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February 2020

The Eighth Day Books Catalog Is Back

I say that even though I had never seen it until a few days ago, when it arrived in the mail, announcing its return. I didn't know it had been away. I've been hearing about Eighth Day Books for years, but didn't know much more than that it is a highly regarded Christian bookseller, with an Orthodox slant. 

I think they got my name and address from one of the magazines I subscribe to. I can tell because they have my name as "Maclin," not "James M" or "Mac." Maybe it was Touchstone. Or Dappled Things. In any case, I'm glad they did, because it's a great catalog. If you're not familiar with it, but you used to get the old A Common Reader and/or Cahill and Company catalogs, this can fairly be described as a Christian version of them. I know, Cahill was/is Christian, but, as I recall, in a sort of lite way. And I seem to recall liking Common Reader more, but it's a shaky memory.

At any rate I did love the Common Reader catalog, which I think was killed by Amazon. It was a good read in itself, and although I did not order very often from it, because I didn't have much money to spare in those days, it did introduce me to some writers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Ronald Blythe. (I hope I'm not giving it credit that should go to Cahill and Company; these are decades-old memories.)

The Eighth Day catalog is just as good, just as much a good read. I've now looked through most of, and read much of, its 130 pages. I have to admit that I have no plan and not a great deal of desire to order books from several of its categories: Theology and Patristics, Ecclesiography, probably not even Spiritual Direction or Athletes of Prayer. At one time I might have coveted some of these, but at this point in my life much of it seems too specialized for me. But the literary stuff, and the more general philosophical-theological stuff--well, I've already marked several titles to be ordered.

For instance: George Steiner, known primarily as a literary critic, died recently. Many years ago (close to fifty) I read some of his reviews in The New Yorker and was impressed enough by them that his name stayed with me as a writer I might want to investigate further. I think it was one of these which included a remark which has stayed with me ever since: that The Waste Land was "a last run through the stacks before they close the library." I never have followed up on that impulse, but news of his death reminded me of him. And here's this catalog which includes two intriguing titles by him, Real Presences and In Bluebeard's Castle.

And I do intend to order them from Eighth Day, possibly even using the order form in the back of the catalog. Even if one disapproves or is suspicious of Amazon in principle, the temptation to use it is often almost irresistible, for reasons which I'm sure we all know, and which come down to "it's so convenient." For a while I tried to make myself use my local independent bookstore instead, but essentially everything I want is a special order for them, requiring two trips to the store (one to place the order, one to pick it up). Also: (a) I suspect special orders are more trouble than they're worth for the store, and (b) I don't think the store needs me. This has become a pretty affluent town over the past 25 years or so, and the store now includes a coffee shop and a music venue, and seems to be doing very well without my occasional few dollars.

Here's the Eighth Day Books web site. At a quick look I don't see a way to sign up for the catalog, but maybe if you order from them they put you on the list. Another reason for buying from them is to keep getting the catalog, though I suppose it doesn't change very much from one edition to the next.

Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness

I'm just barely making my before-Ash-Wednesday deadline for this last of three music posts, so I'll be brief.

I avoid reading reviews before encountering the thing itself, whether the thing is music or book or film. But I like comparing my views to others' after I've formed my first impression. After hearing this album once or twice, I thought Kind of sounds like something from the '60s. Vashti Bunyan, maybe, or a female Donovan. Then I went over to and read that Julie Byrne had

...quickly received favorable comparisons to folk titans Vashti Bunyan and Joni Mitchell after releasing her first two records.

The fact that she made me think of Bunyan must mean that there is a definite similarity, as I've only heard a little of Bunyan's work. I wouldn't have thought of Joni Mitchell, because Byrne's music is considerably less complex, but I see the resemblance. The Donovan comparison is further afield: it's not so much any specific musical resemblance as the vibe of finger-picked folkie guitar, the soft warm voice, and the overall quality of gentleness introspective reflection. Several tracks are lightly and effectively enhanced with strings or electronics, and even a dash of natural sound. 

Not every song is a melodic gem. But the album as a whole keeps my attention. I suspect that most listeners would pick "Natural Blue" as one of the two or three best songs. It also happens to be the most elaborately produced, but I think it would work just fine with only Byrne's voice and guitar.

Thanks again to Rob G for introducing me to this and the previous two albums. 

Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass

I guess we've all heard people say of this or that style of music, generally one they don't care for, that "it all sounds the same." And from a casual distance it's usually a fair assessment. After all, Metallica and Megadeth sound vastly more like each other than either sounds like Bruce Springsteen, and someone who doesn't listen to metal might find them indistinguishable--or not worth distinguishing. But to a metal fan there are big and obvious differences. Likewise, someone who doesn't much care for sensitive, restrained, introspective music written and sung by a woman might think this album is not so very different from the Liela Moss one discussed in the previous post.

But in fact they are almost opposites in some ways: lush vs. sparse, expansive vs. intimate, passionate vs. restrained, open vs. guarded; maybe even light vs. dark. Agnes Obel's voice is not as rich as Moss's, and the arrangements are almost minimalist: piano augmented gracefully with touches of strings and percussion and some other sounds that I can't quite identify and are perhaps electronically produced. Obel's music and lyrics are darker, (even) more introspective, and in fact obscure, although that difference may be magnified by the fact that her lyrics are posted on her web site, whereas I have not been able to read Miller's and can't understand a fair number of them. There's no mystic communion with nature here, but rather a very private inner world. 

I thought the first two tracks here were great on first listen, and was thinking that the album might turn out to be a major favorite. To my taste, though, that promise didn't quite hold up. It is very good,  to be sure, but I've ended up less enthusiastic than I began (this is after four or five reasonably close hearings). The material seems a little uneven, although never less than immaculately arranged and performed. And maybe a more significant problem is that the lyrics just don't have much effect for me. It's not just that they're obscure or cryptic, but that they are so in a way that doesn't conjure much in the way of emotion or association for me; your reaction of course might be different. Everything musical here is so precise, so carefully placed to such exquisite effect, that I expect the words to be equally well chosen and placed. And I suppose they may have been by the artist, but for the most part they don't seem that way to me. 

I was intrigued by the title "It's Happening Again," hoping for something Lynchian, which--again, to my taste--the song doesn't quite provide. Perhaps it would for you. I grant that it would not seem out of place performed in the Roadhouse.

Oh look, there's an official video:

Based on the video I'd say the title is definitely a Twin Peaks reference. 

Despite my reservations, this is definitely a work I'll come back to. I see on her web site that she has just released a new album, Myopia. I'll be checking that out. 

Liela Moss: My Name Is Safe In Your Mouth

Isn't that an evocative title? 

I have a mental backlog of music that I've been meaning to write about, especially non-classical music. As I'm planning to go on a sacred-music-only diet for Lent, which is now only a week away, I'll try to get several of them out of the way before then. As of right now I plan for them to be three albums made available to me by Rob G; thanks, Rob.

I had not previously heard of Liela Moss, though apparently she has been part of a band that is at least well-known enough to have an AllMusic entry, The Duke Spirit (though unknown to me, which is hardly surprising). I don't know how her first name is pronounced but am guessing "Leela." The album was produced by her "partner" and Duke Spirit band-mate, Toby Butler. He also shares the songwriting credits, so I can't pass judgment on Moss's skill in that department.

But she's responsible for the lyrics, as is clear in this release announcement from her label, Bella Union. 

I was in my own modest studio, surrounded by deep rural Somerset, and building the album bit by bit over a year with just my producer and partner Toby Butler – with whom I co-wrote all the music. We worked to our own schedule and across all seasons. Staring out of the window singing, I would watch the changing natural phenomena around me and sing to the forms outside. My window-view outside was like an umbilical cord; I was receiving little messages from the nature beyond and the songs were growing inside the studio, transmitting back.

...I teased melody out from an abstract, day-dreaming space until I can honestly say I felt that I was attempting to sing Mother Nature into existence 

That makes me think of Kate Bush, though I didn't read it until I'd already had the same thought about the album in general. It doesn't sound like Kate (forgive me, everyone who loves Kate Bush's music seems compelled to call her by her first name only). And the word "quirky," which seems almost unavoidable about Kate's work, never crossed my mind. But there is something deeply similar in the vibe: a somewhat mystical relationship to the deep currents of life, a rich and very feminine awareness and receptiveness. At times one is tempted to use the word "spacey" (about transmissions to and from nature, for instance), but in a half-admiring way: the openness of it, the willingness to follow those devotional impulses.

Tell me where the light will go
And I
Will chase it, chase it

That's from "Wild As Fire," and though most of the song seems to be about an individual person it lends itself to a broader interpretation. You can't expect to make linear, logical sense of the lyrics, but (as is often the case with this type of songwriting) they work in context.

I can't discuss the album musically without using the word "lush." The vocals are lush. The melodies are lush. The arrangements are lush, somehow, even though they are relatively sparse, not overly complex: altogether a beautiful piece of work.

Bella Union, by the way, was founded by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie; no introduction necessary for fans of the Cocteau Twins, of which they were two-thirds (yeah, there were three people in the group). Now it's apparently run by Raymonde alone, and it appears to have a really good roster. I've only heard a small number of the artists, but the ones I recognize are excellent. And they include, to my surprise, The Innocence Mission (only for their latest album, which I have not yet heard). 

Interesting Item for Twin Peaks Fans

Some intriguing comments from Mark Frost at the Welcome to Twin Peaks web site, which I guess I should look at more often. On The Return:

The themes we were looking at were different. All of that is reflected in the show. I think it’s an older and somewhat sadder and wiser look at the world.

I found the third season somewhat disappointing, but that wasn't the reason. I guess my criticisms are worse, really, because what disappointed me were some of the specific artistic moves. The minimizing of Agent Tammy Preston's role, for instance, for which Mark Frost's book The Secret History of Twin Peaks raised expectations. 

And I don't know about "wiser." Darker, for sure. 

The Culture War Is Asymmetrical

I'm constantly fighting the temptation to spend, or rather waste, a lot of time talking about current events, the perishing republic, and so forth. I believe it was in the very first year of this very long-running blog that I mentioned that urge, and noted that there was not much reason for me to carry it out because other people with much much much larger audiences were saying the same things I would say, and doing it better. 

Still, the need to grab the reader and say Don't you see what's going on?!?! is pretty strong sometimes, and I have to do it occasionally. Which is by way of excusing or sort of justifying or at least explaining this post, and also its brevity.

A few days ago I mentioned the sad phenomenon of  'the frenzied rhetorical attacks on white people and "whiteness" coming from the left.' In the comments, Stu replied that "the extremist right are also terrible." 

That's true, but it's not the most significant aspect of what's going on. It's not that there are racists or other assorted nasty people on the left, but that the left (using the term very broadly) holds the most prestigious and influential positions in society: education, the media apart from Fox News, entertainment, many of the courts, and most of the non-elected national government. And it tolerates or excuses or actively practices expressions of racial hostility which no one on the respectable right would dream of. Open race-based hostility on the right is marginalized by the right. Open race-based hostility on the left, provided it's directed at white people, is practiced frequently and is protected, at least, and often applauded, by the left.

More or less the same is true for other controversial issues, such as the various sexual causes. The progressive view is overwhelmingly portrayed in media, education, and entertainment as the correct, obviously virtuous and enlightened view. Opposition is very effectively stigmatized as, for instance, "homophobia" and the like. 

I'm not going to waste time trying to prove this by citing instances. I think it's overwhelmingly obvious. Rod Dreher provides examples almost every day, like this one, in which a black student (I think it's a student) complains that there are "too many white people" in the Multicultural Student Center, strongly suggesting that they leave. As Dreher says

...if a white student stood and ordered non-white students to vacate a space because their non-whiteness made it uncomfortable for white people, the entire campus would have had a gran mal seizure...

This was at the University of Virginia. Contemptuous and hostile references to white people--especially white men, especially white male Christians--as such, specifically because they are white--are perfectly acceptable at the most influential and prestigious levels of society, whereas the same sort of hostility on the part of white people toward others is mostly relegated to the gutter. It's not symmetrical. 

I Need A Word

I don't mean "Can I have a word?" in the sense of "Can we talk privately?" I mean literally a word. I've been working on a piece of writing that includes this: "the Church as it is, dullness, factionalism, and all." I want another word to go with those two, a word that captures the indifference toward the faith of so many Catholics, including some in the clergy and the hierarchy. I mean the attitude which is described by one of Rod Dreher's readers in this post

...we discovered that we were all four Catholics, which led in turn to conversations about which parishes we attend, etc (normal light talk among Catholics of any stripe). It turned out that none of the three women still attended mass, sometimes they attended services at local non-denoms but even that was rare. Their reasons were the following: mass is boring; I don’t “get” anything out of it while I feel really great after my non-denom services; people should be able to use birth control; I didn’t like that priest; confession is awkward; etc.

All three of these women (all in their 40’s and 50’s) had attended Catholic schools from K-12, and none of them had even the slightest idea of why the Church teaches what it does, or even a hint of self-awareness that none of their complaints remotely touched what God Himself wants, only me, me, me. Nothing touched upon how they thought God wanted to be worshiped, or how God wants us to live. At one point during one woman’s diatribe about how she gets nothing out of Mass I meekly remarked “well maybe that’s not the point of it all,” to which she blurted “Why else would I go?!”

I had originally written "dullness, indifference, factionalism, and all." But "indifference" alone is too broad: indifference to what? I tried "blandness" and "lukewarmness," but they don't really get the idea, either, even apart from the fact that "lukewarmness" is a very clumsy term. 

If you have a single word that does the job here, I'll thank you.

By the way, if you wondered about "Susan From the Parish Council," she is the fictitious proprietor of a Facebook page who writes about her trials and triumphs as an old and entirely unreconstructed Vatican II progressive. She's sometimes pretty funny.

Ambient Music and Muzak

As a fan of ambient music, I admit that I've sometimes asked myself the uncomfortable question: is this really any different from Muzak? (If you don't know that word: it's the brand name for the service that provides background music for stores, offices, and so forth. Like "Kleenex", it also serves as the generic term for the kind of product it is.) 

I have two answers: "No, not really" and "Yes." It certainly can be and often is used in the same way. Go into a certain type of trendy retail shop, maybe one with a new age spirituality vibe, and you may hear dreamy background music, possibly based on electronics, possibly having some natural sounds mixed in, but in any case pretty unstructured, without much distinctive rhythm or melody: all atmosphere and little structure. It's using a different vocabulary or repertoire from Muzak, which uses (or used to use) sappy instrumental versions of pop songs, but its function as background is much the same.

But nobody sits and listens to Muzak, at least not as such. It isn't meant to be listened to. Whereas people do listen, quite attentively, to ambient music--but not necessarily, or always. The old master, Brian Eno, put it well: ambient music should be "as ignorable as it is interesting." One difference, a pretty big one, between ambient music and mere background music is that the former is very consciously intended to be what it is.

I'm trying to remember now how I came to be acquainted with the music and with the term, and I can't come up with it. I guess it started with what was once called, first positively and then pejoratively, New Age music: mostly instrumental music, usually on the quiet and contemplative side. And then there was a long love affair with the music of the German group Tangerine Dream, which is mostly fairly complex and definitely not ambient, but is almost all electronic, and gave me a taste for the other-worldly quality which electronics can provide. And for many years I listened regularly to the ambient radio program Music From the Hearts of Space (the name is a little cringey to me, but I certainly heard a lot of good music there. I may have picked up the term "ambient music" there.

But that slight misgiving, that question about ambient and muzak, persisted. So I noticed with interest this headline at The Guardian: "Lost in muzak: how ambient music became cool". I of course didn't know it had ever become un-cool. The piece doesn't really address my question except maybe at the very end, with an observation that if you're listening to it closely it isn't ambient. Yes, but you could ignore it. Or half-ignore it. You can sort of step in and out of it at will, and you haven't lost the thread, the plot so to speak, as you would with classical music or for that matter almost any other kind of music. Steven Hill, the proprietor of HOS, uses the word "contemplative" a lot, and that's generally applicable.

Cool or not, there's no doubt that some specimens of the genre remain...interesting, and not ignored. Eno's Music for Airports  released in 1978, has as much claim to "classic" status in the general category of non-classical music as anything else of its time. I think its subtitle, Ambient 1, may be the first use of the term in this context. It sounds as fresh to me now as when I first heard it, which was not when it came out but still probably something close to thirty years ago. 

This Is Good Beer

GuinnessBlondeI really can't claim to be a connoisseur of beer, but I have pretty strong likes and dislikes. (That sounds like the old "I don't know much about art..." line. Well, so be it.)  I don't entirely understand things like this, the "tasting notes" for this beer at the Guinness site:

Aroma: Light and hoppy with floral and citrus notes
Flavor: Complex and flavorful, hoppy and citrus on the nose
Palate: Lively mouthfeel, crisp and refreshing with a long malt biscuity finish
ABV: 5%
Appearance: Golden amber colored beer with a dense head
Hops: Citra, Wilamette, Mount Hood

I do get part of that description, but not all. I ain't taste no biscuits, that's for sure. What I would say about this beer is that it's a perfect balance of heavy and light, dull and sharp. I really like IPAs in general, but that basic flavor has been sort of run into the ground. I've loved Guinness Extra Stout for a long time, to the point where I thought ordinary Guinness Stout was watery when I first tasted it. But it's really heavy and not something I want more than now and then. 

I was skeptical about Blonde when I first saw it advertised--oh, they're just putting out some bland stuff for Americans--and only tried it the other day when I noticed that our local supermarket was selling it in individual bottles as well as six-packs. Next time I went to the store I bought a six-pack.