This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath. — Margaret Atwood
Because of the isolation caused by the Pandemic, we’re having an unusually quiet Solstice celebration on the Estate this year. Usually we throw a party to which a hundred or so guests show up, but this year it’s just the thirty five residents here. So we decided just to have a meal and do something quiet, perhaps a reading from something that was Summer Solstice related.
That got changed in favour of a concert of music that seemed fitting of the passing from the Winter months to the Summer months, so we gathered after the eventide meal in the Pub, got our favorite drinks and settled in for an evening of music. It was a restful, quiet concert — very unlike the unusual raucous celebrations we have here. It finished off with “Dancing at Whitsun”, a song by Maddy Prior and Tim Hart.
So let’s start off with an English mystery set in summertime. For that, we have A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, a classic English manor house novel that gets a looked by Lory: ‘The story is not really a “whodunit” — the “who” is pretty clear from the outset — the question is “how” and, even more, “why” he did it, and Milne keeps us guessing until the end. The plausibility of the solution is not one that would hold up to heavy scrutiny, but the pleasure lies not in the verisimilitude of the puzzle but in the ingenuity of its construction and unravelling, and the witty repartee among the characters.’
Michael looks at possibly the best fantasy novel set up to and on Summer Solstice, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks: ‘How can I say so much, and not touch deeply upon the plot? Because this book is like that. It’s full of words. Beautiful, poetic words, that sing you a song, urge you into a dance, lull you into a sense of security, and weave a tale while you’re not looking. It’s easy to get lost in this book. Emma Bull is a musician in her own right, and she lovingly details the scenes revolving around music, songs, and the band with painstaking effort. She knows what she’s doing, and it shows. This book literally sings. Turn to any page, and I promise you, the text will be gorgeous, evocative, and occasionally as mysterious as the Phouka.’
Not precisely Summer novels, but I like them as Summer reading, so Robert has two fantasies by de Lint: ‘Charles de Lint is known as “the godfather of urban fantasy,” and indeed, it’s in that genre that he’s made his mark – he’s never been a writer of heroic fantasy: in a better than thirty year career, very few buckles get swashed, although the two short novels included in Jack of Kinrowan — Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon — come close, something of a romp a la Dumas pere — by way of Harold Lloyd, perhaps. Both concern the adventures of Jacky Rowan and Kate Hazel, best friends who find themselves enmeshed in the doings of the land of Faerie that coexists with modern-day Ottawa.’
Robert rounds out our reviews with a McKillip novel also set in summertime: ‘It seems somewhat odd, on reflection, to realize that in a genre that so often uses magic as a metaphor and/or device, so few writers actually evoke the qualities of magic in their writing. That observation is prompted by Patricia A. McKillip’s Solstice Wood. McKillip has always been a writer whose books can themselves be called “magical,” and it’s even more interesting to realize that she seldom uses magic as a thing of incantations and dire workings or as anything special in itself: it just is, a context rather than an event, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.’
Denise is back from her (stomach ache after all that candy) sabbatical, and immediately dives into Coastal Maine Popcorn Company’s Cinnamon Apple Popcorn. How’d she like the sweet treat? ‘I love multiplex ‘corn, and who doesn’t love apple pie? Two great tastes that taste great together? Um, nope.’ But she holds out hope for other ‘corns by the brand in her review.
The ultimate summer festival? How about this? Take a number of well-known musicians, toss in fans and a camera crew, put all on a train traversing Canada. That’s the gist of Festival Express. Sound intriguing? David thought so: ‘It opens with a faded map of north Ontario, Kapuskasing dead centre. Then the camera pulls back and from the middle of the screen comes a train — an old Canadian National engine — and tracks, lots of tracks. This is a movie about that train and the people who rode on it, and the places it stopped, and what happened one week in 1970 when this train went from Toronto to Calgary … with a cargo of rock’n’rollers and all their paraphernalia. What a summer.’
Another film, this one soaked in summer — and summer in northern Italy, to boot. Says Robert: ‘It’s hard to avoid comparisons between Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain, even though the stories couldn’t be farther apart. Let me just say that, for this viewer, at least, the impact was equivalent.’
Robert has the beginning of a manga series that looks good for summer reading, Yellow Tanabe’s Kekkaishi: ‘This is the start of a long-running series, which justifies the episodic nature of the story — from the looks of things, Yoshimori’s going to be having a lot of adventures. (Thirty-five collected volumes worth, in fact.) I’d note it as one for teen boys, and probably tweens as well — it’s a humorous action/adventure story, although it’s likely not a series that I will be continuing — but then, I’m not a teenager. Really.’
Robert here, with some music that more or less fits the season — my own feeling is that music has no season, but there are exceptions.
First, a work by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven that — well, I won’t say it’s ignored, but it’s not one that people think of first — the Symphony No. 6 in F: ‘The Sixth Symphony, almost an anomaly in Beethoven’s oeuvre, is truly a “pastorale,” a musical counterpart to the paintings of Constable or the poetry of Wordsworth. In the history of the portrayal of Nature in the works of Man, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony occupies a place of its own.’ It really was intended to depict a summer day in the country.
Of course, there’s an old stand-by, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, this time in a somewhat singular reading: ‘Terje Tønnesen, soloist and conductor on this recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, includes a liner note to the effect that the performance “represents a form of time travel in which we attempt a ‘correct’ reading of history while at the same time interpreting it freely from our own perspective.” For those who routinely deal with the past and its artifacts — from archaeologists and historians to musicians, actors, and critics — this seems so self-evident that it hardly bears repeating, but it does give one pause for thought: we tend to assume that the past is just like the present, except that people wore funny clothes.’
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote some tremendously evocative music, as discussed in this review of a group of his orchestral works. The one that always seems to me to be a “summer” piece is The Lark Ascending: ‘The Lark Ascending is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces of music Vaughan Williams wrote. For some reason, it is linked in my mind with A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – perhaps it’s the very real feeling of an English village reflected in the music: the images are rural, sometimes sprightly, sometimes melancholy, and Iona Brown’s solo passages are simply haunting.’
And finally, an album from a land that doesn’t really have seasons — well, rainy and not rainy, but to those of us in northern climes, it’s alway summer — Uun Budiman and the Jugala Gamelan Orchestra’s Banondari: ‘One realizes, after a while, that popular music, while it may appear in many guises, has certain things in common. Sometimes it is subject matter, sometimes it is more elusive. . . . Jaipongan is a newly designated Sundanese “traditional” form that incorporates elements of several other Indonesian forms of traditional dance theater, Sundanese gamelan styles, and even pancang silat, a traditional martial art, along with influences from Western rock and pop music.’
That’s it for music this week.
Jennifer gives us “Comet Summer”, a tiny story about children’s magic saving the world on the Summer Solstice. Nobody knows this, but the story was written to be sung to the tune of “Tender Shepherd”. It was originally published in Breaking Waves, An Anthology for Gulf Coast Relief in 2010.
Robert has the ultimate summer song for our Coda this week — none other than Clara’s first act aria from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: