Tag Archives: autobiography

“Beethoven for a Later Age – Living with the String Quartets” by Edward Dusinberre

This book is for the serious lover of classical music. Does that include me? Not quite, though I enjoy music and generally lean towards the classical. I wasn’t able to listen to the quartets as they were discussed in the book, nor was I close enough to a piano to pick out the measures included for illustrative purposes.

Why did I keep reading? Because this is one musician’s story, and I love autobiography. Edward Dusinberre joined the Takacs Quartet as a young man in 1993. The group originated in Hungary and now has its home base in Boulder, Colorado. They travel all over the world for many months of each year.

What’s is like to work with the same group of four people over years and years? How do they decide what to play? What to record, which is quite a different experience? How do they evaluate their performances? How often do they play something totally unfamiliar? In addition to discussing these interesting subjects, Dusinberre provides a great deal of information about Beethoven. Why did he write quartets? What else was he writing, and for whom? What happened as Beethoven suffered the loss of his hearing?

The title of the book reflects a comment by Beethoven, in response to criticism of his Opus 59 quartets. “They are not for you, but for a later age!” What on earth did he mean? Do we hear and understand music differently now?

I reflected a great deal on the difference modern recording technology has made for performers and audiences. At the time of Beethoven, very few people had any control over what they heard. The very richest citizens had musicians among their servants, and could arrange a concert at will. Most people would be lucky to attend a performance now and then. Perhaps they heard most of their music in church.

I can listen to whatever I want, almost anywhere. Sometimes I have chosen to listen to a piece over and over, to learn it for a choir performance or “just because”. Hayden’s “Creation” got me through a difficult time in my life. I put it on the car stereo and just let it cycle. There is beauty in it that wasn’t apparent on the first few hearings.

So who knows what I might hear if I did the same with the Beethoven quartets? I would try it, but my car stereo died…

If I ever face enforced immobility, I’ll return to this book and lose myself in the music.

“Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” by Chris Stedman

I didn’t like the title of this book. “Faitheist” sounds contrived, and the subtitle describes the book perfectly well. I relented a little on learning that “Faitheist” was first used to Stedman as an insult from an angry atheist who thought Stedman was “soft” on Christianity. Shows how little I know about contemporary atheism. It’s a movement, not a description.

But that’s not the point of the book, which is fundamentally an autobiography, a very lively and interesting first person text.

Stedman is young, born in 1987 in Minnesota, the kind of intense child who took EVERYTHING seriously. He joined a “born again” Christian congregation shortly before he recognized his homosexuality. His pain and distress at the prospect of eternal damnation drove him to consider suicide. His mother and a sympathetic Lutheran pastor dragged him back from the brink. Spiritually, he developed into an independent atheist.

The real purpose Stedman found in life was social activism at the intersection between different religious groups and, later, between the “religious” and non-believers. He reached the important conclusion that “tolerance” between those of different spiritual paths is not enough – genuine respect is needed. It can only develop from deep friendship and careful listening. Stedman now works as Director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale University.

Oddly, he never mentions Ethical Humanism.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that when President Barrack Obama discusses religious diversity, he generally includes non-believers as well as practitioners of all the world’s religions. Did Obama pick this up from the Unitarian Universalist congregation his family associated with? Stedman, whose family was decidedly secular, passed briefly through a UU group before his conversion to Christianity.

I mentioned a prominent atheist in a blog post dated January 31, 2014. This was Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, whom I found to be unpleasantly condescending towards religion and religious people.

I looked a little into the controversy around Stedman. He has been accused of “shielding” or apologizing for Christianity and failing to acknowledge its problematic behavior.

The best thing about Stedman’s book is his willingness to tell his own story. I think he recognizes the equal importance of listening to others’ voices. The US is in serious need of this type of respectful dialog.

“Kiss Me Like a Stranger” by Gene Wilder

This hasn’t happened to me before: a famous person dies while his autobiography is in my “write a blog post” pile. Gene Wilder died yesterday.

The book is subtitled “My Search for Love and Art”. Wilder talks more about love than art, and occasionally provided more personal detail than I wanted to assimilate.

My favorite of Wilder’s movies (by far!) is The Producers. It’s “over the top” in so many wonderful ways. Wilder and Zero Mostel are an amazing comic duo.

I didn’t like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Too weird for me.

Some of the best writing in the book is about Wilder’s marriage to Gilda Radner. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1989 was tragic. Wilder’s subsequent accomplishments in fighting ovarian cancer and establishing the Gilda’s Club charities were notable. There’s a chapter of Gilda’s Club near me, and I took advantage of it when my best friend was stricken with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Ironically, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999. It was successfully treated, and his death was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. As Gilda Radner’s alter ego Roseanne Rosannadanna said, it’s always something!

“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire

This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.

Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.

The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.

Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.

The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.

If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.

“Clinging to the Wreckage” by John Mortimer

A short time ago, on March 20, 2016, I reviewed the novel Quite Honestly by John Mortimer. Mortimer’s autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life just turned up on my bookshelf unexpectedly. I didn’t know I owned it.

My initial reaction was that Mortimer came across better in fiction (particularly in his wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey stories and TV scripts) than in this autobiography. The chapters about his family growing up and his education in liberal British schools that we would call “private” were the best part of the book.

Readers who want to learn about England during and after World War II will especially enjoy Clinging to the Wreckage, as would those with an interest in modern British law and courts.

Clinging to the Wreckage was written when Mortimer was only 59. He lived to age 85, producing a second autobiographical volume in 1994 (Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life) and a third in in 2000 (The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully). Both are available from Amazon used or on cassette tape. Considering the life he led, I hope to read these additional autobiographies even though I found parts of Clinging to the Wreckage to be rambling and somewhat disorganized.

I realized, glancing at a Wikipedia article, that a few years ago I read another of Mortimer’s novels, Summer’s Lease. I liked it, too. (Too bad I read it before I started blogging. It’s probably written up in a journal – somewhere…)

If Horace Rumpole was Mortimer’s only creation, he would be an author of considerable note, but he wrote so much more that he must surely be recognized as one of modern England’s most important authors. So much the better for all of us that he took neither England nor himself all that seriously.

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“Why I Am Not Mark Twain” by Richard P. Bissell (1913 – 1977)

I just read My Life on the Mississippi or Why I am Not Mark Twain by Richard Bissell. Earlier I read and enjoyed A Stretch on the River, Bissell’s first book, written in the first person and published in 1950.

Bissell’s identity problem (“I am not Mark Twain”!) arose from the critical response to A Stretch on the River, which was hailed as the greatest American “river” writing since Mark Twain, who died three years before Bissell was born.

So how you feel about Bissell will depend partly on how you feel about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Bissell is not an uncritical admirer of Twain, but his complaining is good natured. If you are teacher who has to present those two sometimes problematic novels, Bissell may be helpful to you.

Bissell grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and wanted nothing more than to reproduce the adventures Mark Twain describes in his iconic novels, to run away and live on a raft. But times had changed… Nonetheless, Bissell managed to live on a houseboat and become a river pilot.

Bissell’s descriptions of the Mississippi are both cultural and technological. He shows the reader why the river is so complex and challenging. He bemoans the shift from river transport to railroads and highways, and the end of the golden age of steamboating.

Most conspicuous are Bissell’s love and enjoyment of the River. He had so much fun! In addition to WORKING on the river, he bought boats, operated them, hung out on the water and visited the river port towns, even after he became a writer and New York theater personality.

I enjoyed what Bissell wrote about Mark Twain’s eccentric residence in Hartford, CT. I grew up a few miles from there, and was taken to see it at Christmas time, when it was beautifully decorated in the Victorian style. I remember the fireplace with the split chimney, designed so you can watch snow fall “into” the fire.

Bissell includes in his Life on the Mississippi a list of books about the mighty river and other American rivers. Some of these may be hard to find, but they sound wonderful.

Don’t miss A Stretch on the River. It’s a great piece of Americana.