Eberhard Weber review for The NYC Jazz Record

The Jubilee Concert

At the summit of a prosperous career on stage and, following a decades-long stint with ECM Records, German bassist Eberhard Weber suffered a stroke and has not played since 2007. In October of 2015 (a year in which he also received the Landesjazzpreis Baden-Württemberg, a lifetime achievement award), jubilee concerts were held at the Theaterhaus in Weber’s hometown of Stuttgart to honor his 75th birthday and contributions to jazz.

This DVD of that same event features the SWR Big Band conducted in turns by Helge Sunde and Michael Gibbs, along with guests Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Gary Burton (vibraphone), Paul McCandless (reeds) and, returning to the fold, Pat Metheny (guitar). The latter’s “Hommage” is the centerpiece—a sprawling 30-minute composition built around archival video footage of Weber from the 1980s. More than any other musician on the roster, Metheny bottles the Weber-ian spirit like the lightning that it is.

In contrast to the sprightly figure on screen, the first image of the concert is of an aged Weber hobbling to his seat of honor by aid of a cane. Following this, his “Résumé” finds Garbarek improvising over a more recent audio recording. It’s a fitting way to start, given that Weber was such a fixture of Garbarek’s quartet. Much of what follows reflects almost somberly on a touching career. Arrangements by Ralf Schmid and Rainer Tempel of classic tunes from Weber’s golden age are showcases for Burton and McCandless while those by Gibbs rejuvenate “Maurizius” (from the 1982 album Later that Evening) and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” But it’s the jovial energies of Libor Šíma, who reimagines “Street Scenes” and “Notes After An Evening” (both from 1993’s Pendulum), which win the day.

In the liner notes for Hommage à Eberhard Weber, the 2016 ECM album culled from this same event, Metheny waxes indebtedly about Weber’s “sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” As this landmark performance shows, Weber continues to innovate, even without strings at his fingertips.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Two Elliott Sharp reviews for The NYC Jazz Record


Coming up on four decades as composer and performer, New York’s Downtown deacon Elliott Sharp is at a creative peak. Tranzience documents four semi-recent chamber pieces, the earliest being Approaching the Arches of Corti (1997). Scored for four soprano saxophones (the New Thread Quartet of Geoffrey Landman, Kristen McKeon, Erin Rogers and Zach Herchen) and making use of Steve Lacy’s “leg-mute” technique, it sounds at times like a congregation of geese, at others a pipe organ running out of air, and leans nicely into 2008’s Homage Leroy Jenkins. Alongside clarinetist Joshua Rubin and pianist Jenny Lin, violinist Rachel Golub evokes the scrapes and squeals of the legendary dedicatee, whom Sharp counts, along with the larger AACM family, among his early influences. Venus & Jupiter (2012) features the ensemble Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick and Sharp himself on electroacoustic guitar. Around a pulsing piano, this largely improvised masterwork spins a drone of strings, brass, winds and percussion drawing even more explicitly from the AACM well. The 2013 title composition features the JACK Quartet (Chris Otto, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello), who recently brought their talents to bear on The Boreal (Starkland, 2015). Where that recording employed bows strung with ball-bearing chains, here the musicians use so-called “tube bows” fashioned from aluminum in addition to the standard hair. The music is consistently inventive across its 28-minute duration and inhabits a sound world that can only be described as nanotechnological.

Rub Out The Word

To this solar system, Rub Out The Word may seem like a distant satellite, but its heart shares the same blood. Here Sharp (on guitar and electronics) joins actor Steve Buscemi (of Reservoir Dogs and Fargo fame) to celebrate the writings of Beat Generation guru William S. Burroughs in one of the most delicious spoken word recordings to come out in recent memory. Not only for Burroughs, who managed to make even the most abstract streams of consciousness feel coherent, but also for Buscemi’s adenoidal charm and Sharp’s accompaniment, which, like the words, evokes a viral network that responds to, even as it anticipates, hidden messages in the texts. Said texts are quintessential Burroughs, threading needles of incontrovertible (if sometimes perverse) cynicism through a social cloth he understood in ways few others of his generation did. “The use of cut-up is a key,” narrates Buscemi and one can’t help but feel that he and Sharp embody this very aesthetic in their collaboration. What follows is a string of meditations on writing, obsession, evil, bureaucracy, war, morality, human interactions and the occasional nod to silence thrown in for good measure. This is no naked lunch, but a fully clothed dinner after which dessert is served raw and dripping. And while it may not appeal to straightahead jazz heads, anyone who has enjoyed Sharp’s fantastic voyage (no small task with a discography of over 300 albums) for any length of time is sure to be enthralled.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Shameless self-promotion

In addition to my music reviewing, translating, and academic activities, I am excited to be a part of a new indie gaming company called Fight or Flight Games. We are currently developing an innovative MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) for mobile devices called Breaklands. Our team was fortunate enough to participate this summer in Life Changing Labs, an entrepreneurial incuboator program at Cornell University, where much of the groundwork was laid, and out of which we emerged with a People’s Choice Award in recognition of our achievements so far.

As the company’s campaign and social media manager, it is my duty and honor to spread the word, and so I encourage any of you gamers out there among my readers to please click the logo below to read more about our studio.

FoF Games Logo

Heinz Holliger: Machaut-Transkriptionen (ECM New Series 2224)


Heinz Holliger

Muriel Cantoreggi viola
Geneviève Strosser viola
Jürg Dähler viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2010, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015

the eye, go,
to the moist—
hurricanes, from wherever,
particle drift, the other,
know the one, we
read it in the book, it was
–Paul Celan, “Stretto”

Whether as composer, oboist, or conductor, Heinz Holliger never ceases to delight and surprise. His commitment to classical music has produced some of the most enduring documents on ECM’s New Series, including one of that imprint’s indisputable masterpieces, the Scardanelli-Zyklus. Here we have yet another turnaround, one that speaks with the open style in which Holliger has become so fluent. Featuring a host of accomplished interpreters—including the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble—bringing to life a 21st-century cycle of works around the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, the Machaut-Transkriptionen (2001-09) represent nearly a decade’s worth of thinking and rethinking through the past in a language of the future. Scored for an unusual combination of four voices and three violas, it weaves direct transcriptions of Machaut into Holliger’s idiosyncratic odes to the same.

Holliger Portrait

This is one of those distinctively ECM projects, which, like Ricercar, unravels the avant-garde core of centuries-old music. The compact macramé, for example, that is Machaut’s hallmark is on full display in the program’s introductory Biaute qui toutes autre pere, wherein something more than ink and paper have convened to elicit vital sounds. If the feeling of this balladry is loving and sincere, even more so is Holliger’s enhancement of its rules in his own Ballade IV for three violins. More than ever before, Holliger has built his cathedral out of transparent stone, blacking out the windows, so that the sunlight might be its dominant form of expression. In this sense, Holliger is engaging with Machaut not as the target of an homage, but as the living force of an artist whose music breathes in the winds that shake his boughs. Use of untempered harmonics, transcribed note for note from the original, allows incidental commentary in this regard to seep through.

A second diptych, this time around Machaut’s Ballade XXVI: Donnez, Seigneur, transforms the gently sloping path of the original—in which countertenor David James at once renders the skin and the heart keeping it alive—into the wilder detours traced by the present recasting. And while the latter may seem more oblique in its structure, it also shares with its referent a clarity of expression. Both are neural mappings, very much alive in and beyond the confines of a single recorded performance. Even the wordless Hoquetus David of Machaut and Holliger’s responsory Triple Hoquet feel more like pieces of the same puzzle than distant cousins separated by time. Holliger gives us something of a granular synthesis of the former, an embodiment of Celan’s hurricane in the fullest sense.

A single voice retains the melody of Machaut’s Lay VII in a standalone arrangement, while guided improvisations flesh out its branches with unpredictable fruit. The Hilliards are best equipped to handle this flower without damaging a single petal. A beautiful piece that challenges not through its dissonances but through its consonances, as does its analogous In(ter)ventio a 3 und Plor- / Prol- / Or- atio for three violins, which from recitative beginnings morphs into a staggered prolation of time signatures, based on the Complainte of Machaut’s Remede de Fortune. That same piece lingers on in the final statement, in which it is combined with an “Epilogue” that unites voices and strings in quadrilateral fashion, distilled until only friction remains.

In a universe of countless musical systems, Holliger and his celestial body of work have always charted unprecedented orbits through the space-time continuum. Given the way in which he has refracted himself through Machaut, the sublimity of their intersection is clear, for both have stumbled on the fragility of human contact, tracing its origins just shy of rupture.

Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano (ECM New Series 2470-72)


Anthony de Mare
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano

Anthony de Mare piano
All pieces were commissioned expressly for The Liaisons Project, Rachel Colbert and Anthony de Mare, Producers.
Producer for The Liaisons Project: Rachel Colbert
Recording producer and engineer: Judy Sherman
Additional engineer and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Recorded 2010-2014 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York.
Backing tracks for “Birds of Victorian England” engineered by Kevin Boutote
“Johanna In Space” backing track provided by Duncan Sheik
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production

Listen to that old piano roll play.
When I hear that old piano roll play,
I just gotta dance,
And what I mean is dance with you.

In her exhaustive biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest shares the story of an adolescent Sondheim’s encounter with the 1945 film Hangover Square, and within it a piano concerto written by scorer Bernard Herrmann. The music’s bold mix of romanticism and Americana captured Sondheim’s imagination and was to become part of the origins of his intersections with the dramatic stage.

Sondheim has always composed at the keyboard, charting out his scores in great detail, to be orchestrated by (since 1970) esteemed collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Broadway has relied on this formula, which over the decades the duo funneled into surefire productions, but the project lovingly packaged in this three-disc collection from ECM takes Sondheimania to a new level through the intervention of rigorously trained note-smiths, each occupying a band along a spectrum of collaborations from a distance.

The roster of composers, who the behest of new music champion Anthony de Mare wrote new variations on the theme of Sondheim, reveals a depth and variety equaled by the songs they have re-imagined, as William Bolcom, Nico Mulhy, Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Eve Beglarian, Jason Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, Eric Rockwell, Wynton Marsalis, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, Annie Gosfield, Jake Heggie, Kenjie Bunch, Ethan Iverson, Ricardo Lorenz, Paul Moravic, Frederic Rzewski, David Shire, John Musto, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Phil Kline, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Andy Akiho, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nils Vigeland, Rodney Sharman, Gabriel Kahane, Thomas Newman, Jherek Bischoff, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Golub, Tania Leon, and de Mare himself put a personal spin on the Sondheim songbook that is as true to life as it is to art.

Though Sondheim has historically been averse to being interviewed, in this collection we hear him speaking through the hearts of every composer who has felt his influential hand. In an album note, he himself describes these pieces not as “decorations” but “fantasias” of his songs. Indeed, Sondheim’s recognizable voice has been reworked with such fidelity—one original inspiring other originals to create new originals—that one need hardly peel away any layers of obfuscation to find him. Above all, however, it’s his scarcely rivaled gift for pastiche that resonates by virtue of de Mare’s encyclopedic flair.

According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s extensive liner text, the composers chose their songs based more on the lyrics and their stories than the melodies sung around them. And so, one can listen assured that de Mare’s consummate touch makes room on his metaphorical suitcase to display every sonic sticker of his travels. His dramatic, romping, emotional rollercoaster ride through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the  Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994) accordingly dwells as much on differences as similarities, bringing to fruition a “global” sound.

Not surprisingly, Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd gets the most nods of the program, in addition to yielding a lion’s share of its highlights. One of those is Sheik’s “Johanna in Space.” This atmospheric gem opens with the chimes of a clock emulated on the piano and stretches itself over an electronic backdrop à la Tim Story. Todd’s ill-fated daughter is further subject of Brown’s “Birds of Victorian England,” which requires no small amount of heavy lifting from de Mare. As can be expected, Sweeney Todd engenders ample opportunity for over-the-top dynamics, epitomized in the spiraling density and fluent outcries of Bunch’s “The Demon Barber.” Other fine examples of the protagonist’s crushing pessimism abound, whether through the intimate knowledge of Newman’s “Not While I’m Around” or, in a satirical turn, Lorenz’s “The Worst [Empanadas] in London.” The latter requires a performer of de Mare’s chops to pull off the feel for rhythm and energy on which it subsists. De Mare welcomes the listener by shouting, “A customer!” as if in throwback to the speaking-singing pianist genre of which he was such a foundational proponent through his premiere of Rzewski’s De Profundis. It’s only natural, then, that Rzewski should have a piece included: the elegiac “I’m Still Here.” This and other selections from Follies, such as Wynton Marsalis’s Jelly Roll Morton-infused take on “That Old Piano Roll”, imply a bygone age with plenty of style to spare.

Company inspires a handful of homages as well, including Rakowski’s impressionistic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” through which Sondheim’s love for Ravel shines (as also in Bermel’s “Sorry/Grateful”); Rockwell’s tangible “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” in which the composer “imagined a pianist trying desperately to catch the attention of rowdy patrons at a cabaret with as wide ranging a series of pastiches as possible”; and Roumain’s “Another Hundred People,” which invokes the troubled crooning of a Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke.

A Little Night Music lifts its story from the Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, and its comic touches are duly noticeable in Speach’s “In and Out of Love” (a personal album favorite), which shuffles the harmonies of “Send in the Clowns” (see also Iverson’s whimsical take on the same) into a balladic “Liaisons.”

Sunday in the Park gives us Muhly’s minimal yet expansive “Color and Light,” which embodies the pointillism that so fascinated the play’s subject, Georges Seurat. Muhly’s feel for the piano as a textural toolbox translates superbly. Reich’s more compact “Finishing the Hat” is scored for two pianos (de Mare multi-tracks himself) and links a brief yet persistent chain of chords. Sharman’s “Notes on ‘Beautiful,’” on the other hand, originally a duet between Seurat and his mother, no becomes a conversation between the living composer and his deceased mother. De Mare’s rendition of “Sunday in the Park – Passages (encore)” opens a lifeline to possibilities, and makes us feel connected to our own.

Shire’s “Love is in the Air” puts a delightful spin on the original opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, underscoring de Mare’s abilities to evoke the past in a language of the future, while Bolcom’s “A Little Night Fughetta” references Anyone Can Whistle, pushing Bach through a jazzy filter of development. Pacific Overture is another of the less represented but no less effective source texts. Gosfield’s “A Bowler Hat” displays a meticulous feel for deconstruction, while Kline’s “Paraphrase (Someone in a Tree)” paints the first meeting between American and Japanese officials in 1853 with unexpected colors. Merrily We Roll Along gives us León’s “going…gone,” another remarkable highlight that, along with Akiho’s “Into the Woods” is perhaps the most technically demanding of the program. Hersch’s “No One is Alone” is another ode to Into the Woods, this one pentatonic and alliterative. And let me not neglect Beglarian, who pays tribute to Passion in her “Perpetual Happiness.” This striking piece is as real as the music gets on Liaisons, and builds its wings one feather at a time, until flight is achieved.

Doing justice to all of the composers and pieces represented here would be a futile, wordy exercise. Suffice it to say there isn’t a single sour note to be found, and as a whole the album demonstrates that, while Sondheim’s music may sometimes play hard to get, it will love you through and through if you let it, because that’s all it wants to do.

Nick Mamatas: I Am Providence (Book Review)

I Am Providence

Full disclosure up front: I’m not the biggest H. P. Lovecraft fan. But you know what? I think that makes me as good a litmus reader as any for a novel spun from the threads, if not also kindled by pretentions, of his mythos. And you know what else? Mamatas’s flinty cynicism makes for one bonfire of a good read, even to my street-cred-deficient mind.

To be sure, I Am Providence is as much a takedown of as paean to a writer whose stories were as influential as he himself was racist, bigoted, and eugenically tactless. Rather than iron Lovecraft’s name until wrinkle-free, Mamatas takes to starching its every stroke until Lovecraft’s inconsistencies hurt to step on. More importantly, Mamatas takes on the unsettling vacuity, if not also the vacuous unsettlement, of Lovecraftian fandom, a world that most will likely want to engage no more deeply than this book allows.

Told in part from the viewpoint of its dead protagonist, a fan novelist by the name of Panossian, I Am Providence puts us at a narrow remove from the Summer Tentacular, a made-up convention of Lovecraft fans who gather in Providence, Rhode Island to honor their prized Elder. The proceedings begin predictably enough, coughing through the chalk dust of a messy emotional curriculum, until Panossian ends up dead at the hotel that is hosting the convention. When his awkward roomie, a vegan, Riot Grrrl College dropout by the name of Colleen Danzig, and whose third-person omniscience is shuffled into the victim’s first-, is named a primary suspect, she takes advantage of the erstwhile congoers around her to get to the sticky bottom of things. With only these so-called “omegas of society” to aid and hinder her quest alike, it’s all Colleen can do to keep her innocence afloat in the sea of gothic waves in which she finds herself.

Exposition teaches us that Panossian has a handful of potential enemies, any one of whom might have been capable of murder, and with that the mystery is atentacle. If any of this sounds a bit moronic, even uncaring, it’s only because Mamatas’s characters are of that very gormless ilk. Like the protagonists of The Blair Witch Project, what this sordid bunch lacks in empathetic appeal it makes up for an almost endearing willingness to take risks. Our conduit Colleen is particularly savvy in her investigative abilities, which culminate in a final act that is equal parts bravery and tragedy.

Mamatas brings a vivid realism to the proceedings, kneading the subculture of his interest with prophetic flour. (There’s even an excerpt from a ’zine—clipart, ransom note pastiche, and all—mentioned in-story to add to the realism.) Compelling is the way in which Mamatas unravels interpersonal politics from Panossian’s death, in the wake of which conversations that might otherwise feel mundane now become an opportunity for us to comb for clues. Even being sequestered in the hotel doesn’t stop these determined congoers from bathroom brawls, morbid meetings, surreptitious séances, and eccentric excavations. And floating along this alliterative smorgasbord is a rare book, bound in human skin—a pound of pulp for a pound of flesh—that may or may not have a connection to Panossian’s death.

On that latter note, I Am Providence hinges on the thoughts of a dying brain. Even as Panossian lies horizontal in a morgue drawer, his self-awareness between death and total disappearance makes for some of the novel’s most fascinating detours. In stark contrast to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, at no point do we encounter Panossian floating around like a free spirit, but rather chained to some ineffable remainder of his cellular destiny, which he can only hope will stop him from thinking without a body.

Mamatas has no compunctions about jumping up and down on Lovecraft’s moral fault lines. And why should he? A man and his art are not always the most consensual of lovers, and posing them before the camera obscura of a writer as down-to-earthly talented as Mamatas is one way of sneaking at least one pasteboard of truth into the deck of biographical worship. For Mamatas is indeed that rare fiction-slinger who forbids both his characters and his readers to get away with anything unchecked. It’s right there in the novel’s frontispiece—All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you—and bears out affirmatively in the dialogue, sharp yet believable throughout.

If you’ve ever played the Lovecraft-inspired board game Mansions of Madness, then you know that it’s nearly impossible to win if you’re not the Keeper, and that the Investigators are sure to fall prey to all-out annihilation. But in the explosion of leviathan-proportioned bullsh*t Mamatas has so passionately rendered, it’s the Investigators who take the lion’s share of fun, leaving the Keeper to run frantically behind the scenes to keep things balanced, and to ensure that what we’re left with isn’t some paraeidolic etude for the darkly minded. All of which is to say, don’t feel afraid to bring this one to the beach while the sun’s still out. All those glistening bodies and crossfires of assessing glances will make it that much more delectable beneath your umbrella.

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker (Book Review)

The Broken Hours

The Broken Hours is an ode to a specific time (1936), place (Providence, Rhode Island), and above all the famous writer (H. P. Lovecraft) who finished out his short life then and there. But while Jacqueline Baker has indeed love-crafted a story of nuanced fears and deceptions, those craving the grip of menace may feel left out, untouched, in the cold. Baker’s agenda floats wittingly somewhere beyond the reach of eldritch shadows (though there is a blush of them), opting instead for a character study of Lovecraft by proxy. Still, anyone hoping for a portrait of the artist as a dying man will be just as uninformed as the novel’s protagonist. This is, I think, Baker’s point from the start.

When Arthor Crandle is hired as a live-in assistant for Lovecraft, he rooms in the author’s house but does not see him, communicating only by letters and notes left on an end table. Indications of Lovecraft’s being there amount to little more than a light under the door and words on a page. Thus placed at a spatial—and, somehow, temporal—remove from his enigmatic employer, Crandle sets about his duties as best he can, revealing to us through occasional flashbacks the reasons behind this sudden career change.

The plot, in summary, is as skeletal as Crandle himself, who comes across as a frail and nervous man walking a strangely endearing—dare I say Kafkaesque?—tightrope of half-truths and self-deprecations. Crandle, we learn, is a solitary person, estranged from his wife and daughter, and barely noticed in the world. He seeks purpose in his melancholy, which for him is “a gift of God.” Such talk of divine intervention is the only indication we get of a spiritual worldview in Crandle, whose assertions of influence from above pale against those threatening him from below.

Baker is splendid in her way with words, the brushes of which articulate the mood of any given environment with minimal flourish. When, for example, Crandle first arrives to Providence in search of his new home, he asks for directions from a man described as being “of the street himself, as I suppose a good many of us must look, these lean times making vagrants of us all.” This evocative snapshot helps us understand the underlying poverty that connects all bodies in the immediate world of the novel, and proves useful in respecting certain secrets as they unmask themselves in the final act. Crandle’s conversation is further rendered prophetic by the stranger’s uneasiness toward any mention of the Lovecraft residence, denying the very morbidity by which he depicts it with his comportment.

Of said residence we learn more than the city in which it is so uncomfortably situated. The house is in dire condition, and it is all Crandle can do to air out the darkness that clings to its every nook and cranny like so many dead skin cells. Crandle’s room frightens him above all else, having clearly once been that of the child whose apparition he may or may not be catching glimpses of in his daily navigations of interior and exterior alike. And when he finds a piece of gravestone under his pillow, he turns it in his hands as if to mimic the mulling over of possibilities in his mind.

Baker architects his slippery slope in cinematically oriented vignettes, and all in language as sumptuous as it is spare. For all its understated creepiness, the writing is not without humor—e.g., when Crandle engages in a first conversation with his future employer by telephone. Baker’s descriptions of physical and psychological changes, as when the air in the house becomes darker and more “condensed,” implicate us in mounting tensions.

When a potential love interest by the name of Flossie Kush comes to rent a room in the same house, integrities begin to break down. Crandle lies about being the master of the house, essentially taking on Lovecraft’s identity on an egotistical whim, and sets in motion a spiral of white lies. Nonetheless, he finds in Flossie a friend with whom to share his surplus of loneliness, and vice versa. The balancing act of their friendship provides much of the novel’s remaining entertainment, including a tentacular detour that Lovecraft fans will surely smile over, even if it is self-contained.

When Crandle is asked to deliver a letter to Lovecraft’s convalescing mother, his eventual completion of the task unravels a tragic family history. As he narrates at one point, “Darkness, I knew too well, begat only darkness,” and his attempts to learn the juicy details of his employer’s past put that theory into practice. In addition, however, Crandle is possessed of some irksome habits that at times undermine the credibility of his character. For one thing, he repeats things people say so often that one has to wonder if his attention to detail is just a sham. Take, for example, the following exchange initiated by Flossie:

How’s your aunt?
My aunt?
With the grippe.
Were you visiting her?
I collected myself. Indeed. Yes. Improving. Thank you. For asking.
Home soon?
Home? Yes, I hope so.

While this might easily be a vocal tic, as an expository device it doesn’t quite work for me, even if it does underscore Crandle’s awkwardness and inability to keep track of the fictions he has spun around himself. Yet there are moments that go beyond the tropes of an unreliable narrator, and which bleed into the habits of minor characters in kind. When, for instance, Crandle meets with a Dr. Tinseley, who spills a bedpan’s worth of information regarding Lovecraft and his mother, he proceeds to give an exacting account of both, and yet cannot remember Crandle’s name to the point where he must ask to be reminded of it multiple times throughout the conversation.

In this respect, perhaps Baker’s atmospherics are so effective that they drag the characters a little too far for their own good, for by the time we reach the predictable conclusion there is far less of them to admire than we started with. That said, the novel offers much in the way of visceral enchantment, and I would deter no interested reader in cracking open its covers. All the more telling that the novel should open with a quote from Goya—“The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”—because Baker has shown us that the opposite is just as true: The sleep of monsters brings forth reason.

Colin Dayan: With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Book Review)

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Colin Dayan does a rare thing at the crossroads of humanism and animalism by treating each as a reflection of the other. She engages the malleability of either tropism, stepping over the stalemated kings of corporeal and moral rights—which too often shunt their pawns to better enjoy the sound of their own echoes—and into a philosophical realm for which all life partakes equally of vulnerability. Such a project will not sit well with some readers. Neither is it meant to, for the uneasiness brought to life, and death, across the book’s 208 pages is a necessary encounter. In this respect, Dayan is the closest we have to a torchbearer of Vicki Hearne, whose classic Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name comes readily and repeatedly to mind as I read this worthy successor.

In her introduction, too, Dayan sidesteps convention by doing very little of the encapsulations to which academics are encouraged to accede. Rather, she sets up a fledged narrative through a call to action that is harder than it looks. In asking us to do nothing more than sit on the equals sign of the equation between Self and Other she is so artfully devising, she invites a “radical change in perspective: not only in how we see the world but also in how we read a story” (p. xiii). And so, while for her this is a book of tales, it is also a tale unto itself, an entity whose parts share ligaments with too many of our own to pass off as intellectual navel-gazing.

On the surface of Dayan’s theory-planet, dogs would seem to occupy a range of metaphorical terrains. They are, by virtue of variation, at once bridges between opposing states of sentience and being, bearers of revelation, personal property, “non-human persons,” and, in the most sweeping of Hearne-isms, language incarnate. Closer inspection, however, reveals these as more than cloak-and-dagger tricks of a talented wordsmith, but instead as markers of lived realities. For this reason, Dayan is far more interested in the “oscillation between the categories that bind” (p. xiv) than in the binding of oscillation into categories, and in destabilization of human positionality as the capstone of a worldview pyramid. She outs the project of judgment as one of collective privilege, reveals the empathetic precedent of ethical action, and the power of “mutual discomfort” (p. 110) to bring all into a truer sense of community.

From this emerges a tripartite concerto for canine soloists fronting an orchestra of conundrums. Part I, “Like a Dog,” is that concerto’s Allegro, and as such sifts passionately yet accessibly through autobiographical recollections of dogs living and non. “We are living in a time of extinctions,” she observes (p. 2), a central point she takes care to reiterate in the book’s EPK, and one which points to the harsh truths unraveling therefrom. And not only a time of extinctions, but of killings sanctioned by a society bent on devaluing dogs and other animals to the status of criminals.

Dayan reminds a missing piece in recent national conversations around police brutality: treatment of racialized humans as animals walks hand in hand with treatment of animals as racialized humans, and allows an indulgence of taboos normally relegated to the annals of private exploitation. And so, a discussion of pit bulls banned from low-income housing in New York City, for instance, not only discloses the absurdity of fears around specified breeds, but also sobers us to the sheer publicity of blatant discriminations and our acceptance of their ubiquity. While most, I think, can see that racial typing often revolves around the animalization of designated groups of human beings, forgotten is the humanization of designated species of animals. Which is why Dayan recognizes the all-too-common shootings of pit bulls as a national habit or, more viscerally, “a ritual that reminds citizens of the reach of lawful predation” (p. 9). It is with these dynamics in mind that she thinks back to the earliest dogs in her life, the necessity of their warm-blooded bodies against her own. An especially poignant discovery of a childhood photograph reminds her of a dog she never remembered, and whose anchorage draws light through the prism of this book as a magnet would iron filings.

In continued service of my musical analogy, I would characterize Part II, “When Law Comes to Visit,” as the central Largo. For while its rhythms might seem more furious and jagged, its carefully measured effect suggests the ponderousness of that very time signature. Here dogs unfold as sociopolitical animals, each subject to fatal blows of the law. Hypocrisies abound in such stories as that of Floyd Boudreaux, a breeder of American pit bull terriers who was erroneously accused of being a dog fighting kingpin and, once deemed as such, had to suffer the extermination of his entire line. By such acts, the warmongering tendencies of the state become a primary network in which worthiness of life comes to be determined (only the moral elite can kill dogs without being deemed cruel). Regardless of the motivations, be they financial or political, the fact is that the law legitimizes imagined threats and sanctifies animal exterminations through illusions of compassion (Boudreaux’s dogs were being done a favor, as the script goes, by being removed from danger to others and themselves). Pit bulls in this regard suffer the particular brunt of an historical amnesia in the United States, and have become the unfortunate collateral of stigmatization.

Part III, “Pariah Dogs,” is the concluding Vivace. In it, Dayan explores the expendability and vitality in kind of cinematic dogs, who on the one hand serve as mascots of loss, while on the other burst with so much awareness of things that it is all we can do to match their levels of understanding. “The fullness of a dog’s loyalty or commitment,” Dayan avers, “can be understood only as counter to the merely intellectual acceptance of a doctrine” (p. 159), and as such the dog comes to embody an unattainable state, so that “to position oneself in this way, even if tenuously, both inside and outside a human background, is to let our bond with dogs count for something momentous” (p. 162). So yes, Dayan has invited us to sit alongside her, with dogs, at the edge of life, but also to contemplate what happens when those same dogs are pushed off that edge. And where would they exist in our memories if not for brave writers like her to document their receding gaze with such honest fortitude?

And because the bricks of such a book might topple without the mortar of its personal experiences, I can’t help but end with one of my own, remembering a dog I met on the streets of Beijing who responded to constant harassment from local shop owners with a heaving sigh. I think of this image when Dayan writes, “Dogs have infinite patience” (p. 144), reading into those darkly set eyes nothing less than that very patience, which sees through my camera lens and into the heart of the one cradling it like the relic it will one day become.

China Dogs