Thursday, July 31, 2014

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and Flats, by Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and FlatsImperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life's Sharps and Flats by Stacy Horn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Current memoirs seem to fall into one of two categories: stuntblogging, or embarking on a contrived project in order to produce quasi-amusing memories for a book deal; or research-memoir hybrids, in which the author weaves his or her own experience into a historical retrospective of the larger topic.

IMPERFECT HARMONY falls into the latter category, since I have sworn off of stuntbloggers for the foreseeable future. I think if I had read this reporter/writer's other works, her personal story would have resonated more with me as a familiar voice, but this was my first time reading her, and I found her to be annoying and borderline offensive.

The research narrative in the book is very well done, as would be expected of someone with her journalism background. She has clearly done her reading and conducted interviews with some of the luminaries of choral music, and the information she presents is enlightening and very relevant to those of us who appreciate and participate in group singing.

The personal story, unfortunately, takes away from the cadence of the history; she is either whining about her status as an aging single New Yorker (which I suspect is topical for her other memoirs) or constantly reaffirming that while she is singing ecclesiastical works, she is in no way a religious believer. I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and even I was offended at the dismissive tone toward the religious content of the pieces she performs. She seems extremely uncomfortable with acknowledging that a set of very particular beliefs are the reason much of this music exists, and I found her smug tone very off-putting as she would translate a Latin text with the caveat of "not that I believe any of this nonsense, of course." She sings religious music in a church-based choir.

There's some excellent information on centuries-old to contemporary choral composition, including a lovely section on Morten Lauridsen and his transcendental "O Magnum Mysterium," one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever created. The bibiography at the back is a good resource for more historical background on the choral tradition.

I feel like I've written this review before, since I've read several memoirs in the past few years, mostly by unhappy and self-absorbed older New York women. I suspect fans of Ms. Horn would enjoy knowing more about her personal choral journey, but I didn't.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It , by Kelly McGonigal

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of ItThe Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-written and well-presented scientific and practical guide to willpower, self-control, and the neuroscience behind it all.

McGonigal writes engagingly about the fallibility of humans to make great plans and view the future with optimism, and yet fail to achieve seemingly simple goals time and time again. But she explains here WHY we fail, why systems set up to help us succeed are undermining our efforts, and some simple (and often paradoxical) shortcuts to go around our neurocircuitry and achieve the outcome we're looking for.

The experiments and studies she references are interesting; some are quite familiar if you've read the Heath books on change or similar works. Along with the explanations and the science, McGonigal provides practical implementations to help you stop bad habits or implement better ones.

This is a fascinating read about what's going on in the brain when we try to make changes, and an important read if you struggle with lifestyle issues or addictions of any kind, if you work with people who have trouble making changes stick -- or even if you just want to know a little more about how your brain works for and against you.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away3 By Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had read this book in high school, I would have finished it thinking, "Wow. Well, at least this sort of thing doesn't happen anymore, because we're thankfully beyond religious fundamentalism."

Then I moved to southern Alabama to go to college, where all of O'Connor's character types are living, breathing people then and today. For literary purposes, some of their traits are exaggerated-- but not terribly. I had a literature professor my freshman year, before I'd had enough cultural exposure there, try to explicate "Southern grotesque," and I'm sure we read an O'Connor short story as part of that concept. It was not until I lived and worked among rural Southern people that the deeply-rooted mindsets about which she wrote became living, breathing entities. The intellectuals, the violence, the squaring-off between urban and rural people, the fear-based religious zealotry, and the young people trying to decide on which side they stand while not realizing that the choice has been made for them: all of them are real.

I live in a different part of the South now, and reading O'Connor's three longer works and short stories brought the dawning of my realization back to me. She writes as an enlightened native, and people who have not wrestled with these angels may not understand the archetypes or the significance of the struggle. But if you want to know what goes on down those sunny, dusty dirt roads in the rural South, these works will explain the old mindsets and the new. In this world, a well-raised person is just as likely to beat, rape, and murder as someone raised among criminals, and he's likely to have a plausible reason for doing so.

O'Connor wrote this in the mid-20th century, so you'll encounter some racial language that is part of its times and highly offensive now.

It's not a long book, and the shorter stories are quickly read, but this book takes a long time to digest and none of it is easy going. I would recommend having lighter fare for when you need to take a break. You'll finish with a profound recognition and understanding of a highly misunderstood corner of our nation.

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