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Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

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Maria Popova at Brain Pickings is a Renaissance woman. She not only reviews books on science, philosophy, and poetry at major publications, but she maintains a deeply thoughtful blog that includes the best suggestions anywhere for children’s books. I have bought many at my local indy bookstore after reading her reviews, and she has never let me — or the grandchildren — down.

Last spring I was talking to a woman who was also a Maria Popova fan and who had bought some of the Brain Pickings suggestions for her own grandchildren, but not all the same ones I had.

So I took mine out of circulation for a while to have a tidy collection in case she should drop in. I had previously learned that to keep track of these unusual books and also to share them with two families of grandchildren, it was best to bring them back and forth to my kids’ houses when I visit. I will be putting them all back in circulation soon.

Above, you can see the ones I pulled together, any of which I would love to tell you more about if you ask. (Hmm, was Take Away the A really one of hers? The more I think about it, the less I think it is her style.)

The White Cat and the Monk, a serene retelling of an ancient story, is still at Suzanne’s house. The Little Gardener and The Sound of Silence are at John’s.

In Popova’s review of The Sound of Silence, you can see why no grandparent could possibly resist this thoughtful kind of analysis. In addition, Popova apparently gets permission to show all the tantalizing illustrations.

Look at the title of this post: “The Sound of Silence: An Illustrated Serenade to the Art of Listening to Your Inner Voice Amid the Noise of Modern Life; A tender reminder that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness.” Already I’m hooked.

Popova begins: “ ‘There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,’ Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: ‘I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.’

“It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that ‘silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,’ that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.”

Not your typical children’s book review, am I right?

She continues, “That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.

“Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.” More.

In the illustration below, the boy asks the koto player what is her favorite sound, and she puzzles him by answering, with a cryptic smile, “The sound of silence.” Check out the other illustrations here.

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I moonlighted as a theater reviewer for years and loved doing it. But even if I hated a particular show, I worked hard to find some aspect to praise. People had to read between the lines for the criticism. I really felt for the actors.

The critics of yore had no such scruples, and as I laugh out loud, I can’t help being a little jealous of their freedom.

Yesterday my husband dug out some reviews of the 1945 Broadway show Polonaise. He had read an obit about the star, who just died at age 99. As there are few shows he hasn’t heard of, he was stumped and went straight to the “critical quotebook” Opening Night on Broadway.

The show’s creators had decided to use the music of Chopin, a Pole, for a story about another Pole, a man who volunteered in George Washington’s army. The two Poles had nothing else in common.

Reviewer Luis Kroneberger wrote, “The best I can say for the thing as a whole is that it appalled me enough at times to keep me from being bored.”

Burton Rascoe noted, “The playbill says that the Alvin Theatre is perfumed with Prince Matchabelli’s ‘Stradivari.’ There was not enough of it used to overcome the odor of dry-rot and mothballs that emanated from the book, the lyrics, and the production of Polonaise.”

And Willela Waldorf must have been hanging out at the Algonquin with Dorothy Parker too much. She let it rip: “It is about time somebody started a League for the Defense of Dead Composers. It is disturbing that some of Chopin’s finest  works, ‘adapted’ for the occasion, should be carelessly flaunted on the Broadway stage in a futile attempt to add luster to a stupid, inept, often embarrassingly ludicrous spectacle. …  The concert pianist hired to play Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat while the ballet stormed the Royal Palace, not only performed with vigor at the pianoforte but spoke his one line of dialogue clearly and as if he knew what it meant. Maybe what Polonaise needs is a few more concert pianists in some of the other roles.”

Today there is plenty of harsh talk in the media, but I would venture to say it lacks the literary flair of the critics of 1945.

Photo of Chopin: Bisson, c. 1849, via Wikipedia
He looks troubled. Is he foreseeing the future Broadway show
Polonaise?

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