Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Sinful Deception (Breconridge Brothers #2) by Isabella Bradford, 2015

Read from November 21 to 26, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

This book has a rakish second-son (Lord Geoffrey) chasing after an aloof and mysterious English heiress (Lady Serena) who has no inclination to marry. But she has a secret - a dark secret - the darkest of secrets - through a contrivance of mistaken identity (as happens a lot to romance types) she's not who she claims to be, but in fact the late Lady Serena's half-sister by an Indian servant woman, brought to England after the death of her immediate family and raised by relatives. 

This book gets some points simply for trying to un-white-wash 18th century England through the medium of historical romance. Highlighting the people of color in stereotypically white history is a popular topic in history circles these days, with great efforts like People of Color in European Art History and otherwise trying to undo 300 years of cropping black people out of paintings, so it's pretty natural that this zeitgeist would start hitting the fiction market about this time. I am guessing this book was inspired largely by the 2013 movie Belle, which also stars a woman of color with a British father.

However, the narrative spends far too much time exoticising the main character's appearance, language, and mannerisms to succeed at being a genuine attempt at inclusion in the historical romance genre. While it is more or less normal to spend inordinate amounts of time in romance books describing the appearances of  the women, with flashing hazel eyes and cobalt-black hair or whatever, the constant descriptions of Serena's skin color in the usual cliche dark food words began to get pretty uncomfortable after a while, and confusing to boot, as everyone accepts her as white. But you are not for a minute allowed to forget that she is not really British, even though she has lived in the country for years and is considered white. In fact, there is very little of her character to discover in the book, other than her Deep Dark Secret, which is being born to an Indian woman. (Also that she likes sex, because it's a romance book.) She has also decided to forgo marriage because she might have a dark-skinned baby and then everyone will know she is Indian. Basically her character starts and stops at her Indian identity.

As for the romance, it leans heavily on angst to move the narrative forward; the angst, in turn, leans heavily on her secret Indian identity. The conclusion of the book has them being caught by her family while trying to have sex and he is forced to propose while she weeps softly, which was hands down one of the most depressing fictional treatments of the proposal I have ever read. The Happily Ever After is sort of crammed down on you at the end, and the epilogue includes Selena's profound relief at giving birth to a "normal looking" white-skinned baby, even though her family and husband know she is Indian now. Which was something of a perfect ending to the muddled racial treatment I must admit.

This certainly isn't the worst treatment of race in historical fiction, but what with the clear inspiration from modern trends in inclusion in European history, and having read Bradford's books before, I expected something a little more thoughtful. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Grand Opera: The Story of the Met by: Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron, 2014

Read from December 11, 2014 to January 03, 2015. Obtained through library.

If you’re interested in opera history I’d say this is definitely worth your time. It tells the story of how America at the end of the 19th century went from a cultural backwaters with only the barest of operatic offerings to being (currently) the #2 consumers of opera worldwide, and more importantly for the Met, holders of the premiere opera house that sets the bar for the rest of the world. There’s also a secondary story here about the birth of modern opera as we know it, and not modern music and creative stagings, but the modern operatic working environment where you are now expected to perform every opera in its original language by default and therefore where singers must know how to sing in multiple languages; where radio, television, and DVDs are a major part of the audience and singers must act not just for stage but for screen; and where public-appeal donation drives for the first time bring some actual financial democracy to this crazy, messy, fantastic animal we call opera. And that’s a good story!

However, I think one of the more serious faults in the books lies with its over-reliance on telling the story of the Met in a hoary “Great Men of The Metropolitan Opera” style. The book focuses very heavily on the directors and how they shaped the Met, gives occasional fair attention to conductors and singers, but skims over anyone else who might have had an influence or just doesn't mention them at all. And I think this does a great disservice to the story; in the grand scheme of things often the people who shaped art the most were the ones writing the checks, not the ones cashing them.

While the book opens with a good angle on the unabashedly status-symbol beginnings of the Met (which was founded because New York’s existing opera house wouldn't sell boxes to New Money, that opera house was then casually ground under the heels of the Met’s 70 boxholders’ industrialist tycoon boots and now you've never heard of it), and there’s also some really good stuff on how they tried to attract the various immigrant groups in NYC, first banking on the Italians, but they were too poor to come, then switching to German opera because the Germans actually had some money to spare. But once we hit the 20th century the focus on who’s actually paying for this loud nonsense fades away. For one of the biggest opera-supporters of modern times, Sybil B. Harrington, she gets I think one name drop, although I personally think her lasting influence on the Met will become abundantly clear in maybe 40 years time or so. If you want to look at the cementing of “museum-piece” opera in the later half of the 20th century look no further than Sybil B. Harrington and her unabashedly buying the Met audience the opera it wants, not the opera it needs.

As you can anticipate the book’s history-telling gets increasingly sketchy as it nears the present day. Everything up through the building of the new Met house in the 1960s is solid, but after that, tread lightly. The final stuff on Peter Gelb’s tenure at the end of the book is pretty safe to skip, we just can’t usefully analyse his influence on the Met at this time, and the manuscript was written before the most interesting events of 2014 which involved Gelb getting yelled at a fair amount, so that section was out of date before it hit bookstore shelves anyway.

Not a faultless book. but if you’re into opera history, or perhaps into New York history, it’s well-researched and worth reading.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, 2014

Read from November 27 to December 21, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

This is a story-style history book, and it tells the story of the military library program in WWII. There had previously been a mass library program in WWI, which was driven by donations and run by civilian volunteer librarians, and which had fallen into neglect in the interwar period, the books of its program largely dispersed to non-military libraries. So this book traces the revival of the librarian-run civilian donation program Victory Book Campaign, and then the switch-over from using donated books for soldiers (which really sucked in terms of book quality) to the military mass-ordering special edition cheap paperbacks directly for the servicemen.

The book talks at length about what value the new-ish format of paperbacks had - their low weight made them easier to hold when you were on your back in a hospital bed, easier to be stuffed into your kit on patrol and carried around for miles, ideal to be passed around (or even broken up into chapters to share, as we all know from that one episode of M*A*S*H). There’s a very neat little story here, drawing out both the value of pleasure reading in relieving stress, as well as how the success of mass distribution paperbacks to servicemen finally got publishers to stop hugging the hardback and embrace the glory of pulp for the masses, as well as how releasing serious literature into the wild made a lot of men read them who likely would not otherwise.

My criticism would be that the book tends towards the saccharine, and relies on a large amount of anecdotes in letters from soldiers which are stretched into generalities for how "the men" in general felt about reading and the program. The book contains many passages that are pretty openly trying to stir up your emotions about the glory of reading for humanity (there is a passage about how men propped themselves up and read as they waited to die of their injuries during the Invasion of Normandy which made me have to put the book down and do something else for a while), so the book has A Message aside from just telling history, and it’s a very nice message, but it does get in the way of the history.

But overall a nice read, giving a fresh slice of history for a forgotten facet of WWII, the war you thought had already been completely written about! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dark Heart Of Italy by Tobias Jones, 2003

Read from October 23 to 29, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

I didn't enjoy the book, but I sort of enjoy that it just exists, because it’s the latest generation of a tiny but noble and ancient genre of books - which goes something like “British Man Goes to Foreign Land and Has a Bad Time because of Culture Shock, Then Has a Good Time Unsubtly Thinking he Passes a Native, Then Has a Bad Time Again from Deeper and More Lasting Culture Shock, Then Probably Goes Home and Writes This Book.” Also known as “British travelogues,” or really, just “travelogues.” British travelers have been writing these books since they first had the idea to travel as far as I can tell, and they’re marvelous historic records, but as this one is not yet firmly in the past, man oh man do you spend the book just wanting to smack the fountain pen and glass of barolo out of Jones’s stupid hands, as he does irritating things like italicizing all the Italian words in the book (even the Italian words everyone totally knows), which he drops on you like relentless little bombs of token culture just so you’ll be sure to notice that he speaks Italian so very well. In Italy they eat pizza. Also his writing is ponderous.

But, okay yes, his book totally hits the main value of travelogues - foreigners notice things about cultures that are so important and ingrained to the culture that actual members of the culture don’t even think about them, and then some of them write it down. So thank you, Jones, for making this interesting historic record of how 20th century Italians related to their history in life, politics, the media, and beyond, which all seems pretty messy. Thankfully he moved home right after it was published and presumably there someone made him stop acting like “Lawrence of Italia.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Last Eunuch Of China by Yinghua Jia, Haichen Sun (translator), 2008

Read from October 26 to November 28, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

Have you ever wondered what a Chinese pop history reads like? Well get this book and find out, because it’s a Chinese pop history book about the end of the Qing dynasty translated into English, but not in any way else really altered for the US market. Shoot the cover’s even got that ugly monospace font that you get with the Chinese font in Windows. The translation is actually really solid and has been completely proofread, but it’s not TOO smooth so as to let you forget that you are reading a Chinese book, like it has that delightful bad-translation thing of not having a good grasp of formal and informal registers, and therefore mixing and matching high-brow and slangy language with a certain cheerful tone-deafness that never fails to please. Also at the end it kept referring to people pushing an elderly Sun Yaoting around in a “handcart” and I was super confused, until I finally saw a picture where he was sitting in a wheelchair. Whoops. It’s also written entirely in imaginary dialog, like a novel. That’s probably the hardest part to get past.

This book is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Chinese historiographical treatment of eunuchs, which is very negative, because the author has a clear affection for his subject, and presents Sun Yaoting only positively, and his compatriots in a range of human colors. The author knew Sun Yaoting pretty well in his later life, and said he made 100 hours of recordings in the process of writing this book. The author even helped arrange for Sun Yaoting's headstone (traditionally a family duty), which was very kind of him.

However, as a warning: if you don’t already have a decent grasp of Chinese culture before entering this book you’re going to have a bad time. He does take a little time to explain some of the basic terms like “rice bowl” but there’s no information given on the Chinese concepts of guanxi/face/social networks etc, Confucianism, the importance of extended family networks and relationships, and, if you didn't already understand these things, Sun Yaoting's life and career is going to strike you as unusual or corrupt. So that’s kinda poor form, but like I said, this book was written for Chinese people to read and not for Foreigners to read, so just be grateful it was translated at all and on the cultural stuff you’re going to just have to get that somewhere else.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fair Play by Josh Lanyon, 2014

Read from November 14 to 16, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

While reading this book I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from P. G. Wodehouse:
A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained "all the old Wodehouse characters under different names." He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.  
Lanyon seems to have channeled this tactic for this book, as it seems to be a common critique that Lanyon's books are formulaic and pretty similar to one another. (The other common critique being people just wanting his books to have more kissing or sex.) This is a sequel to Fair Game which was published four years ago, and this book is the usual Lanyon special - gay romantic action-adventure murder-mystery. But why mess with a working formula? If you write Coke then why write New Coke?

Well here's your most recently published glass of Coke, Lanyon fans. And it's ice-cold and full of that classic cola taste. It's a tight mystery that kept me guessing until the end, juxtaposed with complicated human drama, both between our lead Elliot and his boyfriend Tucker, who are carefully exploring emotional boundaries as their relationship becomes more domestic; as well as by far and away the most complex relationship in the book: the one between Elliot and his ex-radical dad. More than worth your time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age by Patricia Howard, 2014

Read from September 28 to October 26, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

This is the first monograph biography of Gaetano Guadagni, author Patricia Howard has been working on Guadagni for years, and she's previously re-written the historic record on some essential stuff about him, like what his vocal range actually was, and the fact that his birthdate was wrong for years (this for whatever reason happens to castrati a lot) and that his birthname was actually Cosimo! So she's almost certainly the foremost expert on Gaetano Guadagni.

However that means she's published a lot of her Guadagni research already to get this reputation, and the book has that pesky recycled feeling. The information on his early life, acting, limited composing, puppetry, and relationship to the character of Orfeo has all been published before, which is maybe like 30-40% of the book. There's a lot of original stuff in here through, like the chapter on his work with Handel, which will likely prove to be the most heavily cited section because he's pretty hot right now, and a few tantalizing hints that Caffarelli might have given Guadagni a leg-up in his early career by getting him a gig in Lisbon which sheds a bit of a different angle on Caffarelli, as well as the whole "reform" singer/actor idea. As Caffarelli is known more for maltreating other singers, it could be a hint that at least one of the old timer recognized GG’s raw talent. But she unfortunately doesn't explore this idea much.

In general though she gets bogged down by facts and details and doesn't tell you what things "mean." For example, Gaetano Guadagni was a big puppet enthusiast in retirement and had a full marionette theater in his house which took up two whole rooms, and he gave free shows for the neighborhood kids and would apparently also ambush unsuspecting visitors to the town and make them sit through impromptu puppet shows. While of course this is just hilarious to think about by itself, Howard doesn't pull much meat out of it. She devotes a lot of words the history and details of late 18th century puppetry, which is all very interesting, but she seems to have forgotten to tell us what this love of puppetry might say about Gaetano Guadagni's personality and theatrical spirit.

Unfortunately I think somewhere along the line she also forgot that she was also supposed to be arguing for something in particular, which would be the title: why does Guadagni have the right to be called "the first modern castrato?" There’s a little bit tacked on the beginning and finish of the book about how he is the first "modern castrato," but otherwise it is not really mentioned in the book, and the term is not well defined. Maybe it was an after-thought when her editor said she needed a title?

I really hate to be a sourpuss about this book, because she's amassed an awful lot of original research on Guadagni's life, like an almost complete itinerary of where he was for just about every season he worked (and it’s actually really freaking hard to do that for opera singers), but I think the art of Doing History and Telling the Story got lost in the focus on verifying all sorts of little bits and bobs from his life. I've got my own ideas about who Guadagni was and what his legacy is this magnificent, ridiculous artform that we call opera, but they’re the same ideas I had before reading the book, and I’m not sure I could tell you what exactly the author thinks in that vein. Having read most of her research articles before, I was hoping she'd get into more of an overall synthesis on his life and legacy in longform, but I was left hungry. If this is your first time reading about Gaetano Guadagni you will probably get a lot more out of this.