Monday, May 30, 2011

Strength in What Remains

by and narrated by Tracy Kidder
Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2009.

Deogracias came to New York in the 1990s with little money and no English. He was from Burundi, a country in Africa near Rwanda, and had run for his life during the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in both countries. Kidder recounts a dual narrative of how Deo survives in New York, and how he survives and escapes the uprising in his home country.

I hadn't planned on reading this book, exactly. Strictly speaking, Home Town is the only book by Tracy Kidder currently on my TBR list, though his name has been on my radar as a good nonfiction author ever since I read Mountains Beyond Mountains. So when I saw this on my library's audiobook shelves, I decided to give it a listen on my commute. The book is read by the author, which made especially those parts in which Kidder is in the narrative feel more immediate, but also meant he didn't always have the delivery an actor or reader might, so it took a little getting used to. Deo's story is an incredible story of survival - not just physically, but also how he mentally survived what must have been absolute horror to witness. I couldn't help but cringe at some of the experiences he had in Burundi, Rwanda, and New York. I sometimes thought that Kidder became somewhat repetitive in the second half of the book, repeating stories that he'd already told. (This feeling was only helped by a quirk of the CDs and my car - there was no "end of Disc 1" or introduction with each CD, so when my car stereo started a CD over from the beginning automatically, I sometimes didn't catch it until several minutes into the first track.) This was a challenging read that has given me much food for thought and a definite need to learn more about Burundi and Rwanda in the 1990s.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope

by Maureen Johnson
New York : HarperTeen, 2011.

*Possible slight spoilers* - but nothing past page 50, honest.

At the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny's bag - along with her letters from Aunt Peg and the final, unopened envelope - is stolen. Despite this setback, her trip to Europe was life-changing. In fact, it would be the subject of her college essay, if she could ever figure out what to write. Then, she received an email from Oliver, a young man who claims he found has that last little blue envelope. According to Oliver, Aunt Peg left another piece of art, and he will give Ginny her letter back if she gives him a finder's fee from the proceeds of the sale.

I really enjoyed the first book about Ginny and her travels. At first, I wasn't sure if I would like the sequel as much, mainly because of the changing nature of Ginny's relationships once she finds out that Keith (her co-traveler in the last book and "sort of" but never official boyfriend) has a girlfriend, Ellis. All four of them - Ginny, Oliver, Keith and Ellis - are now on this trip, a dynamic that could have made for excruciating reading. But Johnson never makes it as melodramatic oh-woe-is-me that she could have. She realistically portrays Ginny's hurt feelings without making her maudlin or annoying. Once they leave on their trip, guided by Oliver and the last letter, I read nearly in one sitting. If you loved the first book, this is a good follow-up, but I think The Last Little Blue Envelope could stand decently on its own as well.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Reading Promise

by Alice Ozma
New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2011.

When Alice was young, her father read to her every day. One day - they can't agree on exactly when - they challenged each other to read for 100 straight days. They went on to create a daily ritual that they referred to as "The Streak," reading for far more than the initial 100 days they had originally planned.

I had expected this memoir of reading to be more about "the books we shared," as part of the subtitle indicates. To be fair, Alice does include mentions of books read and how they related (or didn't) to her life. But there are also stories like the time she gave her beta fish a funeral and "The Boy-Haters Club of America" super-secret meetings. But at its heart, this is the story of the relationship she shares with her father as a result of the special times they spent together. Reading connected and connects father and daughter, a bond that shows in every vignette and every chapter.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rest is Noise

by Alan Ross
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

This book is about 20th century classical music. You might think, as a result, that it has a potential reader base about as big as those who listen to such music, but you would be mistaken. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century encompasses so much more. One of the blurbs on the back uses the adjective "sprawling" to describe it, and I think it's truly the best word for it. From opera to minimalism, Strauss to Britten, a glimpse of Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin (particularly from the point of view of the musicians), Alan Ross includes much information that would interest a history buff, a music major, or anyone in between.

If the book is hard to summarize on its own, summarizing my reading experience is even more so. I first started reading in February. Since I knew very little about classical music, and even less so about 20th century classical music, I determined to listen to many of the pieces mentioned in the text. Thankfully Ross includes an appendix of recommended recordings - a "top ten" and then 20 additional recommendations. I focused on the main ten, especially when I realized how much of a time commitment symphonies and operas truly were. And mind you, he sometimes lists more than one piece for one composer, so this was still more than 10 CDs I committed to.

What an experience! I didn't like everything I listened to, but it made the book come alive wonderfully. I listened to my first opera. I started to hear the atonality, the dissonance, that Ross so often refers to, especially in the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (I noted next to this that this was "not music to wake up to"). I really enjoyed the connections I was able to make between the text and other, outside elements. For instance, in my notes on the pieces I listened to, I noted that one of Schoenberg's orchestral pieces reminded me of the orchestra playing at the end of "I am the Walrus." I was delighted to read a bit later on that a portion of Sibelius's 7th symphony is referenced in the Beatles song "Revolution 9" - a different song, yes, but I felt the comfort of having a similar idea and bringing together something familiar with the new information I was learning. And the learning will continue - I've made a note of music I want to look into, both referenced in the text and not (after all, now I need to learn about earlier classical music, too!), and of a few composers - Mahler and Stravinsky come immediately to mind - that I enjoyed enough to find more.

A truly memorable read.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Process and Discovery

Lately I've been reading The Rest is Noise by Alan Ross. I haven't been keeping up with my normal average of reading 2-3 books a week. No, I've been reading this one since February 26th.

Why am I taking so long?

The answer is twofold: the process of reading, and what I've discovered as I go along.

First, the process. The subtitle of the book is "Listening to the 20th Century," and the focus of the book has been about 20th century classical music. I know little about classical music, and even less about more recent classical music. Names like Beethoven, Bach and Mozart were much for familiar to me before picking up this book than names like Strauss, Mahler, and Messaien. So I challenged myself to listen to the ten recommended recordings from an appendix as I went through the book. Every time I came across the description of one of these recordings, I would stop and listen to it. Besides often not bringing the book along if I thought that I would reach a stopping point when I still had plenty of time to read, I often stopped to listen to hour-long symphonies or 2-hour long operas. I have to say, it's really made the reading experience richer. I would have enjoyed the history that permeates the story of classical music in Germany, France, and the United States, for example, without having listened to the CD. But I've also started to hear what dissonance sounds like, to realize how depressing operas apparently are (does anyone know of a happy one? I'd love to hear it), and started to gain an appreciation for composers I'd never listened to before.

Which leads to the second part: discovery. I have only about 50 pages left now, and I know that my "reading" of The Rest is Noise will continue beyond its pages. As a direct result of reading the book and listening to the recommended CDs, I've already started to discover beyond the book's pages. One of the recordings I listened to was "Appalachian Spring." I really enjoyed the music, and was intrigued enough by the page-long synopsis in the book to look into the 1958 videorecording of the ballet. The particular DVD I was able to get from the library was actually about Martha Graham, the choreographer of the ballet for whom Aaron Copland had written "Appalachian Spring." I'm almost ashamed to say it, but... I'd never heard of her before. So not only did I watch the 1958 recording, I also watched some of the extras, including a PBS broadcast about Martha Graham and a comparison of the 1958 with the 1944 choreography. This was fascinating stuff!

And this is just one example. I'm going to keep the list of the "20 more recommended recordings" from the appendix to eventually listen through. I've made a note of a handful of composers, such as Mahler and Stravinsky, whose music I enjoyed enough to want to listen to more. I want to know more about classical music before the 20th century. I want to learn more about music theory in general. I want to read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, a book that I've owned for awhile and never read.

Because with reading, one thing leads to another. This is just one of the many reasons I will never run out of reading material...because I'll never run out of things I want to learn!