J.S.Bach – Goldberg Variations – Zhu Xiao-Mei


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Generosity and humanity without restraint

I have loved Bach’s Goldberg Variations since my teens; it is an essential piece of music for me. Glenn Gould has been THE interpreter, against whom I judged others. Indeed, as I have two recordings, I judge him against himself.

I bought Zhu Xiao-Mei’s 2016 recording then, with some trepidation, having found her through her extraordinary autobiography, The Secret Piano. What she said about Bach, what she revealed about herself in her devotion to, and understanding of, his music, made this listening urgent and compulsory. Would it disappoint? Could she match the perfection I find in Gould as an interpreter?

Oh my. Oh my. I can’t raise one above the other. These are so extraordinarily different, creating such a unique experience within this music, of equal intensity. Profound, visceral, spiritual, hugely reflective, totally engaged.

Listening to Gould, I am brought to stillness, in some glimmering, numinous state. The music is transcendent, touching the divine, taking me to yearning for the ineffable. Music pointing to the dispassionate stars. I would like to be freed from the bonds of matter. This is music which makes tears pour, without strain, without, even, being able to name the emotion.

By contrast, Zhu Xiao-Mei takes me to total engagement and inhabitation of my human beingness. And, whilst I never thought about the gender of the performer with Gould, from the off, Zhu Xiao-Mei’s does feel like an interpretation which is particularly feminine. I was put in mind of the willing surrender of self, the making space for the other, that supremely female experience of pregnancy. I thought/felt the presence of various Artworks depicting The Annunciation, of everything I knew about embryology, the negotiation between fertilised egg and its embedding/inception in the womb. On a spiritual/metaphorical level this has always seemed to me to be an act (even if unconscious) of generosity. Here life, the life of the other, can begin, offered a safe harbour.

This performer effaces herself, she makes room for the music. It is not a performance demanding the listener to marvel at, and admire the pianist (though we do!) Rather, we are asked to marvel at, to admire the composer, to marvel at, to admire how HE speaks, to listen to his language, to hear what he is listening to, to what he has heard and must communicate to us. I understood, from Zhu’s revealing, that this Bach is after all, human too. Deeply spiritual, deeply connecting with ‘That Which Is’ – but doing so by being deeply embedded in matter, embodied, in community. Bach was a husband and a father. The warmth of human, the challenge of human, is all in this interpretation.

With Zhu’s interpretation I found myself embracing the limitations and expressions of embodiment. Not seeking to escape from the chains of matter, glorying in them. How I would have behaved in a live concert hall, I don’t know – but I was on my feet, dancing the dynamic variations, and sensing into the dynamics of breath, heartbeat, blood flow in the more introspective variations. Both yearning skywards, but also grounded, held (happily) by gravity.

No tears flowed, instead, she led me to ‘thoughts that do lie too deep for tears’, an awareness of the divinity within (however one might define it) through its works, through all that is. This god/goddess dwells within us, Pan-theistic indeed.

I have struggled (as I am not a musician) to define the difference between two glorious, miraculous interpretations, and can only do it by their effects upon me, subjectively.

Actually, Zhu Xiao Mei herself – who masters language nearly as meaningfully as she does music, explains exactly what I find from her music, in the CD notes, which include an interview with her by Michel Mollard, who makes this interesting observation, and question

Michel Mollard: Glenn Gould retired from the world in order to deepen his interpretation of the Goldberg variations, whereas you have decided to take the opposite approach by playing the work in public throughout practically the whole of the world

ZX-M : Yes, for me communicating with my audience is crucial. I am playing for them again. It is my contact with an audience that has allowed my performance of the Goldberg Variations to mature, and I have them to thank for that.

She makes space not just for the composer, the music, but also for the listener

Unfortunately I can’t find any extended sections of Zhu Xiao-Mei on a YouTube playing Goldberg, hence these two very short excerpts from various live performances and the documentary on her life and music. The extended Gould YouTube is of his first recording of the works, 1955, taken at some lick. Zhu Xiao-Mei takes almost twice as long to play the Variations through, choosing to play the repeats, and also making something of the silence, pauses between variations

Goldberg Variations UK
Goldberg Variations USA


Zhu Xiao-Mei – The Secret Piano


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Mao, Tao, Bach and a Piano

I’m embarrassed, as a lover of classical music, not to have heard of the classical pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, until very recently, coming by chance across her wonderful autobiography, The Secret Piano. Perhaps, given her history which is a history of her country in the latter half of the twentieth century, this is not so surprising

Zhu Xiao Mei was born in 1949, to an artistic, bourgeois, intellectual family. From a very early age she showed an extraordinary musical aptitude. However, the possession of a piano in a family home was at this time yet another indication that the family was not ‘a good family’ Bourgeois, revisionist, not revolutionary.

She was however born just in time to have some years of training at China’s premier classical music college, before the launching of The Cultural Revolution in 1966 changed the lives of her generation. Bourgeois thought was to be rooted out. The young, impressionable to exploitation, something totalitarian regimes of left and right have capitalised on, became the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution, condemning any who showed individualist, critical thinking towards Mao Tse-Tung thought, as deified in The Little Red Book.

Intellectuals were sent to work camps for ‘Re-education’ This happened to every member of her family – sent to different camps. She spent 5 years in a workcamp, which seemed to have a remarkable similarity to some accounts of the gulags.

Her destiny, which had seemed, from her early prowess, to indicate a life as an exceptional concert pianist, was far from realisation. After Mao’s death, when a thaw in relationships between East and West began to happen, the flame that music was for her, could only express itself in lowly ways. She finally managed to complete her interrupted musical education, and began working as an accompanist for the training dancers at Beijing’s Dance Academy.

I often wonder whether I should hate Mao Tse-Tung for what he did to me. On a purely theoretical level, his analyses were not incorrect. The Chinese people did need to be liberated. How could I forget the documentary they screened for us at school,, which showed the sign the English erected at the entrance to Waitan Park. On it was clearly written “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted”

She left China for America, determined to try and study her art further, and supported her studies by various jobs – some completely unconnected with her musicality, such as house-cleaning.

Things began to change for her in the eighties. She moved to Paris (where she still lives) and where her ability was recognised so that, as she continued with her studies, she was at least able to get work teaching the piano.

This book (beautifully translated by Ellen Hinsey) shows Zhu Xiao-Mei to be an exceptional human being, as well as musician. She has, of course, been scarred by the experience of the Cultural Revolution, where idealistic and impressionable young people were brainwashed into acts of betrayal because they believed they were acting in the common good. She does not spare herself from culpability. The experience has left her not quite able to trust. However……..she is a deeply reflective, modest, spiritual individual, and indeed, one of great generosity of heart and soul, great authenticity. SHE does not say these things of herself – but this listener found these qualities in her work


There is a poignant moment, on a plane, on her way to America where she learns, for the first time, about the philosophical and ethical inheritance of her country, as exemplified by Lao-tzu – of whom she had never heard, as all this was hidden, regarded as deviant and retrograde, when the doctrine of her country was the one religion of Mao Tse-Tung Thought.

Before playing a work…I need to be peaceful, to empty my mind.

The Chinese are well acquainted with this way of seeing things; they often use the image of water to illustrate it. To see down to the bottom of a lake, the water must be calm and still. The calmer the water, the farther down one can see. The exact same thing is true for the mind – the more tranquil and detached one is, the greater the depths one can plumb….it is precisely by following this path of self-effacement and emptiness that one attains the truth of a musical work. Without attempting to impose one’s will, without forcing something on the listener. Without struggling with the self. By disappearing behind the composer

Quotations and reflections from Lao-Tzu,and Confucius – and Jesus, clearly inform her way of being, and the Tao infuses her understanding and interpretation of Bach, in particular, whom she describes as the most Chinese of composers, the composer closest to comprehension and inhabitation by a Chinese person

Only now I am able to understand the extent to which my experience of the Cultural Revolution taught me to never use music’s power to impose anything on my audience. I suffered too much under the yoke of servitude, and I prefer to speak rather than to compel

This is a wonderful, moving, soulful book, very humbling to read.

Strongly recommended.

As are her handful of CDs. She clearly is an exceptionally gifted communicator using the language of words. What she does with the language of music is something else again

The Secret Piano UK
The Secret Piano USA

Jane Harper – The Lost Man


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‘The man lay still in the centre of a dusty grave under a monstrous sky’

So many book bloggers and book reviewers whose opinions I value have praised Jane Harper from The Dry onwards. I resisted reading her only because some of those trusted reviewers are crime fiction aficionados, and I am not a devotee of any genre, though there are certainly writers in this field I adore such as Patricia Highsmith, and, in more modern vein, Tana French.

Offered the chance to read an advance copy of Harper’s next book, I thought I should see what the fuss was about. And…I see it, I absolutely see it, and am now spending my own money on The Dry and The Force of Nature. Late to the table, but I am there now.

The Lost Man is tremendous, absorbing, powerful. The vast inhospitable brooding Australian outback is a palpable, charismatic and terrifying presence, which loomed into my safe cityscape, through the power of Harper’s evocation. Several times I came back to my here and now world with a kind of shock at its littleness and confinement.

My only question on this book would be the one of genre itself. I would not describe this as crime fiction, or even a dark psychological thriller. It sits firmly lit ficcily. It reminded me (though very different) of Jane Smiley’s lit ficcy reworking of King Lear, Ten Thousand Acres, more than anything. Or some ancient and mythic tragedy from classical times. A vast landscape, powerful, dysfunctional family dynamics, etched through generations.

There is certainly a death, and in circumstances which don’t completely stack up, and there is a policeman, though as his territory patch covers hundreds of miles, he is not, by any means, the one who might be on hand to do any kind of solving

The Bright family cattle farm across a huge swathe of land, territory divided into three. Brothers Cameron, Nathan and Bub are each other’s nearest neighbours. A gravestone, round which local legends have grown up is a solitary orienting landmark in the shimmering, dry desert

Months, even a year even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by…the grave stood mostly alone next to a three wire cattle fence. The fence stretched a dozen kilometres east to a road and a few hundred west to the desert, where the horizon was so flat and far away it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth

There was a single homestead somewhere to the north of the fence, and another to the south. Next door neighbours , three hours apart

Cameron Bright is the most successful of the brothers. And, right at the start, it is clear he broke a cardinal rule outbackers know is crucial. Inexplicably, he left his car, in perfect working order, stocked with food and water, on his way to meet with one of his brothers to repair a mast on his territory, and just walked out into the desert and died in obvious agony, of heat exposure and dehydration.

Nathan, the oldest brother, and the one who makes the deepest journey into self and family awareness is the central character. Through him and his understanding, tangled family patterns are explored. Nathan is some kind of pariah, an infamous past history seems to have engulfed and isolated him – yet he is the one who appears to be the closest to being a man of integrity, steadfast. Popular, respected now-dead Cameron may not have been quite as seen. Youngest brother Bub, angry at not being valued by anyone as his brothers’ equal, is erratic and too fond of drink. However, there is a widespread consensus that Nathan is not stable, he has lived alone for far too long, after an acrimonious, bitter divorce. He can’t get people to work for him, and is barely able to make his part of the Bright cattle ranch pay. He had to sell some of his land to Cameron, years earlier.

This is such an absorbing read. It is full of credible twists, turns, revelations. The story – which is not fast paced, unfolds through character, and through landscape. Place is as powerful as psychology.

Highly recommended

I received it as a review copy from Amazon Vine.

And I must pay tribute to an evocative review of a previous novel by Harper from Jane, of Beyond Eden Rock. It was Jane’s praise of The Dry which made me think I should investigate Harper after all, when offered The Lost Man. And I have now devoured, and thoroughly been absorbed by, her earlier books

The Lost Man UK
The Lost Man USA

….for those earlier regular visitors to this blog. – I’m horrified to see I last came to my own blog in September. Blame intense work load (still continuing) Time to read, or time to blog, not time for both. Plus, rather sadly, I read a lot last year which did not make my ‘must be at least a clear and obvious 4 star, and preferably 5 star, to get reviewed on here’ rule. I do hope to post some reviews more frequently than once every 4 months!. Erm..Happy Earlyish February!

William Boyd – Love is Blind


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The comfort of an unsurprising read

I do always enjoy reading Boyd, an author who relishes words, knows how to craft a tale, creates complex and believable characters and often, in his books, explores cultural times and places, as he takes his central characters though their lifetimes. His central characters are frequently connected with the arts and culture generally. His historical period is often around the end of the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century

Stunningly good versions of this include Any Human Heart and The New Confessions. Also central, generally, is some kind of obsessional love affair, often going wrong, and leaving unhealed wounds

With the title Love Is Blind the Boyd Reader knows we are in for pretty much the same journey.

Central character here is Brodie Moncur (Boyd generally manages wonderful names). Moncur, who has an uneasy relationship with his domineering, irascible clergyman father, is a gentler soul. He is blessed with perfect pitch. The art he is associated with, therefore, music. Moncur is not however a musical virtuoso himself. A good musician, but not enough so to achieve status sufficient to earn a living from performance. His skill is in his ear, and his craftsman hands. Almost by chance, he stumbles into his profession – piano tuning, and at a time, and in connection with, a piano making business out to rival the highest quality, most prestigious of instrument makers for those virtuosi.

Chance and opportunity send him to Paris. There he meets the Boyd femme fatale. Lika Blum, a beautiful (of course) , passionate (of course), soulful and creative woman of intelligence, complex emotions, and somewhat fluid morality (of course) is a young and vibrant Russian soprano. She also comes trailing clouds of glorious prior entanglements.

 Louis Anquetin – Inside Bruant’s Mirliton, 1886-1887

It didn’t matter how well you thought you knew someone, he realised. You saw what you wanted to see or your saw what that other person wanted you to see. People were opaque, another person was a mystery

I love the fact that these kinds of travelling-across-cultures-and-inching-through-history Boyd novels are always thoroughly immersive………….however…..(and it felt mean spirited to be thinking this) I did think he was deepening a groove of ‘this is the pattern of a Boyd novel. Even down to how his imaginary characters might tangentially brush past real characters, and we, as readers, surrender to a kind of game Boyd might be playing. So, what I missed was a kind of surprise of new realisation.

Hence like, very much indeed, and a reading experience willingly surrendered into, very comfortably. But I was not unsettled by it, and at the end of the day, probably do want a book to niggle at me, usefully, once finished

I received this as a digital copy, for review, via NetGalley

Love is Blind UK
Love is Blind USA

Statesiders may have to wait till October for publication

Helen Jukes – A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings


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And is there honey still for tea………..

Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee heart has Five Openings is a sweet, not saccharine, warm account, filled with the sense of purposeful, satisfying, meaningful feel-good which bees seem to symbolise

It fits neatly into a growing genre of writing-about-the-natural-world which not only includes much interesting scientific information, but is also full of emotional meaning, to the writer herself, as the subjects become part of her own biography, and also casts a wider, philosophical, historical, and even one could say political/environmental net. She explores bees themselves, but her book does not place the writer outside beeworld. She talks about relationship, the relationship she has with the bees, and they with her. This is a book about another species, sure, but not purely a rational, objective analysis of that species. The writer is changed by her encounters with them.

This should certainly appeal to all those who devoured Helen MacDonald’s soulful and intense H is for Hawk. And may even sit better with readers who perhaps were at stages of their own lives where the intensity of emotion which MacDonald explored in her journey, was too much. H is for Hawk certainly had this reader at times riven with connection to my own human suffering. Jukes’ book inhabits some sunnier uplands, and does not take the reader into the darkness of the soul which, surely, we all have at times.

Reading it was an unalloyed pleasure, deeply fascinating

The author felt a calling, after moving from London, where she had at one point assisted a professional who helps those wanting to beekeep, to Oxford. She was at a point in her life where the grind of office work and its stresses seemed to be disconnecting her from inhabiting, properly, her own life – the rush many of us feel trapped in, which can feel aimless and lacking a real direction.

I like the thought of a stability that comes from fine-tuned communication, and not the sayso of a single ruler. It must be a restless kind of stability , I think. The messages come constantly and from all around, and catching them is more about receptivity than reach

Bees were both a way to get physical, and out of that kind of metropolitan chatter head, and to be present. Under their influence, Jukes’ found space and time made for reflection and connection. Bee teaching! Friendships, and more are deepened, as the author found how her own connections to the bees were enabling her to open up more to human connections. Bee meditations!

Through this experience of beekeeping, of learning about and listening tot the colony, I might have called something up – might have begun to articulate and name a capacity I was missing, a connection I needed…..A particular kind of sensitivity, a quality of attention which is…almost like a substance itself……What to do with a feeling like that – which is not rational, and doesn’t fit with the usual categories – except to notice it silently and with a sideways grin as it becomes part of my day-to-day

To sum up, far more beautifully, something about bee-teaching, than I can conceptualise, is this lovely quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

I received this as a digital review copy, via Net Galley, and absolutely recommend it. Maybe if we all kept bees we might learn how to cooperate with each other …at times, it seems as if human beings are (at least on the world stage) more interested in taking hornets as role models!

A Honeybee heart has five openings UK
A Honeybee heart has five openings USA

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls


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Giving a voice to those who were – and, at times still are – the spoils of war

Pat Barker has long celebrated ‘ordinary’ people who are swept up in the making of history – which, sadly, is often the history of conflict. She does not forget that the lives of the untold millions matter, even if we don’t know their names

In this book, she goes for the jugular of very ancient conflicts indeed – the story told in The Iliad – we know the names of various kingly and warrior characters, but the women are few and far between. Helen, wife of Menelaus, captured by Paris,(did she run or was she abducted?) is probably the most recognisable name, reduced to that face that launched a thousand ships – as long long wars between Greece and Troy ensued

In this wonderful book The Silence of the Girls her central voice, the person whose story is followed, Is Briseis. Wife of a king, who was one of Troy’s allies (and of course, Briseis had no say in her choice of husband) when her husband’s kingdom is sacked by the Greeks – particularly Achilles, she becomes part of his booty. Her husband, her brothers, and all the males are automatically killed – including boy children. This is also the fate of women who have children in the womb – these might grow up to avenge their fathers in the fullness of time.

Other women are spoils, like material goods, to be shared by the victors. The high born may be the gift to commanders and kings, and the best that can be hoped for is to find favour. Otherwise, the women are there to be ‘enjoyed’ by the many.

Chryseis rescued from Agamemnon Joseph-Marie Vien circa 1780/1785

This is indeed a brutal and a harrowing book, but Barker does not just leave Briseis and others as just brutalised victims. Women lived through this kind of dire history, still having to find a way to make their own lives matter.

More than the story of battling kings, – Priam, Agamemnon – bloody warrior heroes – Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus – it is the women, the powerless, the ones without the fine heroic lays devoted to their stories – who occupy the foreground here. And Barker makes me believe that these, who have come to us only as names, might indeed have been truly as she imagines them.

Recounting Priam, king of Troy, in supplication for the return of the broken and humiliated body of his son, Briseis contrasts the power a defeated king may still wield, with the lives, the lack of power, of the women, even the most powerful, who are objects of ownership, in her society:

I do what no man before me has ever done. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:

And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers

She does of course not flinch from how these human spoils of war were treated – the women who ‘belonged’ to the vanquished were there to slake the sexual thirst of the army just as captured wine and livestock were there to slake their appetite for food and drink – but she does not focus on the blow by blow, the awful and graphic details of their treatment by the conquering army. How, in this world, did these women live.?What were their thoughts, their feelings, how did they adapt, how connect, how survive? Victims of war – but also individuals with histories – and also perhaps, desires for a future, perhaps even an imagination for the ending of endless war.

Briseis mourning Patroclus. Léon Cogniet 1794-1880

I recommend this, despite its awful subject matter, without reservation. Whilst steeped in the physical reality of those ancient times (she is marvellously visceral about what a battle encampment might have been like) the present, and the still far from equal lives of girls and women, in some parts of the world more obviously than in others, knocked insistently in my thoughts.

Books like this are wondrously important, wondrously imaginative, wondrously laying out myth and reality together

For those who know the story of the Iliad, repetition in this review would be unnecessary – but, more importantly, for those who don’t spoilers should not be revealed.

However, I cannot avoid this rather wonderful ‘preview opener’ a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain’ which Barker quotes before her own novel begins :

You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask….”With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines…. “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon the King of men and great Achilles” And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war”

I received this as a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

The Silence of the Girls UK
The Silence of the Girls USA

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You


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….If music be the food of love, play on

Patrick Gale is a wonderful writer, and an even more wonderful teller of a story. This might seem a strange comment; except that, curiously, it can at times feel as if the skill of crafting words well, and the skills of creating strong narrative, with complex, believable characters – and, moreover, ones whom the reader will be intrigued by, involved with – can be hard to find joined in one individual.

Thankfully Gale makes all this seem remarkably simple, effortless, even. Reading him, I am rarely lost in amazed awe at beautiful turns of descriptive prose. It is only on putting down his books, thinking about what I have been reading, that realisation of his skills strike.

The central character of this one, Eustace, grabs from the off – how could a reader fail to want to know more after this beginning :

At an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him further, Eustace found, in rapid succession, that he was quite possibly dying and that he was falling in love for the third time.

The true significance of his falling-in-loves will reveal over time

The book employs (seamlessly, clearly) a dual time narration

Avoiding spoilers, as this is revealed early : at the book opening Eustace is in hospital, in the present day, about to undergo treatments with radioactive iodine following a thyroidectomy. Interweaved with the isolation of his treatment comes the story of his adolescence, back in the 60s and 70s. Trigger for memory is listening to a compilation of classical music pieces for the cello, put together by a friend. Both Eustace and the friend were young cellists, potential prodigies. This is a story of a life, in many ways, made meaningful by music.

This is a book which will be a particular delight for those who love classical music, and know the referenced pieces, though, reading other reviews from those who do not fall into that category, I can confidently assert this will still be a mesmerising, immersive, wonderful read. Who knows, it may even lead some to want to listen to chamber music.

Gale himself is clearly thoroughly immersed in, and in love with, this kind of music – and a lovely little coda to the book yields the information that writing this, he was moved to begin playing the cello again.

Steven Isserlis again, here joyous with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and Haydn

I really did not want this to end. But there were also times when I could not bear to read on, as clever Gale, with subtle mounting ‘something is not quite right here’ tension – which worked with the reader half a step ahead of the central character having the same realisation – meant I had to put the book down. I could not read further, so anxious did I feel..,yet of course I had to

Strongly recommended. It is magic. As was his last book, and I guess, as will be the one he is hopefully engaged in writing at the moment

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK, jumping at the opportunity when it was offered

Take Nothing With You UK
Take Nothing With You USA

Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart


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Argentina and England; music the powerful language of the heart

Happenstance took me to a concert given by the Santiago Quartet, some weeks ago. The programme was exactly what is on this CD. Captivated almost from the off, (the strange, almost sax like, edge of sexy, edge of pain violin squeals were an initial shock) I was swept away by the vibrancy, intensity and playfulness of this music, moving without hesitation between rapid extremes of exuberance, ecstasy, mischief and melancholic longing.

I knew nothing of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. His ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’ yes give the occasional nod to Vivaldi’s, but are of Paizzolla’s time and space. This is a fusion of tango, with its insistent rhythms and call to dance, with that inner reflectiveness, – be STILL and listen which is the heritage of classic concert music. That tension between still listening and – no – dance, move, whilst you can – we have such a little time to inhabit dynamic physicality was quite electrifying

The music inhabits emotional extremes, flickering instantly between oppositions, and is both intensely of its place, Argentina, but also draws the inheritance and influences from both classical music, modern classical music and jazz. It is utterly delicious.


Astor Piazzolla and Bandoneon

So to Santiago Quartet – 2 violins, ( Rowan Bell, Johanna McWeeneey) a viola, (Cressida Wislocki) a cello (Jonathan Hennessey-Brown) – joined on the Piazzolla pieces by a bandoneon (Julian Reynolds) They played with delight, intensity, sensitivity and passion, music which obviously spoke to their heart.

As well as the Beunos Aires Four Seasons, there is an altogether darker and more unsettling piece, Anxiety. I was not surprised, on racing away to buy the CD which was on sale at the concert venue, that this particular piece was one written after the composer had had serious health problems. The track Oblivion speaks both of faith and identity and was written as a film score with connections to a play by Pirandello

The final piece, by English composer Will Todd, could not be more different. The mood is far more restrained, internalised, and infused with both a very English melancholy and a final accepting quietude. This was a piece commissioned by the cellist’s mother. It also moved me intensely, though in a different way. Gone was the need to dance, the yearning was towards something transcendent.

I was even more pleased I had surrendered to the need to buy this CD from the Quartet, after the concert, and not waited to buy later on line – a percentage of the profits bought from the musicians themselves goes to MIND. The cellist, introducing one of the pieces, spoke movingly about personal history with mental health, and the importance of music ‘The Language of the Heart’ Not only the title of the CD, but the place all the music here inhabits, and the place the musicians interpreted from, and spoke from the composers’ hearts, their own hearts, to ours, listening

Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart UK
Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart USA

And…to those who might have noticed my absence – pressure of work, dear hearts, has meant for some time that I have time to read or to write about what I am reading, but rarely both. The amount which MUST be reviewed (those ARCS) is Everest like now, and no matter how much I try to tell myself I cannot open another book without addressing that must-be-reviewed pile, the flesh is weak, very weak indeed. All of us who pride ourselves (alas! pride!) on maintaining our own particular reviewing style and standard just can’t surrender to doing something simpler and less intensive than what we normally do.

I may (or may not) manage to get the odd to be reviewed pile marginally reduced over the coming weeks and months – the challenge then becomes remembering backlogs (goes scrabbling for ginkgo biloba)

Kevin Powers – A Shout in the Ruins


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Not for the fainthearted, or for ostriches

Like many, I had been overwhelmed and lacerated, by the reading of Powers first book, The Yellow Birds, detailing the experience of the war in Iraq. Powers had experienced that conflict, as a machine gunner. That powerful book was far from being any kind of glorification of war. Powers, a wonderful writer, pulls no punches, does not gloss over the awfulness of conflict, or the kinds of glorified lies countries tell themselves to encourage young men to enlist

A Shout in the Ruins, his second book, explores no less important, destructive, shaming themes which should be faced. He looks at racism, and its foundations in the history of slavery in the States, and the long shadow that has cast, and still casts.

Rawls could see up and down the old man’s arms. They were lined with mark after mark of whip and brine, a topography of the passage of time and pain one on top of the other, a map in miniature of ridgeline and ravine going up into his shirtsleeves in an uninterrupted pattern

This is a complex story, taking place over more than 100 years of American history. The central character is George, a quiet, reflective black man. And on his story, traced from the 1860s, George, now in his 90s. moving towards death (so his ‘present’ is the 1950s) is keen to unearth a mystery about his own origins, as an abandoned child. Those origins lie in the stories of those who had cared for him before he was ‘abandoned’ and why, indeed, abandonment happened. A story of slaves before the outbreak of war. In his 1950s present, American is still a segregated society, a society, effectively practising apartheid, in the South. And the continuing story of casual, unthinking, as well as deliberate racism continues beyond George’s death, in the later story of a young woman he meets, right at the end of his life, and her future, which includes someone damaged by one of America’s later conflicts

Whoever said a rifle on a wall was an opportunity for suspense must have been European. As if there would ever be a question of its getting fired or not in America. The gun goes off when the line gets crossed, and the line got crossed a long time ago, when we were naked and wandered the savannah and slept beneath the baobab trees. When is simply a matter of how long it takes to get it out of the holster, how long it takes the bullet to arrive. Perhaps days or weeks or months, perhaps one’s whole life, but these are questions of distance and trajectory, of time and physics, and not of possibility

This is an extremely difficult book to read at times, but it is one which I felt I had to read. As in Yellow Birds, punches are not pulled. Powers does not labour or over describe the awful violence of racism, rather, sentences are casually dropped in, rather like unexpected land mines, leaving the reader shocked and reeling. The throwaway information about a slave who had run away, and, on recapture, his ‘master’ deliberately damaged his feet, so the young man could not ever run away again, but would only be able to shuffle and hobble – still work, but not run

This is a deeply, deeply, despair filled book. There are wonderfully drawn, complex character, some are of a repellent, vicious nature, many are normally flawed, going along almost unthinkingly with the evil which may be the way a society is structured, others question the wrong, and there are those who are like beacons of what it might mean to strive to be ‘human-kind’ But the lives of those the reader cares about will inevitably also be lives that experience pain, loss, grief

Another major theme is the importance of home and community. The book opens with the destruction of property and community by those seeking to ‘develop prime sites’ and spools back to earlier acts of destruction and violence towards community and home, done by those whose only care is the acquisition of personal wealth and power. Powers makes sure we are aware he is not just writing about America’s past, but about all our presents.

I had some reservations. As I found, at times, with Yellow Birds, which changed points of view a lot – whose story was being followed, at any point – I wished he had been a little more linear. At times there are just too many characters to keep track of, and the narrative might have been pruned, shaped more, to allow trajectory of story to be clearer, the strength of his writing itself to shine out more. There was also a question I was left with, which was unanswered, part of the quest George himself was trying to get to the bottom of, but, then, as I continued to think about this book, long after I had finished reading it – life is also full of little pockets of mystery which never do completely get solved

I received this as a copy for review from the publishers, via NetGalley

It has taken some time for me to write a review, as I needed some time, and distance, to evaluate my rating. The length of time the book stayed with me has meant that the reservations during reading itself, retreated

A Shout in The Ruins UK
A Shout in The Ruins USA

Patricia Highsmith – Deep Water


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A creepy, violent, witty tale of a marriage gone feral

I’m very fond of the dark precision of Patricia Highsmith’s writing, and particularly appreciate the discomfort she causes for her readers, in the character of Tom Ripley. Ripley is an amoral man, in fact, quite evil, but possessed of such charm that the reader, shamefully, wants the horrific man to succeed in his casually violent endeavours

Deep Water, originally published in ’57, after the first Ripley, but well before later outings, is a stand alone novel, a portrait of a chillingly dysfunctional marriage. Under the lens of Highsmith’s acerbic, mordant, cynical eye it is both addictively, compulsively tension building, extremely nasty …and very funny. Whilst neither protagonist – husband Vic, weirdly obsessive compulsive, wife Melinda, aggressive drunk, sexually voracious and irresistible to anyone she sets her sights on, despite her deep unpleasantness – is the kind of person with the flexibility, generosity of spirit or interest in ‘other’ to stand much of a chance to make a healthy relationship with anyone, their individual flaws create a nuclear wasteland of destructive fallout, once brought into contact with each other.

Highsmith sets her theatre of marital war in American Dream small town suburbia, a scene of neighbourliness, polite parties, small professional businesses and vaguely arty interests. Vic, whose main enthusiasm is for the rearing and studying of snails (!), is the owner of an independent publishing company, producing high quality niche work, beautifully presented, local history, poetry imprints and the like. He is very well liked by most of the long-term small-town residents, as though he is of a somewhat introspective disposition, he is helpful and community minded. The local community takes care of its own, and is a little parochial, not taking that kindly to incomers.

Melinda is viewed with less favour. Most of Vic’s friends are aware that Melinda likes incomers a lot – or at least, MALE incomers. Rather too much, in fact. Something she makes no effort to hide. Instead she flaunts her come-hither, blowsy seductiveness in public. Part of the pleasure she gets from this, is the public humiliation of her husband, the fact that everyone is pretty aware that Vic is cuckolded, again and again.

What puzzles and discomfits the community is the fact that Vic never challenges the lovers, nor appears to be jealous, or disturbed by his wife’s loud, rather crude flaunting of herself.

One of Melinda’s earlier public affairs was with a man, now returned to New York, who has been mysteriously murdered, perpetrator and motive unknown.

Seeing a chance to unsettle any future paramours Melinda might set her sights on, Vic tells one prospective lover that HE had been the man’s murderer, setting in train a series of deliciously dark, distastefully funny acts of Highsmithian violence and impending violence

Although neither Vic nor Melinda are the kind of characters to excite the reader’s empathy, disturbed, disturbing Vic is the one most readers will engage with, and even, with some discomfort, root for. Melinda is just too unpleasant, too competitive and dismissive of other women, too careless of her daughter’s happiness or wellbeing. Vic, whatever his rather cold fish, creepy weirdness, is liked, and is actually a kind man, especially towards those less well placed in society. His particular selfishness and self-obsession is really only problematic within his marriage. He could perhaps have made a ‘good enough’ partnership with someone else. It is unfortunate that he is a man of extremely low sexual drive, married to a woman whose libido is extremely high

…he had waited for fear to come, for panic, for guilt, regret at least….He had found himself thinking of a pleasant day in his childhood when he had won a prize in geography class for making the best model of an Eskimo igloo village using half eggshells for igloos and spun glass for snow. Without consciously realizing it he had felt absolutely secure. Secure from detection….He had such slow reactions to everything. Physical danger. Emotional blows. Sometimes his reactions were weeks late, so that he had a hard time attaching them to their causes.

I was steered towards this satisfying psychological thriller by Jacqui from Jacquiwine, who recommended this highly, and thought I would like it a lot. And she was right

…and as for American Pie, well, there are some odd resonances so that the song bobbed up, occasionally, in my consciousness, as I was thinking about the framing of my review….

IF you go on to read the book, or HAVE read it, maybe those resonances will have you nodding in recognition too

Finally…..much fun and queasy stuff goes on around Vic’s fascination with snails, and some of the marital discord too (I had my sympathies, a little, with Melinda here) I DID think of including a clip, even a video, of snails mating. Perhaps readers will be grateful that, feeling queasy after viewing, I desisted! Sorry, those of you enchanted by gastropods……..

Deep Water UK
Deep Water USA