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Alan A. Elsner "Alan Elsner, author" RSS Feed (Washington DC)
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Water [Limited Edition]
Water [Limited Edition]
Price: $18.98
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lovely and interesting collection, February 8, 2016
This review is from: Water [Limited Edition] (Audio CD)
In recent years, there have been valiant attempts to revive the tired format of the classical piano recital. You know, the one where the audience sits in reverent hush while soloists, clad in evening dress, display how fast their fingers can move up and down the keyboard and how loud they can play.

In this collection, French-born pianist Hélène Grimaud draws on a recital she gave at New York's Park Avenue Armory in December 2014. In that event, in which she collaborated with artist Douglas Gordon, Grimaud presented a collection of works, mostly late 19th and early 20th century, connected to the theme of water. The hall was slowly transformed as she played by flooding its vast floor to create what Gordon described as an endless "field of water" completely surrounding the piano with Grimaud at its center.

In this album, we do not have the benefit of that visual and sensory experience and must fall back on the music of nine composers, linked by "transitions" - short bursts of music or sound provided by album producer and composer Nitin Sawney. These bridges or transitions draw on various musical cultures and traditions. I don't know that they add much - but they do somehow wield the disparate pieces together.

Grimaud seems tired of just playing music and now aims much higher. The goal of this collection, we're told, is to use the music to "highlight humanity's dependence on our planet's most precious resource." It's a noble goal - but I didn't quite get how the late Romanticism of Faure and Albeniz, the "impressionism" of Ravel and Debussy and the evocative sonic language of Janacek, while all lovely in their own right, actually achieve that.

I do welcome any attempt to use music for universal purposes and to shake up tired old classical music tropes. Grimaud, a committed environmentalist who has devoted much energy to a Wolf Conservation Center she helped found in upstate New York, provides her own program notes in which she speaks of water as "a molecule and as a metaphor ... an irresistible force both constant and ever-changing." I'll leave to the individual listener and reader to judge how much this adds to our understanding of the music. But the album is indeed enjoyable and delightful due to Grimaud's committed and energetic performances.

Some of these pieces, notably Ravel's Jeux d'eau and Liszt's Les Jeaux d'eau a la Villa D'Este, are familiar. They are often portrayed as descriptions of graceful fountains, and opportunities for the performer to display a light, virtuosic touch. Grimaud doesn't seem to view them that way. True to the album's theme, they are in these performances evocations of water as a far more powerful force, especially when aided by gravity. The Ravel is played with steely fingers. The cascading arpeggios are still there, of course, every note in its place, but not played to create blurry colors as much as to portray water shooting up and thundering down.The fountain is of course an attempt to tame water, channeling its play, turning it into a spectacle for human enjoyment. Grimaud's fountains are not tamed; they're unleashed.

I wish I had been able to attend the event at the New York Armory, when I might have better understood some of the more metaphysical and mystical themes stated by Grimaud. At the end of the day, the music must still speak for itself and the album stands and falls on the quality of the playing. I unreservedly recommend this collection as the latest utterance of one of our most interesting and original classical artists.


John the Pupil: A Novel
John the Pupil: A Novel
by D. L. Flusfeder
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.44
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting exercise in imagining the medieval mind, February 8, 2016
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This novel purports to be an account by a young Englishman of his journey on foot to Italy in the mid-13th century. John is the pupil of the renown Roger Bacon and his mission is to carry a copy of the master's great work , his Opus Majus, to Pope Clement. The young John has been taken from his family and educated solely by Bacon, who is one of the great minds of his age but has been placed under confinement in a monastery. John takes two companions with him -- the strong but inarticulate Bernard and the beauteous Andrew. They have many adventures on the way and discover true brotherhood. But one is left questioning at the end what it was all for.

The author tries very hard to get into the mind of someone from the era, trying to see the world as John would. The dates of the journal John keeps are marked by saints days and each entry is preceded by an account of the life and martyrdom of the saint. These do get a bit tiresome.

There is a disjointed character to the narrative, supposedly mimicking the fact that the account is not complete and that fragments or whole sections have been lost. Some of the episodes take on an almost dreamlike or magic realism quality. In general, the book is very interesting but I would not say it is gripping. The characters do seem other worldly and we therefore do not become very invested in their fate.

The book successfully does illustrate the vast gulf in the way John and his peers see the world -- a world governed by unknowables where the Devil lurks at every corner. It is a world of sincere religious faith which offers the only certainty amid the dangers and threats that accompany life. But that very gulf makes the characters somehow inaccessible to us despite the author's best efforts.


The Defector (The Davina Graham Thrillers)
The Defector (The Davina Graham Thrillers)
Price: $6.15

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Workmanlike thriller but lacks realism, February 2, 2016
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This spy thriller from the Thatcher era toward the end of the Cold War features Davina Fleming, a British employee of the British security service. Davina when we meet her is resolutely single, if not spinsterish, and bitter about the way her much more beautiful sister stole her no-good boyfriend. As the book begins, Davina has been given the job of babysitting a senior KGB defector who is holed up in a safe house. Why she received this plumb assignment is not adequately explained.

The defector has the details of a devious Soviet plot to destabilize the Middle East and seize control of its oil supplies. But he won't cooperate until he knows that his wife and daughter, left back in the USSR are safe and can be brought to join him. Meanwhile, there are suspicions of a mole within the ranks of the British. Davina gets him to loosen up by taking him to spend a lovely weekend with her very British family in the countryside, the first of several totally unrealistic plot developments.

The book is well-written but lacks the realism and stage craft of John Le Carre or more recently the excellent thrillers by former CIA agent Jason Matthews which are really much more convincing. I never felt this author knew what it was actually like to be in a spy service -- what agents do and how they do it etc. Some of the plot contrivances struck me as frankly absurd. Would the British actually send someone like Davina to Russia to extract Soviet citizens when she has no field experience and speaks no Russian? She convinces her boss to send her on this unlikely mission to prove to the defector how hard they are trying to rescue his daughter. It doesn't seem real at all.

Having said that, this is an enjoyable read if you can suppress your skepticism. The politics seem very old-fashioned given the way the world is now but it has some historical vale as a time capsule from the 1980s. As stated, there are other works out there that are superior -- but this also has its strengths and is worth reading for those who enjoy Cold War espionage and intrigue.


The Queen of the Night
The Queen of the Night
by Alexander Chee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overlong and the characters don't really live, January 29, 2016
This review is from: The Queen of the Night (Hardcover)
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This book weighs in at 552 pages and is densely packed with incident. It follows the career of Lilliet Berne, who when we meet her is an adored diva, a so-called "Falcon soprano" with a very distinctive, very sensitive voice who is the toast of Paris in the 1870s. We quickly become aware that there are dark mysteries in her past, which may be exposed. Someone has written a book about a person very like her and wants it set to music and for her to play herself. Lilliet is thrown into panic. She does not want her past exposed and had believed it was well covered up, but someone knows the secret. She sets out to protect herself by discovering who that person is.

Lillie's unlikely story begins as the daughter of settlers in Minnesota. When her family dies, she sets out to rejoin her only living relatives back in Europe. She makes her way to Paris where she has stints as a circus performer and then as a prostitute in the Paris of Louis Napoleon and falls into the hands of a tenor from Prussia who buys her out of her brothel and now owns her. He discovers her musical ability. The tenor, who is never named, is the dark villain of the story -- but he stands for all men in a way. Lilliet wants one thing above all -- her freedom. It is the one thing she -- and we are told all women of all time -- can never achieve.

She escapes from him, fakes her death, and shows up as a maid to the Empress Eugenie in the Tuileries Palace. But he tracks her down and reclaims her. This feels to Lilliet like death. She fights and fights against her fate, struggles for freedom -- and ultimately discovers that no-one is actually free. The tenor is controlled by another more powerful hand and her true love is also bought and owned.

This heavy-handed message is drummed into the reader again and again. At the very end of the novel, the author states his theme: "In this world, some time long ago, women as a kind had done something so terrible, so awful, so fantastically cruel that they and their daughters and their daughters' daughters were forever beyond forgiveness until the end of time -- unforgiven, distrusted, enslaved, made to suffer for the least offenses committed against any man. What was remembered were the terms of our survival as a class. We were to be docile, beautiful, uncomplaining, pure, and failing that, at least useful. In return, we might be allowed something like a long life. But if we were not any of these things, by a man's reckoning, or if perchance we violated their sense of this pact, we would have no protection whatsoever and were to be treated worse than any wild dog or lame horse..."

This book is steeped in opera. At first, the plot of Il Trovatore seems to be the main metaphor -- the story of a women in love with one man but under the power of another. Lillie loves a composer but he himself is in thrall to more powerful forces and she is still owned by the nefarious German tenor who really claims to love her -- but not enough to give her freedom. Then, as the title suggest, Mozart's Magic Flute takes over. The author gives a long explanation of the fairly incomprehensible plot of that opera which has fantastic music but a lame story. The Queen of the Night's famous aria, "Hell's Vengeance Boils in my Heart" is slightly out of Lilliet's voice's range and singing it could ruin her voice. Yet, she does so, just once.

There are many historical figures who appear in this book -- the composers Verdi, Bizet and Brahms, the great Russian novelist Turgenev, George Sand and the Empress Eugenie. None are brought to life at all. They remain just names. At the end of the book, Lilliet sings Carmen and that too becomes a metaphor for her fate.

The failure to create convincing, three-dimensional characters is actually the main problem with the novel and the reason I give it only three stars. Others may disagree but I did not find that any of the characters seemed real. We're told about Lilliet's love for her composer but we don't feel it. We're told of her suffering but we don't feel that either. The description of the siege of Paris during the war of 1870, when the people were starving, eating zoo animals and tree bark to survive, falls woefully short. The fall of the Paris commune the following year -- which was a shocking bloodbath -- becomes another ho-hum event in this book.

I felt by the end of the book that I had read an incredibly long political manifesto dressed up as a novel. The author has Lilliet tell us that nobody who ever had her life in her hands had yet tired of it -- except her. Well add me to the list. I tired of it.


The Red: First Light (The Red Trilogy Book 1)
The Red: First Light (The Red Trilogy Book 1)
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A future in which the Internet is embedded in our brains, January 27, 2016
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This techno-thriller set some time in the fairly near future, takes a look at what armed armed combat might be like as robots and cyborgs tale a larger and larger role.

Lt. James Shelley commands a "linked combat unit." He and his team wear skullcaps which send messages into their brains from their controllers and from drones and other information sources. It's rather like Google Glass is embedded in their brains. Their skullcaps also moderate their moods, tamping down fear, combatting depression, keeping them more or less on an even keel.These soldiers are in effect cyborgs because their brains and emotions are not fully under their own control. They are always connected, always being tracked, watched and monitored.

Lt. Shelley joined the army after being convicted of demonstrating against the government. It was either than or go to jail for a year. But it turns out he's a superb combat officer with an uncanny knack of sensing danger that earns him the nickname "King David" -- or chosen by God to survive. As the book proceeds, he becomes more and more convinced that this is not an inherent ability he has but that some secret force -- "The Red" of the book's title -- has hacked his brain through his skullcap and sends him timely warnings of danger. Then he starts to suspect that this mysterious entity has hacked the brains of many others as well and is shaping world events in a certain way and for a certain unknown purpose. Who is the sinister force behind this? We don't know.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Shelley and his unit face an unexpected threat in a small outpost in a Middle East desert that could be Iraq or Syria or Libya. In the second, they must mount a commando raid against some Texas secessionists who have carried out a dramatic series of terrorist attacks against the United States government. In the third, they attempt the kidnapping in Alaska of an arms merchant who was behind the insurrection with the aim of turning her over to international justice.

As the book progresses, Shelley becomes even more bionic through various procedures I will not give away here. He's also torn between his duty as a soldier and his love affair with Lyssa, who would like him to quit risking his life in suicide missions.

I found the premise of the book quite realistic. This is a piece of futurism that could actually happen -- may already be happening. The combat scenarios are superbly and convincingly told. The weak point of course is the depiction of the characters who don't get much beyond two dimensions. They often seem even more robotic than they are supposed to be. The love affair between James and Lyssa is bathed in cliches.

Still,, it's interesting enough to continue with the next installment of the trilogy.


The Last Time I Was Me
The Last Time I Was Me
Offered by Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Price: $9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not very believable novel, January 11, 2016
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The heroine of this fable, Jeanne Stewart, is a brassy, often foul-mouthed but strictly honest and ethical woman who we first meet at a low place in her life. She's escaped her job in advertising, where she was putting in 70-hour week selling products she didn't believe in, and has started driving west from Chicago. We also learn she's escaped a horrible relationship with "Slick Willie," her worthless two-timing boyfriend who is suing her for assault after she found out he was sleeping with at least eight other women on the side. The nature of the "assault" is revealed in the course of the book.

We also learn Jeanne is mourning the recent death of her beloved mother as well as the tragic loss some years back of her husband and son in a car accident. So it's no surprise that Jeanne is full of anger and is self-medicating with alcohol.

She lands at a B&B near Portland, which is where she starts to rebuild her life with the help of a motley crew of characters including her germ-averse landlady, a family of illegal immigrants and the members of her anger management class, especially its leader Emmeline -- and of course let's not forget the Governor of Oregon.

Not one aspect of this novel is even vaguely believable. The characters fall into two categories: those who are good but damaged. They will be healed. And those who are bad, whether just pathetic or plain evil. They will get their just rewards.Jeanne is the beating heart of the book but I never believed she was anything other than the author's projection. She's vivid -- like a cartoon character. Most of the other people in the book consist of one characteristic that is stressed every time they appear, like a leitmotif in a Wagnerian opera. There is also a very extended, very sappy ending that's no more believable than anything that precedes it.

The book is intermittently amusing but you have to plow through an awful lot of words to reach the scenes that are enjoyable. It's way too long, way too unbelievable and for long stretches way too boring.

This is a two and a half star review -- but I rounded up to three..


Not If I See You First
Not If I See You First
by Eric Lindstrom
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.58
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant Y/A story, January 9, 2016
This review is from: Not If I See You First (Hardcover)
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In this Y/A romance, Parker lost her mother when she was eight in a car accident in which she also lost her sight. When we meet her, now aged 17, she's just lost her father too. Her aunt and family, including Sheila, a cousin the same age, have relocated so that Parker can remain in the same house and school.

Parker is brave and smart and has good friends. She loves to run and is a talented sprinter, if she can only find a partner who can be tethered to her and keep up. But one friend, Scott, who she really loved, committed a horrible sin when they were 13 ad she's never spoken to him again. Now, Parker has to find a way to get past the loss of her father and move on -- and that may involve letting Scott back into her life.

The book is well-written and Parker is an inspiring heroine -- but I'm always struck reading these Y/A novels how preternaturally wise and mature the characters were. I think of myself at age 17 and I was a child. Here, the adults are often the children and the children the adults.

I don't know what it's like to be blind but the author does a god job of making it seem real.


Things We Know by Heart
Things We Know by Heart
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Earnest Y/A love story and sob story, January 7, 2016
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In this very earnest Y/A drama, 18-year-old Quinn has lost her boyfriend Trent -- the "love of her life" - to a car accident. She's been in a deep depression ever since, turning her bedroom into a shrine to their love and counting every day since he's been gone. No college for her; she's also quit running and mopes around -- and it's been over a year. Trent's various organs were divided up to people in need and Quinn has tracked them all down and met them -- except the 18-year-old boy who got Trent's heart. She needs to find him for some sort of closure.

Well, she tracks him down too on the Internet and he lives just a few miles away. (You have to take this on trust). He's 18-year-old Colton and he's the only recipient of Trent's organs who did not answer her letter asking for a meeting. Quinn intends just to take a look at him (right!) but manages to smack her car into his van. (Does every 18 year-old in America own their own vehicle? Because that's the way it seems reading Y/A fiction.)

Wouldn't you know it, Colton is sweet and sexy and loves kayaking and before you know it Quinn has fallen in love with him too. But she hasn't told him how she came to track him down. Eventually he's going to find out and at that point there will be a crisis. How will it end? No prizes for guessing.

This book is good on the mechanics of mourning, letting go of the loved one and moving on. The characters are sweet and the book is diffused in a kind of rosy light. But I have to ask, Quinn at age 18 has already met the "love of her life," not once but twice. Isn't it a bit soon for such an overwhelming commitment? I know this happens. I personally know people who met their future spouse at age 8 and never looked at another person romantically again. But it's rare. The adult brain is not fully formed at age 18. There's a lot to do, a lot to experience, a lot to learn. It's one of the tropes of Y/A fiction that the emphasis is on the Adult part and not so much on the Young. The protagonists of these books are chronologically young but emotionally very mature -- more like middle-aged souls in teenage bodies.

I know the book would not be as satisfactory as a love story but I'd love to see Quinn becoming friends with Colton, telling him the truth and then moving on with her life and growing up, going to college, dating a bunch of boys and then men and eventually, aged 32, with a promising career, finding the love of her grown up life.


Turn On the Light So I Can Hear
Turn On the Light So I Can Hear
Price: $4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting look at non-hearing world but characters are a bit bland, January 5, 2016
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This novel tells the story of Bretna, a young woman from a troubled background with a talent for sculpture. To make money, she gets a job as interpreter and aide to a deaf teenager, Alex. To brush up her sign language school, she enroll in a class taught by the profoundly deaf Curtis who is also very attractive.

The strength of this book, which alternates scenes from Bretna's childhood and youth with her unstable and occasionally abusive parents with her present, is its discussion of the pros and cons of deaf culture. Alex is struggling in school but his high-achieving parents believe he can get into Harvard. They do not want him to go to a school for the deaf and learn proper sign language. They insist on him being mainstreamed and taking classes above his capability. Breton helps him -- but maybe too much.

Curtis believes deaf people should stick together, develop their own culture, language, poetry and society. He has sworn never to date a hearing person. He believes deaf people in a hearing world will always be second class citizens. The author looks at both of these extreme positions and opts for a compromise somewhere in the middle.

The weakest part of the book is in its human connections. This is a very "quiet" book, by which I mean that the dialogue, interactions and characters themselves all seem muted. Perhaps that's intentional in a novel that discusses the hearing and non-hearing worlds and their interactions. But the colors of the book are also muted. I'm sure the author describes what Bretna and Curtis look like -- but I never formed a picture in my mind of living, breathing people. This book suffers from a lack of passion and vibrancy. It also ends with a series of pat, easy resolutions. I had the feeling there could and should have been much more there than there actually was.


Relativity
Relativity
by Antonia Hayes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving novel with important message, January 1, 2016
This review is from: Relativity (Hardcover)
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This touching novel from Australia takes a family that was split apart by a horrific act of violence and examines the fallout. Claire is a single mother to 12-year-old Ethan whose IQ puts him in the genius category. Ethan is obsessed with physics.He has the unusual ability to actually see waves of sound. Predictably, Ethan gets bullied at school and eventually retaliates against one of his tormenters. When there is a hearing into the incident, he is told something so hurtful that he takes off sprinting to escape and has a seizure. In the hospital, we learn that Ethan was severely injured as a baby and his seizure may have been a consequence of that much earlier injury. To avoid spoilers, I will not divulge the source of his trauma. While in the hospital, Ethan makes friends with Allison, a girl his own age who is suffering from epilepsy. Their sweet friendship runs through the rest of the novel.

Mark, who was a PhD candidate in physics himself , is estranged from Claire and has had no contact with Ethan at all. He is drawn back to Sydney by the terminal illness of his father and comes back into contact with Claire. Ethan, who naturally wants to know who his father is, eventually makes contact with him too. The two begin to rebuild a relationship but the past hangs over them. Ethan cooks up a wacky idea to fix the situation which forces a climax in which the truth is revealed.

As in quantum physics, we are presented with two different versions of what happened to Ethan as a baby. But only one is true and this is spelled out and explained toward the end of the book in painful and excruciating detail. These pages are important, but very difficult to read.

This is an excellent novel and quite moving. The characters of Ethan, Claire and Allison are beautifully laid out. The one weakness, I think, is the character of Mark who is much less two-dimensional and convincing that the others. The author plays with us a little, presenting Mark in different lights several times during the novel, daring us to guess which may be correct. In the end, she tries to conjure a fine-textured, multi-dimensional truth -- but it doesn't work. There are only two ways for this to be resolved: Mark is either very good and unjustly treated or very weak and very bad. If the former, we must sympathize with his plight,. If the latter, there can be no forgiveness.

You'll have to read the book to find out.
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