Thursday, April 9, 2009

50BC09 #8: The Thief of Venice

The Thief of Venice: A Homer Kelly Mystery (Homer Kelly Mysteries) The Thief of Venice: A Homer Kelly Mystery by Jane Langton

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am a fan of the Homer Kelly mysteries, but this one bothered me due to the completely atypical behavior of one of the characters. If this development had been explained or had been more central to the story line, it would have made for a better book. But Langton detonates this bizarre plot point without worrying about the shrapnel. Those unfamiliar with the series/characters will probably not find it as problematic.
That said, the other elements of the mystery and the visualization of Venice are well-executed and carefully researched. The line drawings bring the Piazza San Marco and other Venetian landmarks to life, as in a private travel journal.

50BC09 #7: The Student Conductor

Student Conductor Student Conductor by Robert Ford

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm often very skeptical of novels with music as a centerpiece for their story line. I find the musical descriptions contrived and overwrought, as if the author is trying to convince the reader that he/she is an expert in all things musical. One of the benefits of this first novel by Robert Ford is that the author has the skills and experience to write convincingly about music without the pedantic, over-researched feel so present in other works.

Ford successfully creates vivid characters who are bound together not only by their relationship to music, but by their secrets. The author sensitively weaves historical elements (the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example) into a multi-layered narrative. The main protagonist, thirty-year-old American conductor Cooper Barrow, embarks on a quest to face his fears by studying with a master conductor in Germany. What he finds is a Germany built on secrets and fears, trying to demolish and rebuild at the same time. In the middle of it all is the enigmatic oboist Petra Vogel, whose own dark past comforts Barrow with its refreshing relativism.

These characters dance together to a soundtrack of Brahms, a composer who is subject to their idolatry, historicism, and emotional baggage. Ford unapologetically navigates through the conducting and orchestra worlds, framing the shades of the human soul with the best of its potential.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

50BC09 #6: Making It All Work

50BC09 #6: Making It All Work: Winning At The Game of Work and the Business of Life
Author: David Allen
Pages: 305
Year: Viking, 2008
Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life
rating: 3 of 5 stars

For those who have read and/or familiar with Allen's Getting Things Done, this is a great follow-up. If you like Allen's strategies for organization and general productivity, but occasionally find yourself "falling off the wagon," this book will help.

The book elucidates the major mindsets crucial to GTD, but sometimes gets too wrapped up in its philosophical approach. The "horizons of focus" will cloud your system if you worry about implementing them as actual components, rather than a way to encapsulate the entire GTD process. If you are interested in GTD as a system, I recommend that you start with the book of the same title, rather than this one.

The book contains some very helpful appendices, including a "project planning trigger list" to make sure that your mind dumps are complete, leaving no stone unturned.

Allen uses this book to address his critics, and does an admirable job. Much of the criticism of GTD has been aimed at purists or those who take Allen's ideas to an extreme. Allen allows for a certain amount of flexibility and custom-tailoring (indeed, mandates it) and this book will help you do that.

View all my reviews.

50BC09 #5: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

50BC09 #5: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Author: Alex Ross
Pages: 684
Press: Picador, 2008 (ppbck ed.)
genre: non-fiction, music criticism

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was skeptical going in...not because I haven't enjoyed Alex Ross' writing in the New Yorker, but because good music criticism does not a music historian make. My doubts were unfounded. I took a risk and used this book as the text for my Music in the Twentieth Century course (for non-majors) and I'm never looking back.

Ross keeps a general chronological outline, but centers a century's worth of music around a political and artistic narrative. One of the more intriguing aspects is his use of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as a recurring presence, drawing an inexorable link between compositional history and Faustian endeavors. However, in most cases, we see composers who battle with the Mephistopheles of totalitarianism not as raving lunatics, but as artists torn between their commitment to art and general survival.

The author is unafraid to talk about the actual music, painting vivid descriptions, and unfettering important musical concepts for a general audience. His free online audio guide is a beautiful supplement to his discussions in the book (and serves to fill in some of the necessary "gaps" ). Ross makes intriguing choices that run counter to traditional histories of twentieth century music (entire chapters devoted to Sibelius and Britten, for example), but makes a strong case for a socio-political approach rather than a canonical, or "great master" approach. Composers like Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg are not confined to time frames, but reappear out of the tapestry when their music echoes in the ears of compositional trends.The twentieth century appears as a pre-existent soundscape, whose tones, rhythms, and harmonies are manipulated by the various composers traversing the various hills and streams of modernity.