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Staff Recommendations – September 2023

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September 2023 Recommendations

Barbie the Album
by various (Music Compact Disc 782.14 Bar & Hoopla)

On the same day that the international bombshell film Barbie: The Movie opened in July, the soundtrack album was released, both digitally and in physical formats (vinyl LP and CD). Five of the 17 tracks on Barbie the Album were released as singles for radio and streaming-service play, with several making the Billboard hot singles lists. A secondary, expanded, soundtrack was released as the “Best Weekend Ever” edition, with two additional tracks not previously available.

Like the film it accompanies, Barbie the Album is a celebration of female empowerment, with the vast majority of the tracks featuring music written by and/or performed by female artists, including Lizzo, Nicki Minaj and Spice Ice, Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Pinkpantheress, Gayle, Ava Max and Dua Lipa. Complimenting all these powerful female performers are a handful of male entries, including the film’s “Ken”, Ryan Gosling singing his plaintive character theme song, “I’m Just Ken” (he also sings the Matchbox 20 hit “Push” on the extended soundtrack), Sam Smith, Dominic Fike, The Kid Laroi and Khalid (among others).

The music ranges from peppy bubblegum pop to introspective, but leans more toward the electric and high-energy, including a couple of “dance” numbers. All the songs on this album appear in the film, so this isn’t one of those “songs from and inspired by” albums. If you’ve seen the movie — and at the time of this review’s writing, it was the #13 all time money marker in the U.S. market (and #15 internationally), so you’re hardly alone — each of these energetic tunes will remind you of moments within the film. Tracks that stand out for me are “Pink” by Lizzo (the film’s opening scenes in Barbieworld), “Dance the Night” by Dua Lipa, “Barbie World” by Minaj and Spice, “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish, and “Choose Your Fighter” by Ava Max. (I also enjoyed “I’m Just Ken”, but it has a completely different tone than the rest of this upbeat album.)

The libraries have the basic album as a CD, and both the basic and extended album versions are available via our Hoopla Digital Music service. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music, preferring my old classics from the 1960s through the 1990s, but I’ll have to admit, Barbie the Album ended up being compulsive listening for me!


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

The Woman in the Library
by Sulari Gentill, audiobook narrated by Katherine Littrell (CD Gentill)

Based on the “jacket blurb” description, I thought The Woman in the Library was going to be a “locked room” mystery — four strangers — Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, Whit Metters, Marigold Anastas and Cain McLeod — are sitting in the central Boston Public Library’s reading room, when a scream rings out elsewhere in the building. Security asks that the foursome remain where they are while the building is searching, and the four strangers share an extended conversation that turns into friendship…except that one of them is a murderer. I presumed that this was going to be a mystery in which all of the action took place in the library, and the tricky, unfolding story would reveal how one of them managed to commit a murder in the library, with the ultimate goal of revealing who the guilty party is.

The “blurb” didn’t lie, but my presumption about the book was incorrect. It is, indeed a mystery novel. In fact, it is two mystery novels in one. The mystery of the foursome in the library is merely a work of fiction — the “book within the book”, written by the The Woman in the Library‘s Australian narrator, interspersed with chapters that take the form of letters from a Boston resident to his Australian writer pen pal, which grow increasingly troublesome. The reader must watch as the plots of both the “library” story and the “real world” story increase their levels of tension, and begin to affect each other’s plots.

I’ll have to admit, I thought that the endings of both stories felt a touch anticlimactic, and yet I really did enjoy listening to this one in audiobook format. Narrator Katherine Littrell does a terrific job of bringing Freddie Kincaid to life, and I really found myself invested in the lives of the foursome of library customers. And then the plot of the other layer — the correspondence between the novel’s author and her Boston “friend” becomes more and more creepy. All in all, a fun read, and I recommend trying it on audio!

( official Sulari Gentill web site )


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

Switched On: Bob Moog and the Synthesizer Revolution
by Albert Glinsky (Music 786.74 Moog)

It’s hard to even imagine what it was like in a world before synthesizers, as they make up a huge proportion of the music we hear today. All kinds of pop music, film music, dance music, even commercials, would sound totally different without this 20th century addition to the universe of musical instruments. Just like early computers, early synthesizers were gigantic and very expensive devices, and only places like universities really had the space and money to invest in using and improving them. They were in no way portable, it could take hours to wire them up to produce a single kind of sound, and as a result, they were more like a tool for musical research than a full-fledged instrument at first. That all changed in large part due to an inventor named Bob Moog, who changed the world of music forever by creating the first commercially-available synthesizer, followed by smaller and more portable synths that took the instrument from studios to stages. His last name is itself ubiquitous with the synths of his creation, and author and composer Albert Glinsky has created the first in-depth biography of Bob that extends all the way to the end of his time on Earth. It’s called Switched On: Bob Moog and the Synthesizer Revolution, and you can borrow it from the Polley Music Library.

Considering Moog’s history with electronic music, Albert Glinsky is the perfect person to write this book. Glinsky wrote the essential biography of Leon Theremin (Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage), inventor of the hands-free electronic instrument that bears his name, which was published back in the year 2000. As you’ll find out in this new book if you didn’t already know, Moog got his start building theremins, and he wrote the forward to Glinsky’s Theremin biography. The pair remained in touch through Moog’s death in 2005, and as Glinsky worked on this new book, the Moog family gave him full access to Bob’s personal archive of papers and records. Between these documents and new interviews with various figures important to the rise of the Moog synthesizer, Glinsky has created a thorough examination of our other 20th C. musical figure who name became synonymous with his invention.

While one might suspect that the story of Moog’s life could be an extended victory lap, being the inventor of one of the most popular, paradigm-shifting instruments of all time, it turns out that the story of his life and work is far more nuanced, with lots of ups and downs. For all of his strengths as an inventor and engineer, Moog wasn’t nearly so skilled with the business side of things, which created lifelong problems for him. But let’s start from the beginning: Glinsky covers Moog’s childhood in the first few chapters, and among the most important aspects, we learn that his mother forced him to take piano lessons, which he disliked but obviously came in handy later in life, and his father George maintained a woodworking and electronics space in the family home’s basement, where father and son worked on many electronics projects together. In fact, once Bob was in college around 1954, he collaborated with his father on a new design for a theremin, for which Bob designed the circuit and George created a handsome wood cabinet. In those days, home electronics do-it-yourself magazines were quite popular, and Bob thought to share his new circuit by writing an article for Radio and Television News. The Moogs cleverly placed an ad in the same issue as the article, offering to sell kits or fully-assembled theremins. Father and son ended up designing a few theremin models and had some modest success selling them—until one looked at their ledger, that is. Ultimately, they made $6,750 in revenue in 1954, but were $302.25 in the red for having done so. The next year, they were in the black at $232.

Even in these very early days of designing and selling instruments, strange business practices that threatened the viability of his projects began to appear. Glinsky relays an odd story about well-known composer Raymond Scott purchasing one of the Moog theremins and modifying it by turning it into a keyboard instrument. He intended to market his new “Clavivox,” and wanted the Moogs to sign over any patent rights to their circuit. As the story of Moog’s life unfolds, this kind of thing seems to follow him forever, and he doesn’t have the business savvy to thwart such aggressive moves effectively.

By the time Moog was pursuing a doctorate in Engineering Physics at Cornell, he was running the Moog company by himself, married, and raising his first child. In 1959, transistor technology had become inexpensive enough that he was able to create new models based on the technology — a step up from tubes — and tried his old trick of writing an article and placing an ad to promote them. It worked. His fledgling family was off to a good start with his profits from selling do-it-yourself transistor-based theremin kits. In his next product catalog, he included a tear-off survey to see what kinds of products his customers might want next, and gradually found himself looking at synthesizers. As mentioned earlier, at that time in the early 1960s, electronic music was still considered something to be researched, and generally was practiced in “electronic music labs” at college campuses, appropriately enough. The devices used were enormous, proprietary, expensive, and fragile. But Moog started thinking about the new transistor technologies that he had installed in his latest theremins, and quickly came out with the idea of voltage control for designing a smaller, cheaper synthesizer.

Moog essentially invented the modular synthesizer in 1964, using voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers to generate sounds. Although his synth designs were monophonic, producing one note at a time, he was able to control his system with a familiar piano keyboard, and connections between the various electronic components could be made with small cables, so that users could change their own sounds. Collaborating with other musicians on design, He continued to refine the performance of his first synth by adding “envelope” controls for attack and release, which makes synth tones sound more “natural” in the way that instruments like horns or strings behave. Upon showing it to some of the composers at UTEMS in Toronto, they loved it and suggested adding a filter band for even more sound possibilities. Moog started experimenting with adding polyphony to the design, too, so that it could handle playing chords. But all the while, money wasn’t coming in, and he was quickly devouring his savings from the theremin kits. A lucky break hosting a booth at the 1964 AES convention finally got his synthesizer prototype in front of the right people (academic electronic composers), and he started making sales to university sound lab programs.

The rest of Moog’s story continues in much the same way: he invented new methods for sound synthesis, important people ordered his inventions, but invariably producing these devices cost more than anticipated, and he was continually on the brink of financial disaster, even though he became increasingly famous for his thoughtfully-designed and relatively rugged synthesizers. First the contemporary classical music world embraced his designs, then the independent composers of more unusual projects like Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” became a sensation. Soon, pop-adjacent composers discovered the instruments, producing dozens of “Moog _____” albums throughout the 1970s, which truly started to put the Moog name into the public consciousness. Once he designed the MiniMoog, an even more portable non-modular synthesizer, rock, pop and jazz musicians began adding the instrument to their performances. David Bowie, The Beatles, The Monkees, The Doors, and many more high profile artists incorporated Moog synths into their work.

Glinsky brings up the inventions of some of Moog’s competitors, too, as they were also important to the early years of consumer synthesizers. In the early days, his main competitor was Don Buchla, whose devices included the first sequencer, and used non-keyboard interfaces for playing his synths. The Buchla machines also ended up in many university electronic music labs. In the 70s, ARP synths like the 2600 and the Soloist started to cut into Moog’s sales, and by the 80s, the Japanese manufacturers like Roland and Yamaha were producing instruments of similar quality but at lower price points. By this time, Moog himself had moved onto a new venture that he called Big Briar, so he wasn’t around for the company bearing his name declaring bankruptcy in 1987. He missed out on some bizarre shenanigans in the final years of Moog Electronics, such as putting new badges on MemoryMoog synths to pass them off as “Sanctuary Synthesizers,” and selling them at church workshops, traveling by hearse. But Moog’s Big Briar had stumbled, too, and he was working for Kurzweil for several years, leaving just before that company became insolvent as well.

Returning to his Big Briar project, and sadly going through a divorce from his wife of 35 years (who had also been instrumental in taking care of paperwork throughout his career), Moog continued to struggle with keeping his business afloat, but there was at least a poetic victory toward the end of his life. After 5 years of court battles, he regained control of his name in 2002, and Moog Music Inc. was reborn. With a new business partner, the company was profitable in 2004. Sadly, he didn’t get to enjoy what looked like the beginning of a truly successful business venture for long: he died of a fast-growing brain tumor the following year.

In a brief postlude, Glinsky mentions that Moog Music has carried on, starting with the successful launch of the Little Phatty, the last instrument Moog had worked on developing. The company went on to become employee-owned in 2015, too. But all books have limitations in terms of predicting the future, and even though this one was just published late last year, there have been shifts in the business that may affect the legacy of this company in the long term: employees sought to unionize last year, and then just last month, the company was bought out by InMusic, a company that has been buying up lots of old music and audio companies like Alesis, Marantz, M-Audio, and and Akai. For now, Moog Music will remain in the Ashville, NC location they’ve been working in since Moog himself was still alive, but it’s hard to guess what the future will hold.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky or Synthesizer Evolution: From Analogue to Digital (and back) by Oli Freke.)

( Wikipedia page about Robert Moog ) | ( official Albert Glinsky web site )


Recommended by Scott S.
Polley Music Library

The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece
by Tom Hanks, narrated in audioform by Tom Hanks and many others (Compact Disc Hanks)

Oscar-winning actor, producer, director and author Tom Hanks released his first novel in 2023, and it was a terrific read. I greatly enjoyed listening to the audiobook-on-cd version of his first book, Uncommon Type, a collection of short stories, in 2017, so I had my fingers crossed that his first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, would similarly come out in audiobook form. I was not disappointed — Tom Hanks is the primary narrator, but is joined by a large number of his entertainment industry friends, to create something that is just shy of a “full cast recording” of this novel.

Hanks’ decades of experience in the film industry lend a great deal of authenticity to this oversized tale of movie-making. The stage is set with opening sequences in the 1950s and 1970s, creating some of the background that will come into play in the bulk of the novel. And that bulk is set in the modern era (2020s — COVID-19 is referenced), as a crew and cast is assembled to film a stand-alone entry in a superhero franchise (think the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but under another name), helmed by legendary director Bill Johnson. 60% of this novel then tells of the experiences of a multitude of characters as they participate in the the filming in little Lone Butte, CA, a dusty flyspeck town in northern California. Every moment of this novel is filled with the little details that show how well Hanks knows his topic — central characters aren’t just the big-name actors, but also include associate producers, locals hired to drive or to appear in bit parts, the make-up designers, the stunt coordinators, the families of the cast members, and the security people whose jobs are to prevent overly enthusiastic fans from penetrating the safety bubble around the stars.

I loved The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, and plan to purchase the book-on-CD set. But it isn’t without its flaws. At 417 pages, it feels like it could have used a tighter editorial touch to bring it down to 350 pages. There’s really no “villain” in the story, or sense of over-arching “conflict” — characters that you think are going to be a problem for the central characters are dealt with fairly quickly. Moments that could show the the possibility of critical flaws are glossed over. And some of the film-industry jargon will certainly go over the heads of many readers. But, in the end, this is a loving look at a bunch of creative people combining their talents to make a piece of art that can be appreciated by the rest of the world…and their passion in doing the best job they possibly can is contagious.

If you love the film industry and would like a tale that really goes into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, don’t mind a somewhat slower pace, and love listening to Tom Hanks’ voice, I strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece. If you’re not a big fan of audiobooks, then I recommend the print version — which includes three graphic novel segments, which are the inspiration for the plot of the movie being made. (Those graphic novels are available to listeners of the audiobook via a weblink.)

I was going to give this an “8” due to its slow pace and lack of dramatic conflict, but ultimately choose to give it a “9” because I grew to love all the characters and was very sorry to see the story end.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try the short story collection Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks, which I also recommend as an audiobook read by Hanks himself.)

( Wikipedia page for Tom Hanks )

See Scott C.’s review of the audiobook version of Tom Hanks’ short story collection Uncommon Type in the June 2018 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

The Longmire Defense
by Craig Johnson (Johnson)

The newest book in the Longmire series finally investigates Walt Longmire’s relationship with his grandfather Lloyd. It has been hinted in the past that their relationship was stormy at best, which is something of an understatement. As Walt becomes involved in an investigation into murders in his grandfather’s past, he uncovers a coverup at both the federal and state levels that puts him in the center of a legal battle that could result in the loss of his job and his life. What I enjoyed most about this book is that we find Walt examining his own feelings about his job, his co-workers, and most importantly, his family. The biggest bombshell involves Walt’s relationship with his deputy, Vic Moretti. Where do things stand with this affair?

As much as I enjoyed The Longmire Defense, I must warn that there are some graphic details involving a rape case of a young woman that I wish had not been included, but it does demonstrate the level of evil that Walt is fighting as Sheriff of Absaroka County.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try any of the other books in the Longmire series by Craig Johnson.)

( official Craig Johnson web site )

Review Donna G.’s review of Junkyard Dogs in the August 2010 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!
Read Charlotte M.’s review of Steamboat Springs in the December 2013 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!
Read Charlotte M.’s review of The Highwayman in the October 2016 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!
Read Kim J’s review of Hell and Back in the January 2023 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!


Recommended by Kim J.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

The Spare Man
by Mary Robinette Kowal (Kowal)

I’ve greatly enjoy the Lady Astronaut series of alternate history SF novels by Mary Robinette Kowal, looking at the early days of space exploration. I’ve also enjoyed her short stories in the various short SF fiction magazines, like Asimov’s Science Fiction.

So when I saw that a new stand-alone novel by Kowal, The Spare Man, had been released in the Fall of 2022, and that it was a loving SF take on the old “Thin Man” stories of Dashiell Hammett, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

Tesla Crane is an inventor, and heir to a family fortune, who suffered a crippling accident that left her with a damaged spine (hardware, drugs and psychological tricks help her to cope) and PTSD. She has recently gotten married (on very short notice) and she, her new husband, and her service dog (the unbelievably cute Gimlet) are traveling aboard a luxury cruise spaceship, when a murder occurs and circumstantial evidence seems to show that Tesla’s new husband is the killer.

It is then up to Tesla, with Gimlet’s help, and the long-distance threats of her extremely foul-mouthed but loyal attorney, to investigate and try to save her husband. All while there are threats that more murders might occur.

For a murder mystery (set in space), this is a fairly light and frothy little treat. Like the Thin Man novels it emulates, our central characters come from a privileged background but don’t see themselves as “above” the rest of society. There’s LOTS of drinking, both in social settings and in private — in fact, each chapter opens with a cocktail recipe, mostly alcoholic. The relationships between Tesla and her retired detective husband Shal, and between Tesla and Gimlet, are absolutely charming. The circumstances of the sleuthing leave the reader in no doubt that Tesla will solve the mystery, but at the same time, there’s the mystery of how she’ll solve it to keep us intrigued. Though the central characters are heteronormative, there’s also a strong genderqueer flavor to many of the supporting characters, giving this one a thumbs up for fans of positive LGBTQ+ roles in fiction.

I got the sensation that this could be the first in a new series, but time will tell. In the meantime, this was a pleasant if somewhat predictable “mystery with a sci-fi setting”. If you like The Thin Man and don’t mind the outer space milieu, or even just like witty banter in your SF novels, give this one a try!

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try the other works by AUTHOR, or the classic The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.)

( official Mary Robinette Kowal web site )

Read Susan S.’s review of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowall, in the August 2019 Staff Recommendations here on BookGuide!


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

hooplaThe Mastermind
by Amy Lane (Hoopla)

The Mastermind is the first book in the Long Con series by Amy Lane. It features recurring characters, a “Leverage” TV show type of criminal activity, a gay romance in each book, and created family.

In this book, Danny and Felix meet as young men in their late teens/early twenties, and grift and thieve their way through parts of Europe – but they only steal from those who can afford the loss, as a way to survive, and to right any wrongs.

This book alternates between the past and current times. In the past, we learn about Danny, Felix, and how they met Julia — and how the three of them create a family without her abusive father learning the truth about her son. In current times, a now-media magnate Felix is facing false accusations that he must defend himself against. By now son Josh has created his own thieving crew and becomes involved in the behind-the-scenes machinations to prove Felix’s innocence.

Aside from the romance between Felix and Danny — and their reunion and efforts to patch up their relationship — watching the crew put together the sting to clear Felix was fun to watch and satisfying. I will admit this is not my favorite of the series, but it provides background on the characters for the future installments.

The rest of the series (The Muscle, The Driver, The Suit, and The Tech) are also available as ebooks on the library’s Hoopla app. The newest title The Face Man is coming out October 31, but it’s unknown if the library will acquire it immediately.

If you’re seeking a fun, angst-filled, exciting story of a group of friends who have become family and work undercover on their own to play Robin Hood, you should enjoy this series.

( official Amy Lane web site — )


Recommended by Charlotte M.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

The Names of Minimalism: Authorship, Art, Music and Historiography in Dispute
by Patrick Nickleson (Music 780.904 Nic)

Do you remember the old movie Amadeus, whose plot is largely driven by a rivalry between composers Mozart and Salieri (much of that rivalry is fictional, by the way)? It was a popular film, and rivalries in general are a huge part of the human experience as expressed through art. Think of the classic generic forms of conflict that we study in literature, for example, and “person vs person” is usually the first on the list. We love these kinds of stories.

One wouldn’t think that there would be much in the way of person-to-person conflict in the development of musical minimalism. After all, much of the music produced in this genre tends to be serene or meditative in nature. But minimalist composers are people, too, and as shown in the book The Names of Minimalism: Authorship, Art, Music and Historiography in Dispute by Patrick Nickleson, there have been a fair share of rivalries and strong disagreements among them. There were probably similar kinds of interpersonal rivalries among musicians throughout music history, but most of those tales have been lost to time. In this case, since most of the parties involved with minimalism still walk among us, and we have long lived in an era of 24/7 news coverage and lots of interviews with contemporary composers, there is plenty of documentation to examine statements made by these composers, and the public interactions between them.

Author Nickleson focuses on a few varieties of disagreements that arose in the early days of minimalism through roughly the early 1980s scene in NYC, when minimalism was absorbed into rock, punk and no wave sounds through the work of composers like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. While the more unique aspects of this book focus on these disagreements, there is also an overarching theme of questioning the historical record around the evolution of minimalism. Similar to the On Minimalism book we also recently added to the Polley collection, Nickleson questions the “historiography” around the genre, particularly how the “Big 4” composers Glass, Reich, Young, and Riley, have been become such pillars of the canon at the expense of many of their many productive and successful peers.

There are four main “disputes” examined in the book, starting with an analysis of how Steve Reich’s essay “Music as a Gradual Process” and his piece “Pendulum Music,” both written in 1968, are often treated as an “explanation” of sorts for minimalism, particularly as it is discussed and studied in academia. At this point I should mention one caveat about this book that will immediately become apparent on the first page of this first chapter: this book is written in a very academic style. While I love the ideas found throughout this book, I’m not enthusiastic about its writing style. Ironically, Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” essay is itself a brief document written in plain language, making clear, easy-to-understand points that remind me why minimalism has been a relatively popular form of classical music for the last 50 years. Lots of average non-musician folks who have no particular interest in classical music are familiar with Glass or Reich. You can read Reich’s essay for yourself at the library, by the way, in the book “Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music.” Nickleson is right, of course, that this simple document implied potentially upsetting challenges to the standard order of things in the classical music world, and indeed the wave of composer-performer ensembles among the early minimalists brought them closer to audiences, allowing for live presentations similar to rock bands. But it feels funny somehow describing these notions as “a specific argument against the sites of reproduction of composerly privilege concretely present in mid-century art music composition.”

But stick with it, dear readers, as the points being made here and throughout the book are worth thinking about. Nickleson goes on to discuss various aspects of the academic and music historian response to “Music as a Gradual Process,” as well as “Pendulum Music,” which is arguably the only piece Reich wrote that fully conforms to what he lays out in the essay. The criticisms are many: unlike the revolutionary ideas of composers like Schoenberg or Cage, Reich’s concept in practice feels social in nature, freeing audiences rather than music itself. It asks little of the composer in a traditional musical sense, similar to criticisms often levied at Cage. The standards of it are virtually impossible to live up to with the exception of “Pendulum Music.” And there are questions of influence: Reich was clearly indebted to many African musics, for example, and there are overlaps with the NYC visual arts scene of the time.

But this “dispute” is more general to how minimalism was received as a whole — the other three discussed in the book are more interpersonal in nature. First, Nickleson looks at the arguments over ownership and authorship in the wake of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music group breaking up in 1966. Briefly put, the group had featured a cast of members since its inception in 1962, and often recorded its rehearsals, which were a near-daily affair during the earlier period of their existence. As the first Western group to prominently feature drones in their music, the ensemble is remembered as an important contributor to the beginnings of minimalist music, and Young is considered one of the “Big 4” composers of the genre in some part because of this work. In terms of ownership, disputes arose when Young proposed that the 60s recordings of their rehearsals could be released as albums under his own name. Though it seems fair to say that Young was the primary organizer behind the group, and one of the steadiest members as others came and went, it’s also true that their rehearsals were essentially collective improvisations based on a few guiding principles. Additionally, contributors like violinist Tony Conrad added their own musical expertise to the vocabulary being explored by the group, which changed those guiding principles in measurable ways. In particular, Conrad seems to have introduced Young to the math-based level of detail necessary for working in just intonation, which went on to become a permanent element of Young’s music. It’s a fascinating discussion, using quotes from both composers and written evidence from their period of activity together that reveals ambiguity in terms of who this music “belongs to.”

Leaving Young aside, the next chapter looks at the curious forms of revisionist history that the remaining 3 composers of the “big 4” engaged in as their careers settled into the age where historians come knocking. Though all four composers’ lives and work intersected in the early days of minimalism, their later interviews in the 1990s belie a bit of one-upmanship as each jockeyed for the highest position in the minimalist canon. At the same time, they displayed a mutual support that pushed all others out of consideration for the top tiers of minimalism. And of course this sort of thing was useful for journalists, too—this kind of narrative results in a clean, easily packaged way to talk about the genre. Or as Nickleson puts it, “With the support of their interviewers, the four composers produced a minimalist commons founded on failed collaborations articulated through theories of pedagogic priority.” He breaks down several of the composers’ most well-known interviews, finding lots of subtle jabs at one another, whether through downplaying one another’s contributions or through omission in the course of their storytelling. I found this chapter to be amusing, in its way. I suppose most of us would find ways to put our own stories on a pedestal if given the chance. These gentlemen were essentially given that chance, and they largely took it!

The final dispute addressed in “The Names of Minimalism” focuses on late 70s/early 80s NYC, where Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca combined the approaches of minimalism with the textures of guitars being used in the punk and no wave music scenes around them. This is a rivalry I’ve heard about before: briefly put, Chatham’s experiences with minimalism dated back to its earlier days. He first saw Terry Riley perform in 1968, became the first music director of The Kitchen in NYC in 1971, where he started booking minimalist acts, and starting writing minimalist pieces using electric guitars after seeing the Ramones in 1976. Branca ended up playing on the same scene in the late 1970s, and Chatham briefly played in one of his bands. Branca ended up writing similar kinds of music for multiple electric guitars, and because he released a lot of albums and Chatham didn’t, he got most of the credit for this kind of approach to minimalism, and eventually it’s said that the pair had such a falling out that they stopped speaking. But perhaps the most important angle that Nickleson examines in the intertwined tales of Branca and Chatham relates to the way that critics and historians have sought to differentiate them by their backgrounds: they must be substantially different because Chatham has a serious music background, and Branca came up in the world of punk music. Nickleson makes one of his best points of the book regarding this kind of lazy categorization: “Rather than considering this a chiastic, dual process of accreditation, of world-crossing and hybridity, we should perhaps consider something both simpler and more theoretically interesting: under the label minimalism, a composer could form a punk band, and a theater artist could become a prominent symphonist.”

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. However, it has a few weaknesses. As mentioned before, the writing style is going to make the book a lot less fun than many of the books we discuss here. Nickleson also deploys a fair amount of energy attempting to relate all of these tales of rivalries and lazy journalism to Rancierian philosophy, a post-democracy, post-Foucault take on aesthetics. There are some interesting associations to be made, but I think this is far more interesting for folks who care about continental philosophy than the typical audience for books about music history. And there are some just plain weird asides that bothered me while reading — one that comes to mind is that Nickleson points out several times when Reich’s “Pendulum Music” is being discussed that he doesn’t consider the piece to be music, an opinion with which I disagree in the specific, and more generally leads to a whole “what is music” discussion that I find unproductive in the best of circumstances. Those issues aside, The Names of Minimalism offers a unique perspective into the way the genre’s dominant narrative formed, and many of its points are worthy of consideration before more biographies and histories of this music are written.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try On Minimalism: Documenting a Musical Movement by Kerry O’Brien or Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music edited by Christoph Cox.)

( publisher’s official The Names of Minimalism web page ) | ( official Patrick Nickleson page at the University of Alberta )


Recommended by Scott S.
Polley Music Library

Bury Your Dead
by Louise Penny (Penny)

I started reading the Louise Penney novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache last year at the recommendation of fellow co-worker Scott C., who knows that I enjoy both mysteries and books in a series. Although I loved the setting for the series [fictional town Three Pines in Canada] I found the characters unappealing and the writing downright irritating. I was told to keep reading, that the series improves after the first four books. I have to admit that by book five, I was hooked. Book six, Bury Your Dead, is one of the best mysteries I have read. The author keeps you guessing as to the identity of the murderers until the very end. It is important to read book five (The Brutal Telling) before reading this title as they are tied together by murder plots. What I loved most about Bury Your Dead, is the historical aspect of this book, delving into the settling of Quebec and the war over control of Canada by the French and English armies. One of the techniques used by the author to move the story along is the use of flashbacks by the main character, letting us see a catastrophe that happened in between these two stories, albeit a small chunk at a time. The entire story is not revealed until the very end. Having these glimpses of the Chief Inspector’s mind and his feelings as he comes to grips with what happened is a powerful method to tell this story of betrayal and healing. I highly recommend this book.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny, and the Shetland series by Ann Cleeve, particularly Red Bones.)

( official Louise Penny web site )


Recommended by Kim J.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music
by Philip Watson (Music 791.65 Frisell)

Bill Frisell is a guitarist who has changed the landscape of jazz music since the 1980s. A true maverick of the instrument, he has contributed to the technique of playing guitar, revolutionized how to use samplers and loop pedals to extend his playing, and created an ethereal, Americana-influenced sound that has inspired generations of musicians. In addition to dozens of his own albums as a solo artist and bandleader, he has played with many other musicians throughout his career, and has played everything from the gentlest music imaginable to the most madcap and brutal. His influence arguably goes far beyond the guitar, as noted by the subtitle of the first biography written about him, which is called Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music. The book, which was written by distinguished journalist Philip Watson, is available at the Polley Music Library.

Beautiful Dreamer is a large book as music biographies go — the main body of the text makes crosses over 450 pages. But it feels like things move very quickly, as Frisell’s music and career connect with so many other musicians and entire musical scenes over time. His friendly, welcoming and inquisitive approach to both his own music and collaborations keep things exciting throughout the book. There are fun diversions the author calls “counterpoints” mixed throughout the text as well, in which various musicians and other celebrities who are fans of Frisell’s music listen to a recording of his as a starting point for conversations about their passion for his work. And there is a kind of outer shell to the book, referenced in its title, inspired by a dream that Frisell had many years ago in which he remembers being exposed to a kind of cosmic, universal music. As Frisell is admired for his ethereal sound and approach to music, author Watson returns regularly to the image of him as a “beautiful dreamer” himself, immersed in all kinds of music and bringing back dream-like interpretations of his journeys to our collective ears. The cover photo of Frisell, looking off into the distance from the side while we can barely make him out through a dense fog cover, further helps to establish this mood, too.

Other than the “counterpoints,” the book progresses like a typical chronological music biography. Watson doesn’t spend a lot of time on Frisell’s childhood, other than capturing highlights of his early impressions about the guitar and some memories from Bill himself as the two of them drove around Denver in 2017 looking at some of the places he lived as a child. It is worth noting, though, that a lot of Frisell’s early musical development came from playing the clarinet, which he continued alongside guitar into college. He’d also played some saxophone in college. But one of his first early influences, Gary Burton (whose 60s music is a bit of a blueprint for the genre-bending Americana that Frisell has become known for), once noted at a University of Northern Colorado talk that he recommended really focusing on only one instrument. Bill took that advice and chose the guitar exclusively from that point forward. He flailed a bit early on: he went to Berklee College of Music but dropped out, then took lessons in NYC for a few months from his guitar idol Jim Hall, returned to Denver and his guitar teacher there, and tried to make a go as a professional guitarist in Colorado.

Then he returned to Boston to give Berklee another shot. This time, things seemed to work out differently, and early glimpses of the artist we know today began to shine through (especially after he bought a solidbody electric guitar, and another student gave him a volume pedal, which went on to become a trademark of his sound for many years). Upon graduation, he spent some time in Belgium, where he felt that his playing finally came together, and where he ultimately met his wife Carole as well. Soon he found himself working with musicians from the European ECM Records scene, an important label for contemporary jazz even today.

I’ll spare you the rest of the play by play of Frisell’s career — at the point I just referenced, we’re only about a fifth of the way into the book, and his work as a mature artist is just getting started. But suffice it to say that one of the big takeaways for me from this book is how Frisell has been an important part of a couple of significant “scenes” in his career, yet he always maintains his own unique vibe and a little bit of separation. His time around the ECM scene was the first of these. In the early to mid-1980s, he appeared on lots of ECM releases, and they also put out his first records as a solo artist. While his ethereal sound and approach are generally a great fit with the ECM aesthetic—in fact they have released lots of new titles featuring him in the more recent decade as well — there is just something ineffable about his work that has kept his long-term career a little more distinct than many of his ECM peers. Then from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Frisell was one of the most significant musicians involved with the NYC Downtown Scene, and in particular he played in many different lineups for well-regarded composer John Zorn. In those circumstances, he sometimes found himself playing styles of music that seem out of character for him: fast music, pieces influenced by punk and metal genres, downright chaotic and dissonant music. Yet even then his voice on the instrument somehow shines through. And during that time, he even maintained a bit of a physical distance, living most of the time in New Jersey and then Seattle while his many bandmates resided in Manhattan. This kind of “otherness” even in the midst of fruitful collaborations is uniquely powerful throughout Frisell’s career.

To the present day, his strikingly original voice continues to captivate and inspire generations of listeners and musicians. As attested to in the many “Counterpoint” interludes throughout the book, his body of music has left deep impressions on many listeners, including many of his collaborators and peers. To some extent, one could argue that there are two major periods in Frisell’s work: his approach leaned relatively darker in the first half of his career, and feels a little brighter in the 2nd half. “Beautiful Dreamer” seems to support this general idea, too, as he has become less reliant on effects like volume swells and bits of looped ambient sound in later years, while perfecting his uncanny knack for writing melodies that seem as though they could be folk tunes or hymns from time immemorial. But it’s a blurry line, too, as there are certainly times when present-day Frisell recordings utilize lots of effects, and when early records astonished with their timeless melodic sensibility. All told, “Beautiful Dreamer” is a wonderful literary companion to a gently visionary musician, and from its pages it seems Bill is just as exemplary a person as he a musician and guitarist.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Bill Frisell: An Anthology by Bill Frisell, A Perfectly Good Guitar: Musicians on their Favorite Instrument by Chuck Holley, or the Arcana: Musicians on Music series edited by John Zorn.)

( official Bill Frisell web site ) | ( official Philip Watson web site )


Recommended by Scott S.
Polley Music Library

Screening Room

(DVD Amsterdam)

The trailers for this movie were considerably misleading, making it look like a wacky and madcap comedy film. While there certainly were some comedic moments, this was actually a fairly serious historical drama, a fictional look an event that actually did occur in U.S. history.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins) is Bert Berendson, Margot Robbie (Barbie) is Valerie Voze and John David Washington (Tenet) is Harold Woodman, the three co-leads. A flashback sequences explains their original meeting as participants in World War I in Europe, and the time they spent getting to know and trust each other in Amsterdam.

But the majority of Amsterdam follows Bert and Harold’s misadventures as they are tasked with conducting an illicit autopsy to prove their former commanding officer met with an unnatural death. The more they look into the case, the more misfortune occurs to them, putting them on the run. The one-eyed Berendsen is a disgraced doctor, the black Woodman faces racial persecution, and Valerie is being treated by her not-so-loving family for mental issues. But when they team up again, their friendship revitalizes each of them and they become eager to prove a national conspiracy against the government.

Terrific supporting performances from Robert Deniro, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon and Ramai Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)! Highly recommended.

( Internet Movie Database entry for this film )


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

formatdvdThe Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek
(DVD 791.457 StaYc)

The Center Seat is a documentary on nearly everything Star Trek. Behind-the-scenes stories of its creator, Gene Roddenberry, the producers, writers, cast, the props, and the scripts. Some stories we have heard before, other stories we’ve heard from “those in the know” from their Facebook posts or from chatting with them at conventions, and others are new. Some are in-depths tales of how this all came about. So many interviews with cast, crew, producers, writers, and directors. Narrated by Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the Next Gen movies) this is a fully encompassing, fascinating story of the history of Star Trek as each series and movie is discussed in-depth.

If you decide to binge this (as I ended up doing), set aside almost nine hours. Otherwise, each episode is approximately 45 min in length.

The final disc consists of uncut interviews with Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and Kirstie Alley. I began watching the bonus episodes, but I ended up quitting before the end of Nimoy’s interview as the info had already been covered on the previous discs. Your mileage may vary.

Definitely for Star Trek fans, especially those who’ve watched all the series and the movies.

Four discs, 11 episodes plus three Bonus Interviews:
Disc One
1. Lucy Loves Trek
2. Saturday Morning Pinks
3. Trekking Through the ‘70’s – Phase II and The Motion Picture
4. Trek Goes to the Movies

Disc Two
5. Whales, Gods, and Pepto Bismol
6. Queue for Q
7. Dancing with Syndication in the Pale Moonlight
8. Voyage(r) to the Delta Quadrant

Disc Three
9. It’s Been a Long Time…
10. Starships A-Z
11. The Stars Above

Disc Four (Bonus Material)
Leonard Nimoy Interview (Uncut)
Nichelle Nichols Interview (Uncut)
Kirstie Alley Interview (Uncut)

( Internet Movie Database entry for this 2021-2022 series )


Recommended by Charlotte M.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

formatdvdThe Fabelmans
(DVD Fabelmans)

Quick disclaimer — I’ve been a fan of director Steven Spielberg’s films ever since his TV-movie Duel and summer blockbuster Jaws. I’ve enjoyed his mass appeal SF fare – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., AI, etc., and have followed his career ever since the mid-1980s. This 2022 Oscar-nominated film, directed by Steven Spielberg himself, is the closest we’ll probably ever get to an autobiographical movie from that legendary director. Though fictionalized, most of the events that take place in The Fabelmans are based on actual events from Spielberg’s own life and early years before he broke into the film industry.

Young actor Gabriel LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman, the analog for Spielberg, son of Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams), living in a small midwestern town. When a job opportunity uproots the family and drops them in Arizona, with almost no fellow Jewish families to associate with, Sammy’s obsession with making 8mm films intensifies. His father supports him but considers the films a mere hobby. His mother has more of a sense of how important filmmaking is to her son, but has relationship issues that get in the way of her being a strong source of support. And Sammy’s relationships at his new school are fraught with peril — he’s either bullied by anti-semitic sports stars or obsessed over by a girl who wants to convert him to Christianity.

But behind all of that is his love for film, and his increasing skill level at making a compulsively-viewable art form. When it is through his camera lens that Sammy uncovers a family secret, his need for the world of filmmaking to make sense of his own life and provide a medium for healing becomes even greater.

The performances in this little gem of a film are stellar. LaBelle as Sammy, Dano as father Burt, and Williams as mother Mitzi are all incredible. Excellent supporting work is turned in by Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, Keeley Karsten and Julia Butters as Sammy’s sisters Natalie and Reggie, Sam Reckner as jock Logan Hall, and David Lynch as legendary film director John Ford. The production design was terrific, recreating the feel of the 1950s and 1960s. John Williams created another winning film score. And as director, with The Fabelmans, Spielberg has brought forth another visually compelling story…all the more powerful for knowing that it was mostly true.

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try 5-25-77 for another semi-autobiographical film about growing up with an obsession about making movies; or any of the more instrospective and thought-provoking films directed by Steven Spielberg, including Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Lincoln, or more…)

( Internet Movie Database entry for this film )


Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

formatdvdFrom the Earth to the Moon
(DVD From)

I first saw this award-winning mini-series on HBO (had to first subscribe then I unsubscribed as soon as this series was over). Each segment aired weekly and I was in front of my TV with my VCR recording each one. When the DVD came out I bought that version as well. I was surprised to see no one at the library had yet reviewed this excellent series.

Based on A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, this is one of my favorite shows about the space program, and mostly covers the Apollo Program. Each episode, introduced by Tom Hanks (except for the final one), is about a specific segment of the space race to the moon beginning with President Kennedy’s speech through the last of the Apollo flights. Along the way we learn about building the lunar lander (“Spider”) – this was so fascinating, personal, and humorous, who knew we’d care? – and a segment from the wives’ perspectives (“The Original Wives Club”).

The final disc is Bonus Material: the original trailers, Behind-the-Scenes, Special Effects, JFK’s speech, History of the Moon, interesting facts about space beyond our solar system, and famous astronomers.

The performances are excellent and they draw you right into the various stories. The soundtrack is ideal and sets the tone as well. If you decide to binge this in one sitting, set aside 12 hours (not including the Bonus disc).

(If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Apollo 13.)

(Also available — the Chaikin book that inspired this, in traditional print format.)

( Internet Movie Database entry for this series )

See the One Small Step booklist on BookGuide, featuring a massive list of materials — fiction and non-fiction — about the Apollo program!


Recommended by Charlotte M.
Bennett Martin Public Library — Public Service

last updated September 2023
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