The Wizard of Salzburg, by Tim Page – The New York Review of Books

In all, there are 330 compact discs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray audio discs, a handsome pictorial biography that would be worth having even without the music, and several booklets. There are 405 hours of music here: the first performance dates from 1938 (the overture to Die Zauberflöte with the Berlin Staatskapelle) and the last from April 1989 (Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a few months before Karajan’s death). According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which tracks such things, this is the “largest box set ever issued,” eclipsing a 2011 award presented to the late Arthur Rubinstein for the “largest boxed set of recordings by a single instrumentalist” (a total of 142 CDs).

Critic Tim Page reviews the new, big box set of recordings by Herbert von Karajan. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) While the above mentions the largest box set by a single instrumentalist, this new Karajan set also eclipses the 200-disc set of Mozart recordings released in late 2016.

The sheer bulk of the set is overwhelming, and one can’t help wondering who will listen to it all. After all, we live in a world that offers the near-complete recorded output of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi and most of the albums released by Vladimir Horowitz over the course of sixty-one years (as well as a fifty-CD set of live performances that chronicle seismic ups and downs in the last part of his career), and virtually everything Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Monteux, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Charles Munch ever conducted near a microphone. Moreover, if you are growing weary of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn, and Itzhak Perlman, you can find the complete records of worthy but not exactly household-name violinists such as Johanna Martzy, Gioconda de Vito, and Eduard Melkus issued in Asia, where there has long been a huge hunger for rare recordings.

We have reached peak classical music. These complete sets are everywhere, but I still await one: the complete (more or less) recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, at least those he did for the major labels, DG, Philips, EMI, etc.

There is a simple reason for this proliferation: reissues are nothing but profit for record companies. There are no studio costs to pay, only a small fee to the musician’s union, and some residuals to the artist or the artist’s estate. It has long been considerably less expensive to spiff up and repackage an existing recording than to make a new one. The first stereo albums of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, for example, sound as though they were recorded yesterday, although some of them are nearly sixty-five years old and every person associated with them is either dead or long retired. Brilliant young performers now have to compete not only with their contemporaries but also with a host of legendary ghosts. Through technology we have established a permanent pantheon of great performances, one that can be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for newcomers to crack.

This is an interesting point. These sets aren’t just about cheap (per disc) recordings of all the major classical works, and many minor works, but they have flooded the market with recordings that will make it much more difficult in the decades to come for other performers to stake out a place.

Source: The Wizard of Salzburg | by Tim Page | The New York Review of Books

Photo Book Review: Paris in My Time, by Mark Steinmetz

Steinmetz Paris CoverWhen we think of Paris and photography, we often think of the black and white street photography of Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, and even Erwitt. These photographers found quirky subjects, yet managed to express the quotidian elements of life in a big city.

Mark Steinmetz’s 2013 monograph Paris in My Time offers the feel of those older street photographs of Paris, yet is much more recent. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Shot between 1985 and 2011, many of the 43 photos in this oversized book look as though they could have been taken in any post-war decade. With a wonderful sense of humor, and the ability to capture quirky moments, Steinmetz’s collection (nearly out of print) shows a Paris that is both timeless and alive.

Read the rest of the review on my photo website.

Photo Book Review: Instant Stories, by Wim Wenders

Wim wenders instant storiesWim Wenders was long a fan of the Polaroid, reveling in the instantaneous nature of these photos, and their uniqueness, the fact that there was only one copy of them. He shot lots of Polaroid photos, and his foundation recently went through many boxes of old photos to organize them. This book is the result of that organization, and also serves as a catalog of an exhibit held in London at The Photographers’ Gallery. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

But you won’t buy this book for the quality of the photos; this isn’t a book of photos, but a book of stories with photos as illustrations. Wenders recounts his early film career, from the first film he was involved in, an adaptation of Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, through the 1980 film, Lightning over Water, after which he stopped shooting Polaroids.

Read the rest of the article on my photo website.

How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews – The Washington Post

On Amazon, customer comments can help a product surge in popularity. The online retail giant says that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate because they are written by real shoppers who aren’t paid for them.

But a Washington Post examination found that for some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in.

Many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation. The practice artificially inflates the ranking of thousands of products, experts say, misleading consumers.

Amazon.com banned paying for reviews a year and a half ago because of research it conducted showing that consumers distrust paid reviews. Every once in a while, including this month, Amazon purges shoppers from its site whom it accuses of breaking its policies.

But the ban, sellers and experts say, merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into dispersed and harder-to-track online communities.

It’s tough, with some items, to separate out the fake reviews from the real ones. Amazon does indicate which reviews are for purchases – you can post reviews even if you haven’t purchased an item from Amazon, at least for some product categories – but the way the review-for-sale system works is the sellers “sell” the item for free, or for a nominal fee (such as 1 cent).

I know about this, because I have long posted reviews on Amazon, and am a Vine Voice on Amazon.com, and a top-1000 reviewer on Amazon UK. For a while, I would allow companies to contact me to request reviews, and I did review a handful of products like this, but I stopped, because most of them were crap. I reviewed some electronic product once and gave it one star, and the vendor got really angry at me because they had sent me the item, and expected a five-star review.

I no longer accept unsolicited items, but still write review of things I buy; mostly books, music, and DVDs, but also some other items, if I have an urge to write something when Amazon emails me.

As the article points out, there are certain product categories where this is more of a problem. No-name Bluetooth headphones, diet supplements, even Apple Watch bands; these are the areas where cheap Chinese brands try to game the system. For more expensive products, you can generally trust reviewers, at least if the product is a verified purchase. I look at reviews for audio equipment, camera accessories, and even books, and find them to be, for the most part, honest.

But the system is flawed. You can generally trust those well-rated reviewers, but a former number one reviewer on Amazon.com, who reviewed thousands of books, turned out to have been a fraud, so you never know.

Source: How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews – The Washington Post

Photo Book Review: The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, by Geoff Dyer

WinograndGarry Winogrand was a well-known street photographer who from New York who died in 1984. His work was notably exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, together with photos by Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, and these three photographers transformed photography.

In this new book (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), author Geoff Dyer selects 100 images by Winogrand and discusses them. For each one, he gives some background, relates them to other photos or films, and contextualizes them in Winogrand’s career, or in the history of photography. But his texts are not dry academic commentary; they are often wry extrapolations about what is happening in the images, inventing characters, imagining what they were doing before, during, and after the photos were shot. Dyer makes up a lot; he creates characters, some that re-appear in other photos; he creates situations; he turns these photos into little bite-sized stories.

Much of what Dyer says – about related photographers – is useful as criticism, but it’s the made-up parts that make this book so interesting. It is not intended to be factual, but rather to be one writer’s imagination of what the photos are about.

Nevertheless, his observations about composition and context are all incisive, and he clearly knows a lot about Winogrand’s work, having had access to a large number of unpublished photos (some included in this book). This is a fascinating journey through the work of a great photographer with an interesting guide who tells fascinating stories.

I’ll note that Dyer is the author of a wonderful book about one of my favorite films, Andrei Tarkovski’s Stalker. His book Zona breaks down the movie into 142 sections for each of the 142 shots in the film.

Here’s a video created by the publisher, with Dyer discussing the book, and showing some of the photos.

And here’s a podcast episode where Dyer discusses the book.

‘The Twilight Zone,’ from A to Z – The New York Review of Books

The [Twilight Zone’s] articulate underlying philosophy was never that life is topsy-turvy, things are horribly wrong, and misrule will carry the day–it is instead a belief in a cosmic order, of social justice and a benevolent irony that, in the end, will wake you from your slumber and deliver you unto the truth.

[…]

The show’s most prevalent themes are probably best distilled as “you are not what you took yourself to be,” “you are not where you thought you were,” and “beneath the façade of mundane American society lurks a cavalcade of monsters, clones, and robots.”

This review of a new book, The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) highlights all the things that made the series not only great in its time, but also an enduring television classic. It’s hard to imagine a series that was more influential on the American psyche at such a time of turbulence. The fact that it still has resonance is testimony to its unique vision.

I wish the series was more affordable in digital format. I bought the first season on the iTunes Store some time ago when it was $10, but each season is $35, which is excessive. I have the entire thing on DVD, and I just don’t have the time to rip them. You can get the whole set on Blu-Ray for only $70. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Source: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ from A to Z | by J.W. McCormack | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation – The New York Times

When people talk about books, they often characterize either the genre (science fiction, romance) or the feeling the author strives to impart (a thriller is, presumably, thrilling). But there are, to my knowledge, only a handful of geographically specific kinds of reads. There’s the “beach read,” a phrase we all hear often come every summer season. There’s the notoriously disposable “airplane read.” And for getaways in the woods, you’ve got the “cottage” or “cabin read.” And that’s about it.

Nearly all of these designations are pejorative. The designation of a “beach read” suggests a book that’s frothy and engrossing, but ultimately ephemeral — one that you can sink into as you slump in a folding chair in the sand, but you won’t miss too much if you forget it at the hotel. The term “airplane read” is even more of a dismissal, the idea being a book you can breeze through in the time span of an average flight, and then discard. (The one and only Mack Bolan adventure novel I’ve ever read was one I discovered in a seatback on a puddle-jumper from Toronto to Harrisburg, Pa.) The “cabin read” has a bit more prestige: It implies the kind of pleasurable literary project you lug on an isolated retreat and tackle over an uninterrupted week or two.

To my mind, this list is missing one important geographical location: the subway. Lots of people read on the go, of course; there are entire websites devoted to capturing commuters and the books they’re reading underground. As a New Yorker, I’m on the train all the time, my nose constantly buried in a book. But what makes for a perfect “subway read”?

The first time I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was on subways and busses in New York. There’s no need to dumb down “subway reading.”

Source: Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation – The New York Times

Who Still Reads Anthony Powell?

Many years ago, someone recommend that I read Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Since I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust – I’ve written a number of articles about his work – I should like Powell. After all, he is called “the English Proust.”

Alas, that moniker is quite incorrect. The only thing that makes the two similar is that Proust wrote a very long novel in seven volumes, and Powell wrote a cycle of novels in 12 volumes. The writing, the characters, the style are all very different.

Nevertheless, I tried. I read fifty or so pages, and gave up. But I tried again last year, and was hooked. Now that I live in England, perhaps I understand this type of novel a bit more than when I was a foreigner. Powell’s work is humorous, perceptive, enjoyable, its characters quirky, and the voice of its narrator, Nick Jenkins, is compelling. It’s not as deep or as linguistically challenging as Proust, and, in fact, it’s best to just forget the comparison.

But the question Who still reads Anthony Powell? is one that A. N. Wilson answered in a podcast from the Times Literary Supplement, at the time he published a review of Hilary Spurling’s recent biography of Powell. He seemed to think that no-one reads Powell any more, and, in a relative sense, that’s probably correct. But I’m sure there are occasional curious people like me who pick up the first book in the cycle, and find it enjoyable, and keep on going.

I found one interesting coincidence between the novels and my life. Early on, two of the characters go to France to learn to speak French a bit better. They stay at a place called La Grenadière, which is a property in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, a town next to Tours where I lived for seven years. I would often walk by La Grenadière, which is now an equestrian center, in my strolls to and from a local garden.

Powell is probably indicative of a wide range of post-war novelists in the UK who have been forgotten. Wilson mentions a few in his interview, most of whom I am unfamiliar with. Alas, this is what happens: the old make way for the new, and only a handful cling on over time. That Powell is still read is a sign that his work has some staying power. There are, apparently, a smattering of Powell fanatics, who run Anthony Powell Societies in both the UK and the US. (I joined an email discussion list for one of them, only to find that my introduction emails bounced; I assume someone died.) Perhaps he is one of those authors whose flame is maintained by a small circle of fanatics, who will eventually die off.

In any case, if you have a few quid to spare, I recommend that you buy the first of four omnibus volumes of the work in Kindle format. It’s £5 in the UK, and $7 in the US. You can get the entire cycle for £20 or $28. If you like audiobooks, I strongly recommend the recordings narrated by Simon Vance from Audible UK or Audible.com. Vance has the perfect tone for this work, and I’ve been switching back and forth between the text and the audio as I read thorugh the cycle.

The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough. – Slate

The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.

Yep.

It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre–superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies–give it a B or B-plus.

I’ve been reviewing stuff for more than two decades: music, books, software, hardware, theater, and more. If something is really crap, I generally don’t bother writing a review. But I’ve spent my time trying it out; time that is unpaid. Occasionally – just very occasionally – I’ve published bad reviews, and they are intended as warnings to the public who might be interested in purchasing the item in question.

One such example is this 2006 review of Sting’s album of songs by John Dowland, one of my favorite Renaissance composers. I said:

Next is Flow My Tears, based on the melody from Dowland’s “hit” instrumental, Lachrimae. Stings sounds like a mediocre singer in a shower. His voice is terrible, his tone is slightly off, and it makes me want to howl at the moon. He basically massacres this song – though you don’t hear him gasping any more – and his braying is a sorry sound indeed.

But, I also concluded the review saying this:

Now, I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting’s performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. Shakespeare scholars, for example, have shown that no Shakespeare play was met with the same awe and respect that we modern theatre-goers show; it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels. Well, all but the part with the processed voices.

Here’s another record I panned, which earned me an angry email from the musician question. My criticism was his questionable choice of tempo:

The liner notes mention something curious that motivated the guitarist’s playing. He “tried to keep an ideal ‘tactus’, that of my heartbeat at rest (53 on the metronome) throughout the Variations.” This is one of the most questionable reasons to record at a given tempo that I can imagine. Whatever motivated this odd decision certainly ruined this recording.

I ended that review saying:

It’s rare that I hear a recording that is this lugubrious and disappointing. I strongly suggest avoiding this disc.

Source: The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough.

The Kindle Moment

No one can ignore that the hottest book right now is Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a narrative history of the beginning of the Trump administration. It’s the best selling book on Amazon, even though it’s not currently available in hardcover. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Originally scheduled for release on January 9, it was pushed up to the 5th to meet the demand that had been created by some carefully planned magazine excerpts, and a few tweets by the subject of the book, followed by some weak attempts to block its sale.

It’s a page-turner; I’ve read about half so far. It confirms that things are really bad in the White House, but also that they’re much worse than we could have imagined.

What’s interesting about this book is that it’s the first real Kindle moment. The first printing sold out in hours, and Amazon currently shows it as being available in 2 to 4 weeks. This estimate is probably exaggerated, because they should be able to get enough books printed in a day or two to satisfy the early demand, but it’s possible that they have so many orders already, that their next deliveries are already sold.

Unlike an iPhone, which is a physical product that often suffers from this sort of unavailability at launch, this book is also available in Kindle format. And Amazon is taking advantage of that, reminding readers that they can buy the Kindle version without waiting:

Fire and fury

You’ll note that the Kindle version currently costs more than the (unavailable) hardcover. This is a sort of surge pricing for books; why discount the hottest book of the season? It’s not a loss leader like the latest novels by Dan Brown or Stephen King, it’s a must-read that people want now, because it won’t be as interesting in a week, after many of the salacious elements are reported in the press.

It’s not often that a book like this drives demand so much that the publisher can’t keep up. Amazon is stepping in to help meet that demand, shifting a lot of readers from print to ebook. Even if they don’t have Kindles, they can read it on their phones or tablets.

Recent reports have suggested that ebook sales are sliding, but this is the kind of book that can give an unexpected bump to the format.

One note: credit is due to Amazon for policing reviews on this book. Following recent changes to Amazon’s review policy, this book can only be reviewed by verified purchasers. This weeds out the many fake reviewers that attempt to lower the ratings of controversial books. Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, more than 500 people have reviewed this book, giving it an average rating of five stars. I’m sure not all of them have read the book in its entirety, but many people are posting reviews just to say that, in spite of attempts to quash it, they’ve bought it.

There are currently 14 one-star reviews, including:

President has declared book illegal. If you read you illegal. America now great. Obey law or go gulag. Bad book. Bad writing. Go far away.

And…

VERY SAD!!!!!
I read a lots of books more than anyone and this book is a DISGRACE.Wolff is a loser A TOTAL LOSER and everyone knows it. you know it, I know it, everyone knows it.This book is NOT FOR SMART PEOPLE. Only a very for dumb people would read this TRASH. Only very dumb people like, not the kind of book I would read because I’m one of the SMARTEST PEOPLE.

And…

Sorry I made a mistake I want the actual book it is a present por my mom can you return it?