Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Music Works by David Byrne

McSweeneys Books, 2012

In case you didn’t know, David Byrne is one of the founding members of the Talking Heads (1975-1991), perhaps one of the greatest musical groups of all time.  But even if you do not share this opinion with me, How Music Works remains a fascinating read - attempting to do as the title suggests - to explain music in terms of artistic creation, technical production, factoring in the relative contexts of the artist, listener and media by which the sound is transmitted.

Byrne describes the artistic processes and ideas behind his music, told through a musical history of the Talking Heads and his own solo career.  We get some insights into how he/they approached music and its production and subsequent performances.  The intent here is to be less of a biography and more of a journey through the creative process.  While this would be of interest to Talking Heads aficionados, it is also relevant to anyone interested in how music groups operate and become more than a sum of their parts.

To Byrne, the context of music is very important - live music compared to recorded, where it is listened to and so on.  He describes how music is shaped by its means of transmission and the intended medium the music is created for - songs written for the concert hall or night club sound different than songs written for the radio, vinyl record, or CD.  He provides an insider’s perspective on the technical aspects of analog and digital media, how music is recorded in the studio, and aspects of the music industry business.  In this latter section, the parts about how the industry has been changed by new technologies and business models are particularly interesting.  

Discussion questions

  1. How awesome are the Talking Heads?  Or, how familiar are you with David Byrne and his music,  and how important is this to the reading of the book?
  2. How does this book differ from other books written by famous musicians?
  3. How does context affect your hearing of a piece of music?
  4. Discuss the different ways you listen to music.
  5. Are there any times when music is an intrusion to you?
  6. What is the difference between a live performance and the same piece of music heard elsewhere?
  7. Listening to music on a portable device (or in a vehicle etc.) is likened to carrying "our own soundtrack wherever we go, and the world around us is overlaid with our music."  How does listening to music this way affect your experience of the world?
  8. How important are visuals to a music experience (album art, music video etc.)?
  9. Why do people create, listen to, and appreciate music?
  10. Have you ever created music yourself? 

Monday, November 26, 2012

North Korea: Another Country

North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings starts off as a very slow read. The book is divided into six chapters yet the first two--about the history of the Korean War and the DPRK's nuclear record--take up the first half of the book just between themselves. It took me so long just to get through these two chapters. They were interesting, yet boringly written if that makes any sense, and I can only say that I am surprised I never fell asleep while reading them. The next four chapters in the second half of the book proceed at a quicker pace and were a breeze to finish. 
Of all the books that I have read so far on the DPRK, Cumings is unlike any other American writer in that he often comes to the defence of the North while putting down the United States. The author makes a sincere effort to understand why the North acts and reacts as it does on the world stage, when other authors would merely find excuses in blaming the North's "despotic dictators". Cumings often portrays the US as ignorant and racist, and having no clue behind its military policies on the Korean peninsula. As a result, Cumings comes across as an apologist, ready to defend the North for its actions while condemning the US and its shuttered view of the world for always getting things wrong in its foreign policy, whether it be its involvement in Vietnam or Iraq. Cumings has taken a lot of heat for his seemingly anti-American, pro-DPRK views, and he shocked me with his constant hammering of American foreign policy and its journalistic integrity:
"Predicting the behavior of crazy people is by definition impossible, and American officials constantly harp on Pyongyang's unpredictability. I would argue, to the contrary, that North Korean behavior has been quite predictable and that an irresponsible American media, almost bereft of good investigative reporters, often (but by no means always) egged on by government officials, obscures the real nature of the United States-Korean conflict. The media has had the wrong stories in the wrong place at the wrong time; the absurd result is that often one has to read North Korea's tightly controlled press to figure out what actually is going on between Washington and Pyongyang."
As seen above, Cumings also has a similar low opinion of Western, specifically American media in their reporting about North Korea. While even I, a self-professed "Friend of North Korea" was shocked by his constant USA-bashing, I have to admit that his assessment of the Western media was bang on: 
"With the occasional exception, most of it [ = the news the Western media report about North Korea] is uninformative, unreliable, often sensationalized, and generally fails to educate instead of deceive the public. Given the mimetic nature of our media, the same stories circulate endlessly; often they are contemporary variations on the same old tales that have been around since North Korea became our enemy sixty years ago: they're about to attack the South, their leader is nuts, their people are brainwashed, the regime will implode or explode. Literally for half a century, the South Korean intelligence services have bamboozled one American reporter after another by parading their defectors (real and fake), grinding the Pyongyang rumor mill, or parlaying fibs that even a moment's investigation in a good library would expose."
There are very dry moments in North Korea: Another Country, which seem all the more to drag on by the copious amount of endnotes. Endnotes are not themselves an annoyance, but they become so when they are not easy to find in the notes section since there are no chapter headings to inform the reader what chapter the notes apply to. Throughout my entire read I had to keep a bookmark or a finger holding the place where my last endnote was explained. 
The Financial Times called North Korea: Another Country "tart and witty", yet these tart and witty moments were few and far between. Cumings wrote about Andrew Holloway's experiences in Pyongyang, where he worked reediting the English translations of the works by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Holloway, coincidentally, worked at the same job as Michael Harrold, who wrote about his own experiences in his book Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea, which I reviewed in my LiveJournal blog and also for Amazon.com. Cumings writes about Holloway:
"Like the ambassador, Andrew Holloway was appalled and mortified to find out about the depth, ubiquity, and never-ending self-parody of regime propaganda, but he got to know it better than most, because his job was to polish its English representation in various publications. Within just a week or two, he could barely stand his daily portion of hagiography, gross exaggeration, unseemly self-importance, ridiculous excess, profound solipsism, and all-around mind-numbing drivel that it was his lot to put into something resembling English and that is the butt of jokes around the world--when anyone is paying attention."
The only chuckle I got out of North Korea: Another Country was reading about the reaction Cumings received while on a tour outside of Pyongyang:
While in the North Korean city of Kaesong, "I was surprised by the large numbers of people standing around in midday, gaping at us as if we were Martians".
This is not unlike other reactions I have read when North Koreans see foreigners. I myself experienced this when I visited the DPRK in the summer of 2011. While the North is s-l-o-w-l-y opening itself to the outside world, even more so since the death of the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il and with the succession of his son the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, when I was among the crowds in Pyongyang, I and my fellow travellers were gawked at, most often by children. During the one moment where I was given permission to walk the streets of Pyongyang alone, after I had shown my guides over the course of my eighteen-day trip that I was an obedient tourist who could be trusted, I felt that everyone's eyes were burning holes into me as I walked around unescorted.

Monday, November 19, 2012

History of the Acadians

My partner Mark is a native Nova Scotian and I have taken an avid interest in reading about different aspects of Nova Scotian history. Almost all of this reading predates my LiveJournal and Amazon reviews, both of which predate the Mississauga Library System's own nonfiction blog, but two novels by Frank Parker Day, a short novel about Africville and an autobiography by Rita MacNeil are four examples of Nova Scotiana that I have reviewed and published. Whether my reading is about those Nova Scotian topics or the Halifax Explosion of 1917, the Black Battalion or Sable Island, I regard all of this as an intellectual act of love. It is my maritime christening by edification.

A year ago I discovered History of the Acadians by Bona Arsenault. I wanted to read it before an upcoming trip down east. I like to pick a Nova Scotia book just before travelling there; last year I read Rockbound by Frank Parker Day. History of the Acadians is an English translation from 1994 but the translator was not identified. The original work, Histoire des Acadiens, must have been published in the mid-sixties, based upon some references Arsenault makes. Unfortunately it was a poor translation, with humorous spelling errors ("half-bread" for "half-breed") and the repeated eyesore "Britanny" for "Brittany".

Arsenault tells a thorough history of Acadia from its founding settlement of Port-Royal in 1605 to the Acadians' forced exile and resettlement throughout the cities on the American east coast from 1755 to 1762, their journey to Louisiana, and eventual return to Acadia in the late eighteenth century. The Acadians were a hearty people who had adapted to the land and were allies with the Mi'kmaq (Micmac) First Nation. Before the Great Expulsion they had survived past invasions and attempts to force them out. Their tenacity and determination to retain their French language and Catholic religion were viewed as threats by the English, who negotiated to allow them to stay on their land provided they took an oath of neutrality and did not take up arms with the French against them. As a peaceful people, the Acadians agreed to these conditions, and found it quite easy to live in harmony among the English.

It was a tragic story how the peaceful Acadian families were assembled and dispersed in chaos onto ships, bound for unknown American cities. Families were under the impression that they would reunite whenever the ships reached their destinations. Imagine the heartache when you realized your children and spouse were not among the passengers who disembarked, while the rest of the ships had long ago set off. Some states welcomed the Acadian refugees and treated them with charity and open arms. Other states, however, regarded them as delinquents (since they believed the Acadians were exiled after all for a reason) and assigned them to live in squalor. Children who were separated from their parents were sold into servitude and treated like slaves, working side-by-side with those from the African diaspora. Hundreds of families were broken up forever, while others could only reunite decades later.

Arsenault documented Acadian family names to a painful degree of detail; he would list name after name of the settlers who inhabited, or resettled in a specific area. It wasn't annoying to see multiple paragraphs of names listed alphabetically, but I did find the juxtaposition of French and English place names, like "Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island)" to be. Every time he wrote the original French (or native) name of a place, he added the current English name in parentheses next to it: "Ile Royale (Cape Breton)"; "Chibouctou (Halifax)"; "La Hève (La Have)".

On my first visit to Nova Scotia with Mark we visited the Grand Pré National Historic Site, where the Acadians were assembled and deported from. I would like to revisit this site now that I have learned so much more about Acadian history.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

Readers at my other nonfiction blog sites (my LiveJournal account and also at Amazon.com and .ca) know of my unwritten rule which compels me to finish every book I open. Two book reviews which I posted at these other sites, pertaining to an alive Elvis and lesbian masochists, were tiresome chores to get through. However, regardless of a book's length, how boring it is or how far it is from my first impression of what it might be like, I trudge through it, dreading every minute. I always give these books the chance that they might have some redeeming quality which makes the first couple hundred pages worthwhile to stick it out.
In John Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, there was no such redemption. After rubbing the shell of this nut I thought I would be treated to a hidden pecan, but the shell was empty. It took me over three weeks to finish this paperback--and this book is only 361 pages. This book was the most boring read of nonfiction I have encountered in twenty years. Barring three exceptions, I fell asleep every time I sat down to read it. If I didn't believe in my own immortality, I would be worried about wasting my limited life time reading this junk.
I am a big Beatles fan, and I came across the name Joe Orton when I learned that he was approached to write the screenplay for the Beatles' third movie (after "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"). This never came to pass. When his script for "Up Against It" was returned, Orton wrote:
"No explanation why. No criticism of the script. And apparently, Brian Epstein has no comment to make either. F*** them."
Lahr had unrestricted access to Orton's diaries and quotes from them at length. In the Beatles passages, being allowed into the Fab Four's "inner circle" is quite a hoot to read. When Orton meets Brian Epstein and Paul McCartney for the first time, he writes:
"'The only thing I get from the theatre,' Paul M. said, 'is a sore arse.' He said "Loot" [an Orton play] was the only play he hadn't wanted to leave before the end. ... We talked of tattoos. And after one or two veiled references, marijuana."
Shortly after his Beatles script was rejected, Orton was killed by his common-law husband in the summer of 1967 in a murder-suicide. Lahr talks about this tragedy at the beginning of the book, and goes to great lengths to analyze the psyche of Orton's partner and what drove him to commit murder and suicide. The psychoanalysis is brought up again at the end of the book. Excluding the psych-talk and Beatles anecdotes, the bulk of what fills these two covers is a boring critique of each of Orton's plays. If one hasn't seen these works on stage, one is left in the dark. I couldn't follow the plotlines; the exhaustive dialogue seemed more out of context than having any pertinence to points Lahr intended to make about the playwright; and the general flow was at a snail's pace. The critiques go on and on... I could only get through ten pages in an hour. So much was quoted from Orton's plays and his own diaries, and since all the cited sections were reproduced in a minuscule font, it made poor eyes like mine very tired. I really dreaded seeing more lines of dialogue reproduced as evidence of Orton's personality or reflections of what he was going through domestically.
Orton's diaries were more interesting, especially his tales of trolling for anonymous sex in the public toilets of London and around the world. Orton held back nothing in his own diaries, and he probably would have loved knowing that people are now reading about his sexual escapades. I make this remark because Orton loved to talk loudly about lascivious topics in very public places. He would write about how he and friends would sit in an upscale restaurant and during a crowded lunchtime they would all talk oblivious to everyone around them about a (fictional) gay orgy. He and his friends got their kicks out of other people's shocked reactions. He was just like a little boy in his enthusiastic retelling of how people shuddered in horror at the tales he would tell. This carried over into his plays, as his subject matter often found him in hot water with censors as well as his paying audience. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right

Thomas H. Davenport & Brook Manville
Published 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press

Judgment Calls is primarily a book about "organizational judgment," looking at the ability of companies or teams to make good decisions collectively.  The authors declare that this book is an "antidote to the great man theory of decision making and organizational performance" - the theory that one individual at the top is needed to drive successful companies forward.  Businesses are currently functioning in tough economic times with lots of competition and uncertainty.  This makes it very challenging for one individual to safely steer organizations on a path to success. 

This book follows twelve organizations that made tough decisions collectively.  Their stories are told as a way to inspire others with positive stories and examples of workplace idea sharing and culture-building.  They show that these environments conducive to good decision-making can be managed and developed within organizations.

The twelve stories within this book are organized into four categories - four themes of organizational judgment: 1. Stories about the participative problem solving process (drawing on the expertise of others within the organization). 2. Stories about the opportunities of technology and analytics (collecting data upon which sound decisions can be based).  3. Stories about the power of (organizational) culture.  4. Stories about leaders setting the right context.

This is a fascinating book telling positive stories of companies who did things right.  This book is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to foster a workplace culture that draws upon the skills and knowledge of its team members, and incorporates sound data collection into its decision-making processes, without relying on one person to magically get things right every time.  This book would make for an interesting book club discussion, especially if the members have any interest in running businesses or teams, or if they are interested in group dynamics and culture. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is a "great man" (or woman) still needed to make businesses succeed and thrive, and is their high pay justified?
  2. How important is the team leader amidst all this collaboration?
  3. Have you ever worked or participated as part of a team that "got things right?" 
  4. Does this book provide any insight about how to change a dysfunctional workplace/team culture? 
  5. How much stock do you put into the value of data and statistics to base decisions upon?
  6. How did the twelve stories read as a narrative?
  7. Did you enjoy the positive tone, or would you rather have seen more horror stories?
  8. Can any of the decision-making methods talked about here be applied elsewhere in life?
  9. Can you think of any other stories that could have been included in this book?
  10. Have you read any other books on business management, leadership or social dynamics?  If so, how does it compare, and would you now want to read more (or less)?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voyage of the Iceberg: The Story of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic

Voyage of the Iceberg: The Story of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic by Richard Brown is a small book unlike any other about the Titanic disaster. Brown, a specialist on seabirds, has written a compact tale about the journey of icebergs, specifically the Iceberg with a capital I, that entered immortality on 14 April 1912. From the Iceberg's formation in the Jakobshavn Ice Fiord in Greenland, to its migration north near Ellesmere Island then south past Baffin Island and the east coast of Labrador to the north Atlantic, Brown paints a natural history of all icebergs of the region. Originally published in 1983, Voyage of the Iceberg was reprinted with a new preface on the centenary of the Titanic's sinking.
Brown writes more than just about the journey of a hunk of ice from Greenland to the time the Titanic collided with it. Brown also writes about the avifauna and the habitat and migration of all arctic species, and how they depend on icebergs as storehouses of vast food reserves. The Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit also feature in Voyage of the Iceberg as they rely on icebergs when fishing or hunting for seals. As European and North American explorers ventured further north than ever before during the early part of the twentieth century, the Inuit were vital for their guidance and expert advice. The native arctic population however could not understand why these strange people would trudge ever northward:
"What Big Nail were they looking for? Old Mequsaq knows the men who went there with Cook and the men who went with Peary, and none of them saw any Nail. All the white men did was to travel so far out on the ice that the Inuit were afraid they would never get back to land. When they stopped, they put up a post with a cloth on it, turned around and came home again. And that was all?"
In this context, the Big Nail = the North Pole (a literal pole). Inuit like Mequsaq saw no point in walking so far north, if there wasn't any practical reason for doing so. The explorers were not hunting for musk ox, fox or polar bear.
I had a laugh when Brown described polar explorer Bob Bartlett:
"This big, tough, horse-faced seaman is oddly shy and sensitive underneath, with an eccentric taste for books and classical music which goes very strangely with his remarkable talent for blasphemy."
Brown provided a valuable map of the arctic and of the Iceberg's migration. I flipped to the map constantly, as I wanted to follow the route as well as see all the places Brown wrote about. The points were all marked on the map and I felt that I was travelling along with the Iceberg as it continued its journey, as it melted and flipped over, as it grounded and as it threatened whaling ships in the region.
The last chapter, on the fateful night of 14 April 1912 when the Titanic struck the Iceberg, kept my eyes riveted to the page. Brown included many illustrations and photos showing not only arctic bird species, but also of whalers and trappers, explorers and of course images of the Titanic.