We interrupt this program

Oh hi

Seeing this on June 15th, btw. Managed to find a good return that’s also within my budget.


The year in books

Well. I suspect due to various personal upheavals this year, good (a lot more writing assigned and pitches picked up than last year, on top of my regular 3-day-a-week non-writing job in Etobicoke) and bad (having to move out from the rent-stabilized apartment where I lived for 9 years was a proper life kerfuffle), I read less this year, down to 2.333 books a month from the 4-a-month average.

OTOH, the newly added time and stress constraints made me choose wiser each one, which resulted in some consistently good reads across months.

Here’s all the books I’ve read this year, with favourites in bold.

Lee Smolin: Time Reborn. Dr. Smolin is a theoretical physicist at UoT and Waterloo’s Perimeter and this book gave my brain an extreme kind of exercise in scientific and philosophical thinking that it’s rarely asked to do. I didn’t grasp everything, and that’s just par for the course even though Smolin manages to write about the most perplexing questions before the human mind in an accessible, general public way.

Anne Garreta: Not One Day. An editor from BookForum got in touch to ask if I’d like to review this new translation of Garreta’s book, and after looking up the author (whom, shamefully, I hadn’t heard of before) it took me zero split seconds to jump at the opportunity. I am now an ardent fan of AG, the rare woman among the Oulipo gang. Read my review here [PDF, because it’s behind the paywall on Bookforum dot com].

Sam Byers: Idiopathy. Haven’t encountered this much knowledge about what happens within a couple since Iris Murdoch. SB is also on Twitter and excellent at it.

George F*cking Saunders: Lincoln in the F*cking Bardo – a masterpiece. If you deem it sentimental, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Or you haven’t yet encountered death from a closer distance.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation. Lots of good readers went gaga for this one, but meh.

Rachel Cusk: Arlington Park
Rachel Cusk: Transit
It became clear to me that I have to read everything this woman has ever written. Arlington Park, one of her “pre-fame” books, shot up past Transit and is now, together with Outline, in my Pantheon.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy. What a pile of self-important, over-publicized poverty porn dreck this was. Was supposed to review it for said BookForum, but wrote an angry, hatchet-y, impatient review that the editor wanted me to re-do, in a calmer tone of voice and with more textual examples. I said no.

Gwendolyn Riley: First Love. A gem.

Amy Parnes & Jonathan Allen: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The very first book to come out about That Thing, and I had to have it. Nothing extremely new in it to anybody who religiously followed the US media at that time, but it was a good overview and the sundry off-the-record interviews with staffers resulted in some new insights. Not sure if I’m buying the “this was the most factional and divided campaign it could be”, but the authors provide plenty of evidence that there have always been too many cooks around the Clintons’ pot (which they cultivated themselves) and that while WJC could cut through his to form a unified, persuasive political vision, HRC couldn’t cut through hers. I also read

What Happened by HRC this year. I liked it. I was moved, and the Sisterhood chapter is on point. There’s some light bs occasionally, but it doesn’t mar the overall impression. I also closed the book thinking, I should call my loved ones much more frequently; Chelsea called her late grandma more frequently than I did my own late mother. And how many political memoirs will make you want to call your mother more?

Dorthe Nors: So Much for That Winter. I wanted to love this, but alas.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary. He wrote it after his mother passed. You’re beginning to notice some recurring themes in my reading materials, don’t you.

Delphine de Vigan: Based on a True Story. This won the Goncourt in France recently, and riding that wave of recognition got a swift English translation. The narrator who’s also an author meets a woman at a party, who quickly becomes her best friend and insinuates herself into every aspect of author’s life. She also subtly starts manipulating her fiction writing – and by the end of the book you don’t quite know if the woman really wrecked her life or if she was a character written by the author. One of those Who exactly is deceiving me now? read.

Mathias Enard: Compass. A Viennese musicologist goes to bed and can’t sleep; instead he’s pondering his life and his recent terminal diagnosis. Lots of music, lots of East meets West business, and a particularly effective argument against Edward Said’s concept of ‘orientalism’ — from the mouth of a female character. Meditative, erudite and unruly. Didn’t love it on the whole, but loved so many of its moments.

Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour. Authors in extremis. Brilliant through and through – even though most of the authors are not those that I would have looked at (all somewhere on the traditional masculinity and alcohol abuse spectrum).

Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends. I wanted to love this too.

Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises. A very unusual Drabble, in that the best conveyed, most complex characters are male. Gave me two nights’ worth of flooding nightmares. Didn’t love it, but loved finding again that recognizable Drabble voice so unique to her. We’re lucky she’s still writing and publishing.

Penelope Lively: Dancing Fish and Ammonites. A cultural and personal memoir about reaching old age. Where do we go, what do we do, if we live still must?

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters. Americans don’t do (ie know how to handle, how to write about, how to be conscious of) class, either on film/TV or in novels. But this novel is among those few exceptions.

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick is also among those exceptions.

Nick Mount: Arrival. A fun and thoroughly researched look into the making of the CanLit. Essential.

Sybille Bedford: A Compass Error. A lesbian triangle novel published in 1968 in Britain? Narrated by a sharp, erudite coming-of-age heroine? Set in a Highsmith-Ripley-sque version of Europe? I’ll take that extra large and to go, SVP.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled. A claustrophobic, oneiric, Kafkaesque, incomprehensible world with classical music at its centre.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It works, it works just fine as a novel, well written and lively; I’m just not sure if the woman at its centre deserves what the author puts her through. It’s a bit much, the humiliation. Give her SOMETHING, shurly?

Alex Good: Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction. Oooh this is naughty and incisive.

Gonçalo Manuel Tavares: Joseph Walser’s Machine. Formally inventive, and I’m glad I discovered GMT thanks to the author interview in the French Philosophie magazine. However, in Joseph, women either don’t exist or appear in order to hinder the proceedings and to be discarded by the Important Ideas pushing the text forward.

Stuart Jeffries: Grand Hotel Abyss. A bit overlong, could have used a trim or five, but otherwise an informative, fair and occasionally even witty collective biography of the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Fromm, Habermas and its straying predecessor Benjamin.

Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs. This Wood essay made me aware of McGregor, and this novel did not disappoint.

Have a pleasant rest of holidays, dear readers – and thank you for reading.


Minoriten Konvent

MinoritenKonventI can’t get over how good this CD is. I stumbled on it via Stephanie Paulet‘s (inactive) Twitter account, found it on Rdio in its entirety and haven’t been able to leave the computer since.

It’s a selection of late seventeenth-century sonatas for violin and organ from the Habsburg and German lands. The only composer (remotely) known to most of us will be Biber.

Paulet is Insula Orchestra‘s Concertmaster and I’ve only ever heard her play within the orchestra and orchestral solos, never in duos or a chamber ensemble. Elisabeth Geiger is at the organ.

Two YT clips that’ll give you an idea.



Two interesting documentaries on music coming up at Bloor Hot Docs

Two interesting documentaries on music coming up at Bloor Hot Docs

It looks like this town conspired to pack everything good in the two weeks of spring that I’m away. Okay. I see what’s happening.

Bloor Hot Docs is screening two documentaries that normally I wouldn’t miss. One is called Alive Inside, and it looks at how music can affect (maybe even temporarily halt? the neurology jury is out) memory loss occurring in some types of neurodegenerative disease. In particular the music that meant something to the patients when they were healthier. Here’s the blurb:

Alive Inside follows Dan Cohen, a social worker who decides on a whim to bring iPods to a nursing home. To his and the staff’s surprise many residents suffering from memory loss seem to awaken deeply locked memories when they listen to music from their past. With great excitement, Dan turns to renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, and together they investigate the mysterious way music functions inside our brains and our lives. Alive Inside focuses on one man’s journey, but also questions when we stop being human, and what it takes to re-start a life that has faded away.

April 2 and 3 – tickets and times here.

Then on April 7, there’s the documentary about a peculiar instrument called the Ondes Martenot, and some of the fascinating characters who are keeping the Ondes Martenot culture alive. Tickets<- Trailer:

From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Katherine Mansfield


This week, Helena’s postcard turns our attention to a still somewhat under-read writer who was one of the parents of modernism in English literature. Here’s Helena Whitbread:

My reading pleasure this summer has been, and still is, a quite in-depth exploration of the life and works of Katherine Mansfield. Initially, I bought The Complete Stories (published by Penguin Classics). The Introduction by Ali Smith, a noted novelist and short story writer herself, alone made me want to know much more about Katherine’s life. Claire Tomalin’s biography of her, entitled A Secret Life, was my starting point, which then led me on to the five volumes of Mansfield’s Collected Letters (I have just started Volume V). Another biography, Katherine Mansfield. A Darker View by Jeffrey Meyers, is holding me enthralled and I have just received the 1985 Virago publication of Ida Baker’s memoir, Katherine Mansfield. The Memories of LM.

So – as a writer myself, albeit not of fiction, have I learned anything from this brilliant woman? I think the greatest impression her work made on me must be the meticulous attention she pays to the careful building up of layer upon layer of seemingly small, insignificant details until the whole picture emerges in a glow of luminosity thereby creating unforgettable scenes which are her gift to us, her readers.

In my own work on the life of Anne Lister, I have sometimes hesitated over the thousands of myriad details contained in Anne’s journals – for instance, is it important to say that at Shibden Hall they used a “metal teapot”, of which Anne obviously felt ashamed when her friends came to tea? Does it matter that she combed such classical works as the Iliad to find names for her horses? Or that she lined a deal box with blue paper in which to keep her letters? Well, as Anne’s biographer, what I have brought away from Katherine Mansfield’s letters and fiction is a ringing endorsement of the fact that small things do matter!


If you’ve never read Mansfield, a good way to dip your toes is THIS  free U of Adelaide e-book site that archives many of her short stories. My gossipy side also wants to know whether it is true that Mansfield had relationships with women. Any information about that, our resident historian?

Visiting Paris under German Occupation

Visiting Paris under German Occupation

Helena Whitbread writes:

If I am away from my desk for more than two days I become a little anxious and fretful – worried that my work is not progressing. Though I enjoy time out with friends, going for a meal, shopping, and spending time with my family, poet Andrew Marvell had it right: ‘… at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.’ Indeed!

So what has lured me away from Anne Lister lately? Last Sunday evening, our local theatre, The Playhouse, screened the film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and I was invited to give a short talk beforehand about Anne’s life and then, afterwards, to repair to the bar where I would hold a Q & A session. We had an enthusiastic audience, with only one dissonant voice – a very tiny, white-haired old lady, who claimed a seat on the front row who, when asked had she enjoyed the film, shot out a very disgruntled “No!” Oh, dear! Otherwise, a very successful evening. People were interested in Anne and asked me many questions about her and my work on the journals.

On Wednesday I went for lunch to La Cachette – quite a sophisticated venue in this otherwise small, stony, Yorkshire town. My reason for the lunch was that I have met (via Twitter) a woman, a lecturer in French at Sheffield University – Dr Wendy Michallat, who is translating the journals of Madeleine Blaess, a woman who was in Paris during the German Occupation.  The picture below is from Wendy’s blog about her work on Madeleine Blaess’s journals.

Paris RooftopsThe view is as it would have been from Madeleine Blaess’s window in Paris in the winter of 1942. Madeleine is now on Twitter, telling it how it is in Paris in 1942….@MadeleineBlaess and Wendy’s blog can be read here: http://blaessproject.wordpress.com/

The city of Paris during this particular period of history is greatly interesting to me. As Wendy is interested in the Anne Lister journals and only lives about twenty miles from me, we agreed to meet and have now formed a friendship based on our mutual interest in women’s journals.

Now, however, I am on the stool of repentance for neglecting my work and for the next six days I have vowed to resist the temptations of the outside world and give my full attention to Anne Lister – apart from little diversions, such as writing this blog post. (Oh, and watching ‘The Politician’s Husband’ on BBC2!)

The Vintage von Otter Series

The Vintage von Otter Series

Is there such a thing as too much Otter content? Nah. Besides, I stumbled upon a treasure on YT tonight. MrBBJane of Fears for Queers uploaded an old video clip from a documentary about either Vera Rosza or Otter’s Bildung.  The said clip contains an even older clip of the barely out of teens von Otter conducting in a class.

This is a perfect kickoff of the Vintage von Otter Series, which will exhibit the lesser known finds from yesteryear.

History of the record business 2/2 – The mondo bizarro of the musician contract

This is the best episode in this excellent series, absolutely worth listening.

Part Four–The 80s: Late Afternoon

Priorities of the record business changed from the music being the most important thing to money becoming the most important thing. The MTV and the CD emerged around this time.

All of a sudden single albums could make their record companies hundreds of millions of dollars. Exec positions on major labels become very powerful, earned millions.

But 8 out of 10 recordings are, profit-wise, failures. One is a modest success and one is a huge hit that propels the whole endeavour.

All the money was generated by a handful of albums, maybe 10 or 12 a year, out of thousands released. What used to be a pleasant surprise, became a necessity in the business. The industry became addicted to them. Business model was based on lottery. In the past how they solved this problem was: they “bought” lots and lots of “tickets”, spreading the net as wide as possible (ie signing up musicians diversely and widely). In the late 70s, when rec companies started to merge with one another to become more efficient, that changed. Things became more centralized, fewer players survived and got bigger. This resulted in less diversity in what kind of music is being recorded.

The music had to appeal to a widest possible range of people, otherwise the business could collapse. Rec companies turned their backs to the previous strategies that made them so successful.

Did the record profits change the relationship it had with its artists? Not at all, answers Harris. The record comps squeezed their artists hard during their most profitable period. Buying the music for as cheap as possible became the record company mantra. Don Passman, the author of All You Need to Know About the Music Business: when the downloading anarchy started, “the recording industry claimed that all the ‘illegal downloading” is hurting musicians. No, overall it’s the business model of the record industry is what’s hurting musicians.”

Record comp would sign artists EARLY for a long term, when artists know nothing about the business.

In standard record contract of the 80s and 90s the royalty calculation became byzantine, a “series of smoke and mirrors.” Let’s say a band gets fifteen-percent in royalty per each item sold. A series of deductions is then applied to that royalty rate that reduced it significantly. One of them originated in 1940s, the ‘breakage’ deduction, which is ten percent of the royalties. Then: the packaging deduction. When the CD came to the scene, the packaging deduction grew to twenty-five percent. Many artists were charged extra deductions on R&D on the CD itself, 20 years after the CD was invented. (!!)

Then! They took the ‘free goods’ off the royalty. The musician would not be paid for, say, fifteen percent of records given away for free, and that’s reasonable. But that was done by increasing the price on the other 85 percent of CDs to make up for it. The companies getting the same money, but the artists were not paid for the fifteen percent of the CDs.

It didn’t make any difference if you are a big artist. With all this, royalties were cut down for up to fifty percent. PLUS – the companies required for the artists to pay for the making of their own records. Artist is charged out of their royalty for the “cost of the recording”, which can include travel, producers, many marketing expenses (doing videos, eg).

Finally: the record companies insisted on owning the copyrights on those recordings, and that’s where the real money is.

Artists earned on average about seven percent of the total amount of money in the record industry. If their CD earned $1M, they only got $70,000.

Artists signed these deals because they had no choice.

George Michael wrote ‘Freedom’ in protest of his situation, and tried to sue his label, Sony Music, to void his contract. Song was a hit; he lost the suit. In the mid-90s the record industry was all-powerful, at the peak of its game. Yet, within few years… things would change dramatically.

Late nineties: Simple computer program concocted by a college kid with no commercial motives (he made it for his friends): NAPSTER. The record business went into the panic mode. Their monopoly disappeared overnight. The sales and profits started to plunge dramatically.

Part of the problem is of their own making. New format that industry introduced in the early 80s–the CD–turned out to be a big headache.

“Legend has it that heads of record companies got together to discuss the introduction of the CD, and one of them purportedly said ‘we are giving them a master’. They used to guard their masters like crazy, now they would manufacture them.”

But it wasn’t over for the rec comp until the invention of the personal computer.

Eventually they decided to fight downloading altogether. But early on there was a moment when the industry considered emulating Napster, not crushing it. They couldn’t pull it off.

Graham Henderson, who was part of the effort: “Billions were spent to convert ourselves into a more modern machine. They had to invent an intire new business line. What formats, contracts, art work… redefine everything. Kept finding impediment upon impediment.” (If Jo Blow purchases a song for dollar by a credit card, the credit card company would say OK, but we’ll charge you 50 cents on each of those—and things like that). “We were racing to get where people needed us to be.”

But record business eventually ended up deciding to use the protection of the copyright law to fight the downloading. It sued Napster out of existence, then started one by one to sue audience and fans. Damaging their reputation immeasurably in the process.

“The industry that once brought you the Elvis and the Beatles is now suing children. It’s hated by its customers, and if it doesn’t change, it will collapse.”

Part Five: Twilight

Final episode starts by interviewing teens who haven’t bought a CD since 2001… and explores where the recording business is heading, and what will inherit it. Will we head into the era in which live performances will be the main source of income for the musicians, and the selling of sheet music for the creators? Does that mean more of us will take up instruments and enjoy music in a more participatory manner? Remains to be seen.

History of the record business 1/2 – The pioneers

I finally managed to finish the entire Twilight of the Gods, Robert Harris’ excellent five-part series on the rise and fall of the recording industry. Each episode is 53 minutes long, so highlights are in order for those who can’t sit through the entire series but would still like to sample the bits that interest them. Parts 1-3 here, parts 4-5 (Late Afternoon and Twilight) coming soon.

Part One–Dawn

Harris starts at the Edison museum in West Orange, NJ by checking out one of original talking machines, the 1908 phonograph. It is still able to record: you yell into the horn and there’s a pin at the end of the horn that vibrates in tune to the voice and cuts the record of the vibrations into the wax cylinder, where they’re preserved forever. People would take the recorder off, put the reproducer back on, to hear what was recorded.

“Before the record, we always listened to the music in company of others. From then on, we could chose the music on our own and listen to it on our own. Such a sense of personal power over music never existed before.”

Recorded music gains an aura of its own, rather than diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art behind it. “They belong to us intimately; that’s their aura.”

If there hadn’t been a business to go with the recording technology, the recordings wouldn’t become so important in our lives, remain more of a possibility. Edison was trying to figure out the economics behind it, but got it wrong. He thought of it as a dictation device, for businesses–wax cylinder to replace the written letter. Also put a phonograph into a doll to try to sell the “talking doll”, and that flopped. A decade later after the invention, nobody still made profit from the phonograph.

Then an entrepreneur had an idea to place the phonographs in public spaces like hotels, and charge the public a nickel to hear them play music. “Coin-slot phonographs”. This became really successful.

They redesigned the machine to be just for playback, to be a simpler, much less expensive machine. Originally the idea was for people to make their own recordings, but now what becomes profitable is producing records. And that’s the beginning of the recording industry.

The society told Edison that what they want to hear on the phonograph is music.

Suddenly, there was this enormous market to serve and it became important in 1890s to find a technology to mass produce recordings. Amiel Berliner created a brand new machine altogether, the gramophone that played not cylinders but flat records. Berliner disks were the beginning of the end of Edison. Although at the end Edison did find a way to mass-produce cylinders, they lost out to recordings.

The less known younger inventors like Berliner and Eldridge Johnson who founded the RCA and patented the Victor Talking Machine, realized they had to learn how to cater to the mass public, or rather how to actually create a mass public. Where Johnson put the money in is the artist, the star names. And at that time, the great singing stars were opera singers, like Enrico Caruso. Records made him an even bigger star.

Discs were created as status symbols, overpriced them initially and found out that the market can take this abuse for years and years and years. Redesigned the machines that played them. Johnson realized that for a new class of upwardly mobile consumer, something different was needed than the Edison industrial design. The lady of the house turned out to be the purchaser of the disc, so they made gramophone a piece of furniture. “E. Johsnon was Steve Jobs of his time.”

The record companies provided a public good; they helped create our contemporary culture, which becomes a very American culture, it turns out. Record business also changed the music it recorded.

Part Two–The 20s: Morning

Records weren’t really records, but entirely new art objects: the orchestra sound changed in order to be able to be recorded. “Violins would have modifications, orchestras would have tubas instead of double-basses, double-bases would be out because the recording horns (only mikes available then) were not able to pick them up.”

As the recording technology improved, the records gained in power.

Library of Congress in Culpeper,  Virginia has everything that was ever recorded in the US.

Recordings changed the world of music from top to bottom. New ways to classify music were introduced, then they divided everything into 3 min limit. By the 1920s, most of what North Americans heard was from the records; gradually but surely American musical universe became completely what was on record.

Records set the musical styles into being, including the African-American music. If it weren’t for the record companies, there would have been no jazz or blues. Recording industry discovered, promoted, and shaped it to their own ends. “Probably the first music to be shaped by recording was jazz.”

But the record companies were not in the business of recording American musical heritage, but in it for profits. “Blues was just a term they used to sell the product.” As a tagline, covered a lot of different things.  Country and western also invented by the record companies. The dividing wall between country and blues, invented by the recording companies, in fact was really thin.

Part Three–The 60s: Zenith

[This is the point of the series focused solely on popular music, and where a classical music aside would have been useful]

In the audience development news, there was the Advent of the Teenager.

On the industry side, it was a bit of a Wild West happening with many artists not being compensated justly. They did not know the laws, and record companies did: the basic framework for recording industry was made back in 1909 by the US Congress.

From 1909, record companies had to pay 2c per record sold to songwriters. Before, if you wanted to make a record, you go buy the sheet music for a nickel, make your recording, make a million dollar off it and keep all the money. Songwriters thought that was unfair, Congress agreed in 1909. The 2C record payment called ‘mechanical royalties’ still exists. In the 50s and 60s many of the companies did not pay – still lawsuits from back then in the courts now. They also kept ‘performance royalties’ from the artists. (Every time a song is performed in public and on the radio, the songwriters should get paid. Last year alone the proceeds totalled almost 1b dollars. In 50-60s it was tens of millions of dollars worth a year, that record companies could trick away from their recording artists)

Harris uses as an example Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ published in 1955 by Chess records. Original sheet music says it was written by Chuck Berry, but also two other guys. One of them was a top DJ of his time who could make or break a record. Unbeknownst to Chuck Berry, his company gave the DJ the co-writing credits so that each time he played the record on the radio, he would be filling his own pockets too. The other name in the credits was the Chess Label’s landlord: instead of paying rent, they gave him bogus writing credits. So Chuck Berry was given one third of the royalties for his own writing credits.

As  the 50s turned into 60s, teens turned into 20-year-olds.

Record companies decided to take over the RnR market, which eroded their share of the market up to that point (smaller companies recorded rnr and up-and-coming stuff)

Folk started dealing with social issues; there was morphing of folk music with rock. Selling the counter-culture. For a brief few years in mid-60s, record business “worked”. Became force for change—the needs of the business, the artists and of the fans all aligned in near-perfect harmony. At best of times, the partnership b/w entrepreneurs and artists serves both sides. Find artists, developed them to full potential, then presented them with all the marketing skills to the audience. For a while in the 60s, this did take place.

Soon enough the industry realized the lucrative potential of rock music and decided it’s in it for the profits more than anything else, which led to the era of  the monster profits of the 80s and 90s. The record business became the business of the attorneys and the accountants.