Wednesday, May 28, 2008

50BC08 #11: The Miracle at Speedy Motors

The Miracle at Speedy Motors (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 9) The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith
rating: 4 of 5 stars

The real mystery in this series is how the author manages to continue the charming adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Grace Makutsi and Mr. JLB Matekoni well past the original seven volumes he had originally intended. Now on Book #9, McCall still manages to breathe new life into his characters, even if they still maintain habitual bush tea drinking or conversations with their shoes!

One of the gifts or major frustrations of this series (depending on your preference) is the slow rate of character development (at least in terms of their interpersonal relationships). While Mma Potokwane can still be relied upon to supply fruitcake and charm Mr. JLB Matekoni into doing odd jobs, other characters begin to grow and mature, even if only by inches. The changes are subtle, but this is what keeps readers coming back for yet another volume.

I have to admit to skipping over some of the repetitions (Smith writes so that you can pick up any volume in the series, but I do recommend reading them in order) but I found the plot coherency better in this book than in the Good Husband of Zebra Drive, for example. There is still a sense that perhaps he sets up too many loose ends and feels a pressure near the end to tie them up, but it doesn't detract from the general enjoyment of the novel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

50BC08 #10: Becoming a Musician

Becoming A Musician Becoming A Musician by George Norwood Humphrey

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find it hard to criticize posthumously published memoirs for two reasons: 1) the original author has no say over the final manuscript and 2) those who endeavor to publish it might risk misrepresenting the original author's intent (intentionally or not).

If one reads this memoir (as with any memoir) with a grain of salt, you can appreciate Humphrey's anecdotes about some of the most famous figures in orchestral conducting. Having graduated from New England Conservatory in 1929, Humphrey, after much perseverance, obtained a viola position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1934 under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. The book is largely a memoir of his long career with the BSO, which ended in 1977.

Humphrey cannot truly decide, however, how he feels about Koussevitsky, and this is partially what makes the book frustrating, but also one of the more interesting aspects. The reader can tell that he's grappling with his own psychology. Late in the book he acknowledges his own ambivalence, in contrasting Erich Leinsdorf to Koussevitsky:

The very thing I had always wished for now became anathema to me, for with this x-ray treatment [by Leinsdorf], all inspirational possibilities had gone. We found ourselves playing woodenly. (149)

Koussevitsky is not the only victim of Humphrey's ambivalence. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with conductors in general:

[Under Munch] we had to be prepared to do anything that he might demand for this concert, but not wish for the next. This sort of thing can make one almost as nervous as the other well-prepared version under an autocrat. (105)

While I agree, it seems to me that this discredits his implied assertion that a conductor is simply there to keep the beat. I think it would make one especially nervous if one felt that the conductor was no more than a mere metronome. As an ensemble musician myself, while I don't prefer bizarre maneuvers out of left field during a concert, I do appreciate if the work is "new" EVERY time it is played. I believe there is a way to do this without putting orchestral cohesion at risk.

To Humphrey's credit, while his portrayal of Koussevitsky vascillates between "grumpy old man" and the Devil incarnate, he doesn't unreasonably idolize Munch, or any of the other successors. He acknowledges that the affability of Munch, for example, came at the expense of a certain lack of discipline. Moments like this smooth out his bipolar portrayal of Koussevitsky.

Humphrey includes plenty of humor (sometimes unintentionally, as he betrays his own snobberies and assumptions) and clearly communicates what was undoubtedly a love affair with music. Making no assumptions about his married life, I will say that I found the rare mention of his wife Mildred (or children) to be rather unfortunate. While I realize that the focus of the book is his musical career, one does wonder about the reaction of his spouse to his various relocations, touring, and general financial unsteadiness.

While an enjoyable and quick read, this book suffers from terrible editing. The repetitiveness is very bothersome, in that it is so obvious. Entire paragraphs reappear in later chapters, almost word for word. Direct quotes show up twice, losing any kind of impact the second time around (see, for example, Koussevitsky's "Now I feel like a guest conductor" on p. 91 AND p. 106).

Poor editing aside, Humphrey's tale of struggling musician turned successful professional violist is inspiring. In reading the book, one does have the vivid impression of the man sitting down to sincerely recount the major musical highlights of his life. His dedication and hard work would be both informative and motivational for an aspiring musician. He provides an interesting snapshot as well of the role of the orchestra as representational force in American politics.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Diamant on Gordimer

Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, writes about art, politics and the voice of fellow novelist and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, in today's Boston Globe.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

50BC08 #9: Things Fall Apart

50BC08 #9: Things Fall Apart
Author: Chinua Achebe
Year: 1959 (Anchor Books, 50th Anniversary Edition)
Genre: Fiction, African Literature
Pages: 209
Other: Part of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list

This is an extraordinary book in its ability to narrate both a story of cultural dissonance and an overarching tale about the human condition. Achebe's novel broaches the subject of morality, but demonstrates that even the concept of "evil" is subject to a cultural interpretive context.

Okonkwo, the book's tragic hero, is an emblem of tradition, but also represents how tradition can be subject to the inner turmoil of the human soul. While the Ibo people must face the threat of European missionaries, Okonkwo must confront the threat of his own misplaced hubris. Achebe is a sympathetic voice, but is unafraid to reveal the flaws of his characters as a commentary upon our own imperfect existence.

This is probably one of the best introductions to African fiction, precisely because the story does not limit itself to the African context. The author's investigation of tragedy is pragmatic, yet emotionally stimulating without being romanticized. It is a book that will help the western reader more easily understand not only Nigerian tribal culture, but the power of ideas and their institutions.

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9 / 50

Friday, May 2, 2008

50BC08 #8: The First Christmas

BOOK: The First Christmas
AUTHORS: Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan
YEAR: 2007 (Hardcover, HarperOne)
PAGES: 255
GENRE: nonfiction, religion, christianity
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

While it may seem odd to be posting about a book about Christmas on the day after Ascension, authors Borg and Crossan would no doubt find it somewhat fitting as both the Ascension and Christ's birth are filled with light imagery, something the authors feel is a prominent and important aspect of the Christmas biblical narratives.

The authors successfully argue that the discrepancies found between Luke and Matthew's Christmas stories are only problematic should one chose to take the biblical narratives literally rather than allegorically. Through a careful analysis of language and symbolic representation, Borg and Crossan reveal how Matthew and Luke both see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel, but communicate this message via different genealogies and troping of the Old Testament.

This book largely supports Borg's message that the Biblical language to describe Jesus was in fact a very intentional attempt to subvert Roman authority. By applying titles used for Roman emperors and nobility to Jesus, Christ is set up as an alternative to the Roman "peace through victory" approach.

Those familiar with the author's theses regarding political subversion and what they call "participatory eschatology" might find the book a bit repetitive. The authors are careful to provide several examples and a thorough investigation of both Matthew and Luke, in addition to their Old Testament references. Borg and Crossan write for a general audience, condensing the more weighty theological principles into concise and relevant explanations. Those who are interested in reading the Bible as more than a literal and historical narrative will no doubt find this book to be very engaging and a good study of what Christmas really means.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
8 / 50