Don Giovanni

Some friends and I went to see the the Met's broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni this month. Although I like all kinds of music, I'm only just getting around to exploring opera. This was the first time I'd seen or heard this one from start to finish and, while I enjoyed it tremendously, several things surprised me.

For one thing, broadcasting these productions to be seen on a movie screen puts much more emphasis on the acting; it's not enough to just have a gorgeous voice. Luckily all but one of the main characters had the acting skills as well as the voice. And not just the grandiose gestures that work from the stage, but also the subtle, sidelong glances, the quick, secretive smiles. It must have been a challenge for everyone on stage to put together a performance that would work for both the live audience in the Met and the enthusiasts packing the movie theatres.

I especially liked the interplay between Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello. Apparently Mariusz Kwiecien and Luca Pisaroni have played this duo many times. It was fun to watch the shifts in the relationship as Leporello explored how far he could go, alternately criticising and imitating his master. Kwiecien's Don Giovanni displayed the expected arrogance but surprised me by being not only handsome but also elegant and aristocratic. However, I found myself wanting to shake the silly girls for falling for his lines.

No, it was Ramón Vargas as Don Ottavio who stole my heart with his heart-felt aria, Dalla sua pace:

On her peace of mind depends mine too,

what pleases her gives life to me,

what grieves her wounds me to the heart.

If she sighs, I sigh with her;

her anger and her sorrow are mine,

and joy I cannot know unless she share it.

Such devotion might drive me crazy, but I'll take a man who calls me his treasure over one for whom I'm just another notch on his belt. Generosity in love is not to be scorned. I loved the dignity Vargas brought to a role that is often played as a buffoon.

Of course the much-retold story of the famous lover is a man's fantasy: women swooning over him, lining up to be his next conquest, begging him to come back even after he betrays them. The dinner scene at the end was particularly well done, with food and women jostling for room on the table, a feast for the libertine. I was a little taken aback at the servant Zerlina (beautifully performed by Mojca Erdmann) begging her fiancé to beat her. I understand that she was wooing her man back after she'd been flirting too brazenly with Giovanni, and that she was confident her fiancé would not actually do so, but it was an unpleasant reminder of the ugliness underneath the music. And of how times have changed since the libretto was written.

I liked the set a lot: the facade of a Venetian house which separated for large, well-lit scenes such as the wedding festivities and dinner scene. The director used it in interesting ways, delineating inside and outside, enabling characters to overhear each other or hide as necessary.

Altogether a delightful experience.

Tinkers, by Paul Harding

My book club selected this remarkable first novel for our November read. Some people didn't enjoy it, put off by the odd structure, while others of us loved the ambiguity, the space for interpretation between the scenes. It's certainly not a linear narrative. In a recent blog post Jennie Cruise describes the difference between linear and patterned structure: “. . . sometimes your story isn’t about what happens next. Sometimes it’s about the pattern of events, the accumulation of small crises, the juxtaposition of character reactions, the layering of behaviors that make a character deeper and more faceted and the release of the information about that layering in juxtaposition with other characters . . . It’s not the cause and effect that matters, it’s the pattern.”

Tinkers certainly fits that definition. In the frame story, 80-year-old George Crosby is counting down the days to his death. The patterned structure is appropriate for this story. The author tells us early on that “George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control . . . showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.” As Cruise says, “Most of the time, most stories need linear structure, but when a story says, ‘I don’t care what happens next, I care what these things together mean,' you’re looking at a patterned structure.”

As his mental state deteriorates, George is not always sure of the identities of the people in the room. His thoughts turn to his childhood in rural Maine and his father, an itinerant peddler subject to epileptic fits who disappeared from George's life when the boy was only eleven.

Many of the fortezza, the pieces George tries to form into a mosaic, are from his father's point of view. Howard's memories, interspersed with George's, sometimes tell of the same incidents, sometimes not. These are not simple flashbacks; George could not know the details Howard relates of his travels and of his own childhood. In one of the most moving sections, Howard tells of the disappearance of his father, a minister who “leaked out of the world gradually” when Howard was still a boy. He tells of seeing his father fumbling in the apple barrel and realizing “that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self.” Perhaps this explains how Howard's thoughts inhabit his son's dying mind.

Howard goes on to say that from this realization he understands that “Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this . . .”

Howard describes his epilepsy as feeling as though he is filled with lightning, “split open form the inside by lightning.” But he is more than his illness; he is a poet and a philosopher drawing on the Transcendentalist tradition of Thoreau and Emerson. In his lonely travels Howard falls into ecstatic states of wonder at the natural world: “Howard walked along the road and looked at the winter weeds poking up from the new snow. There were papery shells of burst pods and thorns and whitish nubs at the end of pannicles. Some were bent over, broken-backed, with their tops buried in the snow as if they had been smothered in the frost. The interlocking network of stalks and branches and creepers was skeletal, the fossil yard of extinct species of fine-boned insectoid creatures.” I'm tempted to quote the whole book.

Interspersed with George and Howard's memories are excerpts from a 1783 tome on horology, the study of measuring time. In his retirement George has begun fixing clocks and likes nothing better than pulling apart the ancient works to find the problem. The clock imagery is gently persistent, a background to the story without being overdone. We also get excerpts from an old book found in the attic by one of George's grandsons who reads him the profound and mysterious little reports, bits of philosophy and poetry. The first, on Cosmos Borealis, starts “‘Light skin of sky and cloud and mountain on the still pond.'” We even get some flash-forwards to what will happen after George's death.

As readers of this blog know, I am easily confused by such jump-cuts. Here, however, I was never in doubt as to the identity of a section's narrator or the time period. Since the book is written in third person point of view, I had the name of the narrator but also other details to orient me such as George's clocks, Howard's wagon full of odds and ends to sell, and the inexorably decreasing number of days until George's death.

The book is a profound meditation on identity and inheritance. George and Howard share a similar view: “Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have . . .” On a more mundane level, they are both tinkers, though in a different realm. Howard's travels on the back roads of Maine involve not just selling necessities but also fixing things for the isolated folks who live there. George has his clocks, of course. The author too is a tinker, messing about with the workings of narrative. In the end, though, it is the language that seduces me. I'm a sucker for beautiful language and there is some gorgeous prose here. Howard's descriptions of the natural world are particularly luscious. I'm a sucker for ideas, too, and there is no shortage of ideas in this story of what is lost and found. All the pieces I want in a novel are masterfully brought together is this small volume, the best book I have read in a long time.

Escaping from Reality Without Really Trying, by Robert Jacoby

If you have ever been tempted to run away to sea, then this is the book for you. Derived from transcripts of interviews, this nonfiction book gives you the scoop on what it's like to work as a merchant seaman. Ronnie, the narrator, is the real deal: a 40-year veteran, he's sailed everywhere, including around the world twice. Thanks to Robert Jacoby, we get to listen in as Ronnie recounts some of his adventures, such as his attempt to bring a baboon on the ship, and describes the colorful characters he's met, like Shanghai Jane who coerces sailors into accepting runs they don't want, Omar Sharif who served Ronnie in the bar Sharif owned in Aqaba, and Greg Cousins who was on the Exxon Valdez during the spill.

The dangers aren't always the ones you expect. In Saigon, after unloading ammunition during the Vietnam War, Ronnie goes to a bar run by an Australian that's a “shack with a cooler in it.” To get to the head, he has to go out through the back, with the owner telling him to “‘say hello to the alligator.'” “I walk through these curtains, and I see these boards . . . It's a swamp back there. He just piled the beer cans up, and then he put boards across the top . . . You come back here drunk and just keep walking and they'll never see you again.”

As he travels around the world Ronnie encounters capitalist countries becoming communist and communist countries becoming capitalist, which gives him a healthy skepticism for what he calls “isms”. He describes being in a typhoon near the Philippines which he says is “like driving in a bad storm. You're scared, but you're driving in it. We don't have the luxury of pulling over. There's no pulling over to the Howard Johnson's and get a room or a cup of coffee and wait the storm out.”

I've never been to sea and Ronnie's idea of the perfect life isn't mine, but I sure know about wanting to be free. For me that means free to create my own life. For him, it means not settling down. Here's his take on his first trip, to Belgium and Germany: “I mean, it was total freedom. And there was no recrimination. Like an old girlfriend of mine once told me, ‘You know, you don't try hard enough.' I said, “Well, I don't feel like trying at all.'. . . . It was an opening to a career I could see I could really adjust to.”

I met Robert Jacoby at a writer's conference and was intrigued by his description of this book. As a writer, I'm most fascinated by the voice. Just taping someone talking doesn't usually yield interesting prose, but Ronnie is a real storyteller, giving just the right amount of detail about life aboard ship or a person's history.

I'm also interested in the structure of the book. It is no easy task to organise real-world events into the kind of narrative we are used to reading. Jacoby structures the story chronologically, with separate chapters for separate ships, or sometimes separate runs on the same ship. I was intrigued by how Ronnie's attitudes changed as he grew older and how they stayed the same.

For me, this was not a book to read straight through, but rather one to dip into and read a bit at a time. I found it an especially welcome relief after a long day at the office when the idea of throwing it all up and running off to sea suddenly seems like the most brilliant idea in the world.

Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, by Alice Feiring

Further adventures with Alice in the world of natural wine! I very much enjoyed her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love, and her blog The Feiring Line, even though I'm a wine neophyte. Feiring's engaging prose makes for a fun read even as she slips in technical explanations in easily digestible sips.

Feiring is a champion of natural wines, wines that are allowed to make themselves. I continue to be shocked by the number of invasive techniques and additives used in winemaking: yeast, sulfur, heat, wood chips, and silica gel, to name only a few. Most commercial winemakers are out to create a particular taste rather than letting that particular batch of grapes grown in that patch of land during that particular year express something quite individual. To me, it sounds like the difference between a fast food restaurant and that quirky bistro down the road with the excellent chef. On the other hand, winemakers have to be concerned about their business and so look for ways to avoid the instability they associate with natural wine.

In this volume Feiring has been enticed into creating a batch of wine in her own way. She is the first to say that she is not a winemaker and doesn't aspire to be. However, given the opportunity of having a half-ton of grapes on which to try out her theories, she is tempted though also terrified. Book learning is one thing; feet on the ground (or the grapes, as the case may be) are another.

While we follow the thread of Alice's wine, we also get to go off with her on adventures visiting vineyards. We learn about the techniques they use and problems they encounter and at the same time get to enjoy the evening walks through the vineyards, the charming family luncheons, and the boisterous, good-natured dinner parties that go late into the night. We get to meet the winemakers who stand outside the mainstream, colorful characters such as Nicholas Joly, “the Deepak Chopra of wine biodynamics”, who says of artificial wine, “‘This wine had no song ‘”. Feiring comments, “Joly called it song, I called it voice, but we meant the same thing. Just as writing needs a voice, a distinctive wine needs its own expression.”

She has a deep appreciation for the vignerons of Europe, winemakers who also cultivate the vineyards. Who better to understand the particular nature of a grape than the person who has nurtured it and the soil in which it is grown? This is not a model common in the U.S. where most winemakers purchase grapes grown by someone else. Feiring's quest for an American vigneron takes her on visits to a number of quirky winemakers, including the Coturri brothers who grow fruits and vegetables next to the Zinfandel and Benyamin Cantz, a former art major who creates organic kosher wine.

This thoroughly enjoyable book contains a number of helpful appendices, including a list of additives and processes for wine approved by the U.S. and a list of natural wines that Feiring cautions is a “very personal—and perhaps even eccentric—list”. Alice is a friend of mine, so perhaps I'm biased, but check out other reviews such as these in the New York Times and Bloomberg News. And try some of the wines she mentions.