Recent Reading 20

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Susan Tomes [2014]: Women and the Piano: A History in 50 Lives. Yale University Press. A fascinating series of accounts of women pianists, mostly classical musicians. Of course, there are hundreds or even thousands of others, too many to include in a single book, for example, Australian swing-band leader of the 1930s and 1940s, Miss Dot Crowe.
  • Patricia Boccadoro [2023]: Rudolf Nureyev: As I remember him. The Book Guild.
  • Gershom Scholem [2012]: Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship. New York Review Books Classics. Lee Sigel (Introduction) and Harry Zohn (Translator). This is a fascinating account of the profound friendship Scholem had with Walter Benjamin, when both were in the teens/twenties. The account is detailed but mainly about the content of their reading and discussions, only rarely touching on personal topics. I am not sure if this omission is due to them not ever talking very much about personal matters at the time or the author’s later reticence when writing the book. What comes across very strongly is how exciting it was to be a young Jewish adult interested in ideas in Germany between 1900 and 1930.
  • Simon Robinson [2013]: A Year with Rudolf Nureyev. Quercus. An interesting account of a year spent as general factotum for the great dancer, when he was in his final illness. Robinson did eventually get paid for his work, but it was a close-run thing, and was only settled after monthly arguments. Not all Nureyev’s contractors and staff were paid when he died, which is absolutely appalling behaviour for such a wealthy man.
  • Julie Kavanagh [2013]: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life. Penguin. An exhaustive and greatly sympathetic biography, written by someone expert in dance. Until reading this book, I had not realized how much influence Nureyev had had on the dance world, in particular in asserting a greater role for male dancers in classical ballet. Previously, the key role of men had been just to lift & hold their female partners. Also, Nureyev was decidedly an intellectual in a profession not much known for discussion of ideas, and he argued strongly that dance should always express a narrative. Here, as a Russian friend said to me, he was influenced by Stanislavsky.

    Although Nureyev had a reputation as a devoted member of the global celebrity elite, all his life until his final illness he spent hours every day in physical practice. The late-night celebrity parties he attended only at the end of a season’s run, because he had to be up again each day to train. He trained with no pomposity or any standing on ceremony, with whomever happened to be in the barre at the time.

    Nureyev had his flaws. His most notable was an extreme stinginess with money that was rarely subject to reasoned justification; this behaviour, in my opinion, no amount of genius could ever excuse.

  • Byron Janis with Maria Cooper Janis [2010]: Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal. John Wiley/Trade Paper Press (Kindle Edition). The recent death of pianist Byron Janis [1928-2024] led me to read this autobiography. The book is well-written and very engrossing, particularly in his descriptions of his many spiritual and paranormal experiences. He discovered some previously-unknown Chopin compositions, and did so in a manner that can only adequately be described as divinely guided.

    Some would view the book as showing honesty when the author recounts his many affairs, including one with the wife of his teacher Vladimir Horowitz. The book – and certainly the man – would have been better without those.

  • Stuart A. Reid [2023]: The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination. Knopf. Much of this I knew, from Larry Devlin’s book. What was new to me were the machinations of Belgian governments in their former colony, before and after Zaire’s Independence.
  • Michael Smith [2016]: Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews. Biteback Publishing. An inspiring story about a British spy and immigration official in pre-War Berlin, who was willing and able to facilitate the safe passage of many German Jews, both to Britain and to British Palestine. He often did so by bending the rules he was supposed to enforce, for example, accepting promises of future payment (IOUs) rather than the actual financial transfers he was required to verify existed before issuing visas for British Palestine.
  • Julian Borger [2024]: I Seek a Kind Person: My Father, Seven Children and the Adverts that Helped Them Escape the Holocaust. John Murray. A very moving story of children saved from the Holocaust due to advertisements placed by their parents in British newspapers and the unselfish kindness of strangers who took them in and helped them.
  • Jack Van Zandt [2023]: Alexander Goehr, Composing a Life: Teachers, Mentors, and Models. Lives and Letters.
  • Timothy Garton Ash [2023]: Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. Vintage Digital. The most interesting parts of this book are the anecdotes about political events to which the author was a close witness or even participant. The least interesting are the long discursions, more prevalent in the second half of the book, into abstract political theory, unremitted by anecdote and untethered to fact.
  • Anatole Leikin [2016]: The Mystery of Chopin’s Préludes. Routledge. [Hat Tip to KM for inspiring me to explore Chopin’s Preludes.]

    Chopin wrote the collection of 24 Preludes (one in each key) in 1838-1839 while staying in part of a former monastery on Mallorca, time which he spent with the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil (aka George Sand). Leikin argues that the 24 pieces were composed as a set, in pairs, with each odd-numbered piece (each of which is in a major key through a cycle of 5ths) being intended as a prelude or preparation to the following even-numbered piece (each of which is in the relative minor of the major key before it), in imitation the Gothic poem cycle Les Preludes of French poet Alphonse de Lamartine. It is hard for us now, 190 years later, to appreciate the hold that ideas of the Gothic had on educated minds at that time in the 19th century.

    Moreover, the book argues that Chopin repeatedly uses variants of the music of the medieval Dies Irae Gregorian chant from the Catholic Requiem service in the pieces. So one interpretation of the collection is that they are intended as mental and emotional preparations for, or reflections upon, death.

  • Linda McDougall [2023]: Marcia Williams: The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender. Biteback Publishing. This is a book about a fascinating topic, spoilt and undermined by the very poor quality of the writing. The book is very repetitive, with each chapter containing a synopsis of the argument of the entire book, and, for many chapters, more than one synopsis.

    The book has so much to offer, particularly as the author knew Lady Falkender and many of the other people involved, and she brings to bear insights lacking in previous writing about the good Lady F: the author is female, a former TV journalist, and the wife of a Labour MP. But the book rambles, and repeats itself, and does so repeatedly. Moreover, instead of summarizing or paraphrasing others, entire paragraphs by other people about Lady F are just inserted into the text. This is not how well-written books are written. Perhaps the author, an elderly lady now herself, dictated the book and nobody, certainly not the author or any editor, read and edited the transcripts.

    The author provides no evidence for her belief that Harold Wilson and Marcia Williams had had a sexual relationship when they first met in the 1950s. Like most everyone who has commented on that friendship, the author has both too much imagination and too little: She is unable to imagine a very close friendship between two people without also imagining their relationship must be sexual. Only two people know what their relationship really comprised, and both of them are dead.

  • Stephen Downes [2013]:A Lasting Record. HarperCollins. An account of the life of American concert pianist, William Kapell, who sadly died in a plane crash at San Francisco airport after a concert tour of Australia, 70 years ago last month, and the amateur recording artist, Roy Preston, who had made home recordings of the ABC Radio broadcasts of some of Kapell’s Australian concerts.
  • Susan Gibbs [2011]: Call Of The Litany Bird: Surviving The Zimbabwe Bush War. Loose Chippings. A well-written account of farming in Matabeleland during the Second Chimurenga and the first few years after Independence in Zimbabwe, by the daughter-in-law of Sir Humphrey Gibbs, the last Governor of Southern Rhodesia.
  • James Penberthy [2019]: Music and Memories. Tablo. An autobiographical memoir by Australian composer James Penberthy (1917-1999), compiled by his son, David Reid, from Penberthy’s writings and oral interviews he gave. The book is perhaps not all that Penberthy would have published, nor would he have included all the contents here. There is some repetition, maybe due to the collated nature of the book.

    I knew Gentleman Jim when I was at high school, and the book mentions several people whom we both knew. I once took an evening class on composition with him. He taught us a method for writing with 12-tone rows. I recall him being surprised and impressed when, for my assignment, I set a poem by Eliot, his Prelude #1. Reading this book, I realize how sophisticated his broader cultural knowledge was, and how connected he was to the musical and dance worlds of Melbourne, Sydney, London and Paris. How despairing he could have been amongst we provincials, yet he did not show any sign of it.

    I did not know at the time that he had taken composition lessons in Paris from Nadia Boulanger. From this book, it is not clear if there was only the one lesson, or several, and whether she did anything more than comment from a great height on his prior work. He seems to have known everybody, in Melbourne and London and Paris, even from a young age. His career as a musician was due to his musical father, the superb Salvation Army music-industrial complex, and (after his service in the Royal Australian Navy in WWII), the University of Melbourne, where he achieved a First in Composition. He created and took opportunities for himself to compose and to conduct ballets and orchestral music, even while still a student. He seems to have been a natural leader, with much early performance success to his name, so his patience and enthusiasm in explaining the intricacies of serialism to some amateurs in a rural evening class was admirable.

    The book is marred towards the end with rants against rock music. As commonly happens when people intensely dislike some form of art (eg, Peter Singer on abstract expressionist art), Penberthy fails to seek to understand that which he dislikes, to notice differences and subtleties (heavy metal vs. industrial noise vs. post-punk vs. ambient vs. . . . etc, etc), and, surprisingly, does not use his own well-developed musical abilities to understand the phenomena he dislikes before judging it. Why would his fondness for using Australian Aboriginal rhythms in his music blind him to the rhythms of post-punk, for example?

    Penberthy appears to lived in the moment for much of his life, and not been at all concerned about what history may think. This makes him very different to most composers whom I have met, who seem to compose in order to leave behind something that outlives them. For example, he seems not to have collected and kept all his compositions, or even kept a list of them. His motivation for composing, at least in the last part of his life, was because the act of composing for several hours each day enabled him to live life capably and well. Daily composing, along with eating, meditating, and running, was how he maintained a healthy physical and mental balance.

  • Zeke Faux [2023]: Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Emotionally and thematically, the very opposite of Michael Lewis’s generous account of SBF and FTX.

    Faux has a very simplistic explanation of distributed ledgers (as entries in a database presented in rows), which is so high-level that it can hardly be applied. But being high level it also describes many other types of data storage architectures besides distributed ledgers. Perhaps, once upon a time, it was cute for journalists to say they don’t understand the technology they specialize in writing about. But the cuteness wears thin, and quickly. To write a whole book while pretending not to understand the tech, or even worse, NOT understanding the tech, is surely something to be ashamed about, not exulted in.

    Faux never gets the legitimate applications of digital currencies and digital assets, bedazzled as he is by the many glittery scams he encounters.

  • Michael Lewis [2023]: Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon. Penguin. This is an account of Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), founder of the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX and the associated hedge fund Alameda, published on the day SBF’s prosecution by the Attorney for the Southern District of New York opened in Manhattan.

    As usual with Lewis, the writing moves along quickly and the book is compelling. Likewise typically, the writing is occasionally sloppy or unclear, with the feeling that the text was dictated with nobody subsequently checking for infelicities or deictic ambiguities. This book could have been much better written or at least better edited.

    It seems that SBF immersed himself in a succession of circles where only a rare person would emerge not infected by intellectual arrogance: child of Stanford professors; MIT undergraduate; student of physics; believer in Effective Altruism (so-called); trader at a hedge fund; cryptocurrency cultist. (For the record, EA has always struck me as simply eugenics dressed up for the 21st century.)

    Before reading the book, I was 95% convinced that SBF was guilty of fraud at FTX. After the reading the book, I revise my probability down to 90%. If it wasn’t deliberate fraud, then he appears to have been guilty of naivity and negligence. The jury is currently hearing evidence on the charge.

  • Stanley Wells [2023]: What Was Shakespeare Really Like? CUP.
  • Laura Cumming [2023]: Thunderclap: A memoir of Art and Life & sudden Death. Vintage Digital.
  • Rory Stewart [2023]:Politics On the Edge. Vintage Digital. This is a very well-written memoir of Stewart’s decade in British politics. I met the author during his first election campaign (see my report here), and my impression of him was that he was completely lacking in side. What you saw or heard, was exactly what he was. I wondered then whether someone so up-and-down straight could succeed in a profession often requiring the saying of different things to different audiences. It is telling that before his election, the only politician Stewart says that he had met and admired was David Milliband, who strikes me as similarly straight up-and-down.

    In some respects, this book is a record of The Getting of Guile, as he learns how best to manage and manipulate the British civil service, and, and perhaps less successfully so far, British politics. His departure from elected public life is our great loss, and it does not behoove us. I hope he returns.

  • Michael Frayn [2023]: Among Others: Friendships and Encounters. Faber and Faber. Well-written and sometimes moving vignetts of people Frayn has known in his life. Wished these were longer and there were more of them. The book would have been much better if the last one, with an extended metaphor in poor taste of a human body as a skyscraper, had been deleted.
  • Allen Welsh Dulles [1947]: Germany’s Underground: The Anti-Nazi Resistance. Da Capo Press. This account is mostly compelling, although marred by the inclusion of entire documents in the main text, instead of selective quotations from them. Dulles was an active participant, when working for the OSS in Bern, Switzerland from November 1942, in various anti-Nazi activities, and collected documents and information as he worked. He was the grandson, nephew and (later) the brother of Secretaries of State.
  • Martin Peretz [2023]: The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center. Wicked Son. (HT: AS)
  • Bruce Beresford [2010]: Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This … True Stories from a Life in the Screen Trade. 4th Estate. An interesting account of just a few years in the life as Australian film director. Many names are casually dropped, but that may be simply because Beresford has been around a long time and seems to have known everybody born in the 1940s. And it is not often one comes across the name Takemitsu; Beresford is a lover of classical music.

    For a Hollywood film to be made it needs financing. Film investors, it seems, are mostly shallow, usually uninterested in the story they are being asked to fund. To get financing, it seems, a film project needs several famous actors to commit to the film. The more famous the better. To get their commitment, it seems, promises of large payments usually work. Sometimes, but not always, famous actors may even be interested in the story. Hence, a script may be required. Even when no one actually reads the script, they pass it around and comment on it. In particular, actors and their agents, use their power not to respond, or not to respond yet, to requests for inclusion in projects. Everybody is so polite that they don’t like to decline requests. But almost nobody is polite enough to actually say they decline, and, if they do say so, certainly not directly to the person pitching the script.

    The key function of middle management in large organizations is to enable upper management to avoid ever actually talking to the people who do the work. The key function of agents and brokers in the film biz, it seems, is to enable actors to avoid talking to anyone else. There is an anthropological thesis to be written on the role of a script as a dynamic artefact in the attention economy of film-making.

  • M. W. Rowe [2023]: J. L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer. Oxford University Press. A fascinating and well-written book.
  • Janet Stuart [2016]: This Way More Adventure: A Journey of Self-Education in Africa. 2QT Publishing. A diary of a year spent traveling in Africa in the 1970s, written by Janet Stuart and her late husband Patrick Stuart (whom I once knew).
  • Daniel Finkelstein [2023]: Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival. William Collins. Compelling writing about a story of miracles and indefatigability.
  • Cynthia Dearborn [2023]: The Year My Family Unravelled. Affirm Press. A moving and very-well written account of a complicated family and the changing relationships of its various members.
  • George Fowler [1997]: Learning to Dance inside: Getting to the Heart of Meditation. Thomson Learning. This book was disappointing, especially after having read Fowler’s fine memoir. Clearly based on his own experience with meditation, Fowler assumes throughout that the activity is primarily goal-directed. For instance, he writes (page 34), “meditation is the deliberate search for an experience of what lies beneath all such cerebral busyness.” This was evidently the case for Fowler, but is not true for everyone, nor perhaps even for most people. On the contrary, one may engage in a meditation practice not deliberately, with goals aforethought, and not to search for anything, but because of some inner compulsion to do so. Most visual artists and musicians, in my experience, have not chosen those careers from some instrumental reason or to achieve some career goal, but because they feel a vocation. I find it strange that someone who was a member of a contemplative religious order for two decades should lack an understanding of the concept of a vocation.
  • Jonny Steinberg [2023]: Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage. Jonathan Ball. No one outside a relationship can really know what it was like inside it, but Steinberg tries. Several times I thought he was too intrusive and I skipped over parts we have no right knowing or even speculating on. Very interesting to read, though, of the backgrounds and childhoods of the two protagonists and of the early days of the struggle, pre-Rivonia.
  • Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex (Ghost-writer: J.R. Moehringer) [2023]: Spare. Transworld Digital. Very well written and compellingly, a credit to John Moehringer. While Prince Harry’s life has certainly had some severe downs (his parents’ divorce; the death of his mother; the coldness of the Windsor family; the malicious treatment given to his wife by the London tabloids), sympathy for him is undermined by his strong sense of unforgotten grievance for even the smallest perceived slight. What a cry-baby he is! Hard to believe that someone this sensitive was in the Army and served in a war. Did no one ever tell him to pull himself together and act like man? Oh, I forgot – his brother, his father, and his grandfather all did! And his schoolmasters at Eton! And his superior officers in the British Army!
  • Randolph Stow [1965]: The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. I read this as a teenager when it was a set text at school, and have not re-read it until now. Am surprised how adult its themes are, most of which were lost on me the first time round. Friends and family included people who’d been killed in WW2, or who’d been prisoners of the Japanese, and these aspects resonated with me more now than they had originally. Growing up with people with such wartime experiences is something, I have realized since, that has become unusual, at least in the western world.

    Until re-reading this book, I had not realized that Stow was the librettist for Peter Maxwell-Davies’ song-cycle “Eight Songs for a Mad King”, to which I had listened obsessively at the time I was first reading Merry-Go-Round. What memories returned with learning this!

  • Gabrielle Carey [2013]: Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family. University of Queensland Press. A moving and well-written memoir.
  • Katja Hoyer [2023]: Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990. Penguin. A detailed and thorough account of the creation and development of the DDR, covering aspects of its economic, cultural and social life, and positioned within the wider political context. Although the author seems to wish to appear objective, the account is decidedly sympathetic to East German socialism. Those many people harassed, arrested, tortured, imprisoned, or executed for opposing the regime or its policies would be unlikely to accept this account.
  • Chris Mullin [2010 and 2011]: The Diaries (Three volumes). Profile Books. Mostly fascinating, although Mullin does not always explain who people are at their first mention. Like a backbench MP’s lot, these diaries are a combination of the important and the banal. Although there is some discussion of ministerial life, there is surprisingly little reflection on his time as a Minister.
  • Chris Wallace [2023]: Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers. UNSW Press.
  • Peter Hill [2008]: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge University Press.
  • Stephen Hough [2023]: Enough: Scenes from Childhood. Faber and Faber.
  • David Burke [2021]: Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network. The History Press.
  • Niki Savva [2022]: Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s fall and Anthony Albanese’s rise. Scribe.
  • David Rothkopf [2022]: American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation. Public Affairs.
  • Sean Kelly [2021]: The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison. Black Inc.
  • Gyles Brandreth [2022]: Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait. Michael Joseph.
  • Gareth Russell [2022]: Do Let’s Have Another Drink: The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. William Collins.
  • John Delury [2022]: Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China. Cornell University Press.
  • Katharine Murphy [2022]: Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics. Quarterly Essay #88.
  • Gideon Haigh [2021]: The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent Simon and Schuster Australia. A fascinating account of HV Evatt’s career as a lawyer and judge, and the global influence of his judicial dissents. Was he Australia’s best foreign minister? Gough Whitlam might disagree. Was he the smartest Federal politician never to have made it to PM? I would put Ted Theodore and Isaac Isaacs above him on that list. Moreover, Evatt’s political judgment was not always great, as the Petrov case showed.

    My father spoke of reading in the 1950s the Parliamentary speeches of Menzies and Evatt in the papers the next day, or in Hansard later, and the impression he got was that Menzies’ speeches were usually vapid and superficial, while Evatt’s were well-argued, intelligent and often profound. However, if he had managed to hear the Parliamentary broadcast of the speeches when they were made, he would have had the opposite impression: he would have been swayed by Menzies’ superb oratory against Evatt’s wooden delivery.

    They were both lawyers, and had faced each other in the High court in the Engineers case of 1920. When Evatt was appointed to the High Court at age 36 in 1930, Menzies appeared before him in the very first case he considered.

  • Kerry-Anne Walsh [2013]: The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the Media and Team Rudd brought down the Prime Minister. Allen and Unwin.
  • Frank Bongiorno [2022]: Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia. La Trobe University Press. A good, well-written summary of Australian political history.
  • Helen Fry [2021]: Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6. Yale University Press.

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