The Best Books I Read In 2013

December 31st, 2013

I read a lot of books. I read a lot of books in 2012. These are the 28 books I most enjoyed reading last year. They will appear on your screen in the order in which I read them. Now it’s your turn to read them, because they are good, and I am excellent at recommending.

David Rees: How To Sharpen Pencils Exactly what the title says: a couple hundred pages on the proper methods of sharpening pencils. Somehow one of the funniest, most engrossing books I read all year.

Lytton Strachey: Elizabeth and Essex I love me some Strachey, and this is generally counted his masterpiece—correctly, I think. The bizarre sort-of love affair between the great Queen and her sometime favorite is not only a fascinating, beautifully written, ultimately tragic piece of history, it’s an incredibly insightful look into human relationships and power dynamics.

Robert K. Massie: Dreadnought Did you know the ship-building arms race between the heads of the great European states and concomitant family rivalry was responsible for the insanity that was World War I? Neither did I. And yet it was, at least in part, apparently. Riveting. (Pun! Pun!)

Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus Never got around to this as The Magic Mountain sort of bored me back in the day. Alas! Dense and mesmerizing, like a really tasty meatloaf. Music and madness and mortality, am I right?

Anthony Brandt: The Man Who Ate His Boots My fascination with the Arctic got a little out of control this year. No matter; there’s so many great books on the subject. This one focuses on John Franklin—less his doomed 1845 expedition however than the earlier brutal overland adventure when he ate his boots. Because he was hungry and it was really cold.

Brian Switek: My Beloved Brontosaurus The state of dinosaur science in 2013 has advanced so far beyond anything you even learned in the 1990s it’s kind of amazing. T. Rex and the Sauropods for instance were fuzzy with feathers like giant toothsome ducks! My entire world…upside down…

Joan Didion: Miami At book length Didion often wears out her welcome. Not so here. The strange interlocking communities of 1980s Miami, Cubans and Americans locked in a slow gentrifying dance, makes for a riveting read shot through with odd and redolent anecdotes.

William Shea: Fields of Blood The 1862 Prairie Grove campaign in Arkansas was one of the lesser-known but more important campaigns of the Civil War, securing a vital region for the Union. Shea’s overview is superlatively written, smoothly taking in both the strategic and tactical angles while making the time to limn the magnetic personalities of the lesser-known leaders of this bloody struggle.

Tom Bissell: Chasing the Sea Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan and eventually ended up on the shores of what was once the Aral Sea. The best travel book I’ve read since The Road to Oxiana—I can think of no higher praise.

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun This tetralogy is counted among the greatest masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy, and now I know why. While each of the volumes is largely self-contained, focusing on a different landscape and characters, Wolfe’s Borgesian fascination with stories transforms his picaresque into something ultimately powerful and extraordinary.

Thomas Ricks: The Generals Ricks’s study of American generalship from World War II through the Iraq war serves as a searing indictment of the modern way of war while simultaneously exploring why the greatest fighting force in the history of man has proved so ineffective in certain recent situations. Along the way he provides incisive portraits of the eponymous generals and a series of effective set-pieces worth the price of admission alone.

Lawrence Wright: Going Clear The most devastatingly reported book of the year, Wright explodes an atom bomb inside the edifice of Scientology, revealing the moral and personal bankruptcy of the persons and practices behind what must only be described as the most ridiculous yet destructive cult to have arisen in modern America.

Pierre Berton: The Arctic Grail In this massive study of Arctic exploration Berton turns his extraordinary erudition to the hunt for the elusive Northwest Passage and the North Pole. An endless gallery of weird and wonderful figures struggling against enemies both human and inhuman, in The Arctic Grail is related the best and worst of humanity as they face one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.

John Bellairs: The House with a Clock In Its Walls Before he got religion Bellairs wrote this first in a magical series of books for young adults I cannot more highly recommend to fans of Harry Potter and the like. Make sure you get the edition with Edward Gorey’s marvelously creepy illustrations.

K. M. O’Donnell (Barry Malzberg): Universe Day In the 70s Malzberg wrote a whole series of strange, marvelous, experimental, sometimes even pornographic sci-fi novels under a series of pseudonyms that exploded the genre more intensely than even his contemporary Philip K. Dick. I liked this one in particular for its relatively sober tone and attempt to cram thousands of years of future history under one cover in a series of linked stories. Well worth the effort it might take to find.

W. G. Sebald: A Place in the Country Sebald’s last complete book to be translated into English, I have been waiting more than a decade for this to arrive, and I am pleased to say I was not disappointed. Comprising six essays in the pure Sebaldian manner focusing on writers and artists he particularly admired, there is some variability in quality but at its best—in his essay on Walser, notably—this is vintage Sebald, which is to say some of the finest writing of our time.

Christopher Priest: The Prestige Christopher Nolan’s movie is surprisingly good (I hated his Batman), but the book is better. Super enjoyable. Except for, interestingly, the ending, where Nolan pulled something out of his hat even Priest admits was better than the strange, that-didn’t-quite-work ending his novel fades away on.

Sjon: The Blue Fox Bjork’s sometime lyricist finally had three of his major novels translated into English, and all three are wonderful. This was my favorite though, a lyrical, poetic meditation much larger in impact that its small size portends.

Jesse Ball: Silence Once Begun I’m cheating here as this doesn’t actually come out until early in 2014. But Jesse Ball is in my opinion the finest young novelist out there, and Silence Once Begun is yet another great addition to his corpus. The ending is pretty obvious, but I suspect Ball knows that, and ultimately the questions raised in this tragic text (inspired by true events) take on enormous resonance in its aftermath.

Chauncey Loomis: Weird and Tragic Shores This biography of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall is of interest beyond people like me fascinated by the Arctic. It’s a fundamentally American story, and comes to the kind of mysterious, tragic end any biographer would relish. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys biography; no knowledge of Arctic exploration is really needed before jumping in.

Jean Echenoz: 1914 Echenoz’s small books may be short, but they are hardly slight. His miniature panorama of World War I is like a predella without an altarpiece; tiny abrupt scenes somehow taking in a huge experience while packing a real emotional punch. One of the great novelists working today.

Cesar Aira: The Hare Speaking of great novelists working today, Aira’s got books appearing right and left, and every one has its attractions. The Hare, which is actually a reprint of an earlier translation, is not only one of his longest books, but one of his most complex, intricate, and fun, with a whole variety of plots and characters somehow wrapping themselves up in a madcap final episode.

Janet Malcolm: The Silent Woman This famous study of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is equally a study of the fraught relationship between biographer and her subject, and on both accounts can hardly be bettered.

Jim Elledge: Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy Finally! A full-length biography of one of America’s greatest artists. One that looks past the eerie and problematic imagery of his work to the man behind it, finding its source in a documentable homosexuality and troubled youth, not fantasies of serial killings and deviant behavior. A valuable source and study likely to become a standard view of this fascinating figure.

Greil Marcus: The Shape of Things to Come Ostensibly a study of the “American prophetic tradition,” whatever that is; actually more of an excuse for Marcus to explore his obsession with several key figures—Philip Roth, David Lynch, and David Thomas. And what explorations! About as good as criticism gets, in that it not only brings fresh perspective to these artists, but makes me want to hurry to their works…

Philip Roth: American Pastoral …I hurried to Roth, someone I’d largely ignored in the past for a variety of what turned out to be stupid reasons. American Pastoral is nothing short of a masterpiece, a candidate for the “great American novel,” if there is such a thing (there isn’t). Too long, with a largely unnecessary third act, but as insightful and beautifully written a novel as you can want.

Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator Robbins’s work is variable in quality to an almost comic extent—when he’s bad he’s terrible, but when he’s good he’s hilarious and smart and fantastic. On the evidence he’s still finding his voice; when he does, look out.

Neal Stephenson: Anathem What can I say about this book? Just read it. It’s over a thousand pages and I read it in two sittings because I couldn’t stop. Just read it already. A straight-up masterpiece.

Top Ten Honorable Mentions

Oliver Sacks: Hallucinations
John Lewis Gaddis: George F. Kennan
Annie Baker: The Vermont Plays
Sam Pink: Rontel
Robin Sloane: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore
James Morris: Heaven’s Command
Tao Lin: Taipei
Richard Holmes: The Age of Wonder
Daniel Loxton & Donald Prothero: Abominable Science!
Philip Roth: The Plot Against America

New Work: Lightning Field

November 13th, 2013

A loose sequel to, you guessed it, Spiral Jetty. Which I’m not linking to because except for some awesome drum stuff I’m not happy with it. Still trying to figure out what to do with that monster.

Anyway, Lightning Field is a thirty minute mini-epic for piano, bass, and drums composed for the new group BEARTHOVEN, which will rule you. I know this because it includes my buddies Karl Larson, Pat Swoboda, and Matt Evans, and those guys be dope, every one. They’re going to record it in a few months if all goes to plan. I’m allowing myself to be a little excited. Should be fun for all ages.

Land art is cool. Maybe I’ll do “Roden Crater” next? Some Michael Heizer thing? “City” seems too generic though. Will have to put some thought into it. Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t already, Eric. Way too much thought…

New Revisions

November 13th, 2013

The re-engraving and revision of my complete works continues apace. Here’s the fruits of the past several months of work:

Wideawake (2007.3) – Some revision, new engraving, new midi mockups added

In Part (2007.13r) – New instrumentation, new engraving, new midi mockup added

Girls on the Run (2008.6r) – New instrumentation, new engraving, new midi mockup added

Amulet (2009.2) – New engraving, new midi mockups added

Les Règles onto déjà pensé à tout (2013.2) – New engraving, new midi mockup added

In addition, I’ve added new pages listing my works by instrumentation, and a list of my complete mature works (including withdrawn and other works). As you can see I’ve finally settled on an organizational system, and I’m gradually updating all my pages to reflect it. That I didn’t think before to simply number my pieces by year and date begun is bizarre. But I’m a bizarre guy, or so I’m told. I don’t see it.

Little Kingdoms

August 30th, 2013

The Little Kingdoms of J. Franklin Payne: Photographs by Eric Shanfield

New Revision: Casper Hauser Songs

August 12th, 2013

Among my works Casper Hauser Songs has always remained one of my personal favorites. But there was always something wrong – I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Then after five years I realized what it was: it was the sort of vaguely a little bit maybe rock instrumentation. Baritone sax, tuba, distorted electric guitar? What? And I never did decide if that was an electric bass or acoustic or what. The thing is, Casper Hauser Songs is not a rock album. It is not an EP, as much as I guess I wanted it to be at the time. It’s a song cycle. It’s a lieder cycle, which makes sense given the subject matter. So I decided to recast it for acoustic instruments and reclassify it, so to speak.

Out went the baritone sax, in came two bass clarinets. Out went the tuba, in came a bassoon. Goodbye electric guitar I still don’t really know how to write for, hello two violas. Cello and bass remain, but not amplified, and I finally figured out how to deal with the bass (by finally dealing with the bass). And in so re-orchestrating I ended up virtually rewriting the piece as I went. Though the notes are the same, how and where they’re played have changed pretty much everywhere. I’m much happier now. I’m in a happier place. Which is good, because I had a rough month, let me tell you.

Anyway, the new Casper Hauser Songs. One half hour of Teutonic pop goodness. Like Falco.

New Work: OOF

July 24th, 2013

My most recent masterpiece is this completely insane 13-minute extravaganza for six double basses. Basically it consists of up to four simple shapes interacting in time and space to create complicated, constantly changing musical patterns. It was so complex I had to map out the entire rhythmic structure ahead of time. This is what one page (of eleven) looks like:

Yeah. I’m a little nuts. My next piece, which I’m starting today, will just be like this. Only different.

New Work: The Grave Was Too Small So We Had To Take the Horse Out

July 24th, 2013

And the prize for best title goes to…

Poet Heather Christle, whose three books rule. I’ve been meaning to set her work for a while, and when I finally did it was an elaborate cycle of nine poems for two voices and two instruments. I even took the time to write them entirely by hand, for some reason. Unfortunately, they were not good.

Well, some of them were not good. Some of them were good. Therefore I took the good ones and discarded the bad ones and the four good ones together made The Grave Was Too Small So We Had To Take the Horse Out. It’s for two sopranos and violin; each soprano has one solo and they sing together twice. The whole piece lasts about ten minutes, which seems about right.

It’s another cellular song cycle where a simple motive repeats under the vocalists, whose lines shift and change as they interpret the words. The concluding song is one of my most radically simple; a two-chord motive repeats more than one hundred times without variation under the sopranos. Hopefully it’s hypnotic and lovely, not boring and deathly.

Probably the best thing about this piece is now that I (sort of) play the mandolin, I actually have an idea of how to write for violin (they have the same fingering). Which is nice. It’s always good when people can actually play your pieces. An earlier piece for voice and violin, Orfordness – actually a favorite of mine – turns out to be basically unplayable. I am sad. It’s going to have to be re-orchestrated, we’ll see how that goes…

New Versions

July 24th, 2013

Every so often I will make a new version of a piece by another composer. These might be straight arrangements, or creative re-compositions, or something in between, or farther out. Recently I undertook two new versions, and made a new version of an old version.

Ardent fans will recall my repurposed 2011 masterpiece Erased John Cage, in which I created a negative of John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano by replacing notes with rests and rests with notes. I was pleased with the results in general, but specifically the orchestration I chose, a normal chamber orchestra, was badly imbalanced. Further, I thought the mixing of timbres didn’t reflect the original sound of one instrument. So I made a new version for 4 clarinets, 3 trombones, 3 cellos, and percussion, and I’m a lot happier with it. It’s also been re-engraved and generally sexified.

Before embarking on a series of new pieces – about which more shortly – I undertook a couple of arrangements, just for the fun of it. Because I have a weird idea of fun. The first was an elaborate orchestration of three introductions to Renaissance requiem masses by Orlande de Lasso, Jean Richafort, and Pierre de la Rue that I have called, shockingly, Introitus. The orchestration is elaborate, for 16 winds and 4 percussion. The idea was to stack great harmonic architecture atop the original polyphony until the pieces stagger under their own buttresses. (See what I did there with those metaphors.) Each movement is different, with the first emphasizing heavy bombardon octaves, the third ringing with tintinnabulating triads, and the second sprouting fake spectral dissonances.

After that I made a weird version of legendary Icelandic composer Jón Leifs’s Icelandic Dances, originally for solo piano. I had forgotten the composer already did an arrangement of his own for orchestra, but mine is for a rough mixed ensemble of low winds with violins and basses. It’s sort of supposed to sound like a village band scraping away at Leifs’s thick fifths and heavy melodies, or possibly it just sounds like Eric scratching his head. Anyway I made it and you can listen to it if you want.

New Revisions

July 24th, 2013

An ongoing project is the wholesale revision and re-engraving of my entire oeuvre. I present to you this first tranche of completed works.

Still Morning (ENS.10, 2007) – Some revision, new engraving, new midi tracks added

Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart (ENS.19, 2007) – Much revision, replacement of guitar with mandolin, new engraving, new midi track added

En Route (ENS.20, 2008) – Slight revision, new engraving, restored to ENS numbers (Surely I Shall Go On Living moved to Other Works)

Embryodel (ENS.21, 2008) – Some revision, new engraving, new midi tracks added

Configurations, (ENS.29, 2008) – Much revision, re-orchestration, new engraving, new midi tracks added

Sky god girl (ENS.33, 2009) – Some revision, re-notation of first movement, new engraving, new midi tracks added

Very Black Sonnets (ENS.39, 2009-2010) – Some revision, new engraving


I Haven’t Updated My Website In A While

July 24th, 2013

But not because I haven’t been working on anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve been too busy to add updates!

That changes today. Over the next several hours I’ll be adding two (and one half) new compositions, two (and one half) new arrangements, and a whole bunch of revisions. The arrangements are fairly elaborate, and the revisions are in some cases complete overhauls. Midi mp3s will be added along with newly engraved scores, which are pretty gorgeous if I do say so myself. (I guess working as a professional engraver has had its uses.)

As for the two new pieces, I’ll be adding those last so they’ll sit at the top of the page. They turned out pretty well, I think: a little song cycle and a bigger instrumental piece. After I complete my work on the website I’ll be getting started on a new pocket symphony, my sixth, Symphony for Sol LeWitt. I am so excited you guys!