Sunday, November 21, 2010

North of Grand Rapids

Gray, leafless November. It’s a time of year to stay home in front of the fire and leave the woods and lakes to the hunters. But it’s also a beautiful time to be out (ask a hunter), when the snow arrives as flecks of soft white dust and the ice is just forming on the lakes. The bogs take on new prominence, now that the leaves are gone from the trees and bushes and the branches show red or orange at the tips. The snow brings light to the scene, one element among many, but it has not yet obliterated all the subtlety in the details.

We spent the weekend in a lakeside cabin at a resort on Woman Lake, at the north end of that fifty-mile welter known collectively as the Brainerd Lakes. It’s hilly around Woman Lake, and perhaps a little wilder than down in the flatter land among the mansions on Crosslake and Gull and Whitefish. In fact, driving east from Woman Lake through Longville toward Remer, you pass nothing but bogs and woods for a good twenty miles. At one point Hilary spotted a large bird flying up from the ditch as we passed. We did a u-turn. It was a great gray owl. (People come from all over the United States to see them.)

Our route took us north from Remer to Deer River and on to Big Fork, where logging isn’t just a matter of rustic deck furniture and Paul Bunyan statues. We bought some wild rice sausage at the local supermarket but couldn’t bring ourselves to check out the Loggers Food and Drink south of town.

Seven miles east of town we paid a visit to Scenic State Park, which has several pristine lakes lined with old growth white pines (preserved due to the efforts of some prescient local residents back in the 1920s) and some of the finest log CCC buildings in the north country. The ice was just beginning to form on the lakes, there was a hint of blue coming through the clouds, and the dusting of snow on the ice sheet, with dark water beyond and dark pines in the background, made for an arresting scene.

We would have hiked out along the esker between the lakes but the ranger advised us that if we did, we might get shot. Our bright orange stocking hats JUST might not be enough of an indication that we were NOT six-foot two-legged deer.

On a gravel backroad north of Marcel we came upon some logging operations that bore the marks of having just been completed. Huge, beautiful trees lying on their sides in a pile, all in a row. Slag carefully scraped into piles near the road, and some of the pines left standing, whether because it kept the forest looking respectable, or because it was required by law, or because they’d be worth more later, I don’t know.

I love seeing cut forests. Why? Because I love things that are made out of wood. And wood comes from trees. But it’s especially nice to see an intelligent, tasteful cut, out in the middle of nowhere. But what do I know about cutting trees?

I love piles of logs sitting by the side of the road. And I love lumber yards, though I have not developed any skill at making things from wood myself, and I’m sure I never will. In fact, I’ve never tried. I also love paper. And I have made more than a few books.

Our drive south on Highway 38 toward Grand Rapids took us through some of the hilliest country Minnesota has to offer, past the Suomi Hills and other intriguing areas of low-impact recreational development. There were swans drifting on several of the austere gray lakes.

Back at our cozy cabin, we cooked up a butternut squash stew with corn and jalapeños, and then settled into the evening reading. The sky outside the window was a deadly gray. The lake was grayer still. The wind was from the southeast, which at this time of the year usually means snow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kenny Barron at the Dakota

Kenny Barron blew into the Dakota last night, trailing an all-star band—as they call it. Kenny himself has long since graduated from “world’s best jazz sideman” to “world’s best lyric jazz pianist” though such monikers are tossed around mostly by club owners trying to fill the house. (He barely made the top ten in the latest Downbeat Critics Poll.) Kenny’s style is distinctly linear, as opposed to the bold, impenetrable chordal thickets so often thrown our way nowadays by the likes of Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and Chucho Valdés. In his frenzied moments, the mix of furious arpeggios and rapid-fire riffs can sound like one holy muddle, but the pianistic “touch” and sheer musical thought Kenny exhibits in quieter moments more than redresses the balance.

In the end, you go to a Kenny Barron show to hear the kind of jazz you’ve been hearing all your life—straight-ahead bebop with a few modernist furies and a touch of “stride” here and there. That’s why I go, anyway.

Kenny’s current quartet features David Sanchez, a firebrand tenor in his mid-forties who was once Barron’s student at Rutgers, and two musicians I’d never heard of, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kim Thompson. Kenny met Kim in Cuba in 2001 at the Havana Jazz Festival. "I had never heard Kim play,” he later recalled, “but when I asked Ben Riley for a recommendation, the first person he suggested was Kim. We didn't have time to rehearse, but her performance blew me away." Since that time the two have performed together often, though to some readers Kim’s most impressive credit would be that she’s pop-diva Beyonce’s drummer.

Thompson’s energy and taste were in evidence throughout the evening, though on the opening number, a rousing rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” she all but overpowered the rest of the band. From that point on, the group settled down, moving through a pleasant but somewhat rusty samba, a tender piece Barron had written for a film score called “Theme #1,” and “Body and Soul,” which seems to bring out the best in any soloist.

David Sanchez played a robust, straight-ahead tenor throughout the evening, building his solos carefully, hanging close to the changes and not really cutting lose until the groundwork had been laid. Exactly the kind of music I go to the Dakota to hear. Near the end of the final piece of the set, “Bud Like,” another Barron original dedicated to Bud Powell (one of his idols), Sanchez put together a remarkable cadenza, and to judge from the attentiveness of Barron and his other cohorts in the band, it wasn’t something he played every night.

The entire set was engaging, and the elderly couple hacking away at their steaks down the way, directly in our line of sight, were only mildly distracting.

I sometimes get the feeling that live jazz is sustained by people who don’t really like jazz much, but if that’s what it takes, so be it. The food at the Dakota looks and smells so good that it becomes part of the show, whether you order it yourself or not.

Barron came out for a brief encore, a solo rendition of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You.” And Sanchez, dripping with sweat and wearing a boyish grin, held the door for us as we left the club. (Perhaps he’d stepped outside for a smoke.)

“Great set,” was all I could think of to say. But it was true.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Vision:Hildegard von Bingen

Thick snow covers the branches and telephone wires, once again the electricity is off, no heat or light except what can be got from candles and a fire in the fireplace. On the stereo, some ethereal hymns composed eight-hundred-odd years ago by Hildegard von Bingen. It suits the occasion.

Hildegard began seeing visions and hearing voices at the age of three. Much later she wrote down these experiences, encouraged by clerics in high places. She is often referred to as Western Europe’s first mystic. As an adult she founded an abbey, wrote music and some of the first Mystery plays, executed visionary, almost psychedelic paintings, traveled widely, corresponded with the high and mighty, and attracted many pilgrims to her doorstep.

And now German director Margarethe von Trotta, a former cohort of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog best known for The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum (1975) has made a film about her.

It’s a good, if conventional, film, which charts the course of Hildegard’s career in episodic fashion, focusing mainly on her relations with the sisters and monks at the monastery where she was raised. Von Trotte makes little effort to reproduce Hildegard’s inner experience, recreating only one brief vision and neglecting to show us even one of the abbess’s paintings. Nor does she delve deeply into the woman’s philosophy of “greening” or “life-power” which has become popular among environmentalists of a New Age stamp.

But von Trotta has recreated the atmosphere of the times quite well, with the help of Hildegard’s own music, and actress Barbara Sukowa, in the title role, has the piercing gaze and utter sincerity of purpose to command our attention. Hildegard’s love of books—very scarce at the time—and her interest in nature, come through loud and clear, as does the challenge of dealing with her visions in a world where cries of “Heresy!” come easily to the lips of those in power—who are almost always men. Her conflicts with the church hierarchy supply most of the film’s drama, and the undercurrents of shifting affection among the nuns themselves give it some counterpoint.

While watching the film I was reminded from time to time of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but more often of those little-seen films Roberto Rossellini made at the end of his career such as Pascal, Socrates, and The Age of the Medici. I find it remarkable that in this day and age, a documentary film shot along such lines can still get a few weeks of screen time at a major film venue!

Also remarkable is Hildegard’s music, which you can hear in all its glory on “A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen” featuring the incomparable soprano Emma Kirkby with the Gothic Voices (Hyperion CDA66039).

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Social Network

I have a soft spot for films set on college campuses, my favorites (off the top of my head) being Wonder Boys, Good Will Hunting, The Paper Chase, and Legally Blond. Young women and men are in the midst of what, for many, is the first flush of quasi-independence; they’re being challenged to show their stuff intellectually in the classroom while engaging in animated conversations at local watering holes after hours and attending wild parties where all the females look almost like movie stars. My years at the U of M weren’t quite like that….but our five-man intramural touch football term, the Dirty Hittites, did reach the class-D finals in my freshman year!

The Social Network, set largely on the campus of Harvard University, is similarly well-endowed with late-night drinking, over-bright students, odd-ball personalities, and winsome coeds. It tells the story of Mark Zuckerman, the inventor of Facebook, and the plot-line would fall squarely into the category of implausible wish-fulfillment fantasies if it didn’t happen to be largely true. It would appear the Zuckerman came up with a proto-version of the website in a single evening after being jilted by his girlfriend, by hacking into the photo pages of every sorority on campus. The rest was just a matter of nuance, details—and funding.

The plot-point around which the film turns is a legal battle between Zuckerman and several former partners or associates who were dropped from the development team at various points along the way (or were never a part of it, according to Zuckerman) and are suing him to cash in on the webpage’s success. We’re brought up to date in a series of flashbacks as the lawyers question Zuckerman and the plaintive about who did what, when. At the heart of the film, if not the legal dispute, is a difference of opinion between Zuckerman and college roommate Eduaro Saverin, who financed the project and is considered Facebooks co-founder, about whether or not the site ought to carry advertisements. Eduaro is Zuckerman’s only friend and their clashes become increasingly painful to watch, especially after cool-Californian Sean Parker, the founder of the file-sharing site Napster, arrives on the scene.

Though Zuckerman comes across as somewhat snarky, and treats his intellectual inferiors with bored distain, he’s seldom really malicious, and the path by which, picking up on incidental conversations and events, he hones the features of his social networking website, is fascinating to watch. We rarely actually see a page of Facebook during the film, and that’s probably just as well. The film is well-paced and unflaggingly engaging, while Facebook itself is a simple thing, not well-suited for the big screen. Lots of people get a kick out of it. In fact, I have a page myself. Being self-employed, I find that it offers a refreshing break from the solitary grind of making books—like gathering with friends for chit-chat around the proverbial water-cooler. But I find it hard to see, even with ads, how it could ever live up to its current valuation of $33 billion dollars.

And now, writing a blog about a movie about Facebook, I find myself in an almost Borgesian situation. (Borgesian? What’s that?)

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wrong Blood

Manuel de Lope, whose work is well-known in his native Spain, makes his English-language debut with a translation of The Wrong Blood, a novel as quiet and ineluctable as the estuarial waters on the Bay of Biscay that serve as the setting for much of the action. That de Lope is less interesting in suspense than atmosphere is made evident even in the title, which tips us off before we’ve even opened the book to the likelihood that issues of paternity or inheritance lie in store. Though the story is told in the third person, de Lope often proposes several motives for a given action, thus shattering the immediacy of his narrative and giving the story the character of a personal reminiscence rather than an omniscient recount.

There are plenty of astute observations and descriptive details to hold our interest throughout the tale, but in the early chapters the narrator’s bemused detachment tends to leave the characters a little flat, like lifeless tin soldiers being set in place for the purpose of recreating the phases of an important battle. This is the case especially with Maria Antonia Etxarri, a sixteen-year-old living with her mother and step-father at an inn as the story commences. De Lope’s description of the onset of the Civil War carries the bewildering flavor that such events undoubtedly have to those caught in the midst of them, but when Maria’s parents flee the inn, we’re given no explanation as the why she's left behind. When rebels occupy the premises, Maria is convinced she’ll be raped before they leave, though she seems strangely unperturbed by the fact. As a character she remains opaque.

The book develops greater resonance when it jumps to the present day and we’re introduced to an elderly physician with a bum leg who is fascinated to discover that the grandson of the woman who used to own the neighboring estate has arrived to spend a few months studying for exams. By a strange quirk of fate, that estate now belongs to Maria Antonia, who had worked there as a servant after the war and inherited it when her employer, the grandmother of her current visitor, died. The doctor is eager to impart some tidbits of information to the new arrival about the lad’s past—though the visitor is too busy with his studies to pay much attention. As this intriguingly avuncular, if one-sided, relationship develops, the narrator gradually fills us in about the doctor’s relations with his neighbors during the war and the fate of the student’s grandfather.

The course de Lope is charting in The Wrong Blood can be predicted easily enough simply by reading the table of contents, but that’s not the point. Reading the book is like looking at an album of old photographs under the tutelage of a man who, due to a freak motorcycle accident, spent most of his life on the outside looking in at the happiness, and the misery, of others. He knows who these characters are, knows their secrets. He might even have loved one of them. In any case, it’s a rich skein of impressions and conjectures about war, class, family, and the lush Basque landscape that ought to give satisfaction to any serious reader.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It’s a funny feeling when you arrive home in the dark, flip the switch in the kitchen … and nothing happens. You flip the switch again, although you know perfectly well that’s not how a switch works. Then everything changes—inside your head.

The power is out.

You pull the flashlight from the drawer, dig some candles out of the closet, find the matches (same drawer) and begin to illuminate the place. Getting a little classier, you find some taller bee’s-wax candles, put them in candleholders. Suddenly it occurs to you that a mirror might be useful, though none are near at hand.

Your wife arrives home from yoga to find the living room bathed in candlelight. How enchanting! You’re such a dear.

The next morning, you look out the bedroom window to see that the cedar tree which has shielded the yard for thirty years is taking a siesta on the neighbor’s garage. The temperature hasn’t dropped much yet—it stands at 62 degrees—but it will.

The computer is down (Duh!). It’s impossible to get to your files, and you spend the day sitting beside the super-efficient Jøtul stove (a phrase which may not mean much to the younger generation) reading a Spanish novel—The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope. No music to listen to. Just the howl of the wind and the occasional snap of a wind-driven branch against the sliding doors that open out to the deck.

By noon you’ve moved most of the food in the fridge into coolers that are sitting just outside that door. The spanikopita and pot pies in the freezer will get eaten tonight. Frozen cranberries? Might as well toss them, don’t you think? There are now several power cords running across the street from neighbor to neighbor—they have power over on that side-although you haven’t been included in any such arrangement. Well, you never asked.

A brief visit to the library with the laptop to check for urgent emails proves fruitless. (Let's face it--you're bored. You never get urgent emails.) Along the way you notice that you feel like a cripple when you’re at home, but everything’s suddenly fine the minute you leave the house. Your neighbor stops by at dusk to find out if your power is still out. His house is down to 40 degrees, he says.

Later that night, returning home from a heated racquetball match, you ponder the logistics of taking a shower in the dark. (Important meeting tommorrow, don't you know?) Will the water still be hot? But the lights at the end of the block are on, your next-door neighbor’s light is on … your lights are on!

Now what are we going to do about that tree?