Believe it or not, I have some actual news for the newsletter! Er…sort of. I can tell you that my publisher and I have agreed upon my next project, the contract details have all been hashed out, and I’m just waiting to sign. It’s been over a year since I delivered the final book of the previous contract and I don’t mind telling you that this has been a very stressful year for me. Especially considering this is how I feed my children. And while the thrilling nature of the freelance life suggests this will not be the last time I wrestle with such anxiety, it has at least been put off for a few years, and for that I am very grateful.
Of course I would love to tell you about this shiny new project, but alas, I cannot do that yet. If my publisher allows it, I hope to announce it here before anywhere else, so there’s that at least. In the mean time, I’m afraid you’ll just have to content yourself with the knowledge that something is in fact coming.
In a segue that does not at all give you a hint of what my new project entails, the book I’m currently reading is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. I read a lot of biographies, mostly because I often need to research specific time periods and cultures, but often find other types of history books dry and unengaging. Biographies (the good ones, anyway) give you the flavor of a time and place through a very specific and very human lens. They need to be historically accurate but they also must attempt (however impossible it might be) to get into the mind of their subject, at least to some degree. There are of course authors who go overboard, treating their subject more as hero than human. If I read one more biography of Mary Shelley that breathlessly reports on gossip that may or may not have actually true as if it were well known fact, I may be compelled to finally write one myself (an act that might finally break my poor, long-suffering agent).
Fortunately, Massie is one of the best biographers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. His prose is concise without being drab, thoughtful without being indulgent, and above all, deeply empathetic to every human he renders on the page, even the unpleasant ones. Catherine the Great was by all accounts a remarkable ruler, but in Massie’s thoughtful hands she is also a remarkable person, full of brilliant insight and troubling contradictions. How could a German princess become one of the most famous Russians of all time? Why did such an enlightened and progressive ruler not only allow but approve of the serf system? Massie doesn’t skirt around these conflicts to give himself a more streamlined and convenient narrative, but instead makes them the foundation of his rich and fascinating portrait of one of the most powerful women in history.
I struggle to appreciate classical music. I try and try, and certain songs will connect for me, like say, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Chopin’s Nocturnes, but most of it flows past my ears with little to no emotional engagement. This is not a criticism of classical music but of my own poorly trained, uncultured ears.
Except for Zoe Keating. I love Zoe Keating. Now, it’s true you could argue that Keating is not really classical music. Even Keating herself hesitates to make that claim. But you guys, it’s instrumental cello music, so can we please just call it classical so I feel cultured and fancy? Okay thanks.
One of the things (perhaps the main thing) that makes Keating’s music sound different is her use of technology. She programmed a pedal effects board and laptop so that she can play, record, loop, and sample up to sixteen different tracks in a single song, on the fly. The effect is mesmerizing. I first heard her a while back on an episode of Radiolab, and had to immediately investigate. She put out two full length albums and a couple of EPs and I listened to them so often I could probably hum every song note for note. It was haunting, poignant stuff, at once dark and strangely optimistic. Then there was no new music from her for a long time. Nearly eight years in fact. I later learned that her husband passed away somewhat suddenly from a particularly aggressive cancer, and she was left to grieve while raising a young child and attempting not to starve to death. She writes about this difficult period of time in her life on her website, talking about how music played a part in her grieving process and how the grief in turn shaped her music. She also gave a lovely TED Talk on it, during which she introduced an early version of her first new song in years.
And now we are lucky enough to have a new Zoe Keating EP called Snowmelt and I strongly urge everyone to check it out.
From now on, I’m going to attempt to go back to a more regular newsletter schedule, and I think the only way I can do that is by keeping them fairly short. So that’s it for this one. Just a heads up, the next one will be almost completely about video games :)