Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Redubbed by J. Stanislaus

Redubbed is a novel about a group of hapless young employees at a indy publishing house who have to scramble to save their press after the death of its founder. His will stipulates that they must put out a book of short stories inspired by James Joyce's Dubliners, by various authors, in honor of the masterpiece's centennial. The book interweaves the stories of the youthful editors with the Dubliners-inspired stories written by authors they recruit for their book. Because the imaginary authors have diverse literary backgrounds, each story has a distinct literary feel that reflects a particular genre. Yet, overall I felt the novel had a surprising amount of cohesiveness, considering how different each story felt.

While I enjoyed most of the stories in Redubbed, several stand out as brilliant. Stanislaus' "Eveline," set in a futuristic sci-fi universe, is a creepy tour-de-force that captures the claustrophobic intensity of the original story while vividly re-imagining its setting. Moreover, Stanislaus' characters, from the wayward Edgerly to the alluring and ultimately self-sacrificing Marley D, are deeply flawed and enduringly vulnerable. It's fascinating to track their journeys through the book. In fact, my biggest complaint with Redubbed is that their stories feel unfinished. I wanted to know more about what happened with Marley D--did she maintain her transformation? Did she ever recognize her co-worker's crush on her? As for Edgerly, it's rare for a writer to create a character who is so loathsome, yet so pitifully human it's impossible not to sympathize with him.

A few of the stories didn't quite work for me. While I understand the satire behind Stanislaus' "The Dead," I felt that story lacked the human character that drove the other stories. And I was a bit disappointed by the cartoon for "A Mother," especially since a parody of that story might have been the perfect vehicle for Marley D or Edgerly. But as a whole, I'd highly recommend Redubbed to anyone who's a fan of James Joyce. The literary allusions fly thick and fast, and the depth of character shows a great homage to Joyce.

About the Author: J. Stanislaus has worked as an executive assistant, a publicist's intern, a freelance book reviewer, a journalist at a daily newspaper, and a communications coordinator, but his primary love has always been literature. He first encountered James Joyce nearly twenty years ago at the University of California, Berkeley, where he picked up a degree in English while studying for one in Philosophy. A native Californian, his travels have taken him to most of Europe, as well as parts of Asia and Latin America, but never Ireland. He hopes to rectify this someday with a visit to Dublin. Redubbed is his first novel.



Full Disclosure: I do know the author via twitter, though we've never met in person, and he sent me a review copy of the book.


Redubbed a NovelRedubbed a Novel by J. Stanislaus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Redubbed is a novel about a group of hapless young employees at a indy publishing house who have to scramble to save their press after the death of its founder. His will stipulates that they must put out a book of short stories inspired by James Joyce's Dubliners, by various authors, in honor of the masterpiece's centennial. The book interweaves the stories of the youthful editors with the Dubliners-inspired stories written by authors they recruit for their book. Because the imaginary authors have diverse literary backgrounds, each story has a distinct literary feel that reflects a particular genre. Yet, overall I felt the novel had a surprising amount of cohesiveness, considering how different each story felt.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shostakovich: Artistry Amid Fear

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most gifted Russian composer of his generation, but he had the misfortune to live during a chaotic and frightening time in his country's history. At pivotal times in his career, Shostakovich found himself at the mercy of Joseph Stalin and the Communist party, his life in serious danger. Though he survived Stalin's reign of terror, his music reflects the climate of fear he lived in. Listening to his glorious symphonies or string quartets, I can't help but wonder how his career might have been different if he hadn't been afraid to write the wrong kind of music.

At the beginning of 1936, Shostakovich's life and career were happy and successful. He had reunited with his wife Nina after learning she was pregnant, and his latest opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsenk District, had become a great success with audiences and critics. But on January 28, 1936, Joseph Stalin attended the opera for the first time. Though Shostakovich's opera had initially been praised by Soviet critics as a great example of "Soviet Realism," Stalin hated it, and the composer was denounced in the Communist Party's newspaper, Pravda. The denunciations damaged Shostakovich's career and livelihood, but worse, they meant his life was in danger. Indeed, many of his friends and patrons who defended the opera ended up dead, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.

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Shostakovich continued working on his monumental, experimental Fourth Symphony, which he finished later that fateful year. But while the symphony was in rehearsals that December, Shostakovich withdrew it from the public. No one knows for sure if his withdrawal was voluntary, since the avant-garde work might lead to further denunciation, or if he was threatened or coerced by party officials to withdraw it. Whatever the cause, Shostakovich's symphony would not have its premier until 1961, during the more open time after Stalin's death. Shostakovich's next major work, the famous Fifth Symphony, was a wild success and probably saved his life. Yet even though the Fifth is more musically conservative than his earlier works, its first three movements have an incredible emotional tension and heart-rending pain. Even critics at the time wondered if the final movement was intended to be "optimistic" as Shostakovich claimed at the time, or a sarcastic and bitter response to forced optimism in the face of the Great Terror.

Shostakovich continued to compose even under terrible, frightening circumstances. He found a way to express himself even at a time when the wrong kind of expression risked death or torture. Yet, the fear also had chilling effects on his work. Though he wrote three operas and several ballets in his early career, after his denunciation for Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich never wrote another work for the theater. One proposed opera had its libretto banned. He kept his more experimental ideas for his chamber music, which was less public and therefore less risky. Like other artists living under repressive regimes, he had to balance human expression and artistic power with the imperative to please (or at least not enrage) a brutal, capricious government. That he succeed so well is a testament to human creativity and ingenuity. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Life and Works of Chopin (on Audible)

After listening to A Natural History of Dragons on Audible, I decided to try The Life and Works of Chopin. Audible lends itself very well to books on music history, because they include sample recordings of a composer's music. For example, after the narrator discusses a particular piece of music and its importance to Chopin's life, they play a recording. It makes for a very pleasant and natural format to learn about music history.

I chose an audio book on Chopin because as a violinist, I wasn't as familiar with him or his works (he wrote primarily for piano). Listening to the audiobook, I found Chopin's passion for the piano and his revolutionary approach to it fascinating. While pianists might especially enjoy this audio book, I'd recommend it to any musician or music lover. Jeremy Siepmann, the writer and narrator, goes into loving detail about Chopin's music, from his earliest gems to his great masterworks. He manages to fit Chopin's compositions into his biography in a natural way, without drawing too many false parallels between his life and his work.
Chopin himself comes across as a tragic figure who lived a tumultuous, conflicted life. He left his beloved Poland and became "more French than the French," but never seemed really at home anywhere. He suffered constantly from terrible health, and his painful illnesses often lead him to loneliness, depression, and despair. His passionate, but bizarre relationship with George Sand offered him some comfort and companionship for a few years (which were his most productive time in terms of composition), but in the end their profound differences drove them apart. Chopin died in poverty after a terrible illness, but he left a legacy of hauntingly beautiful music.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Back to Music School: Welcoming Students


Like many music teachers, I find that new students tend to sign up for lessons in the fall, right as school starts up again. What's more, many of my current students have had a bit of a break from violin over the summer, since families go on vacation and the school I teach at is closed in August anyway. Thus around labor day I'm usually welcoming back both new and experienced students. One of the most important parts of getting all these students engaged (or re-engaged) in music is helping them establish a routine of lessons and practice.

First, it's important to establish a consistent teaching schedule. That's easy to do when you work at a music school that schedules students for you. Then, all a teacher has to do is come to work on time and avoid too many absences. However, if you are an independent teacher who schedules your own students, it's vital that you stick to your schedule as much as possible. Children thrive on routines, and regularly coming to lessons late or canceling lessons leaves students uninterested or even resentful. Likewise, it's important that you remind parents that your time is valuable, and children lose that whenever they show up late. If you have a home studio, make sure you create a policy about late or missed lessons, and that all parents understand it and have a written copy.

Ideally, parents will make music lessons a priority in their children's lives. I've frequently had children, or even parents, tell me that their schedules are so busy they never have time to practice. In that case, it might be better to cut back on a child's other activities before committing to music lessons. Music is not easy--it requires time, attention, and regular practicing or else students will quickly become frustrated and "stuck" on beginning pieces. If a parent or a child isn't ready to make a commitment to regular practice, it might be better to wait until their schedule clears up to start such a demanding discipline. This is a conversation I like to have with parents before they sign a child up for violin, which is a particularly difficult instrument for a beginner, but that's not always possible. If parents insist on keeping a full schedule, then I encourage students to find even very short times in their schedule to practice, maybe as little as ten or fifteen minutes a day for an older child, or only five minutes for a student under six. Once a student (or their parents) finds a time for them to practice, then it's often helpful to make a practice chart, or some other written reminder of when it's time for practice. Setting a regular practice schedule will make students much more successful, and success leads to enjoyable, exciting lessons!

It's also helpful to give students and parents a calendar of events at the start of the year. If you're planning a studio recitals, graduations, or perhaps even a state music theory exam students can participate in, let students and parents have those dates right away. This helps people keep important dates open, and gives students goals to work towards. It also helps students to feel welcomed and engaged in their lessons and in your school or studio, which leads to better retention and a happy, productive atmosphere.