31 July 2007

Minnesota Part I: Dog Days of Summer

This weekend I headed back to Minnesota for my 20-year high school union. It was a whirlwind weekend with lots to do and little time to do it. After a stormy, delayed flight into MSP from DCA I made it to my Uncle’s and Aunt’s house in the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood of St. Paul. The weather was cooler than DC but still more humid than I expected. Unlike DC, not everyone in Minnesota has AC. Which was fine by me. I have never quite gotten used to sleeping in air conditioning (a requirement in steamy DC) and I actually enjoyed having two fans to cool me and lull me to sleep instead.

After a great night's sleep I actually managed to go for a run before breakfast. I figured if I was going to cheat on the South Beach with pancakes and syrup, I might as well burn some calories. I also knew that I was picking up 2 dozen donuts at Don's Bakery in Elk River. Don's donuts are the donuts of my childhood and I wasn't going to let this rare opportunity to get some pass me by. I took the two large boxes back to my rental car, turned on the AC and ate two of them--a jelly Bismark and a Lady Finger--in about 30 seconds flat. About half an hour later I found myself at my childhood Dairy Queen ordering burgers and a chocolate-dipped cone.

Not even the diet-busting goodness of my midday binge could delude me into thinking that Elk River was worth the visit. Despite lots of new construction activity in town, the place has a dusty, abandoned look. No doubt the 10,000 people that have moved to town since I graduated in 1987 spend most of their time patronizing the strip malls outside of town. Families conviced they need a patch of suburban sprawl, will never know what it is like to grow up within blocks of schools, a library, shops, churches, parks, ice skating, the Dairy Queen, and even the spot where the Elk River flows into the Mississippi. Growing up I lived in a community that smart developers and New Urbanists desperately try to recreate. Despite recent developments, short-sighted market forces and bad decisions by the City have greatly diminished the financial and emotional investments that decades of residents put into make Elk River a real place rather than a sprawling mass of parking lots along the highway.

Without much to keep me in Elk River, I got in the car and headed "up north" to my brother's place near the northwestern shore of Lake Mille Lacs. By the time I got there, the humidity was gone and the weather was like every childhood memory I have of summer in Minnesota. It was great to see him and his family and catch up with them. Having recently left the Elk River area, they were happy to see the balance of the 2 dozen donuts from Don's. In additon to having several more of the donuts, the real treat for me was playing with their three dogs. (Abby is the sweetie I coerced into sitting still for the picture above.)

Coming Soon: Minnesota Part II: The Reunion

24 July 2007

Long Live the Surtitle!

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes about opera surtitles* being used for operas that are performed in English. Tommasini uses a recent trip to the English National Opera where they did not use surtitles for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Death in Venice” as his jumping off point. He is not exactly anti-surtitles, but he does seem to suffer from a bit of elitist angst over the use of surtitles when operas are performed in the native language of the audience.

Among other things, Tommasini is supportive of the ENO’s mission to present all of their productions in English. I take the exact opposite view and think that the ENO’s continued use of English translations is silly since the advent of surtitles. Contrary to Tommasini’s point of view, there are very few vocal lines that allow singers to produce truly clear—understand it in the cheap seats—diction. Nor are there many singers who can pull it off even if such vocal lines existed. Some of the best voices don’t necessarily come with the best diction.

When I lived in London in 1992, making a measly 540 GBPs a month while paying rent in the West End, the only reason I went to the ENO was because it was affordable. And for all the time I spent at the ENO then and more recently, I can tell you I understood precious few of the words sung on any given night.

Tommasini also makes the rather obvious observation that it would have been inconceivable to Verdi and Wagner to have their operas performed without being translated into the vernacular language. Oh brother. I bet they wouldn’t have been able to conceive of a lot of things that happen in modern opera performances from staging, to the price and quality of the food available during intermission, to lighting, heck, maybe even to flush toilets.

No doubt Verdi could not have imagined someone sitting on a train or running on a treadmill listening to one of his works through a pair of headphones. Hmm…I guess that means no more Macbeth on my iPod. Sorry Verdi, didn't mean to blow your mind.

*Surtitles are like subtitles in a foreign film except they are usually projected above the stage during an opera performance. Some places like the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Staatsoper in Vienna have individual readouts on the seat in front of you that you can turn on or off as you wish. In Vienna you can even choose among German, English, and the language in which the opera is being sung.

17 July 2007

Renee Fleming: The Inner Voice Over-Emotes

On my recent field trip to Daedalus Books, I picked up Renee Fleming's book The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer for $4.98. Considering I almost paid the full $24.95 list price when it first came out, I considered this to be quite a bargain. Miss Fleming (or "Double Creme" if you believe Sir Georg Solti's nickname for her) is not really my cup of tea these days, but having seriously studied voice as an undergraduate I was intrigued by the book nonetheless.

This is not your typical Diva autobiography. Encouraged by her friend, the insanely wonderful writer, Ann Patchett, Fleming wrote a book that is about all of those things that are left out of gossipy Divagraphies. She talks about the everyday life of an opera singer, from vocal technique to business management. The book was interesting for what it was, but I couldn't help but wish for a little more gossip or at least a few more peeks at her famous diva friends and colleagues.

Despite the overly cautious, slightly boring "how to" quality that pervades The Inner Voice, reading it encouraged me to reconsider my dislike for Miss Double Creme's singing. She is the toast of the singing world after all and has lots of fans (including the lovely Ms Patchett who fashioned the heroine of her novel Bel Canto with Fleming's voice in mind). After finishing the book I popped in the one Fleming disk that I own ("Renee Fleming By Request") and listened to her sing "E strano..." from La Traviata to see if maybe I had been wrong in my opinion of her singing. I actually had a hard time listening to the entire track. She puts so much color and emotion into every single note that she sounds like an overblown caricature of an opera singer. Like someone with a good voice pretending to be an opera singer.

A couple of years ago, before I had developed a dislike for Fleming, I heard her in a recital of french songs with the mezzo soprano Susan Graham at the Kennedy Center. All I could think that night was how much better Graham was. At the time I felt like there must be something wrong with me, after all Fleming was a much bigger star. But with every set they sang I couldn't help but conclude that Graham was by far the better voice and the better artist. Still, it wasn't until I saw a Fleming Christmas special taped in some church in Germany that I really began to dislike La Fleming. My main beef was not with the quality of her voice, but rather with her seemingly uncontrollable need to emote and emote and emote so that every note is so dripping with bathos it makes your teeth hurt. I don't think "O Holy Night" is supposed to sound like a love song--divine love perhaps--but not a "hey baby I will literally die if you don't come over here and make love to me" kind of love. It's not Wagner's Liebestod after all. In fact I don't even want to hear the Liebestod with that much schmaltz.

What is the point of all this? Fleming will continue to make a good living and I will no longer feel like there is something wrong with me for not wanting to listen to her sing.

Field Trip to Daedalus Books

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Check out my haul from a recent field trip to Daedalus Books Warehouse Outlet in Columbia, Maryland. Daedalus is a fabulous discount book wholesaler which just happens to be located in the outer suburbs of my fair city, Washington DC. Despite having 104 unread books in my capacious nightstand I can't resist a field trip to Daedalus, especially when I have friends in town who I know will also enjoy such a trip. Eleven books for $80 and that included the big one that was $27 all on its own. Take that one out and I averaged $5.30 a book. At those prices you can't go wrong.

11 July 2007

My Big Love for "Big Love"

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For someone who loves TV as much as I do, this blog has been wildly remiss in bringing to your attention that which is wonderful in the world of television.

If you don't have HBO you need to get it. The Sopranos may be over (a show I never watched, for no real reason, just didn't watch it) but Big Love lives on. It is the story of a polygamist family in suburban Salt Lake City trying to live a mainstream life. With Bill Paxton as the patriarch, Jeanne Tripplehorn as first wife and Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as sister wives two and three respectively, the cast is amazing but the writing is even better. To me the hallmark of a good drama is one that lets you see the humanity in the characters even when you don't necessarily want to. For most non-polygamists it might be a little startling to find yourself rooting for Bill and his family, but you do.

Of course it often seems batshit crazy but you still end up liking this family. The normality of the Henrickson family is set in stark contrast to the polygamist compound Juniper Creek that plays a central role in much of the drama on Big Love. Not only did Bill grow up at Juniper Creek but Nicki, wife number two, is the daughter of the "prophet" who rules the community. Grace Zabriskie's brilliant portrayal of Bill's looney mother Lois who also lives on the compound steals every scene she is in. It is one of those shows that always ends too soon with you clamoring for the next episode.

If you haven't seen it, start out by renting or buying season one on DVD.

In other TV news.

I have recently gotten in to Family Guy. After years of ignoring it (I couldn't get over the talking baby) I now can't get enough of it. In fact, Stewie the talking baby, is my hands down favorite. Perhaps the greatest clip I have seen (relating to my love of books no less) can be found here. I was snorting like a pig as I tried to stifle my laugh while watching it at work. The show couldn't be more random--or funny.

Entourage (also on HBO) continues to be one my favorites. Why can't everyone make shows as good as HBO?

Counting the days until I can see The Simpson's movie! 7/27/07!

Apparently Project Runway will not be making its annual appearance until the fall. Easily the best of Bravo's reality show but I find Top Chef a decent substitute.

05 July 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Great American Novel

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In honor of Independence Day, Melanie over at Tea Reads posted the Booking Through Thursday Meme for this week: What is the Great American Novel? My first thought was something by Theodore Dreiser, but then I quickly settled on Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. In fact, I think almost anything by Lewis could fall into this category, but his tale of small town America in Main Street is a classic. A little cynical perhaps but still a valid depiction of one slice of life in America. The first American recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, Lewis was also prescient enough in 1935 to write: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

03 July 2007

By the Decade Reading Challenge UPDATE

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Following the lead of Blogger 3M I have been making my way through a list of 12 books from 12 consecutive decades in 2007. With seven books down with six months to go I thought I would give an update on my progress with mini-reviews of the books that I have read so far.

1910s: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence - 5/23/07
I must admit this book was a bit of a slog for me. The book follows three generations of the Brangwen family in semi-rural/semi-industrial England. Written in 1915 the book was fairly frank in its discussion of sexual and emotional relationships. I had a friend who used to say "C'mon Oprah, not everything can be a life changing experience." In that vein I want to say to Lawrence "C'mon D, not every action or emotion needs to be that complex or fraught with meaning."
1930s: The Big Money by John Dos Passos (3rd in his USA trilogy) - 5/30/07
Each volume of Dos Passos' USA trilogy uses a mix of narrative forms to tell the tale of the great American experience. In addition to straightforward chapters telling the stories of various characters, Dos Passos intersperses those chapters with non-fiction accounts of famous Americans of the time and sections that highlight snippets of newsreel headlines, stories, song lyrics, and advertising slogans. Once you get used to all of that the trilogy still seems like a bit of an acquired taste. I will say that I enjoyed this volume the best of the trilogy.
1940s: Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon - 5/20/07
I had never heard of Simenon before I picked up this novel from a bookstore. The story takes place in something that seems like occupied Belgium or France during WWII. It captures a fascinating slice of life when the moral depravity of the occupiers becomes a way of life for the occupied. The book doesn't address the issues of the genocide central to WWII, rather it focuses on the everyday ways that humans can lose their humanity. I quite enjoyed this one.
1950s: Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (3rd in his Alexandria Quartet) - 2/27/07
Each of the volumes of the Alexandria Quartet tells roughly the same story from a different point of view. As someone who generally prefers to read about Western Europe or North America I have become oddly and intensely fascinated with these books as they describe Egpyt before and during World War II. I find that I like each volume more than the previous. This bodes well for the final volume which I will probably put off (savor) until next year.
1960s: The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark - 7/1/07
In many ways I found the setting of this book (1961 Israel and Jordan) fascinating in the same way I appreciated the setting in Mountolive as described above. The book describes the highly charged and unstable atmosphere in Israel and Jordan in the years following the creation of Israel. Not being a middle-east expert it was a bit of an education for me. The story revolves around a British woman who is a half Jewish convert to Catholicism who decides to go on a pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites in Jordan and Israel. Religion, sex/love, and political intrigue all play an equal part. This Muriel Spark book felt very different, less quirky, than other Spark books I have read. Almost a cross between Iris Murdoch and Ward Just.
1970s: A Word Child by Iris Murdoch - 6/4/07
What can I say. I love Iris Murdoch. She was a philosophy fellow at Oxford who wrote many wonderful novels that read like religious/ethical soap operas. Like most of her books, A Word Child has a large cast of educated characters who jump from bed to bed or relationship to relationship within that circle of characters and under the weight of religious, moral, and ethical dilemmas. Tragedy is just under the surface of every page, but the reader doesn't really know which of those tragedies will ultimately break that surface to end the book. Every time I read Murdoch I wish a filmmaker with the skill of Merchant Ivory would put her 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s period pieces on film.
2000s: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe - 4/20/07
Having read The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and From Bauhaus to Our House, I think that Wolfe is incapable of writing a boring book. Whether or not you agree or disagree with his books, his politics, or his gimmicky way of dressing, Tom Wolfe knows how to write smart, compelling page turners. Charlotte Simmons is a real doorstop of a book but you fly through it in no time. It is amazing how the aging Wolfe captures the essence and much of the detail of the lives of college students at the turn of the 21st century. Having said that, some of Wolfe's characterizations, including parts of Charlotte, are somewhat one dimensional and implausible. Still no reason to stay away from this one, it is definitely worth the read. Perhaps most unrealistic is the dearth of technology usage among the students. Wolfe doesn't realize just how wired and wireless students today have become.