Monday, January 25, 2016

The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds by Martha Feldman, 2015

Read from May 11 to June 27, 2015. Copy obtained through library. 

This is the first overview-level book on the castrati to come out since Patrick Barbier’s French Histoire des Castrats in 1989, which was translated into English in 1997, and that book is kinda a sweeping pop-history fun-bag of opera anecdotes, so they’re not really comparable. So, what this is, absolutely, is the first modern academic book about the castrati that is not a biography of a single castrato. And that’s pretty incredible, and completely testimony to how far musicology has come since then. So let’s take a look at what every student of the castrati is going to be citing for the next quarter century.

The book is organized into three sections: “Reproduction,” “Voice,” and “Half-light,” which could be more conventionally titled something like Birth, Voice, and Death, as they cover first the cultural situation that created the castrato, then a summary of what forensic reconstructions we can do of the castrato voice, and finally the denouement of the castrato phenomenon in the 19th century. A perfectly sensible structure for an overview and introduction to the castrato in Western music, and it works.

Overall, this book is primarily focused on the castrato as an object, not as a person. You will not get to know any particular castrato in this book, except maybe Filippo Balatri, whose claim to fame is being the only castrato to write an autobiography, which she quotes generously. The castrati you meet in this book are misty figures, who exist only on an abstract plane of gender and social role, in generalities about castrati and their inevitable contractions, just name after name washing over you in a mass. Sometimes a good history book can make you look right through time to meet a fellow human’s eyes, to see their joy, pain, and life; to maybe to see a piece their story in your own; and to leave with their name forever etched upon the ventricles of your heart. This is not that kind of book. It’s highly successful as an academic introduction to the castrati, ranging from masculinities theories to vocal theories to literary theories, but if you’re looking at it as possibly the only book someone may ever read about them, it’s a bit sad that it’s so impersonal.

Unfortunately, Feldman still has the same problem from her earlier works holding her back from writing a perfect book: her writing is really quite bad. I am normally a big proponent that anyone can and should read an academic book if they wish, but I have hesitated to recommend this book and her last one even though I thought the history was amazing, because the writing is so dense and self-enamored that I'm afraid of scaring people off academic literature entirely. She names her chapters things like “Cold Man, Money Man, Big Man Too” and “The Man Who Pretended to Be Who He Was” when she could just as easily name them slightly more understandable things like “Denouncing Castration: Romantic Understandings of the Male Body” and “Cultural Significance of Origin Myths of the Castrati.” Feldman’s writing though has, I think, actually gotten better in general, having read her last book.

For the history content: it is actually pretty close to perfect, once you dig through the alphabet soup marshes to find it. There’s a couple of places where I would disagree with her analysis, though that’s fine of course. The largest one is that I find her analysis of the “Death of the Castrati” right before the 19th century is too dependent on traditional notions of Romantic sensibilities, and her dismissal of John Rosselli’s claim that the end of the castrati is tied primarily to economic recovery in Italy, in favor of her own idea which is that it is tied to the death of patronage systems and patriarchal social systems, is too hasty and not well-supported. But there’s little things like that, nothing technically wrong, just differences of academic interpretation.

A good book for sure, and very groundbreaking, but recommended with reservations. Feldman is brilliant, an astonishing mind, earns her fellowship and then some, and I’d like to pay her to think for me.... but I wouldn’t let her write the copy for the back of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch box.

Understanding Italian Opera by Tim Carter, 2015

Read from September 26 to December 7, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

This came out in October 2015, so it’s the newest entry to the “Opera 4 Dummies” type of book, which is usually all you get in the local bookstore for opera history reading. This is a slightly more academic (and slightly more expensive) option than others, sort of a cross-over academic/popular level book. It would be a good text for a lower-level undergrad class. Now what sets this book apart from other older options is two key things: One, this book represents a much more up-to-date approach to the modern global Italian opera scene, which has greatly expanded from the previous dark ages (like ...the 90s) when Italian opera was considered to have properly started with Mozart and neatly ended with Puccini; to now include two whole pre-Classical operas out of five total. 40% of the operas in a popular-level book is an unprecedented level of coverage, and speaks to Early and Baroque opera’s amazing recovery from obscurity. (To be specific the book covers one opera each for Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.) Two, the book is almost entirely focused on poetry, and only discusses music to show how it fits and reflects the poetry, which is pretty wild, and I have not seen that outside of deep dark academic books on opera. It’s a somewhat novel but entirely historic approach, which pays respect to the understanding of Italian opera as it was consumed in its “natural” lifetime. The poetry content is extremely solid, rhyme structures are well explained, poetry is provided in original and English translation, and I totally got schooled on Italian poetry. It also, on a simpler level, just reminds people librettists EXISTED, and why we should give an opera with the names of its librettist+composer and not just the composer, even though we customarily do not. The social and musical history content was certainly acceptable but not incredible, in particular I thought the castrati history was kinda bad, however, considering past castrati coverage in intro-level opera books, wherein the author usually decides it’s best to keep opera respectable for the new converts by not mentioning this bit of awkwardness (easy enough if you skip the Baroque period entirely), really it’s much better than it has been. At this point we’re just happy to be invited to the party at all. I wouldn’t recommend this as a beginning opera history book though, since it’s quite dry and doesn’t convey a scrap of the “fun factor” around modern opera and opera history - and opera is very fun! People had and continue to have fun at the opera. But as a 3rd or 4th opera history book for an advanced-casual opera reader, quite solid reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

For Real by Alexis Hall, 2015

Read from June 10 to 13, 2015. Copy free from publisher.

After the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey the mainstream romance genre has become extremely bogged down with BDSM options hoping to cash in on that trend, most of which are poor quality. It can be tricky for the sincere ones to shine out. So this, first off, is the loveliest, sweetest, and most thoughtful BDSM romance that you're likely to come across for a good long while.

The most notable plot difference from other BDSM stories here is that the dominant is significantly younger and less experienced in sex (and life!) than the submissive. There are other stories that do this flip, but most simply present it ham-handedly and essentially require you to just ignore that core power imbalance to make it work. This works completely within the ages through, and you never forget for a minute anyone's real age.

This is also very decidedly a romance book and not a work of erotica - relationships of many types are the focus of the story, and sex takes its place as part of a human relationship, not aside from it. The sex is placed decidedly inside the mental aspects of BDSM, the exchanges of power, and the carefulness of it. If you've read and enjoyed Hall's other books and are hesitant about BDSM content, push forward, he completely works it.

A unique book from a very unique voice in the gay romance genre.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge, 2015

Read from June 30 to July 05, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

Lisa Eldridge is a famous makeup artist, so this is probably one of the more anticipated women’s interest history books of the year. The book is very beautiful, mixing historic images of painted people with photography of modern models, and all of that is mixed with images of historic cosmetics pots, lipstick tubes, and compacts. Art museums should really do displays of cosmetics designs, cosmetics packaging is always lovely. You can in good conscience get this book just to look at it!

But the overall history is, frankly, a bit sloppy. I was constantly annoyed by generalizing statements, and leads not finished out, such as mentioning such-and-such came from the theater world and moved into everyday cosmetics, but not telling us how it moved, who did the moving, or what the makeup originally looked like in the theater. I was hoping to get a good grasp on makeup of the 18th century, but I’ve read historical blogs with more detail. However it really picks up when she hits the 20th century Western world, which she knows very well. The history after about 1920 is really excellent pop-style history, ranging from Estee Lauder to Mary Quant to the modern “shimmer” effects made possible by microglitter technology.

The book opens with a “makeup as universal” angle, with three chapters focusing on the “universal” colors, white, red, and black, which I thought was really not a good look. It presents a lot of pop science evo-psych reasoning and stuff like "red light wavelength=good moods" for reasoning why people wear makeup, but all the evidence you are presented is from the Western world with a dash of Asian and Ancient Egypt, used to argue for women self-painting to a universal ideal of “pale face with red and black accents." Because Science Reasons. I can understand the appeal of including this material, because it worked on the book's overall angle of makeup as an ancient, universal, and ultimately natural and valuable human activity, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth, and soured the start of the book.

But, still, a gorgeous book and I learned a lot about recent makeup history. I love makeup and I felt good about wearing it after reading this.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Fool's Gold by Jess Faraday, 2015

Read from March 6 to 7, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This is the third book in the Ira Adler series, which was until now set in the criminal subaltern of 1890s London, so I will admit, after having read the other two previous books in this series I was not at all expecting to read a Western when I picked this up! But, naturally, it's the same time period, and Oscar Wilde even toured the Wild West himself, and I love Westerns! So a nice surprise.

The story begins with Ira, against his best judgement, agreeing to meet Cain Goddard, the crime lord who Ira previously lived with as a kept man. However, Goddard's house explodes minutes before their appointment. Grieving not just Cain but also the lack of proper resolution to his complicated feelings for him, he reluctantly accepts an invitation from his friend Lazarus to come to America with his family. There, natually, the real story begins.

The book includes some of the thematic elements that make the Western such a distinct genre of historical fiction: learning where your physical and mental edges are and then pushing them, learning when to stand on your own and when to accept help, and a certain mental restlessness that keeps your character moving through the entire book. But it also includes some more challenging emotional content, with untidy romantic resolutions, and worthwhile relationships that take more work than the ultimately empty ones.

The Ira Adler books are one of the rare mystery series out there that includes active character development. So there's no magic end of book reset button on characters and you do need to read them in order! These continue to be an undeservedly under-read series of books with the gay historicals set, and I highly recommend them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca M. Herzig, 2015

Read from April 25 to May 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This book really surprised me, but in the best way. The book does of course cover exactly what it says on the tin, discussion of the various ways people have removed their body hairs, but the historical undercurrents of why they’ve done it, and to what levels, are wonderfully laid out and explored, and it is deep and disturbing and fascinating. The book is a complicated braid of scientific racism, caustic skin-melting patent medicines, sexual anxiety, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, radiation hair removal vs. laser hair removal, femininity vs masculinity, and the medicalization of beauty. 

The short and simple "Acknowledgements" section at the end is unexpectedly one of the loveliest parts. She talks about her reluctance to tell others what she's been working on, immediate assumptions from people about her personal habits on body hair, the covert and overt professional discouragement from other academics, including being told point blank to drop the topic in graduate school and pick something "better." Naturally, she then does go on to thank the people who did encourage her. But this section really spoke to me. Academic freedom is all well and good, but freedom doesn't equal respectability. What good is the ivory tower if we do not encourage the weird and uncomfortable things? 

A great case study in how personal is political and the political is personal, and now I’ll never be able to shave my pits again without having to take a good, long, uncomfortable look at why I’m doing it. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Unlikely Lady by Valerie Bowman, 2015

Read from March 24 to 25, 2015. Copy free from publisher. 

This story is inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, and it follows shrewish bluestocking Jane as she tries to make herself completely un-marriageable so her mother will leave her alone and let her live as a contented spinster; and Garrett, alleged rake but really nothing of the kind, as they flirt at a wedding-focused house party, and bicker their way to marital bliss.

Bluestocking-themed romance novels are really dime-a-dozen these days, but I still thought there was something quite fresh and unique about this one. The dialogue between our two leads is genuinely funny; sharp and witty, and a pleasure to read. The tone of flirty bickering is very, very difficult to get right, too heavy and readers find it unbelievable that the leads actually like each other, too light and it comes off completely insipid and it isn't fun to read. But in this book the bickering is very right. The drama, while requisite in romance novels, is not too heavy to distract from the pleasures of the interactions between the leads. The drama does lean entirely on An Evil Other Woman, who is pretty two-dimensional, but wow, if your blood pressure doesn't actually rise when she pops on the page! You can gleefully and sincerely hate her character the entire time you read, which is a nice trick in one of these books.

A perfectly pleasurable escapist romance story, hits all the right notes with some new ornaments you might not have expected. Highly recommended.