Sunday, March 3, 2013

February Reading

Summarizing my whole month of reading worked out well for me in January so I thought I'd continue it (until I get tired of doing it).  In February, I read the following books:

1.  Proof of Guilt by Charles Todd.  I continue to love the Inspector Rutledge mystery series.  Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective, is a World War I survivor who suffers from PTSD.   The series moves slowly.  The first book occurred just after the end of the war and each mystery takes no more than about six weeks (often less) to solve.  This latest installment (the 15th) brings us up to the summer of 1920.  The mystery, as usual, isn't the big draw for me (and might even be my least favorite of all the mysteries so far).  The draw for me is Rutledge and how he is progressing.  In this novel he still hears the voice of Hamish but not as often as in previous books and he seems to be dealing with "him" much better.  I like how Rutledge seems to be getting better very slowly because that seems realistic to me.    And I really liked one of the female characters (who Rutledge also liked) and I hope we see her again.

2.  The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd.  This was a holiday story that was published using the same universe as the Bess Crawford books (which are the same universe as the Inspector Rutledge books, but earlier in time).  I didn't care for it very much, I found it predictable.  I also disliked that Todd created a sympathetic figure that the reader had no choice but to wish bad things would happen to in order for the heroine to end up with the right man.   I also disliked the whole British aristocracy part of the novel --  Americans have a hard time writing about lords and ladies in a realistic way I think .  It took Elizabeth George a number of books to get Lynley right, in my opinion, and she only did it when she finally stopped focusing on the fact that he had a title.  Lady Elspeth just didn't ring true to me.  So far I haven't been particularly wild about any of the Charles Todd books that feature women as central characters.

3.   Listen to This by Alex Ross.  This is a series of essays that began as articles in the New Yorker.  If you like classical music you will love this book.  He covers so many topics:  Marian Anderson, Verdi, Schubert, Brahms.   If you are a classical music lover, this is a must read.  My favorite of the essays is Verdi's Grip in which he talks about my favorite moment in one of my favorite operas:  Amami Alfredo from La Traviata.  The courtesan, Violetta, after experiencing the only happiness she has ever known, living in the country with Alfredo, has been secretly convinced by Alfredo's father to give Alfredo up for his own good and leave him forever.   Right before she leaves, after some frantic dissimulation on her part, she looks right at Alfredo and says "love me, Alfredo".  When sung by the right soprano, a live performance of this moment literally makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.  It is the strangest sensation to be sitting in a dark theater, caught up in the dramatic moment and have such a physical reaction to the music.  Ross writes:

Verdi's writing for voice is a camera that zooms in on a person's soul.  Consider the moment in Act II of La Traviata when Violetta, the wayward woman, leaves her lover, Alfredo.  Alfredo believes that she is merely going into the garden, but he will soon receive a letter from her saying that she is gone forever.  "I will always be here, near you, among the flowers," Violetta says to him, "Love me, Alfredo, as much as I love you.  Goodbye!" Amami Alfredo, quant'io t'amo.  When a great soprano unfurls these phrases -- I am listening to Callas live at La Scala, in 1955 -- you hear so much you can hardly take it all in.  You hear what Alfredo hears, the frantic talk of an overwrought lover:  "I love you even though I am going into the garden." You hear what Violetta cannot bring herself to say out loud:  "I am leaving you, but will always love you."  And you hear premonitions of her deathbed plea, at the end of the opera: "Remember the one who loved you so."

This matrix of meaning is contained in a simple tune that you already know even if you have never seen an opera:  a twice-heard phrase that curves steeply down the notes of the F-major scale, followed by a reach up to a high B-flat and a more gradual, winding descent to a lower F. Beneath the voice, strings play throbbing tremolo chords.  ... So significant was "Amami, Alfredo" in Verdi's mind that he made the melody the main theme of the opera's prelude, even though its only appearance in the opera proper is in these eighteen bars of Act II.  There is no more impressive demonstration of Verdi's lightning art:  the audience hardly knows what hit it. 
 Callas's execution of "Amami, Alfredo" on the 1955 set is among the most stunning pieces of Verdi singing on record.  In the tense passage leading up to the outburst, the soprano adopts a breathless, fretful tone, communicating Violetta's initially panicked response to the situation - vocal babbling, the Verdi scholar Julian Budden calls it.  Then, with the trembling of the strings, she seems to flip a switch, her voice burning hugely from within.  When she reaches up to the A and the B-flat, she claws at the notes, practically tears them off the page, although her tone retains a desperate beauty. Her delivery is so unnervingly vehement ... that it risks anticlimax.  Where can the opera possibly go from here? When you listen again, you understand: Violetta's spirit is broken, and from now on she will sing as if she were already dead. 
Here's Renee Fleming's version.  I like that she portrays Violetta as suffering the affects of tuberculosis in this scene; most performances I've seen save that for the third act:

4.  A Village Life by Louise Gluck.  This is Gluck's 11th collection of poems. I read it slowly through the month, a couple of poems before bed each night.  Gluck takes ordinary life in a small  Italian village and makes poetry of it.  It wasn't my favorite collection of her poems, although I enjoyed it while reading it.  However, I found that there wasn't any particular poem that I wanted to share. 

5.  Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.  I blogged about this novel here

6.  The Hand That first Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell,  I fell in love with Maggie O'Farrell's novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  Because of that I was hesitant to read another novel by her; I doubted it could live up to my expectations.  This one didn't, although I did enjoy it.   I guessed early on what the connection between the characters was and thought the key plot point was somewhat unbelievable (a guy who is only slightly younger than me has NEVER seen his birth certificate?  In this day and age?)  I cared about what happened to the characters despite the fact that I didn't really like any of them.  If I had any specific complaint it would be -- too much breast feeding.

7.  Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson.  Last month I read Robertson's first novel.  I blogged about it here.  This month I read the sequel and in many ways I liked it even better.  The story was better and a little less (although not much) melodramatic.  I will definitely read her next novel.  But ... one of the things I liked in the first novel was that the heroine was a happily married woman so there was none of the sexual tension nonsense with her investigative partner.  I'm pretty sure Robertson is caving to pressure and intending to go with sexual tension because the end of this novel sets that up.  I find that very disappointing.

8.   The Art of Fielding by Chad Hardwich.   I blogged about it here.   Let's just say I really liked it.

Right now I'm reading NW by Zadie Smith as well as Ancient Light by John Banville.   I also have Tony LaRussa's latest book about his life in baseball and am resisting starting it until next week.