“Celestial Bodies – How to Look at Ballet” by Laura Jacob

Basic Books, 2018, 223 pages, with notes, bibliography and index.

When I was eight, I wanted ballet lessons, but my parents decided I should learn piano. I wasn’t very cooperative, but I kept at it for five years. Piano was supplemented by ten years in church and school choirs. I can’t imagine my life without that musical training!

Years later, I signed up for the beginning ballet class in an Adult Education program. Our teacher did us the wonderful favor of taking us seriously, teaching us carefully, and EXPLAINING ballet. Over time, our creaky stiffness gave way to increased strength, flexibility and body awareness. And we began to learn how to look at dance and dancers!

Celestial Bodies is a wonderful book! I found it quite by accident on the Library’s “recent arrivals” shelf, and I couldn’t put it down. Laura Jacobs is a dance critic who is in love with ballet at every level – musical, visual, historical… Early in the book, she discusses one of my fascinations, “pointe”, or dancing on the tips of the toes.  Pointe is just for women. How do they DO it?? Why is it so interesting and pleasing?

Laura Jacobs approaches ballet from many angles, even discussing yoga as she details how a dancer uses the foot and positions the body. She specifically mentions the yoga posture called Warrior III and its relationship to “arabesque”.

Jacobs many references to specific ballets make me glad to live in the age of U-Tube. I will be able to look at the works and artists she lovingly describes.

This book is highly accessible despite the use of French terminology and dance jargon. Read and enjoy!

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The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.

“Unlearning God – How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe” by Philip Gulley

Amazon is having time trouble – you know, publishing reviews of a book before its publication date… Somebody better call the Chronopolice (Literary reference! Get it?) But, hey, Amazon is supposedly remaking America. So what if they mess with time?

The three reviews published by Amazon award Gulley one, three and five stars. The jury is still out.

The first two thirds of this book constitute a memoir. Gulley’s personal history is interesting, but bashing the churches of his childhood is small minded. Humor should be used very gently in such writing. Every author should have a “humor editor”, to help achieve desired tone and balance.

I liked the later part of the book better, when Gully wrestles with contemporary issues and discusses the role of change in spiritual life. Can you change your mind about an issue and remain faithful to your spiritual tradition?

So how did I acquire this book? It arrived unsolicited in the mailbox at my Quaker meeting. The publisher seems to have been unaware that there are several kinds of Quakers. Gulley is a pastor and has spent his adult life in paid employment with a Quaker congregation. My kind of Quaker, generally referred to as “unprogrammed”, does not ordain pastors or employ paid spiritual leadership. Nonetheless, we decided to look at Gulley’s book in our discussion group. His informal and lively approach worked well for us and supported several good sessions, so I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of faith in contemporary life.  But it’s far from the “whole story” when it comes to Quakerism!

“Eliza’s Daughter – A Sequel to JANE AUSTEN’S Sense and Sensibility” by Joan Aiken

Finally I got to do some BEACH READING at the beach. Saco Bay in Maine is a delightful vacation spot.

I don’t think any modern author can really match Jane Austen, but this book by Joan Aiken stands well on its own. The heroine, an illegitimate child from an upper class family, thrives against the odds in a community that specializes in fostering unwanted children until their families (maybe) decide to help them out. Eliza is bright, and takes advantage of every opportunity to learn. Travel and adventure are her rewards. When all else fails, Eliza bursts into song! Silly as it sounds, the plot works and I enjoyed the book.

“A Dubious Legacy” by Mary Wesley

The person who loaned me this book said it was “funny”. Usually I would ask “What kind of funny?” since there are so many possibilities, but I was distracted. So I jumped into the book without preconceptions.

Is there a category of “over the top” fiction? Everything seems exaggerated, a little extreme, often in ways that are indeed hilarious.

Analogy: Recently I took a colorful photograph of a brightly colored insect. Fooling around with the “edit” function on my cell phone camera, I discovered color adjustment settings called “vivid” and “dramatic”. I would say that Mary Wesley writes in those two settings. The net effect is slightly manic but loads of fun. Yes, this is entertaining modern fiction.

A Dubious Legacy is set in post World War II England. Another categorization would be “comedy of manners”. A group of young adults congregate in the country home/farm of Henry B, whose eccentric wife dominates the book without being “present” very often.

A Dubious Legacy makes it clear why Women’s Liberation (one descriptive term of many…) emerged in the 1960s. The men of the 1950s (as described by Wesley) were insufferable jerks and it’s amazing any marriages survived at all. Wesley has fun turning the career “issue” upside down. The young women WANT to marry, while their parents, tempered by the Depression and World War II, want their daughters to go to work, even at tedious jobs.

A Dubious Legacyreminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which everyone liked except me. A group is followed for years, generations. I found Commonwealth unbearably grim. Yes, life includes suffering. Did these people have to suffer SO MUCH? I like Wesley’s lighter touch so much better. Some people and situations could have been more fully explored, but I understand Wesley started writing late in life, driven to it by financial pressure. So I’m willing to suspend criticism and enjoy her madcap story telling.

 

“Used and Rare – Travels in the Book World” by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

This cheerful little “book about books” was published in 1997. It’s a reminder how much has changed in 20 years. The Goldstones didn’t carry cell phones and rarely used the internet. Out of curiosity, I checked on their ages. Yes, just about my age…

I wonder if the Goldstones are undergoing the “stuff crisis” (aka DOWNSIZING) that has gripped me and so many of my friends. The “stuff” in question includes books. Many books! I feel that my relationship to the printed word has changed radically.

  • I use Kindle and recorded books
  • I patronize the public library
  • I’m trying very hard NOT to buy books
  • I’m trying to GET RID OF books constructively

So in some ways, its hard to sympathize with these somewhat compulsive book buyers.

A number of bookstores and dealers are mentioned by name in this book. I wonder how many are still alive, or still operating. I am pleased to say that Brattle Books in Boston (mentioned several times) is still going strong!

I was very interested in learning what books the Goldstones really loved to read. Maybe I need to take another look at Dickens. I seem to have missed John Dos Pasos entirely. Unfortunately, there’s no index in this book. I will have to skim through it again if I want to follow up on their literary tastes.

“The Quiet Girl” by Peter Hoeg

Genre: crime fiction, sort of…aka, philosophical thriller (according to Amazon).

This book takes place in Denmark and was translated from Danish.

The plot is confusing, the characters interesting. The girl of the title remains mysterious. Hard to explain why I kept reading, but I did.

I’ve been told the test of “really good literature” is that you want to go right back to the beginning and read again. I re-read the first few chapters. I found that some intriguing elements of character from early chapters were not ever fully developed (psychokenesis?). Too bad. But lots of other good details emerged. Some reviewers refer to the mystical or metaphysical abilities of the hero.

Two other striking aspects of this book are the framework of a circus, and the science of geology. (Sounds crazy? Don’t blame me! I didn’t write it…)

The protagonist has an unusual (supernatural?) sense of hearing and a multidimensional relationship with classical music. He often refers to classical composers or pieces to explain his reaction to people or situations.

I recommend this book to whoever likes a book that slows you down a little. I returned it to the library, but may give it a second shot.

I believe I read the author’s Smila’s Sense of Snow a little before I started blogging in 2013. It was a blockbuster hit  (300 reviews on Amazon, four stars) and was made into a movie. Maybe I should dig out the comments in my old reading journal! If you saw the movie, please fill me in! Thanks.