Book Review: Orfeo, by Richard Powers; Classical Music and Terror

Orfeo_0.jpgEver since I first discovered Richard Powers’ novel Gold Bug Variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), I have been following this author’s work closely. I await each new novel with impatience, as he has one of the most fascinating voices in modern fiction.

Powers often writes novels where science is an important character (and some which is properly science fiction). There are scientists, neurological illnesses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. But Powers is also clearly a music fan, as Gold Bug Variations shows (partly based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, partly on Poe’s The Gold Bug). This love for music can be seen in his latest novel, Orfeo. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iBooks)

Powers is a master stylist; he is a master of the sentence. Reading a novel by Richard Powers can be like strolling through a museum. Each sentence, each paragraph stands out like a painting, giving a specific view of the world. As I was reading Orfeo, there were hundreds of sentences that I could have underlined, because they were so breathtakingly beautiful. (Well, I don’t underline in books; I can’t deface them. I stick little post-its to mark my favorite passages.) Powers said, in an interview with the Paris Review:

A lot of people who have written about me have written about the architecture and the large-scale design of my work, which is important to me. But it’s really the individual sentence that I work at again and again until it becomes the thing it’s trying to describe. To me, that sense of complete commensurability between form and content at the level of the individual sentence is really what writing is all about. I love to see how much load a sentence can bear. I don’t want it to be a performance. I don’t want it to call attention to itself as a virtuosic set piece. But I do want somehow to do this double-voicing where a sentence can reflect the virtuosity of the human mind. Reflect the multiplicity and richness of a sensibility as it tries to synthesize all these inimical things in the experiential world. What I really like to learn how to do is to build sentences that are equal to mental states.

Orfeo tells the story of an avant-garde composer, Peter Els, who, in his early life, had considered becoming a chemist. Now in his 1970s, Els starts dabbling with biochemistry: home DNA experiments on bacteria. When some federal agents find out, he becomes branded a bio-terrorist, and flees, setting out a journey to exonerate himself while becoming an internet sensation. He even tweets from @TerrorChord; a real Twitter account exists which contains all the tweets that were made in the book. (The author has confirmed to me by email that he is not behind that account.)

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The novel alternates between the story of Els in the present, on the run, and the story of his life as a composer. Beginning in the earliest days, when he makes music that only a select few want to listen to, Els tries to find his voice, to find music that will change the world. But, when he is a fugitive, he realizes that he had once:

… believed that music could save a person’s life. He could think of nothing now but all the ways it might get a person killed.

Throughout this trajectory, Powers riffs on music and terror. He focuses closely on a number of works, which feature as plot points for Els’ life:

  • Mozart, Jupiter symphony
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder
  • Messiaen, Quatuour pour la fin du temps
  • Cage, Musicircus
  • Reich, Proverb
  • Shostakovich, 5th symphony
  • Lieberman, “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres,” from Neruda Songs

Powers’ comments about music are perceptive, and his comments about the way people listen to music even more so. Watching a young woman jog, Els thinks:

A tinny munchkin backbeat trailed from her earbuds in her wake. Els couldn’t make out the flavor of her bliss. This part, these advance spring flowers, the sixty-degree air stolen from paradise, were colored for her by invisible instruments that no one but she could hear.

But much of this novel is also about the irrational reaction to “terror” that has gripped the United States. Els was merely playing apprentice sorcerer with banal bacteria, the kind that we wear on our skin. (The reader learns why at the end of the novel.) But, as Els says:

The nation has been panicked for ten years. And if spreading panic is the measure, every news anchor is a terrorist.

As Els thinks to himself:

You’ve just turned some stupid misunderstanding into a federal offense by acting like a criminal.

The novel must reach a conclusion, and it does, in an unexpected way. But not without raising poignant questions about music itself. Much of this novel asks the question, “Why music?” What does music do for us; why do we react in the ways we do. Els applauds the vast catalog of music that people can call up at will on portable devices, and he later asks the question, “How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul.”

There is no answer to this question, but if you care about music, you’ll want to read Orfeo. Even if you don’t like classical music, you’ll find a taut thriller, interspersed with reflections on art. Either way, this is a page-turner that explores the place of art in our lives.

As Powers says, “Life is an escaped experiment, say the artists, and the only real safety is death.”

Once more with feeling…

P.S.: If you’re a science fiction reader, Richard Powers’ Genie, a Kindle Single (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), is one of the most moving first contact stories I’ve read. It is also somewhat related to the theme of Orfeo…

Book Review: Portrait of a Novel, by Michael Gorra, Is a Fascinating Look at Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

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I’ve long been obsessed by Henry James. I’ve read all of his fiction, and much of his non-fiction as well, in the Library of America editions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). I’ve read a half-dozen biographies of James, and the James family, and many of books about James’ work.

So Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel interested me right off the bat, even though I waited for the book to come out in paperback. Gorra set out to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, one of James’ finest novels, weaving a narrative talking about the novel, about Henry James’ life, especially when writing The Portrait, and about the times in which it was written and set.

The result is fascinating. While Gorra’s critical discussion of the novel would be enough for a book, the way he manages to tell the story of much of Henry James’ life through its relationship with The Portrait of a Lady is impressive. This isn’t a full biography of James; the book opens with some background information about James’ early years, then moves on to show James at work on The Portrait. Throughout, you get a picture of what Henry James was doing in the novel, and how it related to his experiences.

Gorra takes a Sainte-Beuvian approach, and rightly so. Not all of James’ works reflect experiences he had in his life, but many did. For example, Isabel Archer is partly based on Henry’s cousin, Minny Temple, who died aged 24 of consumption, in 1870. Isabel Archer is not diseased, but she does have the Emersonian independence that Temple had.

Gorra bases much of his discussion of James and women on the interesting biography of James, A Private Life of Henry James, by Lyndall Gordon (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), looking at James’ relationship with Temple, but also his later relations with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who James met around the time he was writing The Portrait.

Gorra goes beyond strict biography, giving insight into the way James published his work – with The Portrait of a Lady, and earlier novels, they were published as serials, which impacted the way they were constructed. He also looks closely at James’ later years, when he was revising his favorite works for the New York Edition, and discusses the changes he made to The Portrait, many of which gave much better insight into the characters and their motivations.

Gorra adroitly sums up the message of The Portrait of a Lady:

“She [Isabel Archer] learns that Her own life has been determined by things that happen before she was thought of, a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it’s already too late.”

This book is not a full biography of the fascinating life of Henry James; if you want that, the best bet is still to go back to Leon Edel’s pioneering work (available used in a one-volume reduction of the original five volumes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or check out this fascinating biography of the James family – one of the rare families to have two geniuses as siblings, William and Henry: House of Wits, by Paul Fisher (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

And go back and read The Portrait of a Lady in the original version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or the later version, revised for the New York Edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or watch the movie with Nicole Kidman, who portrays Isabel Archer quite well (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

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Lamb House, in Rye, where Henry James lived from 1898-1816.

Book Review: The Annotated Emerson

When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.

With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.

On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.

Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.

Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.

This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.

In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.

In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)

I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.

Book Review: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

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Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.

This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.

Some of the texts in this collection have been published previously, in Moon in a Dewdrop, Beyond Thinking, and Enlightenment Unfolds. In fact, many readers may find those there volumes sufficient in content, and more agreeable in overall price. (Another useful book is Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Shohaku Okumura, which is a detailed, and very accessible commentary on this section of the Shobogenzo.)

This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.

But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.

This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.

Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.

Book Review: The Quotable Thoreau

The Quotable Thoreau
Collected and edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
552 pages. Princeton University Press, 2011. $20

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Jeffrey Cramer, notable Thoreau scholar and head of the Thoreau Institute, has been publishing some wonderful books for fans of Henry’s writing in recent years. In 2004 he published Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition, in 2007, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, and in 2009, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. All of these books take Thoreau’s texts and add annotations and explanations to help the reader better understand the little details.

Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.

Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)

While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.

Book Review: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd
Eugene B. Bergmann
495 pages. Applause, 2004, $28.

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When I was around 10 or 12 years old – back in the late 60s and early 70s – I discovered Jean Shepherd’s nightly radio show on WOR AM in New York. Every evening at 10:15, Shep would come on the air, following his theme music (Strauss’ Bahn Frei), and talk for 45 minutes. He would just talk – there was no script, though people who knew him have suggested that he spent hours preparing for his shows – seemingly improvising, riffing on current events, his pet peeves, and telling stories. When listening to Shep, it always sounded like he was talking to me; like there was no one else listening to the radio. It was the stories that got me hooked, especially those about him growing up in Hammond, Indiana, a small town near Chicago. Shep talked about his time in the Army, and about the events of his childhood, which occurred between the age of about 7 and 17, events that happened to him and a few of his friends, such as Flick and Schwartz.

Shep and his friends were average kids, with the usual preoccupations of kids that age – my age – and the stories were bittersweet memories of their growing up in the Depression. Some of them were funny, others poignant, but Shep brought to these oft simple stories the true art of the storyteller. He always managed to make them last up until the final theme music, weaving threads and events until his time was up. I would be held in a spell for those 45 minutes, just before I went to sleep, as I entered his world.

I was a real Jean Shepherd fan back then. Not only did I buy his books (two books of stories, In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Great Disasters), his records (LPs of him reading from the books, or more scripted versions of the stories), and I even took up the instruments that he played on the show: the kazoo and the Jew’s harp.

Shep contributed greatly to my worldview, teaching me the power of stories and how the true storyteller could take control of the listeners’ minds, but also through the seemingly simple profundity of some of his observations.

Over the years, I had forgotten about Jean Shepherd – his stories were still someplace in that mushroom soup of memories that dated back to those pre-teen years, but they didn’t surface often. But recently, thanks to the Internet and a group of fanatics, I’ve been able to rediscover the joys of listening to this great artist.

And now (to finally get to the meat of this review), a new book examines Jean Shepherd, his art, his legacy, and his philosophy: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene Bergmann. This book, written by a true Shep fan and fanatic, is a compendium of thoughts about Jean Shepherd, his work, his life, and, as the title suggests, his enigma.

Because Shep was an enigma. Having created his own radio genre, he eventually got tired of all the advertising that the radio stations tried to squeeze into his show and left, gave up, walked away from more than two decades of radio. He was a trendsetter – and, in a way, a minor cultural icon in the early days – but he hated trends, and hated following them even more. He was a unique friendly voice, but could be, at times, arrogant and opinionated.

Bergmann’s book is not a biography; instead, it is a collection of chapters that examine different periods of Shep’s life and work. There is no attempt to rationalize the complex relationships he had with his family, nor his personal life, beyond some basic anecdotes. However, this book, with its many excerpts from Shep’s radio shows, gives the best overview of what Shep was like, and what his shows were about. While the book is a bit disjointed, so was its subject.

If you’re familiar with Jean Shepherd, you’ll know why you should buy this book; if not, you may want to buy it to discover one of America’s most unique comic voices (though comic is by far too simplistic a word to describe Shep). And if you want to hear him at work, some 1,500 shows are available for download at the Jean Shepherd Archive, or, to hear a few random shows, check out the Jean Shepherd Podcast, or check out the Brass Figlagee podcast on iTunes.

Book Review: Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition

Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry David Thoreau; Annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer
370 pages. Yale University Press, 2004. $30

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The time has come for another annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden, to replace the aging edition prepared by Thoreau scholar Walter G. Harding. Jeffery S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, has taken on this task, and after many years of work has published this densely annotated text of Walden.

Annotations cover all the areas one would expect: definitions of foreign words, references to people and places mentioned in the text, sources of quotes, even the date of a gentle rain mentioned in one part of the chapter entitled Solitude. Cramer occasionally compares passages in the text with Thoreau’s journal entries and other writings, offering insight into how Thoreau reworked some of his ideas. He is a voluble annotator – the book contains thousands of notes, with 427 for the first (and longest) chapter, Economy, alone. There are some pages where there is no body text at all, to allow for the multiple annotations, yet it is surprising at times to come across pages where he finds nothing to say.While I cannot judge the scholarly value of Cramer’s notes, they are certainly voluminous. If they do not cover all the details, I doubt that another edition with more notes will come along for some time. However, some of the notes make me question the usefulness of the way the notes are presented. For example, on page 81, Thoreau says, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a form or the county jail.” Cramer’s note says: “Thoreau was committed to the county jail in July 1846 for nonpayment of taxes.” Really? Do tell… Alas, there is no more about this (famous) incident in Thoreau’s life. Off to the index to see… When I look up jail, it does not refer me to page 81 (suggesting that the index is not quite up to par), but to pages 166 and 308. On the former, I find a better explanation of this incident. It would have been much more useful to find, on page 81, a reference to this note on page 166. Adding notes or references to other notes makes the overall text a bit more cumbrous, but oh so much more complete!

What is perhaps the most important aspect of this book for any die-hard Walden aficionado is its layout. Leaving aside the apocryphal illustrations that appear beneath each chapter title (animals, leaves and berries, even a steam locomotive), what counts most in a book like this is its readability. And the readability depends on the book’s layout. I must say that this is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The canonical text (Thoreau’s text) takes up just over half the total page width. It is presented in slim columns with a thin rule in the form of a box surrounding the text on both sides of a double-page spread. The font is attractive and very readable. At the margins of the canonical text is the annotations, in a smaller, sans serif font, which contrasts well with the main text and is equally readable.

Yet the layout is insufficient for one wishing to read Walden alone, and not focus on the annotations. In an ideal annotated edition of any text, the notes should be in the background enough so the reader can ignore them easily. Here, since the notes cover so much space, this is not possible. With the body text being as slim as it is, the notes look as though the cover half the page. And, with the gutter (the space between the text and the binding at the inside of the pages) being too small, you have to push the book flat to read it comfortably. If you simply let it sit flat on a desk on in your lap, it is difficult to read the words at the center of the book.

It is clearly the density of the annotations that led to this layout. But the publisher had a chance to make a book that was both useful (the annotations) and attractive (the layout); unfortunately, they chose the former. This edition, while fine for reading the notes, is not conducive to a casual, fire-side read of Walden. It is an excellent addition to the library of any Thoreauvian – I’d even say it is an essential book for anyone wishing to better understand Thoreau and Walden – but it is not the edition I would pick up to simply read a chapter or two of the work. (The recent edition by Shambhala, with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, or the paperback or hardcover Library of America editions, are perhaps best for casual reading.) Nevertheless, this is an invaluable work for a better understanding of this, one of the greatest texts of American literature.


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Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

The Rest is Noise
Alex Ross
640 pages. Farrar, Strauss, Girous, 2007. $30

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“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (and blogger: his web site is also called The Rest is Noise ) has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesn’t count, but Ross focuses more on the “why” than the “what”.

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that “illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change,” Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didn’t just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a bird’s-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for difference’s sake (it “begins in mystique and ends in politics”). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, “The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases,” or, “the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords.” He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; there’s no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And that’s probably the weakest part of this book: even though it’s not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Ross’s writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay. (This could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibelius’s music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th.) His analysis of music during Nazi Germany, and during the United States in the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing what’s being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, it’s not clear how much Ross actually likes the music he’s writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But it’s clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and it’s a shame that there’s not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of America’s most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to totally ignore the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While it’s only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, it’s time to go out and listen.

Note: on September 23, it was announced that Alex Ross received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Congrats!

Some of My Translations

In addition to being a writer, I’ve worked as a translator from French to English for the past dozen years. While much of my work involved translating technical documents, I have also translated a number of books, and excerpts from books. Here is a list of some of my translations, links to samples, and links to pages on Amazon.com for those books that have been published. (Alas, several of them are out of print…)

Non-Fiction

China in a Mirror, by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. This lovely book combines photographs of today’s China with, on facing pages, pictures of Chinese art that mirrors the photos. I translated the preface to this book, which was written by my friend Cyrille Javary.

Understanding the I Ching, by Cyrille Javary, is a book about the I Ching, its history, and its usage. The book is out of print, but you should be able to find used copies in a number of online bookstores. The link at the beginning of this paragraph takes you to a page about the book with an excerpt from it.

Lebanon, the Phoenician Pearl is a beautiful book of photos and history about Lebanon.

Versailles is a small, color art and history book about the Château de Versailles, as seen through the kings and queens that lived there.

Marrakesh: The Secret of Its Courtyard Houses is a beautiful book about the houses hidden behind the walls of Marrakesh. You will never be able to see most of these houses, but this book looks at the architecture and the history of this style of house.

Arabesques, by Jean-Marc Castéra, is an astounding book about arabesques, the ceramic mosaics traditional in northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only does it present these works of art, but it also shows the mathematic underpinnings of their design.

Paris; ah, gay Paree, as we say. A book that recounts the history of the city of lights, with memorable photos of the architecture that makes Paris so magical.

Fiction

Genia, by Manual Martin, a spiritual thriller, written long before that other best-selling book which codified the genre. Abundant samples are available on the web site.

The Warriors of Silence, by Pierre Bordage. Two sample chapters of this unpublished novel. Pierre Bordage is one of France’s best-selling science fiction authors. I’ve translated other long excerpts of Pierre Bordage’s work for French publishers; I do not have the rights to post them here.

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. A work-in-progress that I’ll finish one day. You can download several sections of this work in PDF format.

I am always interested in translating books, both fiction and non-fiction, so if you are a publisher, editor or author, feel free to send me an e-mail. I’m especially interested in 19th century French fiction, classics such as Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant; history; science; science ficton; and mysteries and thrillers.

French Science Fiction by Pierre Bordage

Pierre Bordage is one of France’s best-selling science fiction writers. With more than 20 novels published in just over a decade, his books often touch on the spiritual aspects of society, in a style that combines the best of classic adventure stories with reflection on the future and the present.

Bordage’s books are best-sellers in France, and have been translated in several European countries, but there still remains the difficulty of getting published in English, especially in the United States. This is not a problem that Pierre alone is confronted with; authors of all sorts meet this relative silence from American publishers.While American authors are translated in countries around the world, this globalization of publishing is a one-way street. Non-English speaking authors are rarely translated into English, partly because of a lack of interest among publishers (no one has asked readers if they are interested), and partly because publishers simply don’t want to spend money on translations.

Yet publishing literature in translation is one of the best ways to transmit cultural ideas from one country to another. Could one say that the United States has become insular, culturally as well as politically, in its ignorance of the world around it?

In presenting an English translation of two chapters of Pierre Bordage’s novel The Warriors of Silence, I am tossing a message in a bottle out into the vast sea of the Internet, hoping that an editor or publisher will stumble on this text and be curious enough to want to find out more. I have translated these two chapters from French, with the collaboration of the author, who has reread them and approved the translation.

The Warriors of Silence, or Les Guerriers du Silence, is a best-selling novel in French. It has sold some 25,000 copies in trade paperback (books are rarely sold in hardcover in France) and more than 65,000 in paperback. This novel is the first volume of a trilogy; all three books together, in all formats, have sold more than 225,000 copies. (These sales figures were valid as of May 2005.)

The Warriors of Silence – Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Books by Pierre Bordage in French from Amazon FR.

If you are interested in learning more about Pierre Bordage’s work, Contact me.