I received Polpo as a gift. When I first held it in my hands, I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I thought it was an artbook about, I don’t know, octopuses or something. The cover is a pale sand-colored hardboard with gold embossing. The spine is naked to reveal the smyth sewn pages. It appears to be a hybrid of manufactured and hand made. The overall result is an object lovely on its own. The surprising thing was it wasn’t an artbook, it was a cookbook. But a cookbook this beautiful, well how good could it really be?
Before receiving this book, I had never heard of chef Russell Norman nor his restaurant called Polpo. And while this book is subtitled A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts), the actual restaurant isn’t in Venice at all, it’s in London. The introduction takes the reader through Norman’s process of deciding to open a Venetian restaurant. It becomes a little travel porn-y as we accompany Norman from one little restaurant to another tiny wine bar. Sometimes this kind of thing bothers me, but the general good-naturedness of the text makes it a pleasure. As you page through, the photographs of Venice are as enticing and illustrative as any travel book, but the subject is always ultimately the same, fine quality, regional food.
Venetian food is not something I am familiar with, but if Polpo is indeed accurate, I would describe it as simple, fresh Italian, with few ingredients, and often a seafood component. Despite its fancy exterior, the food within this book is quite simple. I’ve made many recipes from it. Every one turned out spectacular and definitely more than the sum of its parts. Much of the food is small plate, and if we are to believe the chef, what constitutes bar food in Venice. I made the “Bresaola, Rocket and Parmesan Wrap” for dinner one night. I served it with a salad and a bottle of wine. It was a huge hit and took about ten minutes. Seriously, it was impressive. Tonight I am making as a side dish, “Grilled Fennel and White Anchovy Skewers.”
Polpo is successful on three fronts. First, it is an excellent introduction to Venetian cuisine. Honestly, I didn’t know. Secondly, this is a well-written, well-tested cookbook. So far, everything I have made is just as tasty as the photo implies. And the photos are astounding. Check them out on Jenny Zarin’s website. She changes the meaning of food photography. Lastly, while this clearly falls into the aspirational cookbook genre, it is successful in this, leading me to both make the recipes in book and to lie dreamily on the sofa dreaming about a trip to Venice.
Polpo: A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts)
Oh Internet, I love you so much! You are so good to me, bringing the world’s knowledge right into my living room. I’ve written previously about film archives, Google Books, and online galleries. To me, this is the promise of the digital age. Today, I’d like to tell you of two new archives I’ve have recently discovered.
The Internet Music Score Library Project, also called the Petrucci Music Library, is an online archive of mostly sheet music. This library is based on the wiki model, so it is a collaborative project. All of the works are copyright free with the exception of contemporary works, which are uploaded with the express consent of the composer under the Creative Commons License. The library is vast and easily navigable. One of the things I find most interesting about this site is that the scores are of two types: newly typeset and also scanned. Of course, the new ones are easy to read, clear and dark. Probably, these are the best to play from. But the scanned ones are the most fun because they are complete with the cover art. Some of the scores are more than a hundred years old and the marking from their library of origin are equally as fascinating. The original illustrations on some of these compositions are art works in their own right. Sadly, you can’t search “vintage cover art,” but it literally seemed as if every third score had some amazing images. Even if you are not a musician, these illustrations are worth a look-see.
Musopen is similar to IMSLP, in that its aim to provide the world with copyright free music scores. But Musopen also has a considerable library of classical recordings available as well. Along the right hand side is a fun list of the most popular listens. I played the most popular of the day, the 1st movement of Winter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as performed by the US Air Force Band. Maybe this has something to do with the Polar Vortex, who knows. Over the last few years, Musopen has launched a few highly successful Kickstarters to fund even more copyright free recordings. According to Wikipedia, they have successfully recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and set them free in the world. Their last Kickstarter was to record the complete works of Chopin. Musopen is a non-profit and based in California and seems to have a more lofty goal than IMSLP.
Of course, there are plenty of places to listen to classical music and to download scores, but what sets these two sites apart is that they are so comprehensive and so easy to use. You can queue up a piece of music, then pop over and look at the score.
I love Christmas movies. Really, I do love them. I’m not being ironic or anything. Most Christmas movies are expertly crafted for the sole purpose of making the viewer feel good, to uplift our spirits on these dark, frigid nights. I wrote about some of my favorites in a post a few years back. But sometimes “the season,” can be a little much.
The Junky’s Christmas is the perfect antidote to this oppression of cheerfulness, while of course, still maintaining that Christmas vibe. This twenty-minute film is short story by William S. Burroughs, produced by Francis Ford Coppola. In Christmas short tradition, the film is claymation, with voice over from Burroughs himself. I have no idea what the intended venue of this film was, but I saw it on Canadian TV way back in the day. I can’t imagine this on American broadcast TV, even now all these years later on the film’s 20th anniversary.
The text for the film comes from the story of the same name from the anthology The Junky’s Christmas and Other Yuletide Stores, edited by Elisa Segrave. A quirky book, this anthology collects 18 Christmas tales, more the way Christmas really is than The Lifetime Chanel would have you know. It’s an interesting idea, but the reality is lacks. I mean, who really wants to read a whole book of Christmas stories.
So I recommend that if you need a break from all the holiday sparkle and tidiness, you check out Junky’s Christmas. Sit back, relax and let ole Grandpa Burroughs read you a Christmas story:
“It was Christmas Day and Danny the Car Wiper hit the street junk-sick and broke after seventy-two hours in the precinct jail…”
In the early pages of PUSSY RIOT!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom is a letter written from prison, by Masha, one of Pussy Riot’s founding members. In this letter, she describes the women in the prison with her, hungry, cold, one woman who miscarried because a police officer raped her while she was in custody. Masha writes, “She’s one of Pussy Riot too.” What strikes me about this is not the violence, because this kind of violence happens to women in the United States as well, but that Masha feels a kinship with her and calls this woman one of her own, Pussy Riot. I think in this letter, she is saying that all women are Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot is a five-woman feminist performance punk band from Russia, who on February 21, 2012, stole into a section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior reserved for priests, where they performed their work “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.” The account in Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom, has the performance lasting forty seconds. For this, they were chased off, later arrested, brought to trial, and three of the members subsequently were convicted of “felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” For this forty-second performance, they received a two-year prison sentence. This event should frighten artists everywhere.
From the closing statement by defense attorney Violetta Volkova: “These women are recognized as political prisoners by international organizations such as Amnesty International, Memorial, and others. These women are not here now because they danced in church in the wrong clothes, in the wrong place, and prayed incorrectly, and made the sign of the cross the wrong way. They are here for their political beliefs. The words of the song, the words of the prayer that they performed—it is a political song, a political prayer addressed to the Blessed Virgin.”
PUSSY RIOT!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom collects letters from prison, court transcripts, and lyrics. With all the media attention that Pussy Riot received, this book is the first time I have heard the story from the members of Pussy Riot themselves. This event was much more political, focused, and transgressive, than even the alternative media made it seem. The slim book ends with artists’ “Tributes to Pussy Riot.” There is a poem from Karen Finaly and another from Eileen Myles, a response from Le Tigre’s JD Samson, and a surprisingly compelling essay by Bianca Jagger. But my favorite is a letter by Yoko Ono:
Dear Yetaterina Samutsevich [Katya],
Thank you. You are right. You have won!
You have won for all of us, the women of the world.
The power of your every word is now growing in us.
From here on, please take good care of yourself, as much as
you are allowed to.
Each one of us is very much needed now.
Let’s cleanse ourselves for the next battle, and heal the
world with the power of truth.
War Is Over! (If You Want It.)
Pussy Riot is just what we need right now. This little book from The Feminist Press is a compelling time capsule told exclusively from the perspective of the women themselves, and their artist supporters. I’m sure the future will provide us with an academic anthology retrospectively detailing the cultural, political, and activist implications of Pussy Riot. Thankfully, this is not that book.
a very reasonable 2.99 digital
The Feminist Press, 2013, 144 pages
If we are lucky, our work becomes larger than we are and takes on a life of its own. Sometimes we know this at the outset and sometimes we come to know as the work moves forward. I’m thinking here of Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, which started as a slim and youthful volume of poems. Whitman revised this modest book until, on his deathbed, book had grown weighty, to over 400 poems. Over his lifetime, as Whitman had hoped, the work had grown with him. Pianist Jonathan Biss might similarly be embarking on this sort of life’s work. At 33 he is undertaking to record all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, a project scheduled to take nearly a decade.
I was taking a MOOC on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and thought I would do a little extra reading on my own. The simplest Google search brought me to a book written by course’s instructor, Jonathan Biss. At $1.99 it didn’t seem like much of a risk, so I downloaded it. I didn’t know who Biss was before I took the course, so I had no idea what to expect. Beethoven’s Shadow is an odd little book. It is not a full-length collection of essays; it is not a full-length book at all. Instead, it is a long essay, a meditation really, on what it feels like to play Beethoven. Biss opens the book with an anecdote about one day in the recording studio in which he became completely unmoored by the experience of recording Sonata Opus 109. Biss writes:
“The microphone is so often likened to a mirror not only because it exposes flaws, but because it is so passive in its judgment — it offers no response. An audience can be an intimidating thing, but it feels, and one can feel it feeling. But the microphone has no feelings, no agenda — it is merely one’s own doubt reflected back.”
The book continues in this vein, addressing what it is like to interpret a genius. I don’t know if Beethoven was a genius or not. I don’t really care. What is interesting, though, is reading the someone who experiences transcendence with Beethoven’s work. This is a good thing, because Biss is scheduled to record all of the sonatas over the next nine years, a project he looks at with a bit of trepidation. To complete this task, Biss who is now only 33 will have to set aside nearly a whole decade to Beethoven. Our laser focus on certain things, perhaps we might call these our passions, by extension must exclude other experiences. Part of the subtext of the book is Biss’s asking the reader to question our own choices. What is it that we love? What art moves us beyond reason? What is it that we exclude in our pursuit of that which we love? And lastly, is it worth it?
Biss is an excellent writer and does a great job of placing the reader somewhere they might not otherwise have been, like a recording studio or on the stage at a concert hall. At the end of this book, I knew a little more about Beethoven, but a lot more about the what it means to undertake a creative project that might truly end up being a life’s work.
Beethoven’s Shadow, by Jonathan Biss
Rosetta Books, Kindle Single
56 print pages