Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation – The New York Times

When people talk about books, they often characterize either the genre (science fiction, romance) or the feeling the author strives to impart (a thriller is, presumably, thrilling). But there are, to my knowledge, only a handful of geographically specific kinds of reads. There’s the “beach read,” a phrase we all hear often come every summer season. There’s the notoriously disposable “airplane read.” And for getaways in the woods, you’ve got the “cottage” or “cabin read.” And that’s about it.

Nearly all of these designations are pejorative. The designation of a “beach read” suggests a book that’s frothy and engrossing, but ultimately ephemeral — one that you can sink into as you slump in a folding chair in the sand, but you won’t miss too much if you forget it at the hotel. The term “airplane read” is even more of a dismissal, the idea being a book you can breeze through in the time span of an average flight, and then discard. (The one and only Mack Bolan adventure novel I’ve ever read was one I discovered in a seatback on a puddle-jumper from Toronto to Harrisburg, Pa.) The “cabin read” has a bit more prestige: It implies the kind of pleasurable literary project you lug on an isolated retreat and tackle over an uninterrupted week or two.

To my mind, this list is missing one important geographical location: the subway. Lots of people read on the go, of course; there are entire websites devoted to capturing commuters and the books they’re reading underground. As a New Yorker, I’m on the train all the time, my nose constantly buried in a book. But what makes for a perfect “subway read”?

The first time I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was on subways and busses in New York. There’s no need to dumb down “subway reading.”

Source: Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation – The New York Times

Who Still Reads Anthony Powell?

Many years ago, someone recommend that I read Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Since I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust – I’ve written a number of articles about his work – I should like Powell. After all, he is called “the English Proust.”

Alas, that moniker is quite incorrect. The only thing that makes the two similar is that Proust wrote a very long novel in seven volumes, and Powell wrote a cycle of novels in 12 volumes. The writing, the characters, the style are all very different.

Nevertheless, I tried. I read fifty or so pages, and gave up. But I tried again last year, and was hooked. Now that I live in England, perhaps I understand this type of novel a bit more than when I was a foreigner. Powell’s work is humorous, perceptive, enjoyable, its characters quirky, and the voice of its narrator, Nick Jenkins, is compelling. It’s not as deep or as linguistically challenging as Proust, and, in fact, it’s best to just forget the comparison.

But the question Who still reads Anthony Powell? is one that A. N. Wilson answered in a podcast from the Times Literary Supplement, at the time he published a review of Hilary Spurling’s recent biography of Powell. He seemed to think that no-one reads Powell any more, and, in a relative sense, that’s probably correct. But I’m sure there are occasional curious people like me who pick up the first book in the cycle, and find it enjoyable, and keep on going.

I found one interesting coincidence between the novels and my life. Early on, two of the characters go to France to learn to speak French a bit better. They stay at a place called La Grenadière, which is a property in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, a town next to Tours where I lived for seven years. I would often walk by La Grenadière, which is now an equestrian center, in my strolls to and from a local garden.

Powell is probably indicative of a wide range of post-war novelists in the UK who have been forgotten. Wilson mentions a few in his interview, most of whom I am unfamiliar with. Alas, this is what happens: the old make way for the new, and only a handful cling on over time. That Powell is still read is a sign that his work has some staying power. There are, apparently, a smattering of Powell fanatics, who run Anthony Powell Societies in both the UK and the US. (I joined an email discussion list for one of them, only to find that my introduction emails bounced; I assume someone died.) Perhaps he is one of those authors whose flame is maintained by a small circle of fanatics, who will eventually die off.

In any case, if you have a few quid to spare, I recommend that you buy the first of four omnibus volumes of the work in Kindle format. It’s £5 in the UK, and $7 in the US. You can get the entire cycle for £20 or $28. If you like audiobooks, I strongly recommend the recordings narrated by Simon Vance from Audible UK or Audible.com. Vance has the perfect tone for this work, and I’ve been switching back and forth between the text and the audio as I read thorugh the cycle.

The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough. – Slate

The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.

Yep.

It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.

I’ve been reviewing stuff for more than two decades: music, books, software, hardware, theater, and more. If something is really crap, I generally don’t bother writing a review. But I’ve spent my time trying it out; time that is unpaid. Occasionally – just very occasionally – I’ve published bad reviews, and they are intended as warnings to the public who might be interested in purchasing the item in question.

One such example is this 2006 review of Sting’s album of songs by John Dowland, one of my favorite Renaissance composers. I said:

Next is Flow My Tears, based on the melody from Dowland’s “hit” instrumental, Lachrimae. Stings sounds like a mediocre singer in a shower. His voice is terrible, his tone is slightly off, and it makes me want to howl at the moon. He basically massacres this song – though you don’t hear him gasping any more – and his braying is a sorry sound indeed.

But, I also concluded the review saying this:

Now, I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting’s performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. Shakespeare scholars, for example, have shown that no Shakespeare play was met with the same awe and respect that we modern theatre-goers show; it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels. Well, all but the part with the processed voices.

Here’s another record I panned, which earned me an angry email from the musician question. My criticism was his questionable choice of tempo:

The liner notes mention something curious that motivated the guitarist’s playing. He “tried to keep an ideal ‘tactus’, that of my heartbeat at rest (53 on the metronome) throughout the Variations.” This is one of the most questionable reasons to record at a given tempo that I can imagine. Whatever motivated this odd decision certainly ruined this recording.

I ended that review saying:

It’s rare that I hear a recording that is this lugubrious and disappointing. I strongly suggest avoiding this disc.

Source: The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough.

The Kindle Moment

No one can ignore that the hottest book right now is Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a narrative history of the beginning of the Trump administration. It’s the best selling book on Amazon, even though it’s not currently available in hardcover. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Originally scheduled for release on January 9, it was pushed up to the 5th to meet the demand that had been created by some carefully planned magazine excerpts, and a few tweets by the subject of the book, followed by some weak attempts to block its sale.

It’s a page-turner; I’ve read about half so far. It confirms that things are really bad in the White House, but also that they’re much worse than we could have imagined.

What’s interesting about this book is that it’s the first real Kindle moment. The first printing sold out in hours, and Amazon currently shows it as being available in 2 to 4 weeks. This estimate is probably exaggerated, because they should be able to get enough books printed in a day or two to satisfy the early demand, but it’s possible that they have so many orders already, that their next deliveries are already sold.

Unlike an iPhone, which is a physical product that often suffers from this sort of unavailability at launch, this book is also available in Kindle format. And Amazon is taking advantage of that, reminding readers that they can buy the Kindle version without waiting:

Fire and fury

You’ll note that the Kindle version currently costs more than the (unavailable) hardcover. This is a sort of surge pricing for books; why discount the hottest book of the season? It’s not a loss leader like the latest novels by Dan Brown or Stephen King, it’s a must-read that people want now, because it won’t be as interesting in a week, after many of the salacious elements are reported in the press.

It’s not often that a book like this drives demand so much that the publisher can’t keep up. Amazon is stepping in to help meet that demand, shifting a lot of readers from print to ebook. Even if they don’t have Kindles, they can read it on their phones or tablets.

Recent reports have suggested that ebook sales are sliding, but this is the kind of book that can give an unexpected bump to the format.

One note: credit is due to Amazon for policing reviews on this book. Following recent changes to Amazon’s review policy, this book can only be reviewed by verified purchasers. This weeds out the many fake reviewers that attempt to lower the ratings of controversial books. Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, more than 500 people have reviewed this book, giving it an average rating of five stars. I’m sure not all of them have read the book in its entirety, but many people are posting reviews just to say that, in spite of attempts to quash it, they’ve bought it.

There are currently 14 one-star reviews, including:

President has declared book illegal. If you read you illegal. America now great. Obey law or go gulag. Bad book. Bad writing. Go far away.

And…

VERY SAD!!!!!
I read a lots of books more than anyone and this book is a DISGRACE.Wolff is a loser A TOTAL LOSER and everyone knows it. you know it, I know it, everyone knows it.This book is NOT FOR SMART PEOPLE. Only a very for dumb people would read this TRASH. Only very dumb people like, not the kind of book I would read because I’m one of the SMARTEST PEOPLE.

And…

Sorry I made a mistake I want the actual book it is a present por my mom can you return it?

Photo Book Review: Holga by Michael Kenna

Kenna holgaThe Holga is a “toy” camera, originally made in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. It uses 120 medium format film, making photos at 6 x 4.5 cm or 6 x 6 cm. It’s a crappy camera, and is widely appreciated for its form of shabby chic. With the high quality of digital photography these days, using a Holga and it’s low-fi lens, is a rejection of perfection.

If there’s one photographer whose photos exhibit perfection it’s Michael Kenna. His often long-exposure landscapes have an aura of stillness and mystery, but they are compositionally perfect. (See my review of his book France.)

But Kenna keeps a Holga camera with him alongside his Hasselblads (film, not digital). In the introduction to this book, he is quoted as saying, “I’ve always considered the make and format of a camera to be ultimately low on the priority scale when it comes to making pictures.” He often shoots a few photos with the Holga while working with his Hasselblads, and in this book, you can see some subjects that will be familiar if you have seen his other work.

The Holga is the brutalist camera. It’s poor-quality lens suffers from vignetting, soft focus, and everything else that photographers prize. To quote the much-repeated mantra of photographer David DuChemin, “Gear is good, but vision is better.” This new book by Michael Kenna is the best justification I have seen of that sentence. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

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The book contains about 150 black and white photos, with the typical silver-gelatin look of Kenna’s other work. The low-fi nature of the photos is immediately evident, especially the vignetting, but you quickly move past that and focus on the composition of these photos. None of them are complex; Kenna seems to take more immediately apparent photos with the Holga than some of his broader landscapes, and most subjects are centered in the square frame. Some are quick snapshots catching birds in flight, planes, or views from a train. Others are more carefully composed shots such as this one of the Kussharo Lake Tree, that he shot many times over a period of years.

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Many of the photos are almost reductive in their simplicity, but don’t fall into the trap of the “minimalist” black and white photography that is prevalent these days.

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Some are powerfully resonant, such as this Old Boat Ramp, shot in France, which could be a shot from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.

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And others are quirky, such as this sheep shot in Georgia.

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This book features many of the same types of subjects that Kenna is known for: lone trees, statues, posts in water, but there are some animals, and even a baby elephant, but no people. Kenna’s world is stark, and could be that of a time when all humans have disappeared. Or perhaps it’s the vision of what a world without humans might look like. With the subtle aberrations of the Holga camera, Michael Kenna shows a world that is beautiful in its imperfections.

Note that Holga is available now in the UK (and some other countries), but won’t be released in the US until February. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)