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Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Sep 2012)

Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie

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With Bach’s music in his pocket (presumably on an iPod), Paul Elie went straight from the train station in Berlin to a musical instruments museum that featured a Bach harpsichord. As a Bach lover, he was intrigued until he realized that while others admiring Pink Floyd’s synthesizer had really heard music on that instrument, no one knows what Bach’s playing actually sounded like. Thus begins a most unconventional Bach biography, interspersed with tales about a cadre of great performers, principally Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould, who reintroduced Bach’s work in the 20th century, from the start of the age of recording right up to the present. Elie’s performance is a tour de force, an elegantly written book of theme and variations carried out to the nth degree. For even for the casual classical music listener, Reinventing Bach is a dazzling read. Grace Lichtenstein


See also: The Best Music Books of 2012


 

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Robert Bresson (Revised)

James Quandt

(Indiana University Press; US: Mar 2012)

Robert Bresson (Revised)
James Quandt


Often called “the filmmaker’s filmmaker”, Robert Bresson is that rare bird, an artist whose work in his chosen medium bears almost no trace of influence from others in that same medium. It’s usually more fruitful to relate Bresson’s films to other arts than cinema, such as painting (Bresson began as a “Cezanneian” painter) or music, mediums that have more historically attended to form, the most important factor in Bresson’s aesthetic: “Form is everything,” he told an interviewer.This book is an updated edition of an already hugely impressive volume of essays, interviews and appreciations by some of cinema’s finest scholars and critics. Just a shortlist: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, P. Adams Sitney, Raymond Durgnat, Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Kent Jones. Yes, that’s a short list. There are also interviews with Bresson by Paul Schrader and Jean-Luc Godard, poems by Robert Creeley and Patti Smith, and testimonials of indebtedness by filmmakers like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Michael Haneke This, then, really is inarguably the critical study of Robert Bresson. Guy Crucianelli


 

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Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman - from World War to Cold War

Michael Dobbs

(Knopf; US: Oct 2012)

Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman - from World War to Cold War
Michael Dobbs


If there was any doubt that all politics is theater, Michael Dobbs’ historical recreation of the Yalta Conference will put that notion to rest. As Six Months in 1945 opens, the Big Three—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—are en route to Yalta. And what could have drifted into mundane details of Russian roads and the Crimean countryside becomes a living, oppressive landscape in the hands of Dobbs. Then, as the Big Three gather, each one eyeing the others with their own agenda, the performance begins. Dobbs, a journalist and historian with a long list of accomplishments to his name, is the only writer who could have simultaneously provided the narrative drive and the historical accuracy to such a monumental era in world history. Where most historical accounts can drown the vibrancy of events in muted language and factual accuracies, Dobbs ensures that the pace of Six Months remains kinetic. Simple conversations that would sink in lesser hands are shot through with immediacy and candor, and a full sense of the gravity that these men and women faced are included with every passing chapter. Dobbs has written much more than an intensely researched, riveting account of six crucial months in history; he’s brought our world closer by examining the remote details of our past. Scott Elingburg


 

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The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

Sam Kean

(Little, Brown & Company; US: Jul 2012)

The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code
Sam Kean


Sam Kean tackles the big questions, such as “How Do Living Things Pass Down Traits to Their Children. It explores the big not-so-basic questions, like “How Deep in Our DNA is Artistic Genius?” And it covers the small details; e.g., as little as one ounce of polar bear liver can be fatal to humans. In short, Kean tackles all things genetic, from the length of a single gene of DNA to cloning. But the most memorable story is about Kean himself. He relates that he recently underwent genetic testing and seems particularly concerned that Parkinson’s might be “lurking” in his genes.  After all, isn’t this what most of us want to know—what’s hiding in our DNA? Information about King Tut or Abraham Lincoln is interesting.  Debating the wisdom of cloning is interesting. In this book, even fruit flies are interesting. But when it’s our DNA… well that’s a different story, and perhaps that’s why Kean’s story might be the most inspirational of the lot. Catherine Ramsdell


 

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Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s

Alexander Nemerov

(Princeton University Press; US: Nov 2012)

Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s
Alexander Nemerov


This is among the most haunting and meditative examinations of American visual culture during World War II. The art historian, Alexander Nemerov, who teaches at Stanford, has written a book that delves into a series of historical accounts of key photographs and film stills of the ‘40s. Wartime Kiss begins with the iconic image of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 photograph, V-J Day in Times Square, of the sailor kissing the young nurse. But it’s more than merely a clear-cut image of joy, Nemerov argues. It’s one of immense violence and tension. It expresses everything ambivalent about that transitional period of the late 20th-century. Through other images, such as a photograph of Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland lying on the grass in Santa Barbara, a kind of ‘40s arcadian déjeuner sur l’herbe, to a photograph of Margaret Bourke-White scaling the precipice of a steel gargoyle on top of The Chrysler Building, Nemerov sets out to show us a side of America during the ‘40s that we may have overlooked. “I have chosen these images because they feel to me like a disturbance on the surface of things,” Nemerov explains. “Akin to what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum of a photograph—a piercing, wounding sensation without explanation.” Farisa Khalid


 

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson

(Grove; US: Mar 2012)

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson


I love Jeanette Winterson’s humour, I like her views on dealing with dysfunction and confusion via sarcasm and bluntness. Her descriptions of her interactions with her Evangelical Christian mother, ‘Mrs. W’, are always witty, sometimes infuriating, shocking, and hilarious. Winterson admits there was no way she could have been allowed to be ‘Happy’ or ‘Normal’ – whatever that is – raised in her home. From the outset her adoptive mother, Mrs. W, told her that they had gone to the ‘Wrong Crib’ when they selected her, and she should have been a boy named Paul, instead. So rejection and disappointment were simply a fact of life for her from the start. There are glimmers of happiness amidst the gloom, and her life, like her surroundings in the countryside of Lancashire, had a certain beauty – but it was a ‘difficult beauty’. Read this as an investigation into the creation of an author – a 20th century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it’s a memoir of striking honesty, realism and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love. Gabrielle Malcolm


 

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With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful

Glenn Greenwald

(Picador; US: Jul 2012)

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
Glenn Greenwald


See this book? Then grab it. Read it. Shove it into everyone’s face. Because this is the kind of text supporters of progress and justice urgently need. We need its honesty and clarity; its focus on what matters; and its expertise—the author, Glenn Greenwald, is a former constitutional law and civil rights attorney. We also need its courage, for it tells us what many suspect, but few dare to shout out. That the laws and policies of America—a nation that prides itself on respect for due process, democracy, and opportunity for all—are stacked, deliberately, in favor of the elite. It isn’t just that said elite can wield vast resources to bend the rules in its favor—by, for example, spending millions on lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions. It’s worse than that. As Greenwald demonstrates, the highest ranks of American society are now openly declaring themselves to be above the law whenever it fracking suits them. Every administration since Nixon, Democratic as well as Republican, has turned a blind eye to the crimes of its predecessors; while simultaneously ramping up law-and-order rhetoric and incarcerating a growing number of the poor. Paula Cerni

PopMatters Picks: The Best Books of 2012
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