re pretty new.  And young.  In fact their bass player?  Is my kid.  The Musician is in this band with 3 other local dudes – no one is older than 15.  And yet?  They fucking kill it every time.  They write their own songs and they do some wicked, well-chosen cover songs.  They are all extremely talented musicians and everyone who sees them has their mind blown by the sheer awesomeness.  I might be biased.  Or, I might just be really, really proud of my boy.  Either way, whatev.  They’re good.  Not just “good for their age”.  They are good-good.  And seeing them kick it in the clubs around town has been such a highlight for me in a year where nothing really good seemed to happen. 

TV:  We don’t tend to watch an awful lot of TV.  This isn’t some sort of smug testament to our intellect, mind you.  It’s mostly because we spend our weeknights at the dojo during primetime, and we don’t have one of those fancy schmancy PVR thangs.  Actually until recently our TV didn’t even have a remote, so see?  We’ll get there eventually.  Now, having said that, one of the shows we did rearrange our schedules to watch as it happened was Lost.  And god help me if I didn’t freaking love that show, and yes I cried when Jin and Sun died and yes I cried at the end and yes we talked about the ending for days and days afterwards, just trying to get our heads around it.  I miss that show, I really do. 

Dexter, Seasons 3 & 4 on DVD.  So here is another show that blows my mind every episode, and while we don’t get to see it unfold like everyone else, I’m counting these two seasons for 2010 because we just could not get enough of it.  Season 4 especially was fucking brilliant and the season finale just about killed me.  Seriously.  Can’t wait for Season 5, and I have heard that it’s on board for a 6th season too, which makes me really happy. 

So there you have it.  The UIG’s “best ofs” for 2010.  Oh, and 2010?  You can’t get out of my life fast enough.  It’s not me, it’s you.  Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, k?  And as for you, 2011.  I have really high hopes for you not fucking with me and my family.  Can we please agree on that from the start?  Cos I’d really appreciate that.

Who knew?

When there is a book ready for me to pick up at my public library, the system sends me a message.  This is what is waiting for me:

You might have to click to enlarge it. 

Men.  Such an epidemic.*

In other news, so long November, don’t let the NaBloPoMo door hit your ass on the way out!  Actually, I’m kidding.  Daily November blogging was actually pretty fun and not as stressful as I remember from previous years, which is pretty awesome, right?  So we’ll have to do it again real soon.  Like next November.  That’s soon enough.

*actual book title is Emerging epidemics: the menace of new infections. Aren’t you glad I’m probably not likely to be at one of your holiday parties?

In which I ask Jessa Crispin to marry me

Or, at the very least, get drunk with me.

This.  Hearted.  A thousand times.  Thank you.

More book love!

More of what I’ve been reading:

Captivity by Deborah Noyes – I read most of this while on vacation, and really enjoyed it.  Very well-written and with a lot of elements I like in a story, including characters who haunt you (so appropriate, should you read the book) long after you’ve finished reading it. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – This one I just finished, and I thought it was excellent.  Lots of characters and often a bit hard to keep track of who is who and how their lives are intertwined and mingled, plus the story jumps back and forth between eras.  But don’t let that stop you! 

**Before I continue, can I just say that I am fully aware that I am a terrible book reviewer.  I often can’t seem to get past the “It were good” when discussing a book, and for someone who talks as much as I do in real life, it’s kind of odd.  So can we just say that rather than give a synopsis of the book and list its strengths and weaknesses and alla that, that I am going to just give you my impressions in a sort of rating system from excellent through meh right down to downright hated and I’ll never get those hours back?  Okay, good.  Moving on…

The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney is one that stands firmly in the “meh leaning toward good” realm.  I enjoyed the story but I found I cared less and less about the characters as the story went on, and somewhere around 3/4 of the way through I got tired of the language as well. 

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life by Ana Homayoun.  What can I say?  It’s back-to-school time, people.  And disorganized boys?  I haz them.

 

Throwin’ the books at you

Do you abide by any summer reading policies or subscribe to any book list-type things?  If you are headed to the beach, do you search for a book that has been labelled a good “beach read”?  Lots of people do, and in the months leading up to summer, there are loads of these types of lists around.  I almost always check them out, and once in awhile a few titles catch my eye, but having said that, I don’t usually go in for sticking with a list, and I certainly don’t have a specific genre or type of book that I read during summer holidays.

I have friends with a strict “chick lit only” summer reading policy – the light and frothy type, that you can devour in an afternoon, lounging in a lawn chair, sipping a cocktail and wearing a big floppy hat.  Then I know other people who use the lazy days of summer to read up on things that interest them, the sorts of books they maybe don’t have time for during the regular year, but once vacation arrives, they can spend days reading about golf or gardening or what have you.  I’m always interested by what people like to read or what they think is appropriate or inappropriate for certain seasons or times of year, so to kick things off I’m going to start by giving you the details of my latest reads. 

I just finished:  Drood by Dan Simmons and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.  Both of them in hardcover, both of them GIGANTIC.  Drood tops the scales at a whopping 784 pages and The Invisible Bridge a mere 624.  So “light” reading?  Hardly.  And, even the story lines of both were both pretty heavy. (see what I did there?)  Of the two though?  Hands down I recommend The Invisible Bridge.  With Drood I felt ripped off, that I’d slogged through all those pages (and it really was a slog for a lot of it – wow) for pretty much a meh kind of ending.  The Invisible Bridge just kept getting better and better, right through to an appropriately satisfying ending, and with a whole lot of beautiful writing in between.  Loved that book. 

Currently I am reading Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar and really enjoying it.  If you can, you know, enjoy the story of an extremely awkward, middle-aged woman with odd delusions and quite possibly a descent into madness (although I haven’t read very far yet).  Then, on the back burner I have Libba Bray’s Going Bovine which intrigued me.  And also, the cover shows a cow, standing upright, holding a garden gnome under it’s arm (leg?).  Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover?

So what are you planning to read this summer?