Books to finish out the summer

An eclectic collection to savor before the leaves turn color.

“Every Good Boy Does Fine” by concert pianist Jeremy Denk is part memoir  (child prodigy in a dysfunctional family) and part voyage through classical music (his favorite composers, techniques, a little music theory, the life of a professional.)  The book is divided into three sections: harmony, melody and rhythm. Denk goes into detail of specific pieces of music, analyzing both the scores and his interaction with them.  In each section, he weaves the challenges of the pieces and the challenges of his life as a musician, and reflections on life in general.  Sometimes, while reading, I’d go into YouTube to listen and see what he’s writing about.  I’ve liberally underlined the parts I want to go back to. 

Especially revealing is how Denk experienced his different teachers over the years, their pedagogical approaches, their personalities and peculiarities.  Denk’s pursuit of perfection is his constant source of frustration but also underlies his professional growth and enhances our understanding.  Also fascinating are Denk’s comments about the tensions between what the composer has written and the performer’s interpretation.  If you enjoy memoir and love symphonic music, this is a must read.

The Magician by Colm Toibin could be called creative non-fiction or fictional biography.  If it were a film, it would be a biopic, covering the brilliant German Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann. Toibin has previously fictionalized the lives of German poet, playwright, scientist J. W. Goethe and prolific American novelist Henry James. You may have read Mann’s powerful novella Death in Venice, or his thick philosophical opus Magic Mountain. While many of Mann’s themes are autobiographical – not-so-latent homosexuality, the role of the artist in society, the importance of family – Toibin’s monumental work brings Mann alive as a leading political philosopher of his time, a consistent advocate for reason over political passion, during World War I, through the 1920’s as Germany starts spinning out of control, as Hitler is gathering strength in the l930’s and after World War II.  

Rarely acting on his lifelong homosexual impulses and ever-present fantasies, Mann marries and fathers six children, most of whom have their own dramatic life stories. When Mann finally takes a public stand against the political wave sweeping Europe, he is forced to flee Nazism – to Italy, France, Switzerland and then the United States.  Toibin’s novel is an intimate portrait of the man against the backdrop of turbulent history.  It was hard to put down.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a passionate, often funny novel about a chemist whose intellect, creativity, break-through research, and humanity are repeatedly undercut by the fact that she is, gasp, a woman. At every stage of her challenging career, her male colleagues stereotype her (now there’s a surprise), mock her, sexually assault her.  Her partner and lover, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, tragically dies, leaving her pregnant, yet another issue that incurs the wrath of those in her professional circle. She ends up on television, doing a cooking show, couching her presentations as only she can. Dubbed a “revenge comedy,” the humor keeps the book from being a feminist screed, and the scenes can be familiar to many “of a certain age” who presumed to crash the gender barrier decades back.  I highly recommend it.

Also worth considering…….

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert is a first-person story by fictional character Vivian Morris, as told in her eighties to a young woman trying to find herself. To the dismay of Vivian’s wealthy WASP parents, she had flunked out of Vassar College in 1940 at the age of 19. Her parents shipped her off to live in Manhattan with her colorful, eccentric Aunt Peg, who owns a neighborhood theater called the Lily Playhouse.  Vivian uses her skills at sewing to become the costume designer for the motley repertory crew, forging friendships with, among others, a wild chorus girl who shows Vivian what freedom can mean in New York City. It’s a story about finding one’s identity, exploring sexual relationships with multiple partners, drunkenness, creativity, survival, love and lust but mostly lust. It’s about women’s secrets, dealing with shame, venturing to go one’s own way.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow is another in the line of legal thrillers that started with Turow’s “Presumed Innocent.”  With masterful detail about legal and judicial processes and insights into the science and economics of bringing a new drug to market, Turow brings back his earlier protagonist, criminal lawyer Sandy Stern, to defend Nobel Prize winner Kiril Pafko, the enigmatic CEO of a company that developed a seemingly successful cancer drug. The central questions of the book are whether Pafko covered up problematic data on the drug’s potential lethality, whether he used that inside knowledge to protect his stock values, and who is telling the truth.  As the trial proceeds, step by step, we learn more and more about Pafko, his family, his lovers, his business practices and wonder whether he is guilty of murder. Turow reveals the facts layer by layer and delves deeper and deeper into the psyches of the characters, all in a spare writing style.  He remains a good story teller.

December 1941 by William Martin is a World War II thriller, covering the days between December 8th and December 26th.  The 8th, of course, is when Franklin Roosevelt gave his “day that will live in infamy” speech.  The fast-moving plot travels from Los Angeles to Washington, uncovering a conspiracy among Nazi spies to murder the President during a Christmas Eve tree lighting ceremony at the White House. The telling is cinematic, and the narrative will have you on the edge of your seat.  Initially it can be difficult to keep all the characters sorted out, compounded by some having multiple aliases. But the fast pace and tension of the often-bloody narrative drives the story forward and holds the reader’s attention to the end.

I will not be reviewing Jared Kushner’s new memoir Breaking History. Nor will I read it. The New York Times review says it all.

welcome your feedback – and your own book recommendations – in the comments section. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ on the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.

2 thoughts on “Books to finish out the summer

  1. Bill Albert

    Hi Marjorie,

    I would have sent this to the the Waban Common website, but I didn’t see any link, so I figured it would be okay to send it here.

    I grew up in Waban in the 1960’s…lived at 55 Gould Road. It certainly is a different world now, and of course Waban has changed with the times. While I have mixed feelings about this (progress is change, but change is not always progress), I did want to say that I was very impressed by the creation of the Waban Common. In my day, the little island was used mainly by schoolchildren clustering on it while waiting to cross Beacon Street to get to Angier (there were so many kids that we had to have a “safety” hold us back before we could even get to the island, and we had a crusty old cop stationed on Beacon named Owen Quinn, doing perpetual school-crossing duty), while the larger island across from the Union Church was pretty much just wasted space. (By the way, the new Angier is quite impressive also…very cutting-edge, a far cry from the old building I attended. Of course the new one was long overdue…the old one didn’t even have a cafeteria—I can remember having to shlep home on Mon-Wed-Fri at mid-day to bolt down a hurried lunch, then trudge back to school, uphill all the way, in all weather. Ugh.)

    You folks really did a great job joining the two islands and landscaping it, etc. It looks really nice, and it’s probably safer as well. While I tend to be somewhat reactionary in my nostalgia, missing Waban as it was in my childhood, the Common is most definitely an improvement. Kudos to all concerned!

    Speaking of improvements, there is an interesting article you might like to read if you haven’t already, which I downloaded from the Waban Improvement Society. It was written by a fellow who grew up on Anawan Road in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and it gives a description of Waban life (especially in the area south of Waban Avenue) long ago. If you send me a reply, I will respond and attach a copy for you; I didn’t know how to attach it to my original message.

    Again, very nice job on the Common…congratulations. Take care,

    Bill Albert

    Like

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