Tuesday, May 18, 2010

City of Thieves: The Perfect Airplane Read

Operas, Pianists, Nabokov, Bryan Garner--this blog is guilty of snootishness. And with essays on croquet and orchids on tap for next month, I thought it appropriate to eschew an examination of belles lettres in favor of a mention of a nice airplane read: City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Because the work was published in 2008, it seems this is as current as I get. Recent posts have seen me either stuck in the middle of the last century or trying to board the David Foster Wallace bandwagon long after DFW's death. But City of Thieves was so good I may just continue to look around and see what the 21st century has to offer.

An airplane book should be short. My unique way of measuring the length of a book, one I have used since college (a result of reading prolix Dickens novels), and which predates computer programs that count words automatically, is pages x lines per page x characters per line. Here we have 258 pages, 35 lines per page, and about 65 characters per line. So the book is approximately 586,950 characters long. By comparison, The Pickwick Papers was 2,109,120 characters long per my ancient calculations; Hard Times, 661,960; and Jude the Obscure (Yes, I was even capable of reading Hardy), 924,715. So the book starts with an approximate length appropriate for the genre. Then, because of the profusion of dialogue in the book--this is a buddy story, though a dark one--the actual length is overestimated by my rough formula. Of course, the point here is not that it is simply short, or else a "Modest Proposal" would make a good airplane read. Instead, to make a satisfying travel companion it must be reasonably short, long enough, and substantial.

When I travel, it seems my reading is constantly interrupted: the flight ends; we are going back to the terminal; a drink is being served; bathroom breaks are needed; spouses, children, or Houyhnhnms sitting next to me want to interact. A good airplane read must have a short refractory period. Have you ever tried to put down and pick up a Dickens novel? "Let's see, exactly who was Mr. Snodgrass again?" I remember coating the flyleaves of my Dickens or Tolstoy novels with the cast of characters. In The City of Thieves we are mostly concerned with just two main characters: Lev, an introverted young Jew, and Kolya, a scrappy, quick-witted Cossack. So it's easy to follow in addition to being the right length.

On top of this, we have an engaging story, the premise of which is that Lev and Kolya, who were condemned to die, have their lives spared on the condition that they find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel. The only problem is that they start their quest during the winter of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The story's germ is interesting, funny, and a bit ironic. The quest, of course, brings these two closer and closer together as the tale progresses. The situations are wildly imaginative, almost the kind that are so odd that one thinks they must be based on truth. In no particular order we have several of ingredients for a good story: Nazis; a foray through enemy lines; cannibalism; a romance; a sharing of confidences between Lev and Kolya; moments of courage; and moments of pathos.

This is a very pleasant read. I am certain that it will be a Hollywood movie, and probably a pretty good one, within a year or two. Beyond that, City of Thieves is a perfect airplane read.

Friday, May 14, 2010

W.A. Frost Finally Got It Right!

I have been going to W.A. Frost's, a St. Paul restaurant, for over thirty years. Never impressed. The building is interesting--it was a drugstore in the 1930's when my father roamed the neighborhood--but the food has always been insipid. I would estimate that I've been there 30 times or so over the years. At times the service has been some of the worst imaginable. At other times the attitude of the restaurant has been alienating. For instance, I recall an incident about ten years ago when the restaurant rejected my wife's request for the tiniest of deviations from the printed menu--like "could we get this with sauce?"

And then there was tonight. I tried executive chef Wyatt Evans' six-course tasting menu. Fantastic!

The first course was a Cold Smoked Norwegian Salmon "Tartare"--essentially gravlax in an English Cucumber. Stunning.

Then bunny. In particular a "Singerhouse Farm Rabbit Confit Risotto." Unusual and tasty.

The "Grilled All Natural New York Strip" was the best steak I have ever tasted, though there were only three small strips. But they were perfectly cooked. The accompanying fixings were impressive.

This was followed by a cheese course, which featured a delicious local cheese, Upland Farm Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an artisinal non-pasteurized cheese.

Beyond the spectacular food, the service was great.

I am flummoxed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Ethereal Glenn Gould

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould was a wonderful Monday offering at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. I have been a Glenn Gould fan for many decades and appreciated the opportunity to consider him from another angle.

My introduction to Gould, like most, was through his Bach recordings. The piano repertoire was an early love and my first recordings of Bach's keyboard works were of Gould's performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. I savored them. I transferred them from records to cassettes and played them until the cassettes wore out. Later I purchased a wide variety of Gould recordings when a local record chain went out of business and was selling them for a couple of dollars a piece. Among these were discs of Gould playing the harpsichord, Bach keyboard concerti, the Art of Fugue, Inventions, Partitas--and anything else I could find. When I heard Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, it became a touchstone.

Later I fell for Gould's wit. Tim Page's A Glenn Gould Reader, a collection of Gould's writings, had me laughing out loud. I particularly enjoyed the pieces where Glenn Gould interviewed Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould. At one point in such an interview, Gould the interviewee announced that his favorite Mozart piece was a piece that although once assigned a Kochel number, had later proved to be written by someone other than Mozart. His parody of Arthur Rubinstein, also included in Page's book, was fetching.

And through the years I always watched with chagrin as the Gould recordings disappeared from the record and CD guides, to be replaced by the recordings of Bach newcomers. Did anybody ever really "own" Bach the way that Gould did, though? Could any other pianist play with the contrapuntal tenacity and clarity of Gould. I have never thought so.

So I was excited to see the movie. The most interesting revelation for me was the fact that Gould had an intense love affair with Cornelia Foss, the wife of a prominent composer of the 1950's and 1960's, Lukas Foss. Cornelia Foss and her children described their years living with Gould and hit upon his eccentricities. I had always ascribed Gould's summertime coat-wearing behavior to schizophrenia, but it appears that Gould was taking dozens of prescribed drugs and this no doubt contributed to both his bizarre behavior and the decline of his health. The film also presented colleagues who worked with him on Canadian radio. They explained that Gould was a perfectionist who was consumed by his work and detailed how those who worked with him were soon caught up in his passionate pursuit of his endeavors of the moment.

Much of the movie, though, was film I had seen before. In particular, the footage from his time as a young recording artist in New York and the clips of his Russian visit were known to me. Also, some of the Canadian television interviews at his lake home have circulated quite a bit lately. But despite the fact that not everything was new, the film really was an interesting try at plumbing the depths of Gould's fascinating genius.

By odd coincidence, when I left the theater and got in my car there was one song left on the disc I was listening to and then--this was not planned--the next disc was Gould's 1955 Goldberg Variations, a disc I had put in a few months ago, but not listened to recently. I decided to find out why this disc, one of the most famous classical recordings of all time, is not considered the best recording of the Goldberg Variations. As I spent time with it, and particularly as I compared it to another recording of the Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein, I began to understand the problem that many have with Gould's conception: his tempi are idiosyncratic, often insanely (and I think humorously) fast, occasionally torturously slow. While Dinnerstein's recording was moving, measured, and lyrical, Gould's was savage--an assault on the piano.

Later the next evening I went in search of Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldbergs, which I had purchased when in law school. Unfortunately, it was vinyl, so I could not play it. But then I stumbled on the You Tube videos of Gould playing the Goldbergs in 1981. What a treat! Although some oddities remain, some of the supercharged tempi seemed moderated a bit. But in watching Gould perform these pieces I wondered at his total commitment, brilliant execution, and utter mastery of his craft.

I am fairly confident that my children's generation will find little here to warrant their attention. But to me there are few things as meritorious as these videos of a homely, myopic, fifty-year-old man sitting on a tiny chair, eyes just above the keyboard, back hunched, performing a 300-year-old piece of music. In fact, Gould's famous 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations was released only weeks before he died. Of course, this was the same piece that had catapulted him to fame in 1955. I've always thought it fitting that Gould's career ended where it began, just as the variations end with the reprise of the opening aria. Gould always said that he would die at age 50 and I wonder if there was not some belief or knowledge on his part that he would soon die when the 1981 recording was made.

Because the movie reminded me of this old friend of mine, someone I never knew, I have to count it, or at least my attendance, a brilliant success.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

International Film Festival: Suddenly Sami

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival is now in its 28th year and this year sports what I counted to be 143 full-length films. The films show at the St. Anthony Main Theaters, a collection of smallish theaters on the river in the mill district.

We saw "Suddenly Sami," by Norwegian director Ellen Astri-Lundby, who was in attendance. The film revolves around Astri-Lundby's exploration of her family roots, particularly the fact that her mother was a "Sami," a member of an ethnic group from the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The film details the discrimination and scorn encountered by the Sami peoples in Norway, at one point comparing this racism to that of the United States or South Africa.

The film starts with a focus on her mother's life and includes reminiscences of childhood, visits with relatives, and forays to the fjords of northern Norway. At one point Astri-Lundby finds herself in the midst of a reindeer roundup, a moment that best captured her exploration of her family heritage.

In my view, the best aspect of the film was its humor. The Sami relatives and friends that the director encounters are coy about being Sami and usually people of subtle humor and wit.

There was a detailed Q and A session with Astri-Lundby following the film, the highlight of which was a man with Sami ancestry shocking the whole audience by using the n-word while quoting his Sami mother regarding what happened to the color of her skin if she went outside too much.

The festival runs through April 30.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maurizio Pollini's Carnegie Hall Chopin Recital

I had not seen Maurizio Pollini in recital since he performed the Beethoven piano sonatas in a cycle at Carnegie Hall in 1995-96. I am a long-time Pollini adherent, having attended my first Pollini recital, an all-Brahms affair, in London in 1979. Because he had won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1960 at age eighteen, and because of his luscious 1970’s Chopin recordings for Deustche Grammophon, I had always regretted that I had never heard him play Chopin in concert. Thus, it was with great interest that a week ago I spied a notice of a Pollini recital at Carnegie Hall on the very day of a scheduled trip to New York. The only problem was that my flight was to land at Newark Airport only 62 minutes before Pollini would take the stage.

I therefore decided to pass on tickets. But my dear brother came to the rescue. He bought two tickets and told me that if I got to Carnegie Hall on time we would go; he was also willing to wait and enter at intermission if need be. But my Delta flight landed twenty minutes early and I arrived at the concert hall with thirty minutes to spare. As it turned out, it was my brother who almost missed the recital because of Midtown traffic. The seats were the best in the house: eight rows back, keyboard side, on the aisle. We were so close that I could hear Pollini breathe.

The program Pollini selected was a Chopin aficionado’s dream: two Nocturnes; the 24 Préludes; the G-minor Ballade; the B-minor Scherzo, and a selection of eight opus 25 Études.

I had trouble enjoying the two Nocturnes, opus 27, nos. 1 and 2, that started the program because the audience was still not really settled when Pollini began. To me, Chopin’s Nocturnes are as much about silence and quiet as they are about the wrenching notes, so the rustles caused by late arrivers that were just sitting down as Pollini sat down and the cannonades of coughs that accompanied his playing of these pieces were a bit of a distraction. But Pollini seems to pay the audience’s indiscretions little mind—even during the couple of incidents involving premature clapping—and he simply proceeded through his program in unhesitating fashion. Eventually, the audience quieted down.

The Préludes as a group were not in my view the strength of the program. It seemed that there was a pedal problem during no. 4 and a small slip during no. 8, and perhaps a few other minor imperfections in other numbers. The fast Préludes were generally played with panache, though the slower ones, such as the A-flat allegretto, no. 17, a particular favorite of mine, seemed more solid.

Pollini is not a showman. He is not extravagant with his gestures. In fact, both at the piano and while taking his bows, his movements are parsimonious. He does not raise his hands high before pounding home a loud chord, like Rubinstein, or swoon at his own playing, like Lang Lang, but simply plays the notes. I had forgotten this aspect of his live performances. But he is like a great gunfighter: he is not intentionally flashy and may not speak much at all, but his ability is something that is unquestionable and should not be doubted.

The second half of the program wowed the crowd. It started with the big G-minor Ballade, a piece made popular several years ago by “The Pianist,” Roman Polanski’s movie about a Polish Jew who emerges from hiding in the Warsaw ghetto. In the movie, the desultory, starving pianist comes out of his lengthy silence by playing this piece in a scene that succeeds in leaving movie audiences awestruck. Pollini’s performance was at least inspiring enough to gain more quiet from the Carnegie Hall audience.

The B-minor Scherzo was a highlight of the program. Impeccable virtuosity was welded to masterful control of the instrument’s sonorities. The performance of this piece was beyond criticism; it was a joy. And then, with the opus 25 Études, Pollini really took control of the audience, particularly with the last three—all showpieces of the top order. After the B minor Étude, no. 10, an audience member or two tried to break through with applause, but Pollini would have none of that. He dove right into no. 11, known as “the Winter Wind,” and reminded everyone of the reason for his long-held reputation for precision and speed. And then no. 12, the C minor Étude, was driven home furiously. At this point, all around me were shaking their heads in disbelief.

He performed three encores. While the middle of these three pieces was a gentle Mazurka, two of the encores, one the “Revolutionary” etude, and the other the big C#-minor scherzo, played last, were exceedingly generous offerings. I am not accustomed to hearing such weighty encore fare. These two were simply stupendous.

This was the most memorable piano recital of my life. I’ve heard many great pianists through the years—Arrau, Brendel, Kempff, Bolet, Ashkenazy, Gilels, Horowitz, Barenboim, and Lang Lang for starters—but the combination of the kind gift from my brother, a recital by my favorite pianist, perfect seats, and an ideal program, had me exiting onto the sidewalk on 57th Street on this sunny Sunday afternoon with a smile as wide as a long block.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is Pollini in the Offing?

I will be visiting New York tomorrow. Last weekend I noted that there is an amazing piano recital scheduled: Pollini will be playing an all-Chopin concert at Carnegie Hall. Only glitch is that my flight arrives in Newark at 1:58 p.m. and the concert begins at 3:00 p.m. Changing flights would have been prohibitively expensive, so I decided not to buy tickets to the recital. Disappointed. I have attended several Pollini recitals over the years, but never heard him play what I most wanted to hear him play: Chopin.

(For those who don't know how I really feel about Pollini, here's a link.)

But then my dear brother stepped forward and bought tickets anyway, figuring that the traffic on Sunday will not be bad and that I might be able to make it. I hope so. The first half of the concert includes Chopin's 24 Preludes, a work I have dreamt of hearing Pollini play since I first heard his 1975 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Preludes in the late 1970's. The recording won the prestigious Grand Prix du Disc award and the alternating power and delicacy of his playing is jaw dropping.

So we'll see if I can make it to Carnegie Hall by 3:oo! If not, I should be in time for the second half of the program, which will be joy enough.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nabokov's Lolita

Just finished Lolita yesterday. An amazing and disturbing book. I think I should let my thoughts ferment a bit before blogging about it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Brush with Fame: Meeting the Challenge

Like other states, Minnesota is experiencing a budget crunch. State park budgets have been hit hard. Services and staffing have been cut. Given this, how do the state parks find the funds to hire celebrities to staff the park offices?

Here's what happened. I was looking to photograph wildflowers and called ahead to the park office, asking, "Are there any spring ephemerals out yet?"

"What?," a gruff female voice grunted.

"Are there any spring ephemerals, any early wildflowers out yet?"

"No. It's too early."

This seemed odd to me given the recent warm weather. So I drove to the park and stopped at the park office. And who should I see, but Roz, the star of Monsters, Inc.!, live and in the flesh.

"I called earlier to see if you have any wildflowers out. I've seen them elsewhere."

"Well we don't have any. We just had a flood through much of our park," barked Roz.

"Besides," she continued, oozing her natural charm, "there aren't many wildflowers in this park anyways."

I was shocked to see that the State of Minnesota could afford to pay Pixar the huge royalties necessary to put this star power in the front office. But I went for a hike anyways.

Roz had apparently been spending too much time indoors because I did manage to see a number of spring ephemerals: Bloodroot; Dutchman's Breeches; Wild Ginger; and Marsh Marigolds--as evidenced by the photos above.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

B. Traven: The Bridge in the Jungle

While on my recent Nabokov foray, after hacking my way through his sesquipedalian tangles, and then wrestling with the fantasy of some of his short stories, I saw a clear, easy path ahead and decided to follow it for a while: B. Traven’s “The Bridge in the Jungle.” I found it in a second-hand bookstore in Tacoma and snatched it up for $3.50. It was a quick, easy read, everything that the Nabokov I had been reading was not: direct, unpretentious, and seemingly more concerned with the world than with its own creativity.

The narrator, Gales, is hunting alligators somewhere in the South American jungle. He visits a loose acquaintance, Sleigh, who lives in a hut in a primitive Indian village. The village is feeling the encroachments of industrialization, including railroads and oil exploration. The oil interests had some time ago built a bridge across a narrow river at the village, but without railings. During an evening celebration, a young boy, Carlosito, vanishes. His mother rouses the villagers to search for him. Some believe that he slipped off the bridge because he was wearing new shoes, shoes which had just been given to him by his brother, Manuel, who had recently returned from the Texas oil fields. As the search progresses, Gales silently regrets that he said nothing when he earlier had heard a splash in the river. Eventually, Carlosito’s body is found stuck in some brush in the water beneath the bridge.

Thereafter, this short novel consists of a straight-forward description of the funeral rites in this small village: the grief of the mother; the preparation of the body; the community’s offering of gifts to the mother for the adornment of her son at burial; the preparation of the coffin, fashioned from unmatched scraps of wood; the funeral procession; the graveside speech; and the burial.

Traven’s language never gets in the way of his story. He leaves the descriptive mode only occasionally, and usually not for long. The work captures perfectly a universal human experience, something that connects us all: the community’s response to death of a young child. The villagers, who have few worldly possessions, still find ways to show their concern for the dead boy and his family. Some make coverings for the body; some make decorated crowns for his head; others bring candles.

The narrator is at times maudlin—a trait I perhaps share and therefore can tolerate. And sometimes he seems too proud of the fact that he sees all humanity in the simple dignity of these primitive people. But his measured description of the funeral rites is a dissection of grief, one that expresses humanity’s commonality. The narrator’s open assertions of the impressiveness of the villagers is hardly needed, though was perhaps warranted given the time of the work’s publication, 1929, and the date of its republication in English, 1938. In fact, given the brewing world storm and the intolerance and bigotry that came with it, it is hard to imagine any message that was more needed in 1938 than the one delivered by this story. This is a noble work.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Speak, Memory: A Polished Gem

On February 12, 1997, according to the unblemished College of St. Benedict's/College of St. John's price sticker on the back of the book, $13.00 bought one a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, "Speak, Memory." I picked it up for $6.98 (not quite half price) at my neighborhood Half Price Books store. Anne Fadiman's essays, discussed below, led me to search out some Nabokov, and the front cover quote suggesting that a prominent magazine considered this "The finest autobiography written in our time" intrigued me.

Let me just say that I'm chagrined lately. In my younger days I wrote bitter reviews and critiques and savaged most everything I read. But lately I seem to be more impressed with the books I read, less critical, and frankly awestruck by the ability of our species to create things of beauty. (See, e.g., my fawning opera reviews on this blog.) But it could also just be that I'm just growing up.

[The theory that I am finally growing up is supported by a recent incident at work. Twenty-some years ago I worked with a young woman, my age, who was edgy and probably--no, definitely--more mature than I was. We worked together for a few months. One day after work, within a few blocks of the office, she pulled up next to me at a stop light. For some reason, mostly puckishness, perhaps some dislike, I looked at her and gave her the finger. We never really talked much again, though we never worked together much after that either. Fast forward twenty-four years. In the course of my work I am visiting an office building in the downtown area. And the "fingered" woman is there in the reception area. When others were off talking about something I took her aside and told her that I did something many years ago that I regretted. She knew exactly what I meant--and then announced to the nearby receptionist: "After all these years, Vercingetorix is finally growing up!"]

But apart from just growing up, I'm also reading better stuff. Better variety.

Well, how does one begin to recount the brilliance of "Speak, Memory"?

It's probably worth starting with the process of its creation, because this helps explain its impressiveness. The work, though claimed to have been planned in structure, is a collection of fifteen autobiographical essays, originally written in no particular order, concerning Nabokov's life from 1903 to 1940. Individual chapters of this autobiography appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly and other literary magazines over a period of many years. They were thus surely edited and presumably re-edited. Once the work was assembled by combining the chapters, it was polished further by Nabokov for a later edition, next translated into Russian by his wife, and then translated back into English--this last something that Nabokov states was an arduous task.

I have never read anything that contains the density of beautiful words that this work contains. I would like to analyze it with a computer, because the variety of different words used is simply overwhelming. And every word is apt.

Nabokov's relationship to English is interesting. He was raised as a member of the privileged Russian nobility in pre-revolutionary Russia and was therefore a polyglot (Russian, English, French for starters) of the first order. At one point he bemoans that his English is not as good as his Russian (at another turn he suggests it's his Russian that's a bit weak, which is more believable), but I think that he is one of the very best English writers. Those words he uses that I know are used perfectly and wonderfully. And then there are the many that I don't know: "coeval," "fatidic," "palpebral," "frass," "ophyron," "susurrous," "fulvous," and on and on.

So, what else? Well, he writes some of the most wondrous sentences. And his mind is so engaging. For me, because of my hobbies and interests, the bits on chess problems and Cambridge were interesting. Others will enjoy the portraits of Russian life and the various characters of his youth.

In summary: Great words, placed with care in splendid sentences, surrounded by important ideas--all illumined by Nabokov's undeniable brilliance. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small: Brillant Essays

After finishing Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris recently, I picked up a copy of her 2007 collection of essays, At Large and At Small. Fadiman pleases in so many ways.

This collection is more diverse than Ex Libris, because it is not unified by a single subject. Three of the essays concern the greatest pleasures of life: ice cream, the mail, and coffee. Some are biographical, as with the essays on the lives of Charles Lamb, Samuel Coleridge, and arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson. A few were autobiographical musings about family matters, such as moving, her family's response to 9-11, and the collections of childhood. All are well written and interesting.

But the thing that I discovered about her in reading these essays and something that impressed me greatly was her common sense. This became apparent to me when reading the essay Procrustes and the Culture Wars. In it she oozes reason and calm while discussing some of the great literary questions: Why should we read?; Should the life of the writer affect our evaluation of the work?; Should a book be demoted for failing to meet current standards of behavior?; How should we react to language that does not include us? Rarely are these subjects touched so sensibly. Her explication of the legend of Procrustes was enjoyable because it has always intrigued me--ever since I first stumbled on the word "Procrustes" in my first year of law school.

And then there is my secret reason for liking the book: Fadiman's verbal menagerie. She trots out "omphalous," "polysemous," "oriflamme," "vexillology," "souseholes," and the like.

I bought this book for $6.00 from a vendor on amazon.com; it gave me far more enjoyment than this weekend's $13.00 ticket to Alice in Wonderland, the latest Hollywood 3-D blockbuster.

And now I'm on to a recommendation of Fadiman's, Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory. Here's a work that will have you running for your dictionary!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fadmian's Ex Libris: Cure for a Funk

Maybe Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader has saved this blog. It took this charming collection of eighteen essays about books to pull me out of a slump and prod me to post again. Again proving myself to be far removed from the cutting edge of the literary world, I comment on a work that has been available since 1998.

Every educated person has a relationship with books. Apart from the content of the writings, we have relationships with books, the physical vessels of the knowledge we absorb. Fadiman explores her bibliophilia in a collection of taut and varied essays that constantly reminds us that our connection with books reflects our connection with the world. She moves from toddlers’ using books as teething objects to the troublesome ground of marital library mergers; from the use of books as children’s building blocks to the dispersal of our libraries on death.

The work is impeccable on every level. It coheres beautifully as a collection of essays. The writing is always original, deft, and cocksure—something one expects from a writer whose father was Clifton Fadiman. Her anecdotes are interesting. The individual subjects of the essays are well chosen.

Humor abounds. I had to laugh when I picked the book up off my bedstand—it was splayed face down—and started to read the essay Never Do that to a Book, which started with an anecdote about her brother leaving a volume facedown on a table and having the maid insert a note that said: “SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK.” Her subsequent exegesis of our physical relationship with books—including the likes of mutilation by cover removal, marginalia, and kitchen spatterings on cookbooks—is enchanting.

In reading the book I was reminded of some of my own odd book habits: listing the words I don't know on the back flyleaf; excessive annotation and injudicious underlining; and my Dickens-induced habit of computing how long a book is by counting individual letters (based on the formula: pages x times lines per page x times letters per line).

Her essay on sonnets I found particularly reassuring. She gives Willam Kunstler a pass for writing bad sonnets, confesses to writing bad sonnets herself, and otherwise absolves all of us who have ever committed the sin of writing bad sonnets.

This book is a joy.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.