December 26, 2011


Darbie put these in my stocking. That dog's got a lot of heart.

December 5, 2011

READING: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I spent the last month in a near trance-like state -- eating at odd hours, rarely leaving the house, barely capable of carrying on a conversation -- because I was intensely focused on finishing the final mixes for the new Last Names record.

Meanwhile, I was slowly working my way through Haruki Murakami's new novel, 1Q84. The book resonated so much with my situation, I was afraid it might shatter every glass in the house.

The two main characters, Aomame (translates to green peas) and Tengo, find themselves drawn into a slightly different version of reality -- one in which there are two moons in the sky -- without understanding why they're there, or what it means that the world has (slightly) changed, or how to get back to the reality they left behind. No one else seems to notice the changes, so it's a deeply odd and isolating situation.

Working on round after round of mixes, you get the same feeling. You're focused on specific properties of sound, frequency details that no one else pays attention to, and even when you walk away from the desk, you hone in on them. The car engine is too rumbly (needs a high pass filter?); the person you're talking to is too muddled (check the low mids); the doorbell pings too loud and doesn't ring long enough (add compression, find a good attack and release). It's impossible to remember what it was like before you were lost to mixing, and impossible to imagine what it will be like when you're done. You're just stuck, staring at two moons in the sky.

I read slowly, and worked slowly, and now, whenever I think back on the record, I'll picture scenes from the book.

October 29, 2011


The Crime Book of J. G. Reeder by Edgar Wallace from The Reader's Quarry in Woodstock.

September 9, 2011

WALKING: Overlook Mountain

Overlook Mountain rises just north of Woodstock in the southeast corner of the Castkill Park. The trailhead is across from a Buddhist Temple high on the slope. To get there, you just follow Rock City Road from the middle of town all the way up.

Most of the trail is wide and lined with gravel. It follows a steep jeep trail that runs to a transmitter near the summit. I passed a lot of people going up (one of whom was barefoot), but it still felt quiet. The edge of the trail was feathered with green ferns.

Higher up, the clusters of wildflowers became more frequent.

After two miles, I walked into a cloud bank. A haze clung to the edge of everything, and it felt the sky was just past the trees.

Near the summit, the trail goes through the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House. Built in 1870, it enjoyed brief favor as an elite resort (Ulysses S. Grant stayed there when he was president; they called it "the summer White House") before it burned down in 1875.

Rebuilt and overlooked, the Overlook was turned into a sanitarium before it burned again in 1926.

In the 1960s, the state of New York set controlled fire to what was left, leaving behind a yawning shell of rock.

Foundation and rock walls, empty doors and windows, a few fireplaces.

Lots of stairways leading to nothing.

At the top of Overlook, a fire tower juts into the air. You climb it and ascend above the trees. You can feel the mountain curving out in every direction below you. It's like hovering half a mile in the air.

September 8, 2011

READING: The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

A few years ago, Darbie got me the first third of the New York Review Classics catalogue. The series, described by the NYRB as "an innovative list of fiction and nonfiction for discerning and adventurous readers," is full of interesting, overlooked, often out-of-print oddities, the kinds of things that fall into the "strangely compelling" category.

The Peregrine details a winter J.A. Baker spent obsessively shadowing two peregrines, a falcon (female) and a tiercel (male), near his home in the English countryside. It's strange. He doesn't explain the origins of his interest, doesn't give any details about his personal life, doesn't once, in the course of the book, describe an interaction with another human. His fixation is complete, and works slowly to transform his consciousness. "Wherever he goes, this winter," he writes early in the book:

I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

Later, his transformation progressing, he describes himself investigating the corpse of a woodpigeon recently killed by the tiercel:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

It wasn't surprising to learn that, after writing
The Peregrine, Baker wrote one more book, The Hill of Summer, then disappeared into obscurity. From the cover page: "...he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life. Little else, including the exact year of his death, is known..."

Shortly after reading
The Peregrine, I took a walk by the Hudson and flushed a red-tailed hawk. I watched him alight in a tree fifty yards ahead, kept my eyes on his outline, and started slowly approaching him. He wasn't startled by passing cars, but when I got anywhere near, he took off again. I followed him from tree to tree for an hour, trying, and failing, to get close without annoying him and pushing him away. Once, when I lost him high in the branches of a black locust, I noticed a mob of crows cawing in agitation and knew, after reading Baker, to look there for my hawk. I think I'll look for him again later this week...

Reading The Peregrine made me want to revisit another NYRB book I read a while ago: The Goshawk by T.H. White. Rather than tracking a hawk in the wild, White (the author of The Once and Future King) attempts to train one using a book called Treatise of Hawks and Hawking, which was written in 1619. The method requires the austringer (is to hawk as falconer is to falcon) to "watch" the hawk, which means sitting with her on his glove, preventing her from sleeping until she loses the will to resist and agrees to eat from his hand, and thereby "breaking" her. White watches Gos (his goshawk) for four sleepless nights before he has any success, and he and the hawk end up sharing in a strange delirium, which continues through various trials and travails.

In the post-script, written years later, White concedes that using instructions from 1619 for anything, including hawking, may not be the best idea:

Imagine the Tudor staircase in a country house, with all its coats-of-arms and carved balusters and heraldic griffins: compare it mentally with the chromium staircase in a modern hotel: and you will have imagined the difference between what I had been doing to Gos and what a reasonable austringer would do today.

Part of what makes me love both The Goshawk and The Peregrine is precisely that they're not reasonable. They're not written by reasonable people. Rather, both beautifully chronicle the dedicated pursuit of unreason.

September 5, 2011

WALKING: Kingston Point Park

In 1896, Kingston Point Park became a stop for the Hudson River Dayliner, a classy and well-trafficked steamboat service running from New York City to Albany. From 1896 to 1920, it was the thriving park pictured above. It had a merry-go-round, a dance hall, and a shooting gallery. People would gather on warm nights for picnics and fireworks. The Oriental Hotel, which was built overlooking the park, burned down in 1922, and by 1928, there was nothing left. I'm not sure what happened, but the Great Depression, which followed immediately, couldn't have helped.

The park was refurbished in the late 80s and early 90s. There's only a hint of what it once was.

There are a few gazebo shells, and a bridge that leads out to the Western bank of the Hudson.

I walked down the railroad tracks, which curve along a berm rising out of a lush swamp. The tracks lead towards the Rondout. A trolley ran from the center of the Strand up to the park.

From the Southern edge of the park, you can see the Kingston Point Lighthouse jutting out into the Hudson. Some days, the whole peninsula is covered with waterfowl.

Giant tankers still barrel down the river. I saw three as I wandered down the tracks.

The remnants of what the park once was are everywhere: scattered bricks, worn and rounded, railroad tracks peeking out from the grass, gazebos stranded in the middle of copses of trees. You walk through a turn-of-the-century clearing, and suddenly you're in the middle of a modern baseball diamond next to a BMX raceway. It's strange.

September 2, 2011


My box of books arrived today from Texas. Half Price Books in Dallas is an ever-growing hunting ground. I had to show uncharacteristic restraint. Here's what I got:

The Control of Nature by John McPhee
A book about all-out battles with nature. Three chapters: "Atchafalaya," "Cooling the Lava," and "Los Angeles Against the Mountains." With all the Catskills flooding recently, it turns out to be even more salient than I expected.

A Long Desire by Evan S. Connell
Since I read Son of the Morning Star in an impromptu book club a few years ago, I've been picking up Evan Connell books whenever I can. He's a best-living-writer contender, and due for renewed widespread appreciation. This is a book of essays about exploration, about seekers of Atlantis, the Northwest Passage, El Dorado, etc.

The Fort Tejon Letters by John Xantus
Xantus collected specimens for the Smithsonian in the 1850s. These letters, written from a fort in the Tehachapi Mountains in California to his museum contact in Washington, describe his adventures trapping, shooting, stuffing, and shipping animals. Apparently, he was a bit of a fabulist.

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
Wilson's autobiography. "Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine."

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry
Already read and written about here.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir
A naturalist exploring California and other points West. A theme is emerging here...

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
How is it that I've never heard of this book? The pull-quotes come from people like David Foster Wallace ("No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged") and Jonathan Lethem ("Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, sculpted in prose"). It just jumped to the top of my reading list.

The box also included two books given to me by my parents:

Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas by James L. Haley
After reading about the Comanches, I found my interest in Texas renewed. It's where I grew up, after all. My dad recommended this history.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis
According to the dust jacket, "a character-driven narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor" about the crash of the bond and real estate derivative markets. My mom recommended this.

September 1, 2011

READING: Mozart by Peter Gay

Acquired a few weeks ago from Bibliobarn Too in Margaretteville (does it still exist? is it still underwater? Margaretteville was hit really hard by post-Irene flash flooding), this is part of the Penguin Lives series in which well-known authors and historians are commissioned to write little biographies. It was a plane-trip-sized read.

Reading this book made me realize I want to build a master timeline to start keeping track of what happened when. Mozart was 22 in 1776. He died in 1791, as revolution raged in France. He was a prolific letter writer and journal keeper (his correspondence peppered with shit jokes), but he never mentioned anything about the American or French revolutions in anything he wrote. Did the Comanches have horses yet? I'm going to need a big sheet of paper.

I'm interested now in Lorenzo da Ponte, the Italian who wrote the librettos for the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutti. He galavanted around Byron-style breaking hearts and incurring debt until he settled in the U.S. late in life. In 1825, he was a professor of Italian at Columbia University. It surprised me that Mozart was that closely connected to the modern world and to New York City. Who was in da Ponte's class? Did they badger da Ponte with questions about Mozart?

August 29, 2011

READING: Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry

I went to Dallas for my sister's wedding, and while I was there, I stopped at Half Price Books. I shipped most of my acquisitions and I'm still awaiting their arrival, so I'll post about them later. I wanted to read Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen in Texas, so I carried it with me and finished it on the plane. It was the right choice.

Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove, sits in a Dairy Queen in his hometown of Archer City reading the Walter Benjamin essay "The Storyteller," and begins reflecting on his sixty-plus years as a Texan. He writes about the effect of wide-open skies on the psyche, the spartan and silent nature of cowboys, his memories of favorite drugstore paperbacks, his finds in dearly-departed New York City bookstores. He tells stories about his grandparents, about a local dairy farmer who milks his cows before committing suicide (why?), about riding half the day to pick up the mail as a kid. He imagines how those stories might relate to "The Storyteller." How does a small town in desolate West Texas compare to, and prepare someone for, the ideas of Walter Benjamin? As a reading-obsessed Texas native, it's question I'm familiar with.

McMurtry has spent his reading life imagining and trying to understand Europe, and his writing life coming to terms with the fact that the American West doesn't have the historical depth to produce anything on par with the best Europe has to offer. A voracious reader from a young age, McMurty describes how, after a quadruple bypass surgery, he lost the will and desire to read, how he's never fully recovered it. For a while, the only books he could pick up were "the White Nile of Proust" and "the Blue Nile of Virginia Woolf." You can feel the weight of his loss.

Next time I'm in Texas, I'm going to spend a few days in Archer City: McMurtry helped turn it into a town full of books. He's been buying up casualty stock from dying urban bookstores and libraries in an attempt to keep the thrill of the find alive. There's so much, he can't even come close to sorting it all. It sounds like a book hunter's paradise...

Books it made me want to read:
Grasslands by Richard Manning
Sky Determines by Ross Calvin
Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan

August 25, 2011


Last year, on a field trip to the Northern Catskills town of Hobart, also known as Hobart Book Village, Darbie and I discovered Bibliobarn, which, as the name implies, is a giant barn full of books. Darbie even posted about it.

Last week, we passed through Margaretville on a day of wandering, and I stopped at Bibliobarn Too, the smaller, though no less charming, sister store to Bibliobarn.

Here's what I got:

Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay
Part of the Penguin Lives series, which I've been interested in investigating. I've also been looking for a Mozart book.

Freud: A Life for Our Time by Peter Gay
Reading the flap on the slight Mozart biography drew my interest to Peter Gay, whose life seems to have been spent mostly thinking about Freud. And the Enlightenment. This book is by no means slight.

Here Am I -- Where Are You? by Konrad Lorenz
Following a lead from Wildwood, I looked for King Solomon's Ring, but found this book instead. Lorenz, a controversial German naturalist, spent years living among and learning how to communicate with greylag geese, and this book is the result.

Parts Unknown -- A Naturalist's Journey in Search of Birds and Wild Places by Tim Gallagher
Itself an unknown. It was near the Lorenz book on the shelf, and starts with Gallagher explaining how, as a kid, he developed a fascination with the regions of old maps designated "parts unknown." Auspicious.

Expression in Singing -- A Practical Study of Means and Ends by H.S. Kirkland
The front of this book is printed with what is either a summary or a crazy screed (or both) detailing how "the author shows that a student of singing must learn to think before he can understand the thoughts of others; that he must have definite ideas before he can express ideas definitely; and that he must understand the cause of emotion before he can express the concepts of emotion." I've been looking for something to help me sing like Tom Waits. Or Morrissey.

The Hudson River 1850-1918 -- A Photographic Portrait by Jeffrey Simpson
I want to follow the Hudson from Lake Tear of the Clouds to the harbor in Manhattan. I want to know what everything looked like here in Kingston, in the Hudson River valley in general, back in the time of the ice barons. I started flipping through this book waiting for Darbie, and it followed me home.

August 24, 2011

READING: Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin

A sudden decision to write a series of songs about the concept of wilderness led me to pick up this book that's been lingering unread on my bedside table for months.

It's a series of essays, each of which deals in some way with trees. It's captivating, and you can really imagine what it's like to wander deep in ancient forests and to feel their dark and arcane magic. It's also full of interesting anecdotes, histories, and insights into the diverse and particular varieties and cultures of the woods.

It gets into the difference between ash and willow, between coppicing and pollarding, between root and burl. Deakin attends an ancient ritual, enacted every year, whereby the British woodland poor reassert their right to pollards cut from manorial forests, chanting "Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely!" He describes the contrast between the shady world of burl dealing, where shotgun-toting schemers soak rare walnut deformities in water to increase their weight before selling, and the sterile burl libraries where the slivers are kept, barcoded and serialized, before they are applied by hand to the interiors of Jaguar XJ6s. He helps artist David Nash chase one of his creations, a giant wooden boulder, as it wanders up and down a tidal estuary. He tracks down wild Ur-apples in Kazakhstan, and explains how they gave birth to all modern cultivars. He watches birds, catches moths, and follows green roads, holloways, drovers roads, and ridgeways, all of which existed long before any kind of plan or pavement.

This book made me want to do a lot of walking around, to watch trees patiently -- for years even -- as they grow and change, and to learn lost arts, like laying a hedge or building a bender. I finished it feeling profoundly sad: I know I'm going to miss Roger Deakin.

Books it made me want to read:
King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Lorenz
A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy