Key Changes: New Classical Music

Some great new classical music has been added to the collection lately! The reigning theme is: fresh takes on tradition. Check out some of the great possibilities below.

Bach Cello Suites vol. 2 (arranged for guitar) by Jeffrey McFadden takes some of the most famous classical cello music ever written and puts a new twist on it – arrangement for guitar. In a new medium, the full harmonic complexity of the composition is on display, making this a worthy addition to the recordings of these pieces. Volume 1 coming soon.

 

The Art of the Mandolin by Avi Avital is definitely not something you see every day – an album comprised entirely of works written for the mandolin! Drawing from famous composers like Vivaldi and Beethoven, as well as contemporary composers including the performer himself, the album celebrates the mandolin in its unique glory.

 

Debussy & Ravel with the London Symphony Orchestra explores mystery, fantasy, and stirring odysseys through the work of two composers: Ravel, who explores his Spanish heritage in the Rapsodie espagnole, and Debussy, who creates mystic, free, and wild worlds in the Prelude de L’apres-midi d’un faune and La mer. Discover the subtleties and nuance of classical compositions.

 

Time by Jess Gillam is the second album by the award-winning saxophonist, following 2019’s Rise. This album strives to emulate and evoke the rising and falling energies over the course of a day, and echoes a wide variety of styles and influences. It promises an immersive sound experience and a time for reflection.

 

Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Stuart Duncan edges into the world of classical crossover, with chamber music melding with country, folk, and blues. This light-hearted ensemble features the cello stylings of Yo-Yo Ma, and promises a boundary-breaking good time. It’s a follow-up to the 2011 album Goat Rodeo Sessions, also available.

 

John Williams in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmonic takes the classic soundtrack music of John Williams, and sets it in the stirring instrumentals of a philharmonic orchestra. Take an emotional and nostalgic journey with this star-studded program! Includes music of Indiana Jones, E.T., Luke Skywalker, and more.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For a lot of people, 2020 was a year of loneliness. More people than ever before felt the pangs of isolation, the pain of being separated from other people and struggling to make connections. Which is partly why it was poignant and fascinating for me to read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing as 2020 was winding down.

This book does (or tries to do) a lot of things. On the one hand, Laing is telling the story of her own time spent both alone and lonely in New York City after the failure of a relationship. On the other hand, she’s telling the stories of several great artists who did their work in the midst of or in response to loneliness. And on yet another hand, she’s telling the story of what loneliness is, how it works, the studies that have been done about it, and how we can and ought to live in it. However, despite how disparate the different threads are, they braid together into a thoughtful and moving examination of a universal human experience.

Where a strictly self-help style book about living through loneliness might begin to seem preachy or subjective, where a memoir might sink into self-pity and lots of personal details, and where an art biography might seem dry or academic or esoteric, this book slipped neatly in and out of these perspectives, avoiding pitfalls and using the juxtaposition of different elements to underscore important points. The author’s message  is essentially this: all people experience loneliness, when they become emotionally and/or physically separated from the society around them. Loneliness, being essentially desperation for intimacy and human contact, makes its victim socially clumsy, overly sensitive to rejection, and defensive – all of which conspires to keep the person isolated. She urges us to build a more compassionate society that strives to include and reach out to those prone to being pushed to the outskirts.

I liked this book not only for the resonant unpacking of loneliness as a phenomenon, but also for the detailed and thoughtful descriptions of artists’ lives and works. I’m not much of an art connoisseur, so hearing background details about artists, alongside a discerning examination of their work and what it means, really helped me grasp the concepts. By using artists to explore loneliness, moreover, Laing suggests that creativity, imagination, and self-expression are powerful weapons that can be used in and against isolation. Essentially, I came away from this book with a feeling of profound hope. If you’re looking to take a deep dive into art, loneliness, and social isolation, I recommend this book – but be warned, it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. Most of the artists she describes came to artistic self-expression by living through incredible, heart-breaking hardships that demanded to be put into words.

Just Like That by Cole McCade

The weather won’t stop getting colder anytime soon, but a steamy book might warm you right up! My latest suggestion: Just Like That by Cole McCade. This sweet story about second chances at happily-ever-after centers on Summer Hemlock, who comes back to his hometown to work at his old school, and Fox Iseya, Summer’s former teacher and current crush, who’s been grieving his late wife for so long he can’t imagine himself otherwise. Summer, crippled by anxiety, quickly changes all that by proposing an unusual deal: every time he can do something brave, he earns a kiss from Fox. Fox finds himself unexpectedly flustered and intrigued by the offer, and the resulting relationship might just heal them both.

Despite the frankly unlikely character names, I found this book sweet, endearing, funny, and yes, steamy, with lots of points in its favor, including a strongly ethical portrayal of relationships, grief, and self-confidence. Both characters are fully-developed people with personalities, hobbies, and foibles. Both characters are students of psychology, and they don’t shy away from discussing the underlying issues each is grappling with. There’s also good solid representation of consent and negotiating intimacy to both partners’ comfort level.  Maybe most importantly, though Summer is Fox’s former student, the book is clear that nothing personal happens or could happen between them unless they’re both fully mature, consenting adults – a vital point for me to enjoy the story. All of these elements combined to create a novel that, though definitely erotica, has love, respect, and the characters’ wellbeing at its heart.

If you need to believe in second chances, if you want to feel hope and bravery, and if you’re looking for a healing, escapist read for your wintry days, I recommend giving this new book a try – Just Like That.

Key Changes: New Music by Enchanting Voices

First things first: everyone has different opinions on which singers have the most beautiful voices. The two singers I’m highlighting today are just two of my personal favorites — I love the rich, velvety tones of their voices and am looking to share the beauty of it with you! Both these singers are probably known to you in some way, because they’re iconic features of vocal music in popular culture. These, their most recent albums, show their chops and add to their already considerable reputations – in popular music circles, anyway. Classical music critics have mixed feelings.

Believe by Andrea Bocelli is the 16th solo album the pop tenor has released (though he’s collaborated on many more!) and it strikes a very timely tone for 2020. It’s a collection of uplifting songs that Bocelli has loved throughout his life. In his announcement, Bocelli said the album is a celebration of the power of music to soothe the soul, and it features duets with opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and award-winning singer Alison Krauss.

Harmony by Josh Groban strikes a similar note: Groban reportedly developed and fleshed-out this album during the isolation of the global pandemic when he was trying to reach a place of light and hope. The resulting album represents a miracle of cooperation as musicians and producers combined their efforts from a distance to create a unified whole. Moreover, the songs themselves are a mix of classic melodies and original songs which express hope for the future.

Ace by Angela Chen

“The words are gifts. If you know which terms to search, you know how to find others who might have something to teach.” 

In the world of relationships and identities, asexuality is relatively unknown, but it’s vitally important. To understand why, read Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen.  Journalist Chen uses her own experiences as well as those of a diverse group of asexual people to explain what asexuality is and how it feels, and also to expose some hidden truths about ourselves and our societies.

First things first: what DOES it mean? To put it simply, someone who is asexual doesn’t experience sexual attraction. There are as many different ways this works as there are asexual people, but that’s the main point to remember: no sexual attraction. If you’re puzzled, have never heard of this before, and are wondering if I’m just making this up, check out this book, or The Invisible Orientation by Julie Decker, another vital text on the subject, available through interlibrary loan.

To paraphrase the publisher: Both highly readable and unflinchingly honest, Ace uses a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir to address the misconceptions around the “A” of LGBTQIA and invites everyone to rethink pleasure and intimacy. I personally think that description is spot-on: Chen clearly conducted rigorous research to write this book, but she balances the academic language with personal stories that bring the theoretical ideas and big words into the real, practical world. This makes it easier to understand the tough concepts she introduces, like how gender and race intersect with sexual orientation. Most importantly, she makes it clear that her goal is acceptance and freedom for EVERYONE to build the life and relationships they want, without judgment, pressure, or shame.

You don’t need to be asexual yourself to benefit from this book; you just need to have an open mind. My hope is that if you don’t already know about this word and the diverse and beautiful community it represents, you’ll be intrigued, validated, or at least better informed by learning more about it.

Stranger Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

“Bright, colorful, and whimsical—yet charmingly familiar—Stranger Planet is out-of-this-world fun.”

One of my major habits as a reader is balance – I always need to balance out the heavy with the light, the sweet with the salty. It’s how I stay sane, ESPECIALLY when the sweet, light books are like Strange Planet and Stranger Planet by Nathan W. Pyle. There’s nothing like a book of comics as a palate cleanser, and there’s nothing like Pyle’s comics, period.

Stranger Planet is the second book of Pyle’s comics (originally shared on social media) and a worthy successor to the first. In both cases, it’s a pared-down world of bright pinks, blues, greens, and purples, where genderless aliens navigate a strangely familiar world of “cohesion” (marriage), “mild poison” (alcohol), “offspring” (kids), “elastic breath traps” (balloons), and much more.

These comics are charming for me because I love the quirky, gentle humor of examining everyday activities through a fresh perspective. I’m also a huge sucker for wordplay, which doesn’t hurt. Basically, if you’re looking for a quick break or to rediscover a sense of wonder about the world, I definitely recommend you check out Stranger Planet by Nathan Pyle.

Key Changes: New Classical Crossovers

I grew up listening to a lot of classical music because of my parents, and only developed a love for pop music later. This has given me a unique perspective on music, and a love for a genre that’s a bit obscure but super fun if you’re a music nerd like me. It’s usually called Classical Crossovers, and it’s what happens when instruments and groups that typically play classical music play… NOT classical music, whether that’s pop music, rock music, soundtracks, etc. How this works depends on the group and the music they’re covering. I like it because the different instrumentation puts a unique twist on a familiar melody. Here are a few examples of this genre, recently ordered for the library.

Disney Goes Classical by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an album where a symphony orchestra plays beloved Disney songs, from movies like The Lion King, Moana, Frozen, and more. It also features guest artists who are some of the best classical musicians today, including Matteo Bocelli,  Renee Fleming, and more. If you’re looking to relive your childhood or experience the magic of Disney in a different way, check out this album for a classy journey down memory lane.

10 by the Piano Guys probably needs no introduction; The Piano Guys have been an Internet sensation for a long time with their amazing covers of popular songs and mashups with both popular and classical tracks. In this album, they celebrate 10 years of making music with new covers as well as some of their greatest hits. They always adapt the original song to work perfectly with their instruments (piano and cello) and the songs on this album are no exception.

Alive by David Garrett is the newest album from an acclaimed violinist known for his violin covers of rock and popular songs. In this album, he has created a collection of his favorite soundtrack music, which runs the gamut from Disney songs like Beauty and the Beast and Let it Go to dramatic hits like Shallow, all the while staying true to his roots as a classical musician.

Finna by Nino Cipri

Not to be melodramatic, but Finna by Nino Cipri is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It reads in many ways like an American version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all-time favorite books. The deceptively thin volume is the story of Ava and Jules, a young couple that just broke up a week ago and now has to find a way to continue working together at a Scandinavian big box furniture store. As if the horrors and indignities of working retail AND a breakup  weren’t enough, they then discover a wormhole to a parallel universe has opened inside the store — and a customer has wandered through it. It falls to Ava and Jules, as the employees with the least seniority, to go through the wormhole and try to bring the customer home. While trying to survive a perilous multiverse, they must also walk the perilous path from breakup back to friendship.

I fell in love with this book almost instantly, and there’s many reasons why. For one thing, it’s a slim and unintimidating 137 pages, and the writing style and brief chapters make it a quick and addictive read. The humor is dry and wry, realistic about the cruelties and frustrations of both working retail and navigating relationships. Both characters are honest about their own good and bad qualities and while the hurt and defensiveness is real, they don’t flinch away from taking a long, hard look at what went wrong in themselves and in their relationship. Moreover, meaningful as the relationship between the characters is, the book doesn’t get bogged down in it, balancing out the heartfelt discussions with lots of frankly wacky adventures in parallel universes both beautiful and sinister. Finally, this book is one of a very rare type: a novel, with a genderqueer protagonist, that doesn’t focus exclusively on that individual’s gender. In fact, Jules’ gender identity and the social difficulties that come with it are treated as established and routine, mundane everyday details compared to the rest of the plot. As a genderqueer person myself, it is so refreshing to read novels where gender-diverse people exist, live their lives, and do things other than obsess about their gender identity.

If you love slice-of-life sci fi, Welcome to Night Vale, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or are craving some light-hearted LGBTQ representation, I 100% recommend you check out this book.

RingFit Adventure for Nintendo Switch

When I bought myself a copy of Nintendo’s hot new game Ring Fit Adventure, I had no idea what a smart investment it would be. Since my purchase in January 2019, the promise of dynamic in-home exercise has become understandably appealing, and copies of the game available for purchase are nearly impossible to find. I’m proud to announce that I officially finished the game’s “adventure” portion this fall, and so I can now officially recommend the game – which I do, whole-heartedly.

The game’s main portion is structured like a pretty typical action-adventure RPG – your customized character finds themself in a strange world of villagers, animals and monsters, which is threatened by a power-mad bodybuilding dragon addicted to the dark side of exercising. It’s up to you and your trusty sidekick Ring to chase down the dragon and defeat him and his minions with the power of healthy, balanced exercise. The game is driven by your actions in the real world: a leg strap and ring accessory record your jogging, squatting, pushing and pulling and use them to move through environments and fight monsters. The more you play, the higher levels you achieve, which unlock new skills, clothing, abilities, and boosters that help you in battle. Everything is on the fitness theme – your boosters are smoothies with real-world ingredients, the skills are various fitness moves, and all the monsters have punny fitness names (yoga mat monsters are Matta Rays, kettlebells are Belldogs, water bottles are Protein Shakers, etc.)

I’ve had a great experience playing this game. The adventure portion of the game makes exercising fun, and it also has other modes that let me fit exercising into my schedule on my own terms. It has a “custom” mode where you can make your own list of your favorite exercises or jogging routes, it has mini-games that you can play outside the adventure for quick workouts, it has a rhythm game that lets you focus on moving to the music, and it even has a “multitask” mode so you can push or pull on the ring accessory while the system’s turned off, and earn points for the game.

Even better, the game makes a real effort to portray healthy, balanced exercise that is personalized to the individual user. Its included warmup and cooldown routines include easy stretches and lots of tips on living a healthier life, and it has an alarm function to help you stay accountable for playing regularly. It even includes lots of accessibility options, including a “silent mode” for simulating jogging (which is excellent if you share walls or floors with neighbors), various settings to adjust, and calibrating the accessories to your own body and strength.

If you’re looking to stay active during cold, quarantined winter months, AND you’d like to try before you buy, I recommend checking out Ring Fit for a family-friendly exercise option.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth

I think I’ve already mentioned that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. The strong female lead, the fairly unconventional take on romance, the theme of independence all really resonate with me as a reader. I’ve also mentioned that I was trying this fall to read more spooky books to get into the spirit of the season. One such book I read was Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. I discovered it by chance on the homepage of the library catalog as one of the new books being ordered for the collection, and after reading the synopsis I was hooked. It has similar themes: lots of female characters, unusual and unconventional romances, and a strong theme of struggling for independence.

The book is told in alternating perspectives: first, in 1902, you hear the story of a girls’ boarding school as it’s rocked by a series of grisly deaths, all revolving around a mysterious and inflammatory book. Then, you’re transported to the early 2000s as Hollywood discovers the story of the cursed boarding school and starts to make a movie about it. The movie seeks to capture the horror of the original 1902 events, but succeeds too well as bizarre and frightening events start to happen on set. Caught in the middle are a number of fascinating characters – in 1902, the headmistress Libbie and her lover Alex strive to understand and overcome the boarding school’s sinister atmosphere, and they fail to protect several of their students including Flo and Clara, a bold pair of lovers, and ghostly Eleanor Faderman, who idolizes them. In the modern story, wunderkind writer Merritt, lesbian star Harper, and Audrey, daughter of an iconic scream queen, find themselves thrown together both in fear and mutual attraction as they work on the film.

The appeal of the book is partly its strong characters, complicated and fairly relatable, and partly its wry writing style. Like Jane Eyre, the narrator addresses the reader directly to tell the story (“Reader, I married him”, etc.), and the author really leans into the style, adding lots of footnotes and asides during the narrative. While it’s a fairly thick volume, with lots of story to tell at both points in history, I found that I kept reading without fatigue because of the tense atmosphere and slow-burn action. Typical of horror-style stories, you’re filled with an increasing sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. However (spoiler alert), I was surprised and a bit disappointed that while the 1902 story was full of horrible things happening, and its ending was decently grim, the modern story had a more ambivalent ending, neither grim nor hopeful. I was left with a sense of lingering questions and an uncertain future. As far as I was concerned, the last page could have read The End? (spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

Here’s my theory as to why that is: the underlying theme of both stories is resistance to oppressive norms, expressed particularly in the form of lesbian relationships. This book and its characters are entirely, staggeringly, defiantly sapphic, which comes with certain realities. My guess is the 1902 story had to end grimly, because the outlook for independent women and lesbian love at that time was decently grim. In the modern era, however, things aren’t so final. There’s more freedom and acceptance, but sexism and homophobia still exist, making for an uncertain, cloudy outlook. Therefore, the modern characters couldn’t be said to have completely defeated the curse, but they stand stronger against it. Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the book, especially as the characters struggled for independence in various ways. Some wanted to be independent of everyone, some wanted to be independent from their parents or their past, some wanted to be independent from society’s rules, and some wanted to be independent from their fame. (Their success at achieving independence predictably varied.) Altogether, I thought this was a thought-provoking, engaging book with lots of thrills and chills.

If you like historical fiction, horror fiction, dramedies, or feminist histories, I recommend you try this book. (Although, if you’re afraid of wasps, bees, and yellow jackets, you might want to think twice. They’re EVERYWHERE.)