Sunday, November 21, 2010

Deep Thoughts

Most of the time, I forget I live on the Pacific Ocean.  But then, some days, it decides to sit up and slap me in the face and scream "Wake up, here I am, in all my vastness!"

Or maybe I've just been reading Two Years Before the Mast for too long.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

And now for something completely different…

If you are looking for new listening material for your commute, or simply your edification, below are some of my favorite podcasts (all available for free on iTunes):

Books on the Nightstand by Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman
This is a great podcast about (mostly) contemporary books. Begun in 2008 by two sales reps for Random House, the format usually consists of a short discussion about a current events topic or theme involving books and/or publishing and then a reading recommendation from each of the hosts.

One thing I love about this podcast is that they simply give recommendations of books that have caught their attention (not necessarily by Random House). They don’t do reviews or give anything away, but rather tell you just enough for you to decide whether you might like it. This podcast is how I discovered The Book Thief, The Lost City of Z, and Mary Reilly.

The Classic Tales by B. J. Harrison
I am a longtime fan of this podcast where the host reads classic short stories and novellas, most often adventure tales and classic horror (and, unfortunately, the Jeeves stories of P. G. Wodehouse). The episodes vary greatly in length, but most run 45 to 60 minutes. Occasionally, he will produce multiple episodes of longer works, most recently The Turn of the Screw. His accent can be a bit off-putting, but it grows on you. Unfortunately, only his most recent episodes are available for free, but, if you like his style or story selections, all of them are available for purchase on his website.

Philosophy Bites by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This podcast out of the U.K. presents short interviews (15 to 20 minutes) with guest philosophers focusing on a wide variety of very specific philosophical writings, questions, or issues: Plato’s Cave, Hobbes on the State, atheism, medical consent, and so on. Over 100 episodes are available on iTunes and each topic is independent from the next, so feel free to listen to whichever title looks appealing. Philosophy has always been difficult for me to get a handle on and the specificity of the topics really helps me with that.

Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir by Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards
This series is a must for any fan of film noir. Both professors, not only do Clute and Edwards really know what they are talking about, but they are clearly very passionate about their work. There are a total of 50 episodes, almost all focusing on a single film and generally running 30 to 35 minutes. There are a couple of instances where they pair a classic film with something more contemporary (for example, The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski) and these run over an hour. Like a lecture course, they sometimes reference earlier episodes and discussions, so I highly recommend listening in some sort of vague chronological order. If you don’t really know the film well, I also recommend Netflixing before listening.

Watching the Directors by Joe and Melissa Johnson
This podcast ran from 2006 to 2008 and has almost 50 episodes. I don’t love the husband and wife team that hosts this series, but I love the concept and structure of looking at the entire career of one director in each episode. I also appreciate the incredible amount of viewing it must have required to put each episode together. The choice of directors runs the gamut from classic (Frank Capra, Ingmar Bergman, Michael Powell) to contemporary (Peter Jackson, Mira Nair, Steven Soderburgh) to iconic (Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, John Hughes). Perhaps because of the time involved, the Johnsons, along with a third host, now host a new series that examines a single film from the angle of its theological, philosophical, and thematic content: Watching Theology is ongoing and has over 30 episodes to date including those on Pulp Fiction, Children of Men, and Fight Club.

12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth
In just 17 episodes (most 25 to 30 minutes long), Brownworth manages to condense over 1000 years of history into a fascinating narrative by focusing on some of the key leaders of the Byzantine Empire. While the original series is long over, his current effort is Norman Centuries, which tells the history of the Normans in England, France, and Italy. To date, there are 10 episodes.

The Dave Ramsey Show by Dave Ramsey
If you are looking to get out of debt, this podcast is a great motivator, particularly on Fridays, when people call in to shout “I’m debt free!” and tell their own personal get-out-of-debt stories. But, fair warning, he thinks you should be sacrificing more to make it happen and his plan is not easy. He also has strong Christian beliefs that he is not afraid to talk about; however, he is pretty good about keeping the show money and debt focused. As someone who used to work in investment consulting, I didn’t really need most of his financial advice (which is extremely sound), but his show played an important role in helping me stick to the strict budget that allowed me to pay off my graduate school loans much earlier than I would have otherwise.

Finally, for help in other areas of your life, I also recommend the “Quick and Dirty Tips” podcasts. This is a group of self-help podcasts each led by a different specialist and focusing on a particular area: legal issues, fitness and health, money matters, etiquette, grammar, etc. The episodes are very short, usually 5 to 10 minutes—which is extremely annoying given how podcasts work on iPods (but I digress). My favorite series are Get-It-Done Guy, who covers managing and organizing your work life, and The Nutrition Diva, who examines such vital questions as “Is high-fructose corn syrup really as bad as they say?” and “Should you spend more for natural gourmet salt?”

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites and why? I have a 30-minute walking commute so I'm always looking for new listening material.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Opera 101—Memoirs of a Geisha

According to Opera America, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is the most-performed opera in the U.S. (Puccini also grabs the #2 spot with La Bohème). It is easy to see why—it has an incredible score and provides a soprano with the opportunity to really shine. However, the plot is so uncomfortable (a callous American officer “marries” and abandons a 15-year-old Japanese girl) that I have mixed feelings about it. Watching San Francisco Opera’s latest production on Veterans Day did not help matters.

It also did not help that I really did not like many of the production choices, particularly the set: a rotating Japanese house, turned periodically by what I could only describe as ninja assassins. For such a quietly dramatic piece, the rotation was very distracting. The turners remained on stage throughout and were generally unobtrusive, as one would expect from a ninja, but they occasionally interacted with the players, which threw me out of the story completely.

Also, throwing me out of the story? The moment when Butterfly is sitting vigil for Pinkerton to return, with the unmistakable (to me) strains of “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil playing in the background. Given that the plot of Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is essentially Madame Butterfly shifted to Vietnam, that can’t be a coincidence. (Although obviously not Puccini's fault.)

Despite my complaints, I was pleasantly surprised by this production, mostly because I had read a number of negative reviews when it opened. Apparently, there were two casts for this production and we saw the second. A good thing I guess, because I felt that all the main players sang well and gave a strong performance. It was a good close to our subscription for the season.

I’m sorry the season is over, but I’m really glad I decided to do this and look forward to next year.

And now the awards!

Production I would most readily see again: Le Nozze di Figaro
Favorite scene: “Gloria all’Egitto” aka The Triumphal March from Aida
Outstanding lead performance (male): Plácido Domingo as Cyrano
Outstanding lead performance (female): Ainhoa Arteta as Roxane
Outstanding supporting performance: Daveda Karanas as Suzuki
Best set design: Cyrano de Bergerac
Best costumes: Aida
Best ninjas: Madama Butterfly

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lost in Translation

Since our Russian Roulette book salon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of translation. More than one person said they loved to read Russian authors because of the language. But whose language? Having taken on a few freelance translating jobs in my time, I know that it is an extremely difficult task even in its most basic form. And, when it comes to literature, there can be vast differences in language between different translators.

I had done some investigating into translation when I read Don Quixote earlier this year, settling on Edith Grossman’s version primarily because of library availability. It had an introduction by Harold Bloom, so it had to be decent right?

“Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”—Don Quixote (Cervantes, trans. Grossman)

When I decided to tackle War and Peace, I had a few more options. Although I had to wait for it, and despite the controversy surrounded their methods (apparently they break the cardinal rule of translation, which is to translate into your native language), I selected the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Normally, based on what I had read about it, I wouldn’t have, but their edition is the only one I found that left the French portions intact—most English editions leave only a few French phrases strewn about, like an English mystery novel, when in fact there are large chunks of discourse in French as well as entire letters. Since I had to wait a bit for the actual book, I decided to experiment with another translation, the classic version that most people have read, by the Victorian-era translator Constance Garnett, which the library had on audio. Admittedly, I also thought listening to it first would make the reading go more quickly, which it did. It also highlighted how different two versions can be. If you don’t care about the French issue, I’d recommend Garnett.

If you are wondering just how different translations can be, consider what I read earlier this week while attending a performance of Carmina Burana. The San Francisco symphony thoughtfully provided the Latin text and English translation in their program. Not knowing if they would do this, and wanting to follow along, I had brought the booklet from my CD, which used both English and French.

Here is an example from the “Swaz hie gat umbe” chorus at the end of the “Spring” section.

San Francisco Symphony translation:
They who here go dancing round
Are young maidens all
Who will go without a man
This whole summer long.

Mehta English translation:
Those who go round and round,
are all maidens
they want to do without a man
all summer long.

Mehta French translation (translation mine):
Those who go round and round there
are young maidens
They think they can go the whole summer
without a lover.

Call me crazy, but there’s a whole world of difference between going without a man, wanting to do without a man, and thinking you can go without a man for an extended period of time. But maybe that’s just me.

By the way, I love Carmina Burana in all its cheesy, overused glory and this was a very fun performance, particularly the “roasted swan” song, which was sung with more passion and personality than I have ever heard before.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I’ve got a little list…*

“Lists of books we reread and books we can't finish tell more about us than about the relative worth of the books themselves.”—Russell Banks

I’ve spent a good deal of time recently coming up with new themes and lists of suggested books for my book salon. Since the salon is grounded in the classics, I figured that a good way to get ideas would be to peruse some “top” lists. After all, everyone seems to have one. Newsweek even came up with a meta-list compiled from the selections on other major lists, notably those of the New York Public Library and The Modern Library.

The controversial Modern Library list (of the top 100 English-language novels of the century) gained much notoriety over ten years ago for being too white, too male, and too middlebrow. There was such an uproar over the list, that they introduced a companion “Reader’s List,” but, with four books by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard in the top ten, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not worth bothering with. I find the Modern Library list a tad boring, filled with books that one reads only because one is forced to in high school or college. My biggest quibble with it is that James Joyce hogs both the #1 and #3 spot. Seriously? But maybe I’m just bitter that I’ve only read 20 novels on the list. Ouch. (I do a bit better on the rival Radcliffe List, where I’ve read 34, but still.)

If you are looking for something a bit more current, try TIME’s 100 List, which further narrows the pool to English-language books published in or after 1923, the year of the magazine’s founding. And, let’s all pause for a moment and thank our lucky stars that that restriction means no Ulysses (published in 1922). Of course, I don’t do much better on this list, with about 25 under my belt. Some other lists include the 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians (40!) and The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (34!). One of my favorite lists is The Daily Telegraph’s “110 Best Books: The Perfect Library,” if only for the fact they couldn’t limit themselves to 100. Even then, they cheat quite a bit since a number of their entries are actually multi-volume series (Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, Updike’s Rabbit, Run books, etc.). Finally, if you’re really ambitious, you can try to tackle the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for which there are intricate spreadsheets you can download to track your progress.

People who know me know that I love nothing better than organizing and making lists. However, the problem with looking at all these lists and coming up with these themes is that they inevitably bring back the refrain that haunted me in graduate school: so many books, so little time. I want to read many of the books on these lists, but is it really important that I do so? After all, it’s lists like these that led me to read Wide Sargasso Sea this year, and that’s time I can never get back.

Do these lists make you feel guilty? energized? indifferent? Do you have books you feel you should read? Do you actually plan to read them? I'd love to hear from people on this.

*What can I say? When I’m not making lists, I’m rewatching the entire Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre via Netflix.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

West Coast Story

This week (as a sort of belated birthday present), I attended the new touring revival of West Side Story at the Orpheum. The conceit of this version is that it’s grittier and more authentic than the original, primarily through the extended use of Spanish by the Puerto Rican characters.

I thought the concept worked well as a whole, but that may have been because I was so familiar with the story and songs. Given that there were no translations made available, nor any supertitles, and that a few key plot points were in Spanish, I have to wonder if someone new to the show would be able to fully appreciate the story. However, after a day when the bilingual nature (in fact, trilingual, when you throw Chinese into the mix) of our city was on full display, with the highlighting of the Spanish-speaking announcers and players in the parade and celebration of Los Gigantes, the updated musical seemed a fitting close to the day. Of course, as someone who daily works in multiple languages, I’m always eager to see new displays of mixed language use.

I got another pleasant surprise when it turned out that one of the Jets was none other than Neil Haskell, of So You Think You Can Dance fame. It was a good thing, as I hadn’t realized just how much dancing there actually was in this musical (having only known it through the movie version). And dancing was certainly the highlight here; although, as often seems to happen in San Francisco, the rustle-tussle of the gang fighting took on new meaning. Unavoidably, given the small orchestra, Bernstein’s lovely music got short shrift, which was a disappointment. But, all in all, it was an enjoyable, if a bit overly dramatic, show.