New and noteworthy – 25 August 2016

The score on Brian Eno, the struggles of America’s down and out in cheap motels, and how our forebears slept

August 25, 2016
Brian Eno performing live at Punkt 2012
Source: Jørund Føreland Pedersen

Brian Eno: Oblique Music
Edited by Sean Albiez and David Pattie

Thirteen music scholars – many composers and musicians themselves – turn their attention to Roxy Music member, “ambient” pioneer and Jeremy Corbyn supporter Brian Eno. The collection’s standouts are Martin James’ pithy, pacy account of Eno’s years in New York (1978-84) as an “urban ethnographer” and, frankly, not universally adored producer, and Hillegonda Rietveld’s coolly attentive reading of the soundtrack to the film The Lovely Bones, in which his “oblique music seems like a ghostly call from the ‘in-between’”.

Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel
Christopher Dum
Columbia University Press

No surprise to see Erving Goffman namechecked in the preface to this fine, vivid and disturbing ethnography. Dum spent a year in a “largely white and middle-class suburban town” in the US, passing most of his time in (although, he notes, “not as a full-time resident of”) a squalid motel used to house “social refugees”: sex offenders, struggling addicts, the working poor and the mentally ill. The story is, he vows, “told through the perspective of those most qualified to tell it: the residents themselves”. It’s a claim that too often falls short, of course. Here, however, Sam, Mike, Biggie, Dee, Curtis and Sky appear as large – and as flawed and human and touching – as life.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
Erdmut Wizisla

It’s hard to imagine a scholar better placed to write this account of the formative two-decade friendship between famed scholar/critic and equally famed playwright than Wizisla, director of the Brecht and the Benjamin archives in Berlin. Translated by Christine Shuttleworth, this work began life as a doctoral thesis in the GDR, and makes ample use of correspondence, journal entries and previously unpublished material. Its wider eye on the two men’s circle of writers and artists in Weimar Germany – via quarrels, detective novels, wild plans for periodicals and, inevitably, disputes over Trotsky – is fascinating.

Sleep in Early Modern England
Sasha Handley
Yale University Press

Feel like death warmed over this morning? Your forebears would have nodded sagely in understanding. “For early modern people”, observes Handley, “sleep was not a purely functional action since its quality was believed to shape their fortunes on both sides of the grave…[and] had the power to give or destroy life, to craft or to ruin reputations, and to smooth or obstruct the path to heaven.” Milton and Culpeper, Wesley and Locke, Gilray and Fuseli, Coleridge and Austen, bedpans and bedsteads all feature in this pleasingly fact-stuffed account, as does the teenaged Catherine Livingston, maid in Queen Catherine of Braganza’s privy chamber, whose meditations on her failings as a Christian spotted the Devil’s hand in her inability to roll out of bed before noon.

To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect
Mary Thompson-Jones
W. W. Norton

International relations scholar Thompson-Jones eyes up the mountain of 251,287 State Department cables revealed to the world by WikiLeaks in 2010, rolls up her sleeves and pulls out a treasure trove of (to date) less-chewed-over material, from hair-raising tales of Bulgaria’s Chicago-of-the-Balkans to the fates of Saddam Hussein’s drunken bears. As expected of a former diplomat, her sympathies lie squarely with her nation’s representatives abroad; interestingly, however, her book is also an apologia for the well-turned phrase, concluding “Diplomacy is still an art, as is good writing.”

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