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review 2018-12-01 11:21
Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will
Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will - Simon Callow

I read this as a buddy read with BrokenTune, and was woefully inadequate with the status updates, but thankfully, some sidebar chats with her during and after our read, have helped me clarify my thoughts about this fantastic book enough to write some of them down.


Richard Wagner was, arguably, one of the most influential composers and conductors in the history of classical music.  He changed the face of opera from top to bottom; from the way the music was played, the notes were sung, the lighting, even the shape of the theatre itself.  He made opera dramatic storytelling.  I'm not even sure I can imagine what it was before he turned everything and everyone on their ear.


Richard Wagner was also an unmitigated ass.  Not merely arrogant; not merely selfish; Wagner was self-involved, egotistical, short-sighted, fiscally irresponsible and anti-semitic.  Additionally, he was described as short, stoop-shouldered and afflicted with an  appalling skin condition; we're not talking run-of-the-mill eczema here - words like 'sores' and 'pustules' were used.  I mention the physical challenges here because in spite of all of this - the horrible character flaws and the physical challenges - he was apparently charismatic as hell. The crap he got away with, the abuse people took only to come back for more, the sheer number of people who shelled out money to pay his debts and provide him with housing is mind-boggling.  Not just in Germany, but in Switzerland, Italy and the UK.  All this, and he was not a good person.


I could have probably overlooked the childish selfishness; I could chuckle over his inability to stay out of any riot he crossed paths with.  I might argue (weakly), that the trail of broken relationships he left behind him his whole life were people who knowingly attached themselves to this horrible man.  But the anti-semitism is a deal-breaker.  HIs disparagement of Jews was grossly casual, brutal, unwarranted and irrational.  Worse, it was not a phase he outgrew, but a mania that only became more brutal and irrational with age, even though he continued to work with Jewish conductors, musicians and composers until the end.


So Wagner was both artistically brilliant and a horrible human being.  This fascinating dichotomy is made still more fascinating by Simon Callow's writing.  He masterfully writes this condensed biography with the utmost objectivity, clarity, and just a dash of humor in unexpected places.  I doubt very much I could have read any other book about Wagner without dnf'ing it simply because I wouldn't have been able to swallow Wagner's life, but Callow made it not only palatable, but compelling.


Wagner may have created some of the most powerful music ever written - at least some of the most unforgettable - but his music will forever be tainted for me now that I know the man behind it better.  The real star that came out of this book, for me, is Callow; his writing ... well, take it as read that I'm gushing over it, because it's some of the best biographical writing I've ever read (not that I read a lot, mind you).


If you're interested in Wagner but don't want a long academic biography, you should absolutely investigate this book; it's fair, it's balanced; it's unbiased and it's excellently written.  The 1/2 star I took off was more my shortcoming than his - my eyes glazed over during the descriptions of the operas' stories, because I'm not a fan of opera.  Seriously, ignore that and just check out the book.

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review 2018-10-10 09:39
In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox
In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox - Carol Burnett

After listening to Carol Burnett's other memoir This Time Together, I was interested in checking this one out.


If this is the first of her books you listen to that cover the years during The Carol Burnett Show, you'll likely like this even more than I did.  She narrates the audio herself and does a fantastic job, and the anecdotes she shares are funny or interesting and often both.  It was a bonus that the excerpts from interviews with Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Harvey Korman were actual audio excepts from the interviews conducted by the Television Academy.  


If you've listened to, or read, This Time Together, you'll find some stories (the best ones) overlap; there's enough fresh material in each book to make reading them worthwhile though.

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review 2018-07-25 08:59
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science‚Äďand the World
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby,Lauren Fortgang
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby

A collection of short biographies highlighting 52 women who changed science - many of them Nobel prize winners - that most people have probably never heard of.  Or, at least, never heard of in relation to their scientific accomplishments.  


Most everybody of a certain age or with a fondness for old movies knows Hedy Lamar as a siren of Hollywood movies; fewer know she developed and held the patent for the technology that makes wi-fi and cellular phones possible.  Literature and poetry readers will recognise Ada Lovelace as the daughter of Lord Byron but how many of those same readers know her paper on Babbage's Analytical Engine is considered "the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.", or that she wrote the first computer program?  Ever.


All of these women were amazing not only for their accomplishments in a time when women didn't accomplish much beyond home and hearth, and not only because they accomplished these achievements in the most male dominated of all the fields in a male dominated world.  They were amazing because they just did what they wanted to do.  They didn't wail, gnash their teeth, or whine, or cajole.  They just got on with their passions and went around anyone who got in their way.  An astonishing number of them worked for free.  All of them kicked ass.


I shy away from calling these women role models: the biographies here are restricted solely to their scientific accomplishments and for all I know some of these women might have been drunks or addicts or gamblers in their private lives.  Certainly Hedy Lamar had a rather colorful, and often pragmatic, love life (which I've read about elsewhere). I'm not judging Hedy for her choices - personally I say more power to her - but her choices are probably choices I'd rather not see my nieces have to confront.  But they are amazing sources of inspiration for all women interested in STEM subjects.  If these women changed the world in a time when they weren't even legally allowed to vote, imagine what similarly headstrong women today can accomplish (and are)?


My favorite quote is from Nobel prize winning physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yallow, who, along with her partner, identified the differences between humans an bovine insulin and developed radioimmunoassay: the process of measuring hormones by looking at their antibodies.


When asked "How does one get past discrimination?" she replied:

"Personally, I have never been terribly bothered by it ... if I wasn't going to do it on one way, I'd manage to do it another way."


This was an excellent read in audio.  Fortgang's voice is clear and easy to understand and she reads the material naturally and with spirit. 

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review 2016-04-09 10:19
Toujours Provence
Toujours Provence - Peter Mayle

One of Mayle's follow-ups to A Year in Provence (there are at least two), this one read more like a collection of short essays of the type that might have perhaps been columns in a newspaper or magazine.


Nevertheless, it was thoroughly enjoyable and dangerous to read him describing a life that sounds so purely wonderful, especially as the days here turn cold and short.  Reading this is a taste of the beautiful, warm life of a small village in Provence.

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review 2015-04-25 09:09
My Family and Other Animals
My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

The cover of my Penguin edition calls this a "autobiographical novel" and at the end I was left wondering how much of the book was true and how much of it was fictionalised.  I came away from it feeling like it was truth exaggerated for comic effect and after some googling about the author, that seems to be an apt description.  


I grew up much like Gerald Durrell, spending all my free time exploring and watching all manner of wildlife.  I stopped short of actually making most of them pets (although I raised more than my share of the local frog population) because I was devastated if anything ever happened to the animals.  Plus, my very clever mom, coming from an earlier generation that had less angst about lying to their children for the greater good, told me if I touched baby animals their moms would scent me on them and abandon them to die.  This applied not only to birds, but to any and all animals save dogs, cats, and hermit crabs.  She also told me sea monsters came out at night and ate people.  I love my mom.  Although I still can't swim in the ocean after dark.


I digress, but I found a lot to like about this book, it was at once familiar, eccentric and hilarious.  It's an easy, if long, read that meanders from one anecdote to another with vivid, sometimes flowery descriptions that make me feel if I never actually visit Corfu, I've still seen it through Mr. Durrell's eyes.


It was a perfect read for a dreary couple of days while languishing about with the sniffles.

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