Archive for January, 2009

A pseudo-review: Joshua Redman’s Double Trio

Posted in Music on January 29, 2009 by jkiparsky

This is not the review I submitted for the recent performance by Joshua Redman’s Double Trio at Berklee Performance Center, (that can be found here or here) but I thought it was a little bit cute, so here it is.

When I sit down to write a review of a concert, I generally assume that you, gentle reader, were not present at that concert. This is usually a safe assumption. Case in point: only about twelve hundred people were present to hear Joshua Redman’s Double Trio at the Berklee College of Music’s Performance Center on Thursday night (1215, not counting staff and Redman’s crew, but who’s counting?) while the potential audience for this review extends into the bazillions, thanks to the magic of the World Famous World Wide Web Thingy (TM). Therefore I am trying to convey to you what you would have heard had you been there. The problem is different from that faced by the reviewer of books, records, or movies, who has the luxury of assuming that his audience has read, or will see the movie, or will download some of the songs from the web – and that anyone unfamiliar with the material, therefore may be treated as a lazy sluggard and ignored. No, gentle reader, you are no lazy sluggard, even if you missed this night of music. Only a select few of us were privileged to be present for this, and so while the book reviewer may enter into a dialog with an audience who he presumes has either read the book or else is looking to convince people that he has by casually mentioning stuff he got from the review at a dinner party next week and displaying the unread book on a shelf – oh, I’m on to you, American non-reading public, I know your game! – and can therefore assume some familiarity with the work and proceed to tell you what it was you would have detected in the work had you been as clever as the reviewer. I am in quite a different situation: I must assume that you have no idea what happened at the concert I attended, and put you there, vicariously, and give you the experience, with all of the things that I caught and you would have missed had you been there, because I’m clever and you’re pretty. Yes, that’s why I’m hanging out with you, gentle reader, let’s don’t deny it, we both know it’s true, but at least some of my reflected coolness will rub off on you – and maybe someday, if you read my reviews carefully, you’ll be a little bit clever too. Don’t count on it though.
Right, where was I? Yes, conveying a vicarious experience. Well, now, Gentle Reader, that works well enough when you’re talking about, say, a rock concert. We all know what happens at a rock concert: three or four or five guys come out, they’ve got electric guitars and basses and drums and such, and they make a hell of a noise for a while, and then they go away and hopefully you’ve had your mind blown. Or a folk music concert: one or two guys come out, they’ve got acoustic guitars, they make a lot less noise for a while, and then they go away and hopefully your spirit has been elevated. Or a jazz concert: four guys stand on the stage, one of them’s got a tenor sax, there’s a guy sitting at a piano, and a guy with a big upright bass and a guy with a drum kit (and only one kick drum, how odd) and they play music you don’t understand for a while and hopefully you come away a little hipper than you were before.
The point is: you know what happened, you just need me to give you the details. Well, what do I do with this? Damn Joshua Redman anyway, him and his Double Trio. You haven’t heard this already, and how can I describe it to you? How can I put you in seat 1 of Row L, looking straight down an aisle at two upright bass players and two full drum kits flying along on all cylinders while a dapper man with a tenor saxophone soared above them playing the saxophone with his whole body, conjuring up spirits of players gone by and players yet to come? What will I say to make you laugh at Brian Blade faking shots to the cymbals, just to mess with Gregory Hutchinson, or wonder at Larry Grenadier’s Bach-like bass solo, a constant repetition in constant flux, or marvel at Roben Rogers’ sax-like phrasing, or to make your jaw drop when you hear – vicariously – Hutchinson pull different pitches out of a kick drum? And no words could conjure up the perfectly appropriate two-bass introduction to Gil Evans’ “Barracuda” – Gil Evans, who loved to play with odd combinations of instruments would have been delighted to hear Grendier and Rogers playing high and low and bringing out the sound of a pipe organ on an exceptionally sweet register.
I suppose I could use comparisons, we do it all the time. I could mention the Elvin Jones moments and the Coltrane references in Redman’s sound and phrasing and the acid jazz grooves, reminiscent of the Broun Fellinis on a night in San Francisco, the way they’d take you so far into the music you forgot there was anything else in the world, you sat in a daze and when they stopped playing you realized an hour had passed and it hadn’t felt like any time at all and how could it have been only an hour, how did they get that much music into an hour, and you looked down and realized your beer was perfectly untouched, the music was that good you forgot about it. Yeah, but comparisons are cheap-shot stuff, strictly for amateurs. We play high-class here. Sure we thought of Coltrane – he’s playing a tenor and switches to soprano sometimes and he’s not playing glassy-brittle like Jan Garbarek or wrapping you up in a blanket of sound like Ben Webster, so we think Coltrane, but he’s his own man, this Redman, and he’s got a lot that’s his alone, even as we can hear the antecedents. So we won’t go there.
Instead we might use impressionistic language: the band, we might say, played like five bodies with one mind, changing gears as one without any obvious signals in seemingly improvised passages and punctuating phrases en masse apparently on some mass whim. We might talk about clouds of cymbals swirling from the drum kits or snare rolls bubbling up from under Brian Blade’s kit – we could, that. But it’s a little trite, isn’t it? And describing the literal passage of events is no help at all: how can it ever help you to know that Larry Grenadier was bent almost double as he leaned into his bass to play parts that wandered in the viola and even the violin range, while Ruben Rogers stood straight as a cigar store Indian while he wandered up and down the neck, dropping in bombs of harmony where we didn’t expect them – but Blade did. And what good could it do you to imagine Redman standing at center stage, in the middle of all of this, performing an oddly stiff dance, his torso and arms rigid while his hips and legs swayed with all of that rhythm and his left leg jerking up to punctuate a particularly low honk or high squeal? You wouldn’t hear him grunting his approval to his – we can’t call them sidemen, can we? – his partners as they pitched ideas to him in their solos, or see the “so what?” shrug Hutchinson gave when the crowd laughed at him for taking a picture of the two bassists during one of their two-bass “solos”. And you wouldn’t see the hug that Blade gave Hutchinson when the latter came off stage after a particularly brilliant – average, in this context – solo.
No, it’s useless, Gentle Reader. You missed it. It’s done. That concert won’t happen again, and it’s now in twelve hundred heads – most of them missed most of it, of course, because they’re not clever like me, but at least they’re pretty. This group will play again, and I expect it’ll be brilliant again, but it’ll be a different brilliant next time, because that’s the sort of guys these are. So be there next time, because I won’t tell you again. It’s impossible.

Review: Joshua Redman Double Trio

Posted in Music on January 28, 2009 by jkiparsky

Another review for the Boston Music Spotlight, this one of Joshua Redman and his new “Double Trio”.

You can see it in its native environment (with a pretty press picture of Redman) here, or just read on:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joshua Redman’s new combo when I turned up at the Berklee Performance Center last Thursday. Comprised of two drummers, Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson, and two bassists, Reuben Rogers and Larry Grenadier, and no other melody or harmony instruments, I could imagine a disaster in the making, with collisions in the rhythm section and a sax player left out front with no support. Alternatively, I could imagine an ego showcase, with the rhythm section boxed up and over-written, leaving a show consisting of sax solos and nothing much else. But with players of this caliber, I also had hope that I might be surprised, and that turned out to be what happened. The makeup of this ensemble invites comparison between the players, two bassists and two drummers with strong individual voices, but if it’s going to work, the whole thing has to be about listening rather than self-display. Redman’s demeanor was exemplary of this. As a leader, he spent as much time on the side of the stage listening to his collaborators as he did on stage blowing with them, and when he was on the stage he was incorporating the ideas they threw at him rather than simply blowing. This behavior was reflected in the sidemen, who left enough room for the other players to work, and played to each other and with each other, and never against each other.
The show opened with a Redman composition called “Identity Thief”, which nicely established this theme. “Identity Thief” is based on a fairly intricate saxophone line, mirrored by the bass and answered by the drums, followed by a drum break and a two bass “solo” before the saxophone sets in to work. By having the two rhythm pairings of Grenadier and Blade (stage right) and Hutchinson and Rogers (stage left) take turns in the head, and then letting the drummers and the bassists immediately engage with each other, Redman established from the opening moments of the show that this was going to be a night of collaboration and engagement, rather than a showdown and a showoff. And when he returned to center stage, the whole machine worked remarkably well in supporting his soloing. The excellence of the musicians he’s working with is crucial to the success of his project, of course: all four of his accompanists play at a level of technique which allows them to explore the full possibilities of their instruments, and they have the ears and the imagination to put that technique to use in service of the music rather than simply as a means of showing off their chops for their own sake. Grenadier and Rogers traded licks as a means of sharing and expanding on each others’ ideas, and incidentally showed off their complete command of the upright bass.

After the ensemble number, Redman played a series of four pieces, one with each combination of drummer and bassist. Grenadier and Hutchinson supported him on “Hutchhiker’s Guide”, a nicely written piece with a more singable head than “Identity Thief”. His solo was marked by an inventive approach to phrasing, his lines stretching a little past the boundaries of the four-bar phrasing inheirited from generations of players. Jazz soloists sometimes give the impression that they’re just blowing through the changes, following the tune without a clear idea of a destination. Not so Redman: it was clear that he thinks in long lines, and his ideas are big ones, not simply a string of little ones stuck together. Grenadier’s bass solo on this tune was of a similar character. Based on a fragment of melody that repeated and shifted and transformed itself, it could have been inspired by J. S. Bach or by Steve Reich. This was driven by some subtle and tasty playing on the rims from Hutchinson. Rogers came in for Grenadier on the bass on the next tune, “Insomnomaniac”, which was introduced by the saxophone alone. Redman’s introduction was the closest thing to showing off that we saw all night, starting with a round, moody feel reminiscent of Dexter Gordon playing a ballad and working up to something more like Ornette Coleman, complete with multiphonics. Again, Redman’s big conception of the tune was very much on display. While this was clearly improvised, it was not simply a string of melodic fragments, but a conceptual whole that built to a peak before the rhythm section kicked in – literally, in this case: Redman’s left foot was the trigger that set them off. “Insomnomaniac” (I don’t know whether the music is intended to represent a state of mind, or whether Redman just liked the title) is a tricky piece, shifting between fast and slow movements without obvious cues, but Rogers and Hutchinson handled it with apparent ease. Hutchinson’s drum solo on this number was outstanding – I haven’t heard such melodic drumming since I last heard Tootie Heath, and that was another sort of melodic entirely.
“Ghost”, the next number, put Rogers’ bass in the foreground. It opened with a solo which, in contrast to Grenadier’s earlier, was more like a horn line than an exercise in counterpoint. The difference was one of horizontal and vertical harmony. Where Grenadier’s solo stacked the notes on top of each other and stated the development explicitly, Rogers’ implied the changes through the melody. Both were perfectly good ways to do the work, and both were delightful to hear. Presently, Blade joined in, playing textures with padded mallets, brushes, and his hands – this is drummer who plays for sounds, and even when Rogers settled into an ostinato figure and a groove coalesced, Blade continued to pay deep attention to the colors he produced. Redman played this one on the soprano sax, moving into the tune with gentle exploratory lines in the instrument’s lower register before moving into the higher reaches and playing more intricate lines as the tempo picked up. The saxophone never dominated the rhythm section, though, and at one point Redman took a leisurely stroll around the stage, still playing though off-mike, as if to let the rhythm section stand out front for a while (or as if to personify the ghost of the title, faintly heard but not seen).
Little Ditty, another Redman original (as were all of the tunes played to this point), featured a fairly technical intro on the soprano before Grenadier entered for the tune’s more melodic head. This one felt more arranged than the others, with Grenadier playing what sounded like a composed line which supported the melody perfectly, before the trio moved into a vibe that was sonically reminiscent of the free jazz period of the 1950s, although the tune was always present. As Grenadier played another fine solo on the bass, Hutchinson and Rogers returned to the stage and the two bassists played a wonderfully conversational duet before the rest of the band came in for some full-throttle blowing from the ensemble. The final number for the regular set was Gil Evans’ Barracudas, nicely arranged with Evans-ish collaboration in the basses, Grenadier playing high and Rogers putting the floor under him. For an encore, the group played Redman’s setting of a Beethoven sonata, which sounded more like a ballad, something on the order of Coltrane’s “Alabama”, than like Beethoven.

So, what are we to make of this “double trio?” Redman has put together a fine group of musicians here. A simple account of the playing cannot convey the sense of cooperation and sheer joy that came off that stage. Blade and Hutchinson showed a real affinity for each other, finishing each other’s lines and obviously having a fine time. After the show, Blade talked about how much he enjoyed playing with Hutchinson: “It’s nice to be able to play with someone when you don’t have to talk about it. It’s just, let’s play some music, you know?” Rogers and Grenadier spent more time making room for each other, giving the other room to play and then stepping in to take a turn, but you could hear that each was listening to the other and responding. With all of this cooperation going on behind him, Redman had a clear field to blow, and he made the most of it, showing a strong understanding of the history and the possibilities of his instrument. Long used to working in the trio setting, he is very good at exploiting the harmonic possibilities of this configuration as well as the more visceral possibilities of a rhythm-oriented combo, as he did in some of the funkier riffing sections of “Insomnomaniac”. I doubt if this will supplant the standard trio plus horns arrangement, and probably it won’t be Redman’s standard touring band for very long, but it’s nice to know that some of these ideas get tried sometimes, and that sometimes they work this well.

The Vertigo Years (Philipp Blom)

Posted in Books on January 19, 2009 by jkiparsky

The Vertigo Years – Philipp Blom

Recently finished reading this survey of developments in the European zeitgeist in the years 1900 to 1914. There’s not much to say about it: it’s interesting stuff, none of it very novel but presented well. While Blom maintains an annual view as his basic conceit, with one chapter nominally devoted to each year, the chapters in fact detail particular developments – the Borgesian list would include Freudianism, “velocity”, the total change in art described by Virginia Woolf, mass murderers, woman suffrage, and so forth – and could easily be read as a series of linked essays. And in fact Blom avoids presenting an overall narrative or theoretical view. We are not told in one sentence or in one paragraph or in one chapter what the period between 1900-1914 was “about”, and Blom should be praised for this. Instead, we have a sort of a cubist sketch of a world in transition (what world is ever not in transition? Very well, then: a world in a more violent and shaking transition than most worlds), seen from fourteen angles at once. Think of it as a “decade descending a staircase” or “fourteen ways of looking at a decade”. While it doesn’t explain, or seek to explain, it illustrates well a period that opened squarely in the 19th century and ended, fourteen years later, with both feet in the 20th, and to do that it must show that period as a moving object.

The Best Single Malt

Posted in General, Idiosyncracies on January 9, 2009 by jkiparsky

I don’t know why, but this came to my mind recently. I posted it to a “single malt whisky” forum a few years ago, in a fit of peeve at the level of discussion. There was, if you believe it, a thread about which single malt is the best one. And, if you believe it, there were about a hundred responses, all along the lines of “Talisker.” “Laphraoig.” “Glenfiddich”. And so forth. Discussion? Feh, this was a shopping list. So once I got a good head of steam up, this came boiling out: my response to the question, “Which single malt whisky is the best?”.
———-

The best? Is Tommy Peoples better than Frankie Gavin? Is Borges better than Saramago? Is Hammet better than Chandler? The best? No, never the best for me – if I knew that there were such a beast, I’d run far from it! Give me only the next best – and the one after that, and the next, and the next. Is the first sip of a new bottle, trying to tease out what fine things lie within – is that “the best”? Or is it a drop from a favorite bottle at the end of a fine sort of day? Or is it spending an afternoon doing mortal damage to a bottle of Laphroaig, on the cuff, after playing a set of music early in St. Pat’s Week, listening to good tunes by good players not quite awake yet? (that’s pretty good, I recommend it)
The best? A fig for the best! A penny on its eyes and away with it! Give me very fine, and awfully nice, if a bit sharp, and too much smoke for me, but you might like it, and even the occasional abomination, but good in a pinch, but send your best around to the moneyed bars for people who drink Laphroaig because they heard it’s the best, and never taste it. Send your best to the businessman who’ll chain it with ice cubes and fetter it with soda. Send your best to the aesthete taster and re-taster who peels off every note of flavor, tags it, and pastes it into his collecting-book to wither and die, just don’t bring any best around here. The best, indeed. These people spend their lives putting moments into bottles, and you want to tell me whether lying tangled with your lover and the sheets is better than what came before?
That being said, I might add Glenkeith to the list of good bottles to have on your shelf. When it’s what you want, it’s exactly what you want.

——
Reading it over feels a little odd. I’m tempted to revise it, to address some of the stylistic quirks that I think I’ve lost in the last few years, but I think I should let it be. There it is.

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography (William Butcher)

Posted in Books on January 9, 2009 by jkiparsky

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography (William Butcher)

While it seems a little churlish to come down on this book – it’s a little like panning the community theater production – it really does serve as an argument for professionalism in publishing. While everybody might have a book in them (and to give him his due, Butcher seems to have spent a good while preparing to write this book) it does take a certain concern for craft and a certain infrastructure to make that book worth reading. Butcher clearly lacked both, and his book is almost useless as a result.
Butcher would have been greatly aided by an editor, or at least sympathetic reader. The number of errors in English usage that appear in this book simply embarrasses a reader. For example, while the word “condescendence” seems to appear in the dictionary on Mr. Butcher’s computer, anyone who had Mr. Butcher’s best interests at heart would have steered him to “condescension” on page 173. Unfortunately for Mr. Butcher, it passed through spell-check, and so it got into print. Worse than this are some of Butcher’s attempts at metaphor. Verne’s publisher, we read, took care “not to let out any information about actual print runs, profit margins, or indeed anything that might bother his golden goose’s pretty little head.” (p. 221). On the same page we find this doozy:

“While ignoring the running sore of the gouging of the illustrated editions (which would fester for another 30 years) it claimed to clear up the repeatedly opened wound of the mputation of the unillustrated ones – by enlarging the wound by six years!”

This nauseating imagery does not help clarify Verne’s hopelessly bad contract situation; on the contrary, the tangled syntax makes a fairly simple concept unnecessarily confusing, particularly when the word “gouging” is used in reference to the contracts, giving us two different sets of “wound” metaphors. Again, a reader who cared about Butcher, or about the success of his book, might have prevailed upon him to clean up both of these travesties of writing. Other passages read like poor translations: “Every syllable mulled over and polished until it wouldn’t shine any more” could have come from the French, via Babelfish.
Beyond the relatively mechanical process of perfecting the prose, an editor might have spotted some of Butcher’s fixations and steered him away from them, to the great improvement of the book’s content. Butcher’s biography of Verne is concerned with a few discrete topics, and only incidentally with the life of the writer. The possibility of Verne’s homosexuality exercises his imagination to no end, although almost nothing in the way of evidence for this hypothesis is presented – mostly a set of innuendos and double entendres which appear in suggestive translations, but without context or the original French – from these, selected from a lifetime of correspondence, we are to conclude that the writer was gay, when we are also told of mistresses and an aggressive pursuit of heterosexual romance in his youth? A quote from page 179 is typical of the “evidence” for this hypothesis: “Many questions remained about Verne’s America. Did he use his freedom to womanize, or worse?” Well, perhaps. I do not say here that the hypothesis is unthinkable, or that it would defame Verne to suggest or to prove it. What I do say is this: Butcher has suggested, insinuated, and otherwise urged that Verne was attracted to other men and specifically that he was fixated on anal sex. His support for this comes only from suggestive passages of letters and writings, none of which appear to relate to any concrete incident. Whatever the truth of the matter, Butcher has only raised the question of why this matter received such attention in his book, when his claim’s support is so very slender.
Another of Butcher’s fixations is the mistreatment that Verne received at the hands of his publisher: from the middle of the book, almost every page is concerned with the miserable contracts that Verne signed, with the miserable pay (essentially a monthly sum for a fixed number of volumes per year), with the indignities committed upon the stories and upon the prose. This is of course a substantial fact of Verne’s life, and must be understood, but rather than being better understood by this focus, it seems to be distorted in the magnification. One really can’t understand what this financial abuse meant to Verne’s life, because we are given so very little of his adult life.
The last of Butcher’s fixations that I’ll mention here is with his own status as the pre-eminent Verne scholar of our day. There are altogether too many mentions of the feats of academic strength claimed by the author: the only scholar to have read such and such a corpus of texts, the only scholar to have assembled a comprehensive list of Verne’s residences, the only scholar to have done this, that, and the other. This self-tooting horn very quickly becomes tiresome, particularly since the feats are generally so uninteresting.
And, as a sort of cherry on top of all this there is the now-requisite trip into the subject’s head. I’m not sure what on earth posesses an author when they do this, but it seems that a distressing number of them find it acceptable to generate extended passages of text purporting to reveal the inner thoughts of their subject, with no possible motivation for those passages. In Butcher’s case, he has at least the grace to concede in a footnote that he’s talking through his hat, which grace he squanders by attempting to justify the practice. It’s really quite remarkable, and so easy to avoid. If an author wants to speculate on the possible but unrecorded feelings of a historical figure, they may do so with perfect license, and all they have to do to make it legitimate is to mark the passage as speculation: “One might imagine Verne saying to himself…” or “I suppose that old Jules would have thought…” But there is no such caveat, and so I have to mark it down to a certain chutzpah of the author. Perhaps he thinks nobody will notice…

With such a depressing catalog of failures, I wish I could cite some successes of the book, but I’m afraid there’s very little. The overall course of Verne’s life is given a little more detail than on Wikipedia, but one could really hope that there is another biographer out there that is actually concerned with writing about Verne and his life…

s/”American”/”USonian”/

Posted in Idiosyncracies on January 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

Ahem. I will say this once, and link back to this any time I need to.
The country I live in, which I like quite well, thank you very much, despite the best efforts of certain forces of pure evil (marketing types and real estate developers and so forth), this country is called the United States of America. It would be sensible enough to derive adjectival forms from the shortened form, “America” except for one thing: there are two continents that go by the names North and South America, and the people who live on those continents are, all of them, Americans, just as the people residing on the continent of Europe are Europeans, regardless of their home nation’s status vis-a-vis the European Union. So when an citizen of the USA refers to things “American” meaning things particular to the USA, to me that sounds like some combination of arrogance and ignorance: either we don’t know that there is a lot of “American” stuff that has nothing to do with our country, or we know and don’t care. I imagine the rest of the world is used to this by now, and probably doesn’t even really notice any more, but still, it annoys me.

This is why I have taken to using, in a different sense than it was originally coined, Frank Lloyd Wright’s term “USonian” to refer to my fellow citizens and things pertaining to them. I have no shred of belief that changing our language affects our view of the world in some Whorfian manner, it’s just a matter of politeness, which our nation has not shown to the rest of the world in rather a while.

This is not, I should say, a public campaign to ask others to follow me in this somewhat odd usage – it’s just an explanation of why I use this word that nobody else seems to…

A bit of juvenile humor…

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks, General on January 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

Sometimes something strikes me as deeply funny, even while I know well that it is profoundly juvenile. This is one of those moments. To set it up, I have been reading, as a daily exercise in Portuguese, Jose Saramago’s published journals. I’m up to volume three now, and one of the threads he’s following is the terrier that showed up in late January. In the first entry of this volume, the dog, as yet unnamed, has leapt the wall and gone missing. So I come tonight to the entry for 4 January, and the first sentence is “A cadela está novamente em casa.” Naturally, I immediately read this in the most literal translation possible: “The bitch is back in the house”, and since then I’ve been unable to escape from the conjunction of Jose Saramago, Nobel Laureate and octogenarian, with the phrase “The bitch is back…”.
As a friend of mine used to say – it’s not funny, but it is.

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Georgina Howell)

Posted in Books on January 4, 2009 by jkiparsky

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (Georgina Howell)

Briefly, Georgia Bell was a wealthy English woman who made use of her privileged positon to do what she bloody well wanted to – already a good achievement in a society where she could have easily submerged herself in a husband and keeping a proper house. What she bloody well wanted to do, though was “to be a Person”, which she did in grand style. After a period of wandering, she finds that she is one of England’s most knowledgeable authorities on the Middle East, an area which has taken on a degree of strategic interest with the coming of the first World War, and becomes a significant figure in providing information and setting policy around that region. The biography falls into two natural sections: the first, her development to 1915, is a sort of Bildungsroman, in which young Gertrude gradually discovers herself and her potential, and through a mixture of good fortune and a fierce willingness to seize upon what luck hands her becomes one of the most interesting figures of her era. This first half also leads up to the great tragedy of Bell’s life, and the climactic chapter detailing her love for Dick Doughty-Wylie and his eventual death is unfortunately the dramatic peak of her story. There is much worth reading in the second half of the book, but Howell is not able to give bureaucratic infighting and internal machinations of the English colonial establishment the same level of intensity that she gives to her asault on the Swiss Alps. A shame, because the latter portion of Bell’s life is precisely the most important part, and the part where her story can most illuminate the history of that region.

Reading Howell’s treatment of Bell’s life, I was struck once again by the absolute dependence on contemporary events in a putative history. This is a fine biography, allowing for some ill-advised decisions along the way, but it will age very quickly, since it is so dependant on current events in the middle east for its framing. It’s a bit of a giveaway when the only sequelae of events mentioned in the book are those which are contemporaneous with the writing. In this case, we skip neatly from Bell’s time across several decades to remark on ironies raised by events in the papers in the last ten years, but nothing in the intervening time is mentioned. If we’re to hear about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in a biography of Bell (and there’s no reason we shouldn’t) we should probably hear something about his rise, or we learn little. A history of the middle east is not what I’m asking for here, of course, but the current arrangement is simply consigning her book to the remainer tables within the next year or so, where it really doesn’t deserve to go.
Howell covers the events of Bell’s life well for the most part, and is for the most part good about sourcing her information, barring one chapter in which we spend far too much time in Bell’s head for the documentation provided. While Howell can’t be blamed for loving her subject, it is a bit much to find her describing at such length and detail what Bell “must have felt” or recounting events which we have no right to assume are documented in journals or letters – without giving any sources for the detail she provides. However, a careful reader can always spot this kind of dramatization and read around it, so there’s no great harm done except to the incautious reader.
I understand that there is another recent Bell biography floating around the world of books. When I am able to lay my hands upon a copy, I will undertake to report further on my readings in Belliana.

Caution

Posted in General on January 2, 2009 by jkiparsky

I don’t know how I got the idea in my head that Diana Krall is blind, but I did. And so when I made a crack about this being a contributing factor to her marrying Elvis Costello this morning, a lot of heads turned to me, all wearing that puzzled expression that, so widely distributed and with such a lack of dissent, tells you that it’d be wise to confirm your facts. But we never do, do we, and so I soldiered on, feeling pretty sure of myself.
And when a knowledge machine was produced, and we consulted the wisdom of the multitudes, no trace of support could be found for my assertion. While I could presumably have insisted that there was no support for the assertion that she can see, even I have more sense than that.
Now in the course of discussion, a bet had been made. One of my interlocutors had brought with her a supply of cheese blintzes – such blintzes! Pardon me while I digress: these were a superb example of the blintz in full flower. As with the best exemplars of les crepes d’les choisis, the first bite killed me stone dead – pure gustatory delight should not be mainlined, and I OD’d. However, shock treatment in the form of strong coffee revived me, as it will, and I was able to carry on noshing. Heart failure was averted by further application of coffee – a known blood thinner – and so I am escaped to tell the tale.
Yes, the tale. So these were the blintzes that had come along for the enjoyment of all. So sure was I in my conviction that Ms. Krall’s eyesight was most notable in its nonexistence that I saw an opportunity to profit from another’s ignorance, always a good way to start the day. I proposed a wager: a batch of those blintzes for me (Macario-like, I had a vision of sneaking off into the woods to devour them all on my own, but I suppose I’d probably have shared a few in the actual event) against my rendition of my grandmother’s famous – reknowned – legendary, even! – Piimäkakku.
Interlocutor number two, hearing this, declared that she wasn’t about to put up any baked goods, but she’d bet her mix tape against mine on the subject, with one caveat: the mix tape (CD, these days) would have to be on the theme of blindness: whether it be blind artists, artists with references to blindness in their names, or songs about blindness. Done, said I.
And that’s how I came to start off the new year with a reminder that just because you believe a thing, that doesn’t mean it’s true. And further, that if you hold fast to your beliefs and insist on them, the worst that can happen is you have to bake a cake, so you might as well go ahead with that.