I can’t remember why we opted for a domestic trip for our summer vacation…oh that’s right, Covid. And because we spent 16 months in splendid isolation with the cutest dog on the planet, we decided that maybe we didn’t need two weeks in splendid isolation with Lucy in Maine this summer. Instead we opted for a Northeast road trip like one we took back in 2008 before we were dog parents. After all that time at home shopping online and not really interacting with humans, we thought that something that gave us the chance to be out and about and go antiquing and used bookstore hopping, and restaurant eating, and museum gazing, seemed like just the ticket.
I had meticulously planned and replanned our itinerary until I had something that ticked a lot of boxes.
Washington, DC to Ithaca, NY
When we go on a road trip I can never wait until Saturday morning to pack the car and get going. Originally we were going to head out on Friday after work and spend the night in Harrisburg, PA just so we could be that much closer to our vacation when we woke up on Saturday morning. But then the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced they were going to actually have a Tanglewood season this summer, and I realized we needed to get out butts up to the Berkshires sooner than I had planned. So instead of leaving DC after work on Friday we left at 9:39 AM so we could comfortably drive up to Ithaca to see friends for dinner and stay the night.
I love classical music and I love a good spreadsheet. And I can’t wait to hear live music next season. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve discovered that most orchestras stuck pretty close to the tried and true for the upcoming season. Instead of leveraging pent up demand and slipping in more new or diverse works, they seem to be dying to trot out the old warhorses after the year without music. But, since I don’t have historical data, I don’t know if that is really the case. What I do know is that the data sure seems to indicate that they are playing it safer than they need to.
The following data is based on published seasons for 19 major U.S. orchestras. If you want to know more about that, click here. Keep in mind that when I talk about a “work”, I’m not talking about a unique work. When it shows below that Beethoven has 77 works programmed, that’s not 77 different works. If you want to read more about the data, click here.
Warhorses Dominate the Top 42
Since there was an 11-way tie for number 17, I couldn’t cut the list off at 20. And because there was a 15-way tie for number 28, I couldn’t stop at 30, and because there was a 44-way tie for 43, couldn’t stop at 50. So, behold the top 42 works programmed next season. (The first number indicates the number of times programmed.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, but also surprisingly, Samuel Barber is the only American to make it into the top 42. In fact, the top 42 spots representing 233 concert slots are shared by only 18 composers. That’s 21% of 1,105 works. Even if you only wanted to stick to dead Europeans, surely there could be more diversity at the top? Wouldn’t it be more interesting?
If I had pulled the list down to three works programmed, that list of 44 at least gets us five composers who are still alive, not to mention some composers of color and some women. The living, composers of color, and women do fare much better in my break down of composers.
10 – TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5 08 – BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 08 – BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 08 – SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5 08 – SIBELIUS Violin Concerto 07 – BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 07 – BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 07 – BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 07 – DEBUSSY La mer 07 – PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 5 07 – TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 06 – MAHLER Symphony No. 1 06 – RAVEL La valse 06 – RAVEL Piano Concerto in G major 06 – TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 05 – BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 05 – BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 05 – BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto 05 – BRAHMS Serenade No. 2 05 – DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 05 – Dvořák Symphony No. 7 05 – Dvořák Symphony No. 8 05 – Dvořák Symphony No. 9 05 – NIELSEN Symphony No. 4 05 – RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3 05 – RACHMANINOFF Symphonic Dances 05 – RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Scheherazade 05 – SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10 04 – BARBER Symphony No. 1 04 – BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3 04 – BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4 04 – BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique 04 – BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 04 – Dvořák Symphony No. 6 04 – GRIEG Piano Concerto 04 – MAHLER Symphony No. 4 04 – MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto 04 – PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet Suite 04 – RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2 04 – RAVEL Bolero 04 – SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Concerto No. 1 04 – STRAVINSKY Pulcinella Suite
If you want to succeed as a composer you need to be dead and European
As with the most programmed works, this list of most programmed composers is not too surprising. Our first American and first living composer clocks in at 14, and our first composers of color and women come in at 10. It is also kind of interesting that it takes until the nine spot for a British composer to appear.
77 – BEETHOVEN 48 – MOZART 44 – TCHAIKOVSKY 40 – BRAHMS 36 – STRAUSS, Richard 33 – RAVEL 32 – SIBELIUS 29 – Dvořák 22 – SHOSTAKOVICH 21 – MAHLER 21 – RACHMANINOFF 20 – PROKOFIEV 17 – STRAVINSKY 16 – HAYDN 16 – MENDELSSOHN, Felix 15 – SCHUMANN, Robert 14 – ADAMS, John – first living, first American 14 – DEBUSSY 12 – Bartók 10 – BARBER 10 – COPLAND 10 – ELLINGTON – first composer of color (tie) 10 – MONTGOMERY, Jessie – first woman (tie), first composer of color (tie) 10 – PRICE, Florence – first woman (tie), first composer of color (tie) 09 – ELGAR – first British 09 – SCHUBERT 09 – STILL, William Grant 09 – WALKER, George 08 – TOWER, Joan
Composers I’m surprised only have one work programmed
Bernstein, Bizet, Holst, Janáček, Kodály, and Martinů.
Are there only two French composers?
Out of 81 works by French composers programmed, 33 are by Ravel, and 14 are by Debussy. The remaining 34 are shared by 20 others.
Works by composers born after 1960 that are getting the most play
Some of these composers are getting more play than what you see below. These are just the works that are programmed multiple times.
3 – Wynton MARSALIS, Fanfare 3 – Missy MAZZOLI, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) 3 – Jessie, MONTGOMERY, Banner 3 – Jessie, MONTGOMERY, Strum 3 – Carlos SIMON, Fate Now Conquers 3 – Joel THOMPSON, New Work (assuming these are all the same) 2 – Thomas ADES, Piano Concerto 2 – Kishi BASHI, Improvisations on EO9066 (being improv, not sure if this counts) 2 – Unsuk CHIN, Frontispiece 2 – Unsuk CHIN, Subito con Forza 2 – Anna CLYNE, Sound and Fury 2 – Valerie COLEMAN, Phenomenal Women 2 – Bryce DESSNER, Concerto for Two Pianos 2 – Missy MAZZOLI, Violin Concerto 2 – Brian NABORS, Pulse 2 – Nokuthula NGWENYAMA, Primal Message 2 – Kevin PUTS, The Brightness of Light
Tchaikovsky x 10 Sibelius x 8 Beethoven x 7 Prokofiev x 7 Shostakovish x 3 Schubert x 2 Dvořák x 1 Mahler x 1 Mendelssohn x 1
Can I see all Mahler symphonies next year?
No. But close.
1 – Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco 2 – National 3 – Atlanta 4 – Cincinnati, Los Angeles, National, Philadelphia 5 – San Francisco 6 – Seattle 7 – Los Angeles 8 – Minnesota 9 – Minnesota
Das Land ohne Musik?
Out of 51 works (only 4.6% of all works), the list of British composers is dominated by Elgar with nine works, followed by Britten, Anna Clyne, and Coleridge-Taylor with seven works each. With four works Thomas Ades beats out Vaughan Williams who ties with Hannah Kendall with three works. Elgar’s numbers are helped by his two concertos–three cello and two violin. The remaining four pieces are one each of Enigma, Sea Pictures, Serenade, and Symphony No. 1. The tragedy of Vaughan Williams low numbers is made worse by the fact that none of his symphonies are programmed just two Tallis Fantasia and one Lark. He needs a better publicist.
Sibelius gets a workout
Out of the 44 pieces by Finnish composers programmed, 32 of them (73%) are by Sibelius. This is helped out by the fact that the Minnesota Orchestra is having a bit of a Sibelius Festival in January and accounts for 13 of those 32. Saariaho makes a good showing at five works and Salonen comes in at two.
Opera without sets
I kind of like it when orchestras do concert versions of operas. I’m not a big fan of how orchestras sound in the pit. Then tend to come off as tinny. Maybe it’s the scaled down size that contributes to this. But up on stage with a full symphony orchestra? Better eat your Wheaties singers.
BEETHOVEN, Fidelio – Los Angeles Philharmonic BERG, Wozzeck – Boston Symphony Orchestra STRAVINSKY, Oedipus Rex – San Francisco Symphony TCHAIKOVSKY, Eugene Onegin (complete) – Dallas Symphony Orchestra VERDI, Aida (Act III) – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra VERDI, Otello (complete) – Cleveland Orchestra VERDI, Requiem – Seattle Symphony (I mean c’mon, how is it not an opera?) WAGNER, Die Walküre (final scene) – Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Works I’m looking forward to most
These are the pieces that I am highly likely to hear next season that I am most excited about. In some cases it is purely about the work, in other cases it is the combo of the work and orchestra. (In alphabetical order by composer.)
Samuel BARBER, Toccata Festiva – Cleveland Orchestra Ludwig von BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 3 – Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Benjamin BRITTEN, Violin Concerto, National Symphony Orchestra Anna CLYNE, Sound and Fury – San Francisco Symphony Bryce DESSNER, Concerto for Two Pianos – National Symphony Orchestra Charles IVES, From the Steeples and the Mountains – Cleveland Orchestra Wynton MARSALIS, Violin Concerto – Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jessie MONTGOMERY, Shift, Change, Turn and Variations – Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Arvo PART, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten – National Symphony Orchestra Charles RUGGLES, Angels – National Symphony Orchestra Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 15 – Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gabriela SMITH, Organ Concerto – Los Angeles Philharmonic William Grant STILL, Patterns – San Francisco Symphony Richard STRAUSS – Also Sprach Zarathustra – Los Angeles Philharmonic Joan TOWER – Cello Concerto – National Symphony Orchestra
These aren’t the only things I am hearing next season. Just the ones I am most looking forward to. If I made a wish list of concerts I would love to travel to but probably won’t be able to, that would be a whole ‘nother ballgame as they say.
As we have been emerging from Covid lockdown, one of the things I have been most interested in is what kind of classical music options I will have next season (Fall ’21 to Spring ’22). Even prior to Covid, I eagerly awaited spring when orchestras published their upcoming seasons. I’d start a spreadsheet with possible concerts to go to, both here in DC and around the country.
Pent Up Demand
Not having been to a live performance since March 2020 had me particularly eager to see what we might hope for in the 2021-22 season. Not surprisingly, most orchestras were much later in publishing their seasons this spring with a few pushing it well into July (hence the lateness of this post).
When the schedules first started coming out I stuck to my usual list of orchestras I would travel for. But as I started to make my spreadsheet, I became more and more curious about programming decisions. On the one hand, the repertoire seemed far more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender. On the other hand, the old warhorses seemed to be out in force. And while curiosity may not always kill the cat, it can lead one into a data entry loop that hovers on the edge of ridiculous. And since I wanted to see if my perceptions were borne out by the data I decided to go for it.
Building the list
I thought the analysis would be more interesting and more meaningful if I extended it to include enough orchestras so that I could reasonably say things like “Among major US orchestras…”
Although I wasn’t scientific about deciding which orchestras made the list, I’m fairly confident that my choices would stand up to just about any metric you cared to apply to make such a list. For better or worse, this is the list I came up with (in alphabetical order):
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Robert Spano, American)
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra(Stéphane Denève, French)
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Various Artistic Partners)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish)
Seattle Symphony(Thomas Dausgaard, Danish)
I’m a little biased to include the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on this list since it isn’t a symphony orchestra like all the others, but their seasons, their audiences, and their hall, all stand up to the big boys. Plus I love going back to Minnesota to hear them and the Minnesota Orchestra in the same weekend, so of course I’m going to include the SPCO in my spreadsheet.
I should also note that Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis only published half seasons.
What’s in a Music Director?
You can see from the list above that music directors (or equivalent) are very white and very male. It’s particularly disheartening to see American orchestras not trust homegrown talent with the baton. Even more disheartening is that after this next season none of these orchestras will be headed by a woman. (As I’ve tweeted previously, I hope the Minnesota Orchestra can see their way to hiring a woman to replace Vänskä.)
What I mean when I say diversity
Although increasing representation of women and people of color is something I would like to see as a matter of equity and inclusion, my interests in diversity have much more to do with not wanting to be bored. When I see nothing but European chestnuts on concert programs I sometimes have a hard time getting excited enough to buy tickets, let alone put clothes on and make it to the concert hall. Don’t get me wrong, I love the European chestnuts, but there is so, so much room to include other pieces that don’t fall into that category. I know, the chestnuts sell tickets for most everybody else, but good God I know orchestras are capable of slipping more into that diet. Even within the reliance on European composers there is room for more diversity. Just think of all those European composers that can’t get any air because we seem to need 47 Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5s. I don’t really cover that kind of diversity in this post–I will have much more to say on that front when I take a deeper dive into specific repertoire in the coming weeks.
General Comments on My Data
General Disclaimer: I strove for accuracy, but I also made lots of judgement calls about just about every category of data. The result is that the overall picture I paint is correct, but no one should use these numbers to do anything official.
Source: I looked at whatever information was available on each orchestra’s website. Some made it really easy with all information in one scrollable page or document. Others made it hard, making me click on multiple buttons to see what was on each concert. Others made it even harder by making me go through multiple subscription packages to make sure all concerts were accounted for.
By the numbers: I looked at 19 different orchestras who will be playing a total of 1,105 works next season. Bear in mind, these are not 1,105 unique works and there are many duplicates. In fact, the duplication is one of the things I was interested in exploring.
What kind of concerts I included: For the most part I only included concerts that were a part of subscription seasons, although one or two others may have slipped through. I did not include any pops or holiday concerts, recitals, chamber concerts by members of the orchestra. I also skipped any concert with artists where the programs were either TBA or some sort of improv/collaboration.
Some of you will hate me for not including conductors and artists: I wish my data included conductor and artist information for each program, but I had to draw the line somewhere when doing the data entry and that seemed like a bridge too far. There certainly seem to be more female guest conductors than ever before but that won’t show in my data. The only instance where a guest conductor seemed to have a noticeable impact on the data was Herbert Blomstedt who is going on a bit of a mini-tour with Nielsen 4 and Beethoven 5 in at least three cities. After I started seeing duplicates of certain concertos (I just can’t use concerti in English) I took a peek to see if artists were driving the duplication, but from what I could see, artists are not one-trick ponies.
Analysis is based on number of works, not minutes on stage: I’ve based all my analysis on number of works, not amount of stage time. This means that all data about new music, music by women composers, and music by minority composers has to be taken with a grain of salt. In terms of minutes on stage, the old white boys are getting even more exposure than the numbers below will suggest. I didn’t keep track of length of pieces, but I did keep track of concert program order, which is pretty good approximation for piece length for concerts in the U.S.
EUROPE RULES WITH AN IRON FIST
Not surprisingly, 72% of works programmed by 19 major U.S. orchestras (see I told you I wanted to say that) are by composers identified as European. Out of the remaining 28%, about 23% are works by U.S. American composers, which leaves only 5% for the rest of the world. Perhaps more interesting than this rather crude breakdown, is the list that follows.
In total 33 countries were represented. Some judgement calls had to be made when it came to a composer’s nationality. In general I called them whatever Wikipedia called them with a few adjustments to suit myself (e.g., Percy Grainger = British, Handel = German).
For anyone who pays attention to orchestral music, this list won’t be remotely surprising. On the spectrum between old world fetishists and new world evangelists, I am somewhere in the middle. I do think, however, that the second two columns of this table are a bit tragic. Do we really believe that none of those countries deserve at least 1% of the programming pie– not to mention countries that aren’t represented?
American Heroes (and Zeros)
It is nice to see that a decent amount of U.S. American music is being programmed. Given the dearth of American music directors, I’m actually kind of chuffed that we see as much American programming as we do. Age of music director seems to be more of an indicator than nationality when it comes to programming American music. The top five orchestras have an average music director age of 50 years old, while the bottom five have an average age of 62.6. But that doesn’t explain why Andris Nelsons (42) in Boston was worse than Riccardo Muti (79) in Chicago.
Philadelphia’s fantastically strong showing in this category might be skewed by the fact that they only published a half season. But look at Seattle, with a full season published nipping at Philly’s heels. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed that Minnesota’s number was so low. I wonder if it was always this low during Vänskä’s tenure. As much as I like him, I hope his replacement plays and records, not only more American music, but more eclectic repertoire in general. So much great under-recorded music to explore. Given their discography on Naxos, I’m not surprised that Nashville is as close to the top as it is. I wonder if St. Louis’s strong showing is still part of Leonard Slatkin’s legacy there? I’m a little surprised that Baltimore is as far down the list as it is–Marin Alsop always seems like a champion of American music to me. And what in the hell is up with Pittsburgh? Yikes.
Breakthrough for Diversity?
This is the point where my OCD kicks in and I want to get historical data for all the same orchestras so I can see just how much (or little) progress has been made in programming works by diverse composers. But I do have a day job and a husband and other interests so I am going to try and avoid falling down that rabbit hole.
I find it very interesting to see the most programmed composers of color are a real mix of the new and the historic.
You’ll see that Philadelphia maintains the top spot for both works by Americans and works by composers of color. Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to be steering Philadelphia in interesting ways. You’ll also note that other fine Pennsylvania orchestra, is at the bottom of the list in both these categories. What isManfred Honeck up to in Pittsburgh? It certainly is nice to see Minnesota redeem itself a bit with composers of color since they fared so poorly in the American music category.
Women are inching forward
And once again Philadelphia takes the top spot, Pittsburgh manages to move itself out of bottom place, and New York finally starts to look less backward than it does in the first two categories. Not only is Minnesota starting to look bad again, but a whole bunch of orchestras plunge down below 10%. Detroit’s leadership in American music and music by composers of colors fades quite a bit when it comes to women. The penises in charge need to step up their game or step aside.
So who has the most diverse Program for next Season?
You will notice in the table below I have two additional categories by which I have gauged diversity.
Works by non-European and non-USA composers: If you pop back up towards the top of his post you will see how U.S.- and Euro-centric next season is. Only Los Angeles and San Francisco manage to get above the 10% mark. Minnesota finally manages a respectable place in the diversity stakes. And Pittsburgh, that denizen of the bottom of my lists, manages to fly up to fifth place. And, hello, what’s that, look at diversity stalwarts Philadelphia and Detroit tie for last place for zero, nil, nada, in this category.
Composers born 1960 or later: I wasn’t about to look up the publish dates for every piece of music being played next year, but I did want to have some sort of metric that would capture “new” music, so I decided to go with composer’s year of birth. Being born in 1969, I didn’t want to include any composers who were too much older than me. If you think about the fact the youngest composer programmed next season was born in 2000 (Tyson Davis with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in September), 1960 seems a bit like ancient history. But they wouldn’t have published until the mid-1970s at the earliest so that seems less ancient. Incidentally, the SPCO also has the oldest composer programmed (William Lawes born in 1602). That’s over 400 years of rep.
So who wins?
When you average out these five categories, it’s not surprising that Philadelphia took the top spot. Even with a whopping zero in the non-Euro/US category, their strong showing in the first three categories made them hard to beat. As I mentioned earlier, they only published a half season so who knows if they will keep up the good work in the Spring. They are a reasonable distance from DC. I will have to see what I can get to in the Fall.
The lovely St. Paul Chamber Orchestra comes in at number two. Couldn’t happen to a more interesting band. When I lived in (and near) the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for about 10 concert-going years, I didn’t bother much with the SPCO. I equated them with music of a vintage earlier than I typically enjoy. These were the Christopher Hogwood, Hugh Wolfe days, so maybe they were less adventurous in the old days. All I know is that I rediscovered them about four years ago when I booked a double header on a weekend trip back to Minnesota, with the Minnesota Orchestra on one night and the SPCO on another. Besides being blown away by their new purpose-built concert hall, I was also blown away by the SPCO’s repertoire. In one concert we got Barber’s Knoxville, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, and Terry Riley’sIn C. Excuse my French, but it was fucking fantastic. I soon made additional trips for things like Lembit Beecher’sConference of the Birds, Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Gounod, and others. It must be the fact that the group is more democratic than any symphonic orchestra and has what they call artistic partner’s instead of a single music director. I really urge you to try a classical double header in the Twin Cities some time. Even though Minnesota didn’t do so hot on the diversity front for next season, they are such a good orchestra and hearing them in the same weekend as the highly engaging SPCO is well worth the trip. Just make sure they are playing at their Ordway Concert Hall. They have lots of other interesting venues in which they regularly play, but the hall is so perfect for them.
The rest of the top five are not so surprising either. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has the young and energetic Gustavo Dudamel keeping it young and energetic. St. Louis has something (the Slatkin legacy I suggested earlier?) going on that is good, and Seattle always seems to be happy to not be like every other orchestra.
But what the hell is up with the rest of the “Big 5”? Although Philly tops the list, the other four didn’t even make it into the top ten. Out of these, New York came in at 11, Chicago at 15, Cleveland at 16, and Boston at an abysmal 18. Cleveland has the smallest concert going population base, I can kind of forgive them (although St. Louis and Nashville are probably in similar situations and that doesn’t stop them). All of them have so much cachet it is hard to believe they are so incapable of leading their audiences down more interesting paths. Is it their need to have old white Europeans at their helms that causes them such programming perplexities? Are they so far up their own prestigious butts that they don’t see the world moving on? I know that doesn’t entirely explain it, but I think it really is time to let some light in at the top.
Although this was super fun and hopefully interesting for you, I’ve very excited for my next (and probably final) installment where I am going to dive deep into specific repertoire.
Things like: Whose 5th is getting played the most next year?
And: Does France only have two composers?
And: Can I see all 10 Mahler symphonies next year in the US?
I love the novels of Barbara Pym immensely. Barbara Pym could make mundane things endlessly fascinating. The author of this bio could not. It was rather a bit of a snooze.
The ‘Miss Pym’ construction was used far too frequently and was cutesy in a way that diminishes the subject. From the title, to the text, to chapter titles, to photo captions. It was too much.
That Pym had Nazi sympathies is a fact that the author justly writes about. However, the way she writes about Pym’s Nazi boyfriend and her infatuation with Nazi Germany was also a little too cute and casual than is seemly in the 21st century.
“Pym was mesmerized by the handsome blackshirt…” Not sure that adjective is called for unless clearly qualified as being Pym’s perception, which is borne out by the block quote that follows it. Why did Byrne call him handsome?
“Barbara was…swept up in the excitement of the Third Reich…” Maybe swap out excitement for propaganda.
A chapter title: “In which Fraulein Pym falls for a Handsome Nazi” Perhaps the author doesn’t need to excoriate Pym on every page for being a Nazi sympathizer, but she also doesn’t have to make light of it either.
“It was a spectacular event, the Nazi Party had pulled out all the stops.” Did they really Paula? We must find out who their party planner is.
Another chapter title: “In which our Heroine goes to Germany for the third time and sleeps with her Nazi” Oh how cute! He’s her Nazi.
And then in describing the douchebaggery of Pym’s English love interests Byrne writes this: “…she was headed back to Germany, where she was sure of receiving better treatment at the hands of her blackshirt boyfriend.” Really?
When it comes to Pym’s penchant for falling in love with gay men, I don’t know how annoyed I should be with Pym or with Byrne for making it seem like Pym’s driving force was simply to move from one infatuation to another. I’d like to think that Pym had more going on in her life than just that. Maybe it was the author’s over reliance on personal journals that makes Pym seem like an emotional simpleton who couldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if her life depended on it.
Pym’s life was Pym’s life, if that’s who she was, so be it. But Byrne’s way of writing about ‘homosexuals’ got to be annoying in the extreme. Try this one: “She was especially interested in his homosexual relationship with Eric Oliver.” Guess what Miss Byrne, it’s just a relationship. Maybe you meant to say romantic or sexual or something else. Pym can use antiquated language, she’s dead, and she wrote those lines 60 years ago. But Byrne is only two years older than I am. Too young to be that oblivious. You’d think she was 107.
I will end this where I started it, Pym’s bio didn’t have to be this boring.
I loved this book the first two times I read it, but reading it now as we start to emerge from the pandemic, was even more interesting.
Peter and Joan Corbett and their three kids (6, 3, and 1, if I remember correctly) live in Southampton in 1939 when the UK goes to war with an unnamed country that starts an intense bombing campaign. Written in 1938 and published in early 1939, it predicts the German bombings, but Shute also supposes the spread of communicable diseases because of damaged water and sewer infrastructure.
In order to stay out of quarantine, the family of five decides to rough it out on their small sailboat.
If you like reading about people putting things right, this book (and pretty much any Shute novel) is for you. And by putting things right, I don’t mean in the moral sense–although his characters are usually flawlessly moral–I mean in everyday, mundane terms. (Securing Peter’s bombed out office, making shelter from the bombing, helping neighbors, provisioning and reprovisioning their boat, rescuing an RAF pilot, etc.)
Shute’s novels can come across a little corny and old fashioned, but that is also what makes them fabulous. In this case, their constant quest for milk for the baby becomes kind of comical, mainly through repetition, but also because Shute seems to think that an infant can subsist only on cow’s milk. But rather than detract, that detail only reinforces the old fashioned, romanticized view of the past that I find totally engaging. Especially in these times.
(The novel is Ordeal in the US and What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK.)
When I last posted in late February, the one-year anniversary of lockdown was just a few weeks away, and vaccination seemed more than a few months away. And since Covid-19 variants were popping up here and there, our household went into a super duper lockdown. It felt like we were too close to the finish line. We didn’t want to be the last soldiers to be killed. So we dug in even deeper. A trip to the pharmacy about once a month was the only place we ventured outside taking Lucy for her walks.
It was during this period that I started posting those Pandemic Book Browsing posts. We were searching out any videos that could give us a life outside our house. Then we became obsessed with trying to get vaccination appointments. I think we became eligible in early March. After two really frustrating attempts to get appointments on two successive Thursdays, when tens of thousands of other DC residents also were trying, things seemed dire. Then DC got its act together and created a registry so that once you were signed up you just had to wait until they notified you. After three more tranches of appointments came out over three successive weeks and both of us were passed over, the situation started to feel even more dire.
In truth, I was being kind of silly. We have been very, very lucky in having a very easy lockdown. Both still fully employed, with no need to put ourselves in harm’s way. And I had never thought I would be vaccinated before June, so I shouldn’t have been freaking out in March. I think it was seeing others getting appointments in other states, and no one I knew getting an appointment in DC that started to make us feel envy and desperation. People in other places were complaining about the frustration of trying to find appointments with various providers, but the centralized appointment system in DC seemed even worse, because of one’s forced passivity related to the process. I wanted to do something.
And then, in week six, the floodgates opened. On that Tuesday I got an invite from a local hospital to get an appointment. My joy turned to disappointment when I realized that John didn’t get an invite. Then a few days later John got an invite from another hospital system, and then another, and then from DC’s centralized system. And so now, about a month later we have both had two doses of Pfizer and are only about a week away from the two-week waiting period.
Between the frustration of waiting for an appointment and then the relief of getting one, attitudes about certain things changed on a dime. During the frustration phase, some things lost their appeal: cozy videos, reading, blogging, etc. None of the things that helped sustain a year of lockdown worked anymore. Instead we turned to truly bad TV. And I mean bad. Have you heard of the “The Only Way Is Essex”? It’s so bad, it’s embarrassing. But there are about 1,000 episodes on Hulu and it worked like anesthesia. Then, almost immediately after getting appointments, we became entirely uninterested. And thank God for that. One can say a lot of bad things about reality TV, but TOWIE is so inane, it makes the Real Housewives look like Shakespeare.
As we approach freedom in the next week or so, it’s hard to know what will appeal to me. Getting out and about is high on my list. Going to a used bookstore. Getting a haircut–the first one for over a year. Going to five (yes five) different doctor appointments. During lockdown we made admissions to each other that our lives had to change post-lockdown. We needed to be less cozy at home and get out and mix it up in something. Classes, groups, social gatherings, events. But how long will that last for someone who was a homebody in the Before Times? Already, at times, I get little twinges of recognition of the downside of “normal”. But maybe we can make a new normal.
This guy is the Executive Director of the Kansas City Public Library, but I find the juxtaposition of his overall look and the loft apartment to be kind of an odd one. The two don’t look like they go together, particularly the floating canopy bed in the middle of it all. Probably was a mistake to make conclusions about someone based on their appearance. In fact, I coined a phrase that might be easier to remember: Don’t judge a text by its dust jacket. :)
Another in my series where I post a video about someone’s home library, or a used bookshop browse, or anything that allows us to wander through a room of old books.
Well not quite living in a library, but living above a library and having after hours access to it? They would probably evict me because I would straighten things at night. Possibly in a way that isn’t helpful to the staff.
Another in my series where I post a video about someone’s home library, or a used bookshop browse, or anything that allows us to wander through a room of old books.
Today’s installment has us shopping for books at Strand Books in New York with two white men I have never heard of. I have mixed feelings about posting this video. The notion of someone having a quest to read “every significant novel that has been written” is kind of annoying to hear. It sounds outdated and makes me think it is code for novels written by authors with penises. But even though that line is uttered, the video doesn’t really veer too far that direction.
I have also developed a tiny, tiny, bit of an aversion to the Strand. Probably because it is often crammed with poseurs. You know, people who have read one book since college and insist that their friend read it.
But who am I kidding? It is still an amazing place to browse and buy. Sometimes I don’t even make it inside because I can spend all my time at the carts outside where I usually find one or two readable copies of the kind of books that I like that other people don’t care much about. And how can I quibble about the Strand? I had first become aware of it in the film Six Degrees of Separation (one of my favorite movies of all time). It was the one place I sought out on my first trip to New York in 1995. That was back when it was still only “Eight Miles of Books.”
Their reading tastes might not be your cup of tea (certainly weren’t mine), but it is still fun to tag along.
Another in my series where I post a video about someone’s home library, or a used bookshop browse, or anything that allows us to wander through a room of old books.
This video is a bit of a departure from the others I have posted so far. Less joy, less serenity. But, lots and lots of books, and for me at least a different kind of joy. This shop would have been a great candidate for my Book Tidying Fantasy Camp. And the fact that the store is now closed makes my retrospective FOMO go off the charts.
When I see a store like this, I don’t just think what I might discover, but I think about wanting to organize it. And I don’t just think about wanting to organize it, I start thinking about the process I would use to get it organized. I would say a full 60% of my fantasy life is about process. If I think about inheriting a ton of money, it isn’t long before I start thinking of process questions. What kind of lawyers would I need to hire? If I start that charity who should I have on my board? How would I go about hiring staff? Do I work out of my home at first or find some space somewhere? How would I find someone to design my logo?
But back to process fantasies about chaotic bookstores. What would be the first thing I would do?
For this one, first thing would be recycling all non-essential papers. Seems to be more than a few stacks of that kind of thing.
Then I would clear a front corner for sorting. Given the space restrictions, it would have to be a small area–and it would create more short term mayhem in the rest of the store.
Everything in the aisles would be put in boxes and then those boxes stacked up to the ceiling in the empty corner.
Discard any cat skeletons I find.
Once the aisles are clear I would get all of the obvious losers off the shelves. Things like Self-Help, which can’t have much resale value. Not to mention the fact that most of them are total bullshit. I would probably put them out on the sidewalk for a one-day free give away. Then they go somewhere else…
Now that I think of it, #5 would also apply to those boxes I stacked up in #3.
This would probably give me enough space to organize the shelves.
Then I would open up the boxes and place those books in their appropriate sections. No doubt, this would start to create some piles in the aisles (ooh, say that phrase out loud, I like how that sounds), but hopefully not too bad. This step would also free up that area in the front corner that was used for the stacks of boxes.
At this point, the store should be navigable for those who wish to be adventurous.
Now I need to make sure my desk is set up properly so I can have a decent work space for assessing each book in turn.
Prior to getting serious about inventorying the stock, I would probably also look in general what I had and decide if I want to jettison any subjects. I’d be super tempted to 86 sports for starters. But who knows. Even for those subjects I would have to assess each one to get an understanding what is worth putting online and what I just donate.
With sports (or similar) gone, I’ve got a bit more room to spread out.
And so it continues…
I begin to put stuff in the window, I put up clever signs, keep the tables outside appropriately interesting.
Is this the point at which I adopt a gentle senior dog to hang out in the store with me?