“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”
— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents
Music is not one of my creative outlets, but I was still enchanted by Rachel Joyce’s new novel, The Music Shop. The protagonist, Frank, is somewhat of a social misfit and non-conformist. The year is 1988, and he owns a music shop devoted strictly to vinyl records. He refuses to branch into selling CDs: “You see why you will never get me to sell CDs? We are human beings. We need lovely things we can see and hold. Yes, vinyl can be a pain. It’s not convenient. It gets scratched. But that’s the point. We are acknowledging the importance of music and beauty in our lives. You don’t get that if you’re not prepared to make an effort.”
His neighborhood is facing the threat of gentrification and development, with shops closing one after another. Frank is able to hang on, barely, without a business plan, largely because of his unique gift: he can find the right record for almost every customer — “I know it’s not what you want, but trust me, today it’s what you need.”
His matchmaking gift is reflected in how he arranged his records: “[Frank] arranged them carefully in boxes; not by genre, or letters of the alphabet, but more instinctively. He put Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, for instance, beside Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew — (‘Same thing, different time,’ he said.) For Frank, music was like a garden — it sowed seeds in far-flung places. People would miss out on so many wonderful things if they only stuck with what they knew.”
The book is full of wonderful insights on a diverse selection of music. Here are some examples:
Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark: “Sometimes all that people needed was to know they were not alone.”
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5: “Music comes out of silence and at the end it goes back to it. It’s a journey. . . . And of course the silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end. . . . Because if you listen, the world changes.” He goes on, “There is silence inside music, too. It’s like reaching a hole, you don’t know what will happen next. . . . Silence is where the magic happened.”
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi: “There will be wind and rain and a storm. There will be birds and flies, and a day so hot you can hardly move. There will even be a cuckoo and a sheepdog.”
Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor: “. . .the music worked like a conversation. Sometimes the violins were telling the same story, and sometimes they were having an argument; first, one led the way, then the other. They might be so close they were like a piece of braid, or so far apart they had to call for one another across the dark. . . . Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins was about learning to be two halves of a whole.”
Perotin’s sacred music Beata Viscera: “. . . it’s like going for a trip in the sky. . . . it feels like stepping onto a bird’s back. The moment it starts, you’re flying. It takes you up, it sweeps you down, and then it lifts you so high you’re a pinprick in the sky. . . . Every time you see a bird, you’ll think of this.”
Tosca: “It’s not a ride to heaven, we’re going to hell.”
“Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell: “This is what it sounds like when a heart breaks.”
The novel is more than just a discourse on the stories behind music. It’s also a story of love and heartbreak. But the descriptions of music draw you in. The story reaches a climax with a flash mob singing the Alleluia Chorus in a food court. (You can go to YouTube to see several real-life renditions of flash mob Alleluias like this one here.) Thankfully, the publisher, Random House, has put together a playlist of the music mentioned in the novel, and you can access it at bit/ly/TheMusicShopPlaylist.
The novel will be released on January 2, 2018, and if you are looking for something to read in the new year, I recommend The Music Shop.
Ever since my return from Australia, I’ve been meaning to learn how to poach eggs so that I could replicate the wonderful breakfasts I enjoyed at the Issus Restaurant in Melbourne (see photos above). I’ve settled on a super-easy microwaved egg. You simply crack an egg into 1/2 cup of water, cover your cup, and heat on High in the microwave for one minute. Covering the cup is essential, for if you inadvertently cook the egg too long, it will explode all over the inside of your microwave. I do not like uncooked eggs, so I forgo runny yolks and cook my poached egg for 70 seconds.
My version of a delicious shakshouka breakfast is half a 14-oz. can of diced or stewed tomatoes heated and seasoned with za’atar spices, one poached egg plopped on top, and good bread toasted to sop up the juices. You could add leftover rice or roasted vegetables for more substance. This is a quick, easy, and very tasty breakfast.
Today is the Winter Solstice. In Seattle, we have 8 hours and 25 minutes of daylight on this shortest day of the year, fully 7 hours and 34 minutes fewer than our longest day in June. And although I always look forward to the holiday lights that brighten this dark season, I do find some respite and renewal in the gifts of darkness and hibernation — slowing down, resting, and even hibernating. Everything has its season.
“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
— Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
— Theodore Roethke
“Impulsively, I had bought a pocket-sized digital Canon the night before leaving San Francisco. . . . I quickly realized, the camera itself was my travel companion. It gave me a reason to leave the flat every day and search for pictures in parts of London I had never seen before.”
— Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me
Bill Haye’s comment about his camera being his travel companion resonated with me. I am generally at ease and motivated to wander without another companion while I am at home or on my travels, and I think it is because when I have camera on hand, I am paying more attention to what is around me, always looking for unusual sights, interesting patterns, or fresh perspectives on “ordinary” scenes. My mind and imagination are so preoccupied with looking and seeing, that I don’t miss company.
“In each place I have traveled, I have used my camera as an extension of my memory. The images are a tourist’s picture in this sense. But they also have an inquiry feeling to them and, in some cases, showed me more about the place than I might have seen otherwise.”
— Teju Cole, Blind Spot
My photos and subsequent blog posts serve as my trip journals and trigger my memories of the people and places I have visited. I always think I should pare down and travel lightly, and my camera and lens are bulky and weighty. So far, I’ve always decided to put up with the extra weight and I’m always glad I did after the fact. Still, those slender, light smart phones with camera that can fit in a pocket are very tempting. They take wondeful photos, too. But I end up sticking with what I know.
I try to embody that visitor’s sense of inquiry, curiosity, and attention in my normal life at home. As I move into the new year, I will try to take Mary Oliver’s advice below and make the time to “Tell about it,” that is, reflect and write more blog posts about my life.
“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention.
Be astonished. Tell about it.”
— Mary Oliver, from “Sometimes,” in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver