2022/2023 Season Post V: Works by Living Composers

[This year I collected and analyzed the subscription concert programming for 51 orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. This is a pretty big expansion from my effort last year when I just looked at the ‘top’ 19 orchestras in the U.S. You can see last year’s posts here and here.]

Recently in the Twitterverse I got into a couple of different discussions with people who were opining about the dearth of works by living composers in orchestral programming. In each case I did some quick number crunching and presented some numbers that gave all of us pause. When I count strictly the number of works being performed, living composers make up almost 25% of all works programmed. That seems kind of promising, but there is at least one huge caveat.

Length does matter

The length of the pieces being programmed leans heavily in favor of the dead guys. In a typical North American configuration, most concerts programmed look like this:

Opener – c. 3 to 15 minutes
Concerto – c. 15 to 35 minutes
Symphony – c. 30 to 60 minutes

This is one of the reasons why I keep track of program order. It serves as a proxy for length of a piece. (I should note that two days ago, on a long walk through my parents’ neighborhood, in the blistering heat, at six in the morning, I thought, hey, why not just look up the durations for all 2,236 works in my data set, how long can that take? I got as far as Beethoven when I decided to stop. Finding durations for works by living composers was really time consuming and in some cases impossible.) So anyhoo, program order matters. Grabbing a shot of four orchestras on a given weekend in Sept/Oct we see the following that illustrates what is typical:

You will notice that none of the living composers make it into the coveted third position, three of them are relegated to the opening spot, and one of them makes it into the concerto slot. Of course this isn’t always the case, but it is pretty typical.

Out of the works by living composers, over 53% are in the number one spot, with 30% in the second spot, and 12% in the third spot. And for those of you who know math, that leaves 5% in the 4th or 5th position which tend to drop down in duration to the 15-20 minute category. (And I swear, concerts with four or more pieces always seem to include Bolero or some such.)

The Deads

Given the vast difference in stage time between the living and dead its almost useless to continue to count number of pieces, but that won’t stop me. If we look at that total number of pieces by living composers, 543, it only takes the top six deads to total more than all the living composers combined.

Mozart 124
Beethoven 114
Tchaikovsky 84
Rachmaninoff 82
Ravel 82
Brahms 79
TOTAL 565 pieces

And before someone out there starts to say that I’m trying to cancel Beethoven, piss off, no one is saying that. Now Mozart? I wouldn’t mind cancelling him. ;)

2022/2023 Season Post IV: Works by American Composers

[This year I collected and analyzed the subscription concert programming for 51 orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. This is a pretty big expansion from my effort last year when I just looked at the ‘top’ 19 orchestras in the U.S. You can see last year’s posts here and here.]

Sigh. Along with works by BIPOC composers and women composers, the percentage of programming devoted to U.S. composers also declined from 21/22 to 22/23. Last season it was 23% of all programming. Just by looking at the top 20 orchestras, you sure can’t blame the expanded data pool, given that 15 of the top 20 are smaller bands that weren’t part of last years list, and, as you will see further down this post, some of the big guys failed in a really spectacular way.

some observations

First off, I didn’t think it fair to keep the six Canadian orchestras in the mix, so all of the dashboard calculations were based only on the 45 U.S. orchestras in my dataset. Here are some other thoughts:

  • How about the Albany Symphony? It’s number one in American music, it was number one in music by BIPOC composers, and it was number nine in music by women composers. They certainly seem like a shoo-in to come up as the orchestra with the most diverse programming.
  • The little guys in general. What is it about smaller markets that seem to respond better to more diverse programming in general, and in this case, a warm embrace of American music. This year the lowest percentage to make it into the top 20 was 22.6%. Last year that score would have gotten you into the top 10.
  • Only one of the small guys, Phoenix, relies a bit too much on the BBC (Bernstein, Barber, Copland) to earn their spot on the list. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those composers, they just tend to be the ones that crop up when someone says American composer..
  • It does appear that orchestras are using their American programming to come up with a fair chunk of their programming of both BIPOC and women composers. Perhaps it means that the US is a hotbed for encouraging BIPOC and women composers, or perhaps, more cynically, orchestras don’t want to chip away at the market share they give dead, white, European guys.
time to clean house

For each of the categories I have looked at so far, it’s clear that some orchestras could really benefit by looking somewhere other than Europe for their programming and their leadership. I’m tired of the cult of the composer and the maestro. Many of these idolized men are brilliant, but hype begets hype, and I find knee-jerk veneration of all things European in the musical context really boring. (And trust me I LOVE Europe–even the UK bit.)

And this is no more evident than in the hall of shame. These fine orchestras are devoting less of their seasons to U.S. American composers than the Canadians. What’s up with that?

canadian music

Since I added in six Canadian orchestras this season, I would be a true chauvinist if I didn’t say something about music by Canadian composers. Nine U.S. orchestras have all programmed one piece by Canadian composers (Albany, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, NSO, New York, Pittsburgh, and Toledo). Among the Canadian orchestras, Orchestre Métropolitain leads the pack with 26.8% of their programming devoted to Canadian composers, then Calgary at 20%, Toronto at 13.9%, Vancouver 9%, Montréal 6.7%, and Edmonton 6.3%.

With Samy Moussa and Iman Habibi leading the pack with five pieces each, other Canadian composers who get multiple plays next season include, Alan Gordon Bell, Vivian Fung, Stewart Goodyear, and Rita Ueda. I must admit Samy Moussa is the only one I knew prior to crunching this data. I had come across and fell in love with a recording by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal of his work for organ and orchestra, A Globe Itself Infolding. One of the few pieces in the repertoire that effectively integrates organ into the orchestral texture. It also got a play at the Proms a season or two ago.

the whole list and nothing but the list
This includes all 51 orchestras so the total won’t match the dashboard above

2022/2023 Season Post III: Works by Women Composers

[This year I collected and analyzed the subscription concert programming for 51 orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. This is a pretty big expansion from my effort last year when I just looked at the ‘top’ 19 orchestras in the U.S. You can see last year’s posts here and here.]

Sadly, the shaky commitment orchestras have to diversity and variety that I mentioned in my post on BIPOC composers, continues in the wrong direction, with the percent of works by women composers dipping ever so slightly from 12.1% in 21/22 to 12.0% in 22/23. It is one area, however, were the ‘top’ 19 orchestras look slightly better than they did last year. If I isolate results for those 19 orchestras their total is 12.4% which is slightly higher than their overall percentage last season as well as better than the larger group this year.

more women get a chance

Although the overall percent is pretty dismal, one improvement over last season is that the pool of women composers being programmed almost doubled from 57 to 99. Granted there are an additional 1,445 total works programmed this season over last, but I like what it suggests about the industry recognizing the breadth of women composers to choose from.

men are programming women?

I guess a bit of good news is that men are programming women? Women only lead three of the orchestras in the top 21 (Hartford, Atlanta, and Richmond), so it appears like men are being reasonable? Women music directors don’t appear to be skewing programming towards women composers. And I was all set to make an anecdotal observation about women guest conductors and the degree to which they do or don’t program women–partially influenced by what I ‘felt’ as I did the data entry over the course of several months, and partly based on this list of the top 21 you see above. But then I thought, hold on fella, you have the data, crunch the damn numbers. So I did. And it tells a different story.

some other thoughts
  • Orchestre Métropolitain continues to show leadership in programing coming in at #1 after a strong showing in pieces by BIPOC composers. (And Orchestre symphonique de Montréal does much better after their dismal showing in pieces by BIPOC composers.)
  • Overall the ‘big’ orchestras do better as a percentage compared to the overall field than they did with BIPOC composers.
  • Orchestra-rich Ohio continues to be bad at diversity with their four orchestras coming in at 31, 37, 45, and 48. And I have to say another word about how bad Cleveland is. No women on the podium, 49th in BIPOC programming and 48th in works by women. Seriously. It’s time for Franz Welser-Möst to be shown the door.
  • Michigan appears to be the anti-Ohio with both the Grand Rapid Symphony and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra placing quite well in both programming works by women and works by BIPOC composers. And Detroit has one of the most exciting bits of programming next season with a February concert that ends with Dora Pejačević’s symphony. I’ll be making my way to snowy Detroit for that concert.
the whole list

2022/2023 Season Post II: Works by BIPOC Composers

[This year I collected and analyzed the subscription concert programming for 51 orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. This is a pretty big expansion from my effort last year when I just looked at the ‘top’ 19 orchestras in the U.S. You can see last year’s posts here and here.]

In the wake of the pandemic, I thought that pent-up demand by orchestra audiences would mean that orchestras would feel a bit more free to program works by women, and BIPOC composers, and living composers, and American composers, etc. In general, I thought they might take a moment to cast a broader net for the sake of both diversity and variety. When the 21/22 seasons came out, they kind of seemed more diverse than pre-pandemic seasons, but without a data baseline, it was all just conjecture on my part.

And now we arrive at 22/23. Surely the diversity/variety trend would continue. More new, more different, more diverse, etc. Right?

And then I crunched the numbers. They went backwards. So I guess we got a tiny bit of pent-up courage in 21/22 and then a backslide for 22/23. Not a huge one, mind you, but the trend is going in the wrong direction.

So let’s look at the dashboard:

programs are whiter next season

Whether you think 15.1% is a decent number or not, it’s not as good as last season when the number was 16%. But wait! you might say, this year you included so many more orchestras, they no doubt are the reason for the decline. But you’d be wrong. When I pull out the data for the 19 orchestras I analyzed last year, they are only only at 13.6%–down almost 3% compared to their programming last season. And only six of the 19 from last year even made it into the top 21.

size doesn’t matter

Prior to crunching the numbers for 22/23, I would have thought the bigger and more northern the orchestra the better they would do on the diversity front. The northern part largely holds up, with only six of the 21 being in the south (with LA and Phoenix not counting as north or south). As for size, it’s maybe half and half between the small and large. (But I’m not about to tell you which orchestra is which. After all, when we are talking about size, it’s really some subjective combination of annual budget, size of the market, and/or the number of concerts presented, not necessarily the number of players in any given group–and I chose not to define actual metrics.)

leadership does matter

Leadership clearly matters when it comes to programming a diverse season. But it would take a deeper dive to understand what leadership means. To what degree is it the music director, the orchestra itself, the staff, the board? There doesn’t appear to be a correlation between ethnicity, gender, or nationality. If there is any trend it might be that youth matters. While only one or two of the music directors for the top 21 are truly young, most of them trend younger. But then again, in the field of conducting the retirement age is about 160, so young is a relative term.

some other thoughts

Looking at the whole list, a few observations pop into my head.

  • I think praise for Albany is due. A small organization, with a limited season, and a small budget and they managed to program 40% of their season with works by people of color. Almost every concert has at least one work by a POC, and they have one program that is entirely by composers of color. That is some serious leadership. (They also have some very interesting venues and a very compelling discography.)
  • It seems like there could be a reverse correlation between endowment size and willingness to program diverse seasons. I would have thought it was the other way around with the poor guys needing to max-out ticket sales with the same old fucking chestnuts…oh wait, that’s Chicago.
  • Alabama at #2 is a bit of a surprise to my northern bubble bias. Their numbers are boosted by hometown composer Brian Nabors who has three works programmed, including a premiere of a concerto for a Hammond organ. You heard me. This might be the single piece out of 2,550 that I am most interested to hear. I just don’t know if the timing of it will make it possible for me to fly to Birmingham to hear it.
  • Both of my home state bands fare well despite being a very white place. Minnesota at #3 and St. Paul at #14.
  • What’s going on in Ohio? On one hand, they have four (!) orchestras that make it onto the list, which is amazing, and they must have an orchestra per capita rate that is the highest in the nation. On the other hand they rank at 32, 37, 46, and 49. Can the venerable Cleveland Orchestra really do no better than a measly four works out of 59?
  • Montréal is a battle between a dinosaur and whatever the opposite of a dinosaur is. They have the Orchestre Métropolitain coming in at #6, but they also have the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal which is at a pitiful #50. The former is led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin who also does a somewhat respectable job with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s spot at #27. The OSM, on the other hand, is led by Rafael Payare who has done a much better job with #19 San Diego. Perhaps the poor showing in Montréal has more to do with his music directorship there not becoming full-time until 2022.
  • Let’s marvel at how Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, comes in at #5, and the tidewater-based Virginia Orchestra comes in at #16. Meanwhile the NSO, which serves not only the bluest part of northern Virginia–not to mention DC, a majority minority city–only manages to tie for #33.
  • Kudos are probably due to JoAnn Falletta who keeps Buffalo highly relevant at #10 and who probably left a legacy at #16 Virginia.
  • In general, the Canadians need to up their game with only two orchestras in the upper half.

My husband the reader

Some of the novels I put in John’s hands.

My husband was a lot of things. Most of all, he was the nicest, sweetest, most accommodating partner anyone could hope to have. We didn’t agree on everything, but we always agreed on the big, consequential things–those things that are at the very root of who one is and what one stands for.

And, it turns out, we also pretty much agreed on fiction. For the first 17 or so years that we were together he was primarily a reader of nonfiction. His choices for reading were usually something to do with gardens or gardening or gardeners…or World War II.

Early in the pandemic, however, he looked over one night and said “I want you to choose a novel for me to read–something cozy.” He didn’t have to ask twice. I ran into the library and found a stack of titles that would fit the bill. I don’t remember what the first selection was, but it got him hooked on my abilities as a book recommender. Over the course of about two years, he allowed me to choose every book he read. Don’t get me wrong, he still read nonfiction here and there, but for the most part he was happy to be given a novel that fit the mood he was in at the moment he was ready for a new one.

Since I only keep books that I think I want to read again, I was choosing from a stack of books that I quite enjoyed. But I was still surprised how much he enjoyed whatever I threw his direction. The fact that he wasn’t necessarily pre-disposed to the kind of fiction I tend to like made the process all the more gratifying. And since I rarely remember the plot or characters in any book, even if I loved it, I would ask him each night what was happening in his book. Those were truly precious moments to me. Sometimes I would lean over as we lay in bed reading and rest my head on his shoulder and read what was on the pages in front of him. Sometimes falling asleep that way while he stayed up to read a few more pages.

He discovered he liked D.E. Stevenson and Nevil Shute almost as much as I do. When I put the last book in his hands he would ever read, I was contemplating whether or not he was ready for Barbara Pym. But that wasn’t to be. The night he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, after I walked with his body out to the van that took him away, I went back to our bedroom and saw his glasses sitting on top of the book he would never finish reading. So glad that his open heart and mind let us share something that was so important to me, and so, so, very sad that we would never share anything again.

A book unfinished and a life with so much more to go.

Goodbye my sweet boy. I will miss you always.

2022/2023 Season Post I: Women Conductors

Lina Gonzalez-Granados

[UPDATE 6/17/22: An earlier version of this post only looked at 44 orchestras. The last seven have finally posted their seasons for 22/23, so I have updated the data.]

What’s all this then?

Last year I looked at the first “post”-pandemic season for 19 of the top U.S. orchestras and broke down the data just about every which way. You can see those posts here and here. Besides satisfying my interest in crunching data, not to mention my love of data entry on my old fashioned, clacky Das keyboard, my analysis prompted me to buy tickets for 31 concerts for the 21/22 season, including about nine concerts each with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as Cleveland (x3), St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (x3), San Francisco (x2), Minnesota (x2), Boston, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.

This year’s list expands from 19 to 51 orchestras

Along with my analysis last year, came the not-too-surprising result that there is a distinct lack of variety and diversity when it comes to programming. So this year I expanded my list to 51 orchestras in North America.

Not surprisingly, the five orchestras with women music directors or equivalent (Hartford, Buffalo, Richmond, New Jersey, and Atlanta), have the highest percentage of concerts conducted by women.

Out of the five orchestras who have zero women conducting subscription* concerts next season, none of them have the budget for guest conductors and are led by men, EXCEPT for the Cleveland Orchestra. Twenty-two concerts, fourteen guest conductors, and Cleveland doen’t have a single concert conducted by a woman. That is beyond pitiful. (*I had to make some judgement calls on what constituted a subscription concert. Each orchestra does things a bit differently in the promotional materials. In some cases it was hard to tell what fit into a subscription season and what didn’t. And I zeroed out anything marked as holiday or pops. I’m doing this for fun in my spare time, so my academic rigor probably isn’t what it should be.)

A note about the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, they typically don’t have a conductor and they have artistic partners rather than a music director. As it stands, about eight of their concerts have a discernable conductor and three of those are women.

Although the number of concerts conducted by women is far too low, it is interesting to see that across the continent, in markets big and small, audiences are seeing women on the podium next season. I looked at my own personal concert log that goes back about 35 years, and prior to the pandemic I had only ever seen a woman conduct an orchestra one single time (Marin Alsop). One. In 35 years. Since the pandemic, I have seen Anna Rakitina (Boston), Gemma New (NSO), Simone Young (NSO), and Marin Alsop (Baltimore).

As Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony, it is no surprise that Xian Zhang tops this list, but what is more encouraging is that five of her dates are guest conducting for other orchestras (Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis).

Xian Zhang (Cherlynn Tsushima)

In her first season since leaving the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Only three of Marin Alsop‘s nine concerts are with Baltimore. The others are with Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Seattle. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the film The Conductor, you really should. It’s a great portrait of a true trailblazer.

Marin Alsop (Patrick Gibson)

Just edging out the newly freed-up Alsop is Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska who has the most gigs without having a Music Director position at any of them. (Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Minnesota, National, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto)

Dalia Stasevska (Antoine Saito)

And no discussion of women conductors is complete without talking about JoAnn Falletta. Her list of firsts is amazing, her discography is amazing, and her programming in Buffalo is amazing (although woefully light on women composers). In addition to her Music Director position in Buffalo, Falletta is guest conducting the the Calgary Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and the Florida Orchestra. And, I noticed the other day that she is making her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut this summer at Tanglewood. About time.

JoAnn Falletta

Omicron didn’t catch us in the Bahamas

We were superstars about lockdown. We were hermits. We masked. We bubbled. We vaccinated. We masked. We ventured out. We masked. We boosted. We locked down.

Then we cracked. We knew that Omicron might upset our plans to spend 12 days in the Bahamas this month. But as the date got closer we became more and more determined to go come hell or high water. I joked to friends and family that we were keeping ourselves negative long enough so that we could go to the Bahamas and get Covid. We were still cautious, but whatever fear we had about venturing to a country with a 37% vaccination rate was mitigated by the fact that we needed to get the hell out of Dodge.

So, after five flights (including some tiny airplanes where the pilot’s face mask was doing a good job keeping his chin warm), three hotels, and about 10 restaurant meals we managed to get ourselves home without getting Covid.

In addition to staying healthy and getting to spend a lot of time on the beach, it was also kind of nice to let go of some of the fear. We’ve been Pfizered thrice, we were still aware of our surroundings, masking, and reducing our risk…but we started to get over the feeling of being under assault and even managed to stop wanting to assault people who weren’t wearing masks.

First Stop (from my bucket list): Atlantis

For about 20 years, I have been dying to go to Atlantis.–waterslides that require a fair amount of courage, and a lazy river that is actually a Rapid River. Totally brings out the 12-year old in me. John, on the other hand, has been wanting to go to the much quieter part of the Bahamas for at least as long, but has been afraid to show his interest in Atlantis lest I drag him to the Bahamas without being able to go to Harbour Island. But, since Harbour Island was next on the itinerary, he actually had fun.

Either because of Covid or the time of year, it wasn’t crowded at all and we never really had to wait in any lines to go on any of the slides. I would probably like it less if it had been hotter and crammed with people. All in all, I’m glad I went and we definitely had fun, but I’m not sure I need to go again.

We didn’t know if we’d be able to go until 48 hours prior to leaving. But the test came back negative so we were off. We also had a (planned) overnight layover in Houston that had me worried about flight cancellations to Nassau, but United’s vax policy has kept them in pretty good shape and our flight arrived in the Bahamas without a hitch.

The view from our room in The Cove, Atlantis’s more adult friendly hotel onsite. What you don’t see are many more pools, the Rapid River, or any of the crazy slides in the two structures you see across the way. This is also not a bad stretch of beach. (Certainly much better than the beach at the Baha Mar complex about 12 minutes away, more on that further down the page.) I will also say that the food was better than expected. I was particularly surprised at how good room service was.

We originally had massages and pedicures scheduled but we cancelled them because we didn’t want to get Omicron before heading to our second stop.
Second stop (from John’s bucket list): Harbour Island

We had to get tested again to go to another island. Most (if not all) hotel properties have testing onsite that you can schedule once you check-in to ensure you can make it to your next destination (or home). Very convenient.

20 minute flight from Nassau to North Eleuthera, five minute taxi ride to the dock, 10 minute boat trip to Harbour Island, and then another three minutes in a taxi. (You can see me preparing tip money.)

John has wanted to go to Harbour Island for a long, long time. It has a long association with David Hicks and now style maven India Hicks. It is small, and quiet, and has some pretty nice places to stay. The eastern side of Harbour Island faces out to the Atlantic and has, by far, the best beach on the island.

Our resort had bikes you could use. We never touched them…but they make a nice photo. There are very few cars on the island so most people get around on golf carts. That can be a bit dodgy when you are trying to get to dinner in the driving wind and rain. Thankfully I was able to time our comings and goings with doppler radar projections online, so we stayed fairly dry.

The restaurant at the Pink Sands. We had a few meals here.

Our home for seven nights. The bed was blessedly firm.

The sand is so powdery and delightful, and there are no rocks or coral (or weeds) when you get in the water. It’s just absolutely delightful. This might possibly be the best beach we have ever experienced. If the wet sand looks a little pink to you, that’s because it is. Just enough pulverized coral to make it look pink.

I have no interest in being on a wet horse, but they were pretty to look at. Especially as I plowed my way through Lonesome Dove.

The view from our breakfast and lunch perch at the resort.

The nice thing about staying so close to the beach is you can jump in whenever you feel like it. One evening we even swam a bit in the rain.

It could get a tad bit chilly as the sun was going down, but still perfect for napping…I mean reading.

I’ve turned John into a Nevil Shute fan.

Once windy night we heard a thud on the roof which I said was probably a coconut. Turns out it was our umbrella. Couldn’t believe it made it up there and then didn’t blow away again.

Stop 3: Rosewood Baha Mar

Since we were on a tiny plane to get to and from Harbour Island, I wanted to leave us a cushion before our flight back to DC, so we stayed two nights at the Rosewood Hotel in the Baha Mar development near in Nassau. Baha Mar is has three or four large hotels, tons of restaurants, bars, pools, shops, a casino, and a waterpark. What it doesn’t have is a good beach. The one at Atlantis is much better and, of course, the one on Harbour Island was the best.

Originally we were supposed to be on a trip during this period from Singapore to Hong Kong. On that itinerary we were set to stay at two Rosewood properties (Bangkok and Hong Kong). Since we couldn’t do that we thought we would try the Rosewood in the Bahamas. Extremely nice property (and very expensive). But one HUGE flaw was that the fancy lighting system in our room could go low, medium, and high. But it was all or nothing! There was no way to independently operate the lamps or other lights. Was quite annoying for reading.

If the Pink Sands had the best beach of my life, the Rosewood had the best pool service I have ever encountered. This is what happened when I asked for water (after pressing the service button on our umbrella). And they were super attentive. What I don’t show here is the fact that they also served us the best piña coladas of our lives as well. It’s our beach vacation drink of choice, and up to now, our favorite was the lava flow at the Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. But the one they served at the Rosewood is a reason unto itself to stay there again.

We were relaxed enough at this point that we actually kept our massage appointments (with masks) and they too were fabulous. And then one more negative test and we made it home to Lucy.

Gratuitous photos of Lucy

Ever wonder if your dog stays adorable when you’re away? They do. We got regular updates from our friend Sarah who stayed with Lucy while we were in the Bahamas.

I wish I could get this comfortable.
She loves newly fallen snow.
But it makes her tired.
Surprisingly enough, this face does not mean she wants to come in.
And this is what she looks like when we come home.

Bahamian Books

Okay, not really. Among the giant stack I took with us for 12 days, none of them were actually Bahamian, but they were books I read in the Bahamas and about four of them that I finished got left behind on Harbour Island. Not only has it been quite a while since I blogged, but it has been even longer since I actually wrote about books I’ve read.

My stack. I read five and a half of them. I’ll let you do the process of elimination to see which ones I didn’t get to.

The Last Days of America by Paul Erdman

This is a book I picked up at the Book Thing in Baltimore where all the books are free. I tend to find lots of Helen MacInnes and other spy/political thrillers there. I didn’t know anything about Paul Erdman but since they are free, I could afford to make a mistake. I was not disappointed. I think the author had a weird political axe to grind that I couldn’t entirely figure out. He seems to have disliked Reagan as much as he disliked Carter.

The action takes place in about 1985, but the book was published in 1981, so the geo-political and economic situation were different then reality, were sometimes wildy off, sometimes wildly prescient, and always entertaining. Predicting the dip in Apple’s fortunes after its initial success was prescient, but assuming its demise was the part was wildly off. Another bit that was disappointingly off was that he envisioned Reagan as a one-term president.

It is against this Reagan-less Cold War that Erdman weaves his tale of a missile manufacturer who tries to bribe NATO better than Boeing and General Dynamics but then ends up in a weird deal that has West Germany re-arming so they can be the dominant force in Europe. This in itself is prescient in a way, fears of a strong Germany played out when Thatcher and Mitterand opposed a reunified Germany in 89/90, but Erdman was wrong when he thought the reunification would a result in the entirety of Germany joining the Soviet-bloc. And the book kind of ends there, with the U.S. too weak to put any kind of effective political or military pressure to achieve a better outcome. If I had read this book prior to 2016, it would have seemed laughably impossible. Now, after four years of you know who, the reemergence of fascistic sympathies around the world, and Boris the idiot in charge of the UK, geopolitical chaos seems more likely than not.

I really enjoyed this book and plan to look out for more of his work.

Marion Fay by Anthony Trollope

Months ahead of this trip I was hankering for a chunky Trollope, but kept telling myself to wait for vacation. This is the story of a brother and sister each falling for lovers (in the Trollopian sense) well below their class. For anyone with working knowledge of Trollope you know the general back and forth that happens before this one wraps up. Although I enjoyed this fairly well, for those of you who haven’t read Trollope, I’m don’t think I would start here. Start with Rachel Ray or The Warden or The Eustace Diamonds. It may not have been my favorite Trollope, but it still did a great job scratching my Trollope itch.

Passport to Panic by Eric Ambler and Charles Rhodda

I recently read a memoir by Eric Ambler where he mentions how most of his collaborations with Charles Rhodda under the pen name Eliot Reed where much more Rhodda than Ambler. I don’t remember if this was one of those, but it does feel a bit like Ambler-lite. However, it is still a delight to read with all the things I like about a vintage political thriller–voyages, telegrams, newspapers, and very little violence. Man goes to South America to find out what’s up with his non-communicative brother only to find his brother in a coma with the situation being managed by his brother’s, hitherto unknown, supposed brother-in-law. Intrigue ensues.

A great vacation read. But, if you haven’t read Ambler, go for his named work before you start to look for these Eliot Reed titles. Save those for when you discover you love Ambler and are worried about running out of the real stuff.

Man Overboard by Monica Dickens

British naval officer in the 1950s finds himself forcibly retired as the Royal Navy continues its post-war force reductions. Although 35-year-old Charles was a captain, and is looking forward to having a shot at the private sector he soon realizes he isn’t trained to really do anything. He is also a widower with a, I want to say 11-year-old daughter. Early in the book, while still in the Navy, he starts dating a television star and one is led to believe that the whole book is going to be about him juggling his status with the vagaries of his diva girlfriend. But about halfway through the book Dickens seems to have decided that that wasn’t as interesting as Charles himself. This is where I think things became more like the kind of book I wanted to read. I enjoyed the ladies at an employment agency who kind of adopt him. I loved his mother-in-law and his daughter. I really liked how a decades-old fascination with a house and family he sees from the train window turns into reality. And I was really excited when he becomes bursar at a boys school and really starts to stir things up.

Ultimately enjoyable, but there are better Monica Dickens novels out there.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

This is the “half book” of the six and half that I read on vacation. I still haven’t finished it and vacation ends today. However, I will indeed finish it. So far I am loving it. The main character is a temporary employee and everything kind of hangs off the notion of temporary. There is some really brilliant writing in this and it gives me a similar vibe as The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris–two books I absolutely love.

So far I love this book. An absolute delight.

Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay

Focused on a young violinist, I was really looking forward to this one. But alas, it was not to be. I realized I was in for a formulaic rollercoaster ride by an MFA-author. You know the type. I left it behind in the resort library without reading beyond page 40.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

If you haven’t read Lonesome Dove, forget what you think you know about these 858 pages and give it a go. If you’re like me, you’re no fan of Westerns, but you can suspend your general disinterest when something good comes along (like John Williams’s brilliant book Butcher’s Crossing). And this is good. Very good.

It is an epic tale of two former Texas Rangers who lead a group of cowboys, gamblers, hands, a prostitute, a cookie, two pigs, and about 3,000 head of cattle on a drive from the Texas borderlands up to Montana. Among the very harsh physical realities and stunted intellectual development of most of the characters, there is so much pain and beauty.

Once you get into the swing of this one, it is hard to put down. On one day of vacation I read over 400 pages and couldn’t wait until the next day when I could pick it up again. There is much that is problematic for our 2022 sensibilities, and I can see it pushing buttons, it pushed some of mine, but if you accept it for what it is, it’s worth the trip.

Aging Gen Xers Having Fun

As semi-lockdown, not quite normal, is still the way of the world, it can sometimes escape me that working from home (staying safe and employed) can be damn stressful. Yes, I am lucky to have that kind of stress. I am very aware of those who have been impacted by Covid in much more pressing ways. But all experience is relative, and sometimes I don’t know how stressed out I am.

It was against this backdrop that we recently had friends in town to stay for a long weekend. They are friends of mine from grad school who have, happily, also become good friends with John over the past 19 years. There was a time when they lived here in DC, about six blocks from us, and we would get together one or two times a week for dinner. Having them here for three days was like Christmas in November. All of the day-to-day crud just sloughed off my body. I could literally feel my blood pressure diminish.

So what did we do? We did go out and about on Saturday, but then on Sunday, rather than head off to the National Gallery like planned. We stayed home and did nothing. Well, not really nothing. We did taste tests. What? you say. Yes, we did taste tests. At some point as she emerged from lockdown, Jennifer decided she liked doing taste tests. And who are we to say no to something that includes food?

Jennifer is an ace amateur mixologist and kept us plied with fancy cocktails throughout the proceedings. I forget what this one is called, and we didn’t really rate them since we didn’t drink them side by side like we did with other items. In addition to cheese and pate (also not rated) you can see a whole lot of cornichon in the middle of the table. That was the first of our blind taste tests.
Everyone but me ended up choosing the cornichon from the Whole Foods Olive Bar as their favorite. And we all thought the oversized ones at the bottom were not good at all.
Jennifer adding the final touch to The Aviators she made for us. (That’s Crème de Violette she’s adding.)
I’m actually not a huge cocktail fan unless they have umbrellas. But everything she made was amazing.
Round Two in the blind taste tests consisted of six kinds of potato chips. John and I put all six of them in the same exact order of preference. Like he always says, we are MFEO (made for each other).
The score sheet became very confusing since we were putting numbered chips in numbered order of preference. More then once we got our axes mixed up.
I was responsible for this heat. I had numbered them in a way that even I didn’t know which was which once they were on the table. It was fun to do the reveal. There was definitely dissent around the table, but John and I easily settled on Cape Cod kettle style as our favorites.
General tasting mayhem.
The bar snack tasting. Everyone but me chose the corn nut mix at the bottom. I chose the spicy pistachios at left (and refused to even try the peanuts, which I will only eat on SE Asian food).
We were quite surprised by the results of the club soda test. John and I both put Navy Hill at number one and Fever Tree at number four. Among the cheaper brands we preferred the 365 over Canada Dry.

And then three hours later I was making tuna puttanesca over pasta. Fabulous way to spend a Sunday.